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How Languages are Learned

Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada
Oxford University Press , 1999
pp. xvi + 192

Reviewed by :

To the Profile PageRobert J. Dickey
Gyeongju University, Korea

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A popular choice
There is a clear reason why How Languages are Learned has become one of the most cited references among conference proceedings and newsletters. In the original and now revised editions, Lightbown and Spada have provided the most comprehensive yet accessible introduction to language acquisition and learning. An ideal starter for more comprehensive studies, the authors provide rich detail through short case studies and extensive literature summations.

Lightbown and Spada have provided the most comprehensive yet accessible introduction to language acquisition and learning.

Setting the table
The book begins with how we learn our first language, and how this has been the traditional jumping-off point for second language (L2) learning research, and then transitions into a general survey of second language acquisition (SLA) theory. For those with no background in language learning theory, it's a gentle path. Perhaps that's why this is so popular with "Diploma" courses and Master's programs as initial reading. The numerous clear, concise, and helpful activities and examples make this a truly wonderful book.

A full course
It would be impossible to cover everything in language acquisition in less than 200 pages, but Lightbown & Spada include most all the main topic areas and don't fail to make each and every serving substantive enough yet manageable for novices. Rather than the over-used opening questions or learning point bullets, How Languages are Learned utilizes activities that pull the reader's own experiences and awareness into their study, and refer back to the reader's own answers to demonstrate how things can be best understood.

The extras
The index, glossary and bibliography are all nice, but the "Facts and Opinions" section at the end of the book is particularly useful in pulling it all together. Something along the lines of "frequently asked questions" or "common misconceptions," it provides a nice, if simplistic, review of the text. Note too that the bibliography does not replace chapter-specific references and suggested further readings, but simply a consolidation of these chapter-by-chapter reading citations. Why do so few books get this right, as Lightbown & Spada have done?

The main course
It might be difficult to identify one aspect of the book that is "the best" or "the main focus." In Asia, when asking "what's for dinner" the answer is likely "rice," which is a way of saying that staples really are the focus of life. This is the case with How Languages are Learned: it's not glamorous, just a good, solid meal that helps build strong intellectual bones. And like all good home-cooked meals, there is enjoyment in sitting around the kitchen as the meal is prepared... the book offers a delightful approach to the topic, without excessive jargon or stilted academese.

Going from here
As the interests and tastes of each person differs, there will never be a perfect presentation. As a 1999 revision of their classic text, the updating seemed minimal. Few references were included with dates past 1992. I didn't compare with the original, so I'm not judging, but surely more contemporary references could have been included, things easier to find in a local library. Nor did Lightbown and Spada provide specifics on language development, to help teachers learn how to recognize when learners are ready to acquire the next language feature. While there was some critique of textbook syllabuses, there were no guidelines to help teachers teach the learnable language forms at the proper times, in the proper order.

Despite this, How Languages are Learned is an absolute "must have" for every teacher's room, and I would go so far as to say, if a teacher reads only one ELT book in the next six months, this should be the one.

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