March 2020
ALIS Forum



Natalia Dolgova, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
Heather Weger, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC, USA

Natalia Dolgova

Heather Weger

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the pre-convention issue of AL Forum, newsletter for the Applied Linguistics Interest Section! TESOL 2020 is fast approaching. To preview some of the contributions that ALIS is making to this year’s convention, we have invited four presenters to share what they have been working on and what they will be presenting in Denver.

We are excited to feature a preview of Diane Larsen-Freeman’s presentation as our first article. In the article, Larsen-Freeman calls on researchers and educators to embrace learner agency and the role it plays in driving student learning. Our other three articles report the results of studies examining a variety of issues that impact the daily realities of classroom instruction. In the second article, Nicholas Rhea details results from his study examining students’ perceptions of native speaker instructor ideal in the Afghani-EFL context. The third article, authored by Dakota Thomas-Wilhelm, reports on his study that explored the effects of using theories of GenSLA to inform instruction of the article system (e.g, “a” and “the”) in the context of L1-Mandarian learners of English studying in the US. Finally, Robert Taferner shares findings from his study that examined the use of image schema to inform the instruction of spatial prepositions (i.e., “in” and “on”) in the Japanese-EFL context.

In leadership updates, in their letter, our co-chairs-elect Bahiyyih Hardacre and Polina Vinogradova introduce themselves and share information about the upcoming Academic Session they are organizing at TESOL 2020. In his letter, our chair Ben White provides details on the two Intersection panels that ALIS co-organized with the Social Justice and Teacher Education Interest Sections and invites readers to stay tuned for the upcoming ALIS webinar.

We hope you enjoy this issue and hope to see many of you in Denver!


Natalia and Heather


Ben White, St. Michael's College, Colchester, Vermont, USA

Greetings, Fellow ALISers!

I would like to express my gratitude to Natalia and Heather, who have put together another excellent issue of AL Forum. And a big thank you to the contributors for sharing their insights with our readership. Perhaps, these articles will pique your interest and encourage you to come to this year’s TESOL Convention, where you will find a number of presentations to be given within the Applied Linguistics strand.

If you do make it to Denver, be sure to come to the ALIS Open Meeting on April 1st , from 6 PM to 7:30 PM, in Room 708 of the Colorado Convention Center. This meeting is an opportunity to discuss the goings-on of all things ALIS and to network with fellow members. You should also consider attending one of the Intersections that ALIS has organized in partnership with other Interest Sections. Unfortunately, both sessions take place at the same time.

  • “Pursuing Social Justice in TESOL” is a collaboration with the Social Responsibility Interest Section (SRIS). In the session, Lourdes Ortega, Ryuko Kubota, Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, and Kathleen McGovern explore how TESOL professionals can expose and address inequalities, what practices and tools can be used to empower others, and what efforts are being made to bring about social change. April 3rd, 9:30 AM – 11:15 AM, Room 303, Colorado Convention Center.
  • “Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy: Bridging the Gap” is a collaboration with both SRIS and the Teacher Education Interest Section (TEIS). Shondel Nero, Laura Blythe Liu, Jenna Cushing-Leubner, Allison Yasukawa, and Amin Davoodi examine the impact of social justice issues on teacher education and applied linguistics scholarship. April 3rd, 9:30 AM – 11:15 AM, Room 113, Colorado Convention Center.


Whether you will be at TESOL 2020 or not, please consider attending our first webinar in the new ALIS series TQ Authors Talk on March 13. Our first presenters will be the authors of one of the most downloaded TESOL Quarterly articles in the last few years. John Levis, Sinem Sonsaat, Stephanie Link, and Taylor Anne Barriuso will discuss the research behind their 2016 article “Native and Nonnative Teachers of L2 Pronunciation: Effects on Learner Performance.” If you are subscribed to ALIS updates, you should have received a webinar invitation and instructions from myTESOL. In the meantime, I encourage you to (re)read the article so that you can more fully participate in the webinar.

Be well and I hope to see many of you in Denver!



Bahiyyih Hardacre, California State University Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Calfornia, USA
Polina Vinogradova, American University, Washington, DC, USA

Bahiyyih Hardacre

Polina Vinogradova

Dear members of the Applied Linguistics Interest Section,

Greetings from Bahiyyih Hardacre and Polina Vinogradova, your ALIS co-chairs-elect!

First of all, we would like to wish you a happy and healthy New Year! While we are looking optimistically into the new decade, we know we have a lot of work to do as language educators and researchers to support our field of TESOL, our students, and our colleagues. And we are thrilled that we can do this work together with you.

We would also like to take a moment to tell you a little about ourselves.

Bahiyyih: I’m an applied linguist and work as an assistant professor in the MA in TESOL program at California State University Los Angeles. Because our program is part of Cal State LA’s Charter College of Education, I also get to teach outside of my program; this has given me the opportunity to teach graduate and undergraduate students pursuing various teaching degrees, certificates, and credentials. But before working at Cal State LA, I taught EFL in Brazil for about 15 years, and then I moved to Los Angeles, where I taught ESL for another 12 years! I have always loved teaching, and I am thrilled that now I get to guide and supervise future educators! I have also served as college and university level chair and in the board of directors for CATESOL (the California TESOL organization), for two consecutive terms. Finally, in terms of research, I am very interested in issues related to second/foreign language anxiety, and in the role of individual psychophysiological characteristics in learners’ communicative behaviors and classroom performance.

