The Amazing Mind of the Multilingual Language User

We recently published Mind Matters in SLA edited by Clare Wright, Thorsten Piske and Martha Young-Scholten. In this post the editors discuss what is unique about the book.

“I really love the cover of Mind Matters in SLA, but why do you have jugglers and acrobats?” – this was one of the most frequent comments we heard around the Multilingual Matters stands at conferences this autumn. This book is the companion volume to Input Matters in SLA, published by Multilingual Matters in 2009, with a similar cover by the wonderful artist Ellen Harris. The beauty but also the hard work that underpins successful acrobatics seems to us an ideal way of picturing the complex and amazing processes in the mind of the multilingual language user.

We wanted our volume to go to the heart of the debates that still go on around what the nature of language knowledge is, and – more importantly for us – how that knowledge develops and can be used. So we invited authors who are an eclectic mix of established leaders in their field and rising star researchers to create a well-rounded resource, which we hope will inspire readers, particularly those new to language acquisition, to think in new and exciting ways about second language teaching and learning.

The book is unique in some ways providing a bridge between formalism and functionalism, allowing the reader to explore points of convergence between Minimalist accounts and emergentist/processing accounts, and providing access to cutting-edge research on how learners make transitions during linguistic development. The book is also unique in being committed to being accessible to non-experts. We’ve ensured the volume is easily readable by those who will benefit from it most, i.e. students training to be language teachers, students on postgraduate programmes and professionals keen to reflect on their language teaching practice.

Another unusual aspect of the book is its historical range over what may lie behind modern theories and debates. We highlight just how long some of these questions have taxed scholars – we specifically include a chapter on language evolution, and other chapters make reference to the centuries of thinking about language, dating back to antiquity. The first section of the book focuses on issues that relate to our current understanding of language in general, to acquisition and to second language acquisition, including why human language (particularly syntax) is special, from both generative and non-generative perspectives. The second section includes work on issues currently debated in property-theoretic work in SLA on L2 morpho-syntax, phonology and speech perception, the lexicon and attrition. The third section, focusing on transition research, covers psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research impacting L2 development, including models of L2 acquisition in and out of the classroom. As with Input Matters in SLA, we’ve included a glossary to define complex terms, and we have ensured chapters can be related to real-world settings to help the reader understand at least some of the possible reasons behind of the old mystery of “why don’t learners learn what the teacher teaches?” (Allwright 1984).

As with all edited volumes, there can be unexpected delays along the way, and we are grateful to Multilingual Matters for their support during the long process of finally getting this one out – to the delight (and relief) of contributors and editors when they saw it on the conference stand!


Allwright, R. (1984) Why don’t learners learn what teachers teach?  The interaction hypothesis. In D.M Singleton and D.G. Little (eds) Language Learning in Formal and Informal Contexts (pp 3–18). Dublin: IRAAL

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Working Memory and Second Language Learning by Zhisheng (Edward) Wen.

Laura’s trip to Finland for the PLL and EuroSLA conferences

Two years ago Tommi and I attended the Sociolinguistics Symposium in Jyväskylä and had a fantastic time so I have been very much looking forward to returning to the city ever since it was announced that the University of Jyväskylä would be hosting the Psychology and Language Learning (PLL) and European Second Language Acquisition (EuroSLA) conferences.

The week started with Paula Kalaja, the chair of the local organising committee, welcoming delegates to the university and announcing the conference theme, “Individuals in Contexts”. There followed many papers and discussions, plus thought-provoking keynotes from Sarah Mercer, Maggie Kubanyiova and Phil Benson.

Quiet moment at the MM stand
Quiet moment at the MM stand

The coffee and lunch breaks provided many opportunities to continue the conversations and, as it was a smaller conference, it was nice to see so many new connections being formed and ideas being shared and discussed among the whole spectrum of the delegates. Of course, breaks are also the busiest time at the Multilingual Matters book display and I was happy to meet lots of avid readers and researchers!

Celebrating our new book with contributor Kristiina Skinnari and editor Tarja Nikula
Laura celebrating our new book with contributor Kristiina Skinnari and editor Tarja Nikula

Our most popular titles were Positive Psychology in SLA (edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer), the 2nd edition of Bonny Norton’s bestselling book Identity and Language Learning and Conceptualising Integration in CLIL and Multilingual Education edited by Tarja Nikula, Emma Dafouz, Pat Moore and Ute Smit. That book was so hot off the press that I brought copies in my suitcase direct from our office!

Along with the academic programme, I very much enjoyed the conference dinner at which we experienced delicious Finnish food, traditional folk music and a beautiful view across the city, for the dinner was held in a water tower high on a hill. It was a very strange feeling eating dinner knowing that you’re sitting right above an awful lot of water!

The conference drew to a close with the exciting announcement of the formation of a new association dedicated to this sector of the field, with Stephen Ryan the newly-elected President. He spoke of the goals of the association and announced that PLL3 will take place in Japan in 2018. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for more information on that one!

On the lake in Jyväskylä
On the lake in Jyväskylä

With a pause after PLL only long enough to enjoy a quick dip in the surprisingly-not-too-cold lake, in rolled EuroSLA, one of my favourite conferences in our calendar. The theme for this year was “Looking back, looking forward: Language learning research at the crossroads” and, as at PLL earlier in the week, we were treated to a range of papers and keynotes from Søren Wind Eskildsen, Ofelia García, Marjolijn Verspoor and Ari Huhta. Although Ofelia García described herself as an outsider to the field, her impassioned talk titled “Transgressing native speaker privilege: The role of translanguaging” was my personal highlight of the whole week. Another top moment was the presentation of the EuroSLA Distinguished Scholar Award to our author, Carmen Muñoz, for her outstanding contribution to the field.

The focus of the book display shifted slightly at EuroSLA and bestsellers on the stand included Rosa Alonso Alonso’s edited collection Crosslinguistic Influence in Second Language Acquisition, Zhisheng (Edward) Wen’s new monograph Working Memory and Second Language Learning and John Bitchener and Neomy Storch’s book Written Corrective Feedback for L2 Development.

As usual, the EuroSLA organising team also put on a fantastic social programme, with the highlights being the welcome reception in a Finnish rock club and a boat cruise on the lake to the traditional dinner venue, on arrival at which we were served a very strong but equally tasty local drink before enjoying more local cuisine and music.

All in all it was a wonderful trip to a couple of great conferences and a very welcoming host city. I’m very much looking forward to the next ones already!


Working Memory – The Ultimate Second Language Learning Device!

Last week we celebrated the arrival of the 100th volume in our Second Language Acquisition series. This new book, Working Memory and Second Language Learning written by Zhisheng (Edward) Wen is the second volume of his in the same series. Last year we published Edward’s co-edited volume with Mailce Mota and Arthur McNeill on the  same topic (Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing). In this post, Edward shares with us his decade-long passion and unceasing enthusiasm for the Working memory – Second Language Acquisition (WM-SLA) concept. 

9781783095711When I was finally able to touch and feel with my very own fingers the first copy of my book that I had just received (hot off the press) from Multilingual Matters, I simply just could not let go of it from my hands. This little purple book, thin and light as it may feel, had occupied such a great proportion of my life over the past 10 years. It has virtually dominated much of my thinking and writing (and countless re-writings), relentlessly forcing me into this weird habit of tracking and consuming an enormous amount of literature from multiple disciplines straddling applied linguistics, educational psychology, cognitive science, and even neuroscience (as long as this buzzword of ‘working memory’ appears in their keyword list). I have since posted this extended list of over 100 pages of references on my personal academic website for interested readers to download freely (and I promise to keep updating it frequently to include whatever new entries I come across on my way).

This latest book is actually my second in Multilingual Matters’ Second Language Acquisition series. My previous one, that I co-edited with Mailce Borges Mota and Arthur McNeill, Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition and Processing was published in May last year. In essence, the edited volume featured theoretical and empirical chapters contributed by leading scholars in both working memory (e.g. Alan Baddeley, Nelson Cowan, and Randall Engle etc.) and second language acquisition (e.g. Alan Juffs, Peter Skehan, John Williams etc.), whereas this new book represents my own personal understanding and theoretical account of the pivotal role of working memory in first and second language learning and processing.

9781783093571Given the different formats and genres of these two books, readers are encouraged to read both of them together, as they are actually meant to be complementary rather than competing with each other. Details of how to order the books at a discount price can be found at the bottom of the post. Overall, these two books should present a more comprehensive and in-depth account of the intricate relationships between working memory and second language acquisition, processing and development. That said, I will now just focus on my second book in this post and highlight its major themes and key features. (For those who also wish to read my blog post written for the co-edited volume, you can find it here).

Getting down to business then, this new book is divided into three parts. The first two parts are devoted to the extensive literature reviews of both working memory research in cognitive science (addressing such fundamental issues as working memory theories, models, and measurement) and applied linguistics research (synthesizing second language studies exploring working memory effects). Building on these cumulative research findings and emerging insights, the third part of the book proposes an integrated perspective on theorizing and measuring working memory in SLA, which culminates in the formulation of the Phonological/Executive (P/E) model. As such, the P/E model is inspired by three major sources based on research syntheses of multiple lines of inquiry.

To begin with, an extensive literature review in cognitive science gives rise to unified theories of the working memory concept as a precursor to the P/E model of WM and SLA proposed in the book. Namely, working memory is a memory sub-system that (a) has limited capacity in holding information and duration; (b) has multiple components and multiple cognitive mechanisms and functions embedded within each component; (c) acts as the interface/gateway for information flow between short-term memory and long-term memory.

Then, there is also the second line of research lending support to the P/E model, which concerns the substantial literature of studies conducted by cognitive psychologists and psycholinguists (from both sides of the Atlantic) that have explored the implications of working memory components/functions for first language acquisition. This research synthesis gives rise to the identification of two key working memory components (together with their associated mechanisms) found to be most directly relevant for language acquisition, i.e., phonological working memory (PWM) and executive working memory (EWM) that are related to various learning domains and processes in first language acquisition and processing.

Finally, as the two key working memory components (PWM and EWM) have been pinned down, together with their associated mechanisms and functions, what we need (and lack) is an effective framework to integrate these established working memory theories with SLA theories. Before such integration can take place, however, it is important to first identify what similarities and differences may exist between first language acquisition and SLA. Building on this premise, I propose in the book to re-conceptualise SLA in more specific terms of representation (e.g., vocabulary, grammar), skills (e.g., L2 sub-skills learning, processing and performance) and development (e.g., L2 proficiency growth), so that each of these domains/skills can be examined through the new lens of these two working memory components (PWM and EWM) in light of their potential mechanisms and functions.

As can be expected, the final outcome of this step-by-step procedure culminates in a general conceptual framework of WM and SLA, and from it, the Phonological/Executive (P/E) model naturally emerges and gradually takes shape. More specifically, PWM is posited to underpin those chunking-based acquisitional and developmental aspects of SLA domains (such as vocabulary/lexis, formulaic sequences and morpho-syntactic constructions/grammatical structure). Informed by these theoretical links, it is better to interpret PWM as the second language acquisition device.

On the other hand, EWM is postulated to underpin some selective offline processes in L2 sub-skills learning and processing, as well as some real-time performance areas during L2 comprehension (listening and reading), interaction (e.g., noticing, focus on form etc.) and production (and here translation/interpreting can also be included as a special case of combining L1 comprehension and L2 production). Given these theoretical links, EWM is best interpreted as a second language processing device or simply, a second language processor.

By now, I do hope that I have given readers a glimpse into the many ideas discussed in my latest book. Other ideas that I have explored in more detail in the book include the relationship between working memory and foreign language aptitude as well as their configured positions in L2 development. There is also an in-depth discussion of the implications of the P/E model for L2 task-based planning and performance. To sum up, I have a strong conviction and equally strong evidence to support my personal understanding and positioning of working memory in second language acquisition and processing. And that is, I consider working memory, as shown in the title of this blog post, to be the ultimate second language learning device! In other words, without working memory, simply nothing can ever happen in SLA!

Zhisheng (Edward) Wen, Macao Polytechnic Institute,
Edward’s website

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

To buy both books at 50% discount please use the code PREORDER50 at the checkout on our website. This discount is available until the end of September.

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

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.