Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing

A recent title in the Second Language Acquisition series was Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing edited by Zhisheng (Edward) Wen, Mailce Borges Mota and Arthur McNeill. In this post, Edward reflects on the journey of how the book has come to completion.

The term ‘working memory’ is derived from its predecessor, ‘short-term memory’, which often calls to mind the buzzword ‘the magical number 7 plus or minus 2’, originally coined by George Miller in 1956. In this sense, working memory is short-term memory! But, it is more than that as well, simply because it does not just refer to the storage of information, but also involves the manipulation of it (in other words, how we work on this active information in our head). Given these cognitive functions, working memory usually implicates (to activate, rehearse, sustain, inhibit etc.). So, it is not difficult to imagine that it is both necessary and essential for language learning and processing. Indeed, considerable research in cognitive psychology (psycholinguistics) has amply demonstrated that working memory plays an important role in key language learning domains (e.g., vocabulary, grammar etc.) and processing activities (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

9781783093571But what about its role in second language acquisition (SLA) and processing? This is particularly important in today’s modern world of globalization and intercultural communication, where there are more people who are using or learning a second language. Unfortunately, based on our previous extensive literature reviews, we have found that our knowledge of this topic is rather limited. What’s more, our survey also revealed to us that our current research in this area has been severely constrained by a lack of consensus on working memory theories in cognitive psychology (besides Alan Baddeley’s classic model, there are at least a dozen other models!). To make matters worse, such a predicament is further complicated by the dismal number of working memory span tasks from the literature (the digit span, the nonword span, the reading span, just to name but a few). Given this rather messy situation, we thought that it might be helpful (to the SLA field) if we could bring together scholars from both fields, cognitive psychology and applied linguistics, to discuss relevant issues more openly. It was exactly these initial thoughts that, even before we were quite aware of it, triggered the whole series of subsequent events that ultimately led to the completion of this edited book.

Arthur, Mailce, and Edward at the Hong Kong Roundtable
Arthur, Mailce, and Edward at the Hong Kong Roundtable

Formally then, the story of our book began with our Roundtable in Hong Kong three years ago. In order to create an interactive forum for cognitive psychologists and SLA researchers to have more fruitful discussions on key theoretical and methodological issues regarding the role of ‘working memory’ in various aspects of SLA, the three editors (Edward Wen, Mailce Mota and Arthur McNeill) convened and organized the International Language Learning roundtable seminar on “Memory and Second Language Acquisition” at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in June 2012 (thanks again to Language Learning for its financial support that made this possible in the first place). Overall, the Roundtable featured a workshop (by Michael Ullman) on broad human memory systems and general learning; and three plenary speeches (by Michael Ullman, Peter Skehan and Cem Alptekin) that offered state-of-the-art literature reviews and insightful perspectives on theoretical issues; as well as a dozen individual papers reporting empirical studies looking into the inextricable relationships between working memory and major aspects of second language learning and processing. This Roundtable turned out to be a great success and was well received by the participants, which of course provided further impetus for us to move on with our journey!

Following the Roundtable, we began to push our invited speakers to turn their presentations into chapters and contribute it to our edited volume, and most of them readily agreed and did so (big thanks here!). As a result, we already had nine chapters in hand out of the Roundtable that addressed relationships between working memory and (a) L2 processing (the three chapters in Part II by Sun-A Kim et al., Yuncai Dai, Alan Juffs); (b) L2 interaction and performance (the four chapters in Part III by Shaofeng Li, Mohammad Ahmadian, Yanbin Lu, and Peter Skehan); as well as (c) two theoretical chapters on depicting a WM-SLA conceptual framework (by myself, Edward Wen) and a systematic review of WM-interpreting models (Yanping Dong).

At this stage, when all these nine chapters were put together, you may think they should be good enough for a complete book! Yes! But we didn’t stop there. In order to have a more thorough and comprehensive representation of all possible WM-SLA connections, we decided to expand the original themes of the Roundtable by soliciting chapters from SLA scholars who had not participated and presented at the Roundtable. So, we had five additional chapters (Part IV) that discuss the role working memory plays in L2 instruction and in long-term development of L2 proficiency (by Kindra Santamaria & Gretchen Sunderman, Kaitlyn Tagarelli et al., Melissa Baralt, Ann Mitchell et al., and Clare Wright).

By now, you may again be thinking that we should be happy with what we had now got for the book (14 chapters already). Not quite! Indeed, things had turned even more exciting at this later stage, as we had taken one bigger – and bolder – step by attempting to bring in some leading cognitive psychologists of working memory to join the project (or the ‘WM-SLA enterprise’ as I shall call it from now on!). The obvious reason and the logic for this was quite simple and direct; that is, SLA researchers have relied so much on their models and theoretical frameworks in cognitive psychology; so it should be worthwhile and interesting to see and hear what they, as advocates of these pioneering models of working memory, have to say on the same topic!

Edward holding the first copy of the book
Edward holding the first copy of the book

The result, as it turned out, was gratifying and encouraging indeed! We were just so pleased (lucky?) to have all the three key players of working memory in the field of cognitive psychology (Alan Baddeley, Nelson Cowan, Randall Engle; whom I would like to call “The Three Giants”) readily agreed to contribute to our volume (a very big thank-you!). Thus we came to have our Foreword (by Bunting & Engle) and the first two introductory chapters on the arguably most influential theoretical models of working memory (by Baddeley & Cowan). The manuscript was then assembled and sent to the publisher and reviewers. We then received the publisher’s feedback which highlighted the positive features of the collection but also areas in need of improvement, such as the need for a clearer integration of working memory theory with second language acquisition.

Integration has never been easy though! (as Peter had warned me!) And I was indeed pondering over this issue for some days, until the name of John Williams came to mind. John proved to be the perfect choice for handling this task as his own research and expertise virtually cuts across both fields of working memory and SLA in the truest sense. Indeed, we were lucky this time (or I should say ‘luckier’, as he was actually in our invited-speakers list for the Roundtable but just could not make it in the end) as he agreed to help us to put the final touch to our book by contributing the epilogue/afterword. Thus, we now had the last piece of the jigsaw, i.e., the final commentary that summarizes both the challenges and prospects facing current and future WM-SLA research. In that respect, John’s verdict was loud and clear, that is, despite what the book has achieved (in theoretical and methodological advancements), the ‘WM-SLA enterprise’ is still in its infancy (‘crying’ out for more!). Wow, there is still a long way to go. So now, dear readers, the ball is in your court – do catch it!

Now that we’ve got all these additional chapters in place, we hope (believe) that the contents of our book have significantly expanded and improved from what emerged from the Roundtable! In this sense, our book is far more than a collection of conference papers. Indeed, when looking back at this lengthy but quite rewarding journey again, despite all the tedious work involved, we as editors are feeling just so pleased and proud (with the way the book has come to its present form) and so grateful (to all our contributors from both fields of cognitive psychology and SLA) and particularly gratified and blessed (thanks to God!) that we could accomplish our initial mission by bringing on board both cognitive psychologists and SLA researchers together for the very first time in the same volume to talk about the same topic that has occupied just so much of our time and energy for many years (in my case ten years!) Ok, I have to agree that I am just a ‘working memory’ enthusiast!.

Indeed, given the multidisciplinary nature of SLA research, we certainly believe that a bridge thus built between the two fields, applied linguistics and cognitive psychology, should be able to create effective dialogues that can benefit researchers from both sides. More importantly though, as we have put it rather clearly in our ‘Introduction’ to the book, (and here I am saying it again), we sincerely hope that our book can serve as a kind of springboard for much more research efforts coming from both fields to jointly contribute to building our ‘WM-SLA enterprise”! And that will prove to be the biggest reward and the ultimate goal for us as editors of this book! So, enjoy your reading – while our journey continues!

Zhisheng (Edward) Wen, PhD
Macao Polytechnic Institute
https://ipm.academia.edu/EdwardZhishengWen
edwardwen@ipm.edu.mo

If you would like more information about Edward’s edited book please see our website or his personal homepage or just contact him directly at the email address above.

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