Polina: I have been working in the field of TESOL for more than 20 years, first as an EFL university instructor in St. Petersburg, Russia and later as an ESL instructor and teacher educator in the US. Since 2011, I have been overseeing the TESOL Program at American University in Washington, DC and teaching Master’s level courses in TESOL methods, intercultural communication, and CALL. In this capacity, I get to work with amazing language educators who make a difference in the lives of English language learners every single day. This work inspires and informs my research in TESOL advocacy, postmethod, and digital storytelling. Currently, I am advocacy chair of WATESOL, Washington, DC TESOL affiliate, and served as WATESOL vice-president in 2012-2014.

We thank you for your trust in us and look forward to serving the ALIS currently as chairs-elect and as co-chairs in the upcoming year. We also look forward to meeting many of you at the upcoming TESOL International Convention in Denver, CO.

At the convention, ALIS will have several sessions. We would like to invite you to attend the ALIS academic session titled, “Multifaceted Teacher Identities: Perspectives on Language, Race, and Professional Positioning” (April 1, Wednesday, 3:00pm – 4:45pm, location TBA). It will feature a recent special issue of the TESOL Journal (December 2019) that evolved around various aspects of TESOL teacher identities. The invited panelists Quanisha Charles, Blanca Caldas Chumbes, Ester de Jong and Feifei Fan, Kristen Lindahl, and Bedrettin Yazan will talk about the need to incorporate teacher identity work in teacher preparation programs and will present their research on the effects of teacher identity activities and dialogue on raising language, race, and professional awareness, as well as providing cultural enlightenment.

On another note, we are currently working on finding additional ways to engage and connect our members and to feature current research in TESOL/Applied Linguistics. So stay tuned!

Looking forward to e-meeting you and seeing you at TESOL 2020!


Bahiyyih & Polina



Diane Larsen-Freeman, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

I have been concerned for some time by the fact that second language acquisition (SLA) theorists and methodologists have ignored or at least downplayed learner agency. Therefore, at TESOL 2020, I intend to call attention to this concern and then make some suggestions for how learner agency might be accommodated in SLA theories and enhanced in the classroom.

As defined in Larsen-Freeman (2019, p. 62), “agency is the capacity to act in the world”—the feeling that one can make a difference. When applied specifically to the learning of language, it can be interpreted as the capacity to optimize “conditions for one’s own learning (or not!)” (Duff & Doherty, 2015, as cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2019, p. 62). Agency is not inherent in a learner. It is not a personal attribute, but rather a relationship between the learner and the context and what the context affords the learner.

Few educators would deny that language learners have at least latent agency in determining the way that they learn best and the extent to which they succeed. Yet, for much of the 50-year history of the modern-day study of SLA, the agency of language learners has not been appreciated. For instance, there is no respect for learners’ agency when learners are seen to be input processors, and, thus, where it is recommended that teachers supply students with comprehensible input so that their learning will take place implicitly. I do not deny that some learning will occur as a result; however, what I am saying is that learners’ agency is not valued when learners are viewed as passive recipients of teachers’ munificence rather than as drivers of their own learning

I once had a student who claimed that he had learned German from listening to the radio. Such a source obviously did not allow for any negotiation or accommodation, yet my student succeeded. You see, as a native speaker of Dutch, he had already mastered a language that was enormously helpful in facilitating his comprehension of German. He was able to listen selectively to the radio broadcast, and benefit from its certain predictability. He was a motivated agent of his own learning. One might say that my student was an exception, having a distinct advantage in knowing a related language. That may be so, but invoking exceptionalism fails to take into account learners’ plurilingualism and their ability to make use of their lingual assets.

A more recent example of a theory that by self-admission denies learner agency comes from statistical learning theory.

Finally, SL [statistical learning] research has almost exclusively focused on methods in which participants are passively exposed to an input stream, where the only learnable information is that which is contained in the stream. Such an approach implicitly adopts an apathetic perspective of the learner, taking organisms to be automatic absorbers of environmental regularities (Frost et al., 2019, p. 1139).

In order to offer a more balanced perspective, I should point to the social end of the sociocognitive SLA theoretical continuum, where learner agency has also been underplayed. For example, it has been acknowledged that in socialization theory, learners are often positioned as passively socialized into the communities in which they live (Duff & Doherty, 2015).

But it would be unfair to single out only these few theories. Even the foundation on which studies of SLA was built hypothesized that there were universal acquisition orders. The quest to identify this “built-in” syllabus overlooked learner agency. (It would be appropriate at this point to admit that I was a participant in the early research to discover universals.)

Another major initiative in SLA research has been to focus on individual differences with the goal of explaining differential success. Though studying individual differences has shaped research agendas for some time, notice the incongruity—studying individual differences has usually involved ignoring individuals. Typically, researchers study groups of learners with common traits and attempt to study the effect of the traits. For instance, questions are posed, such as “Do individuals with intrinsic motivation outperform those who have extrinsic motivation?” or “Are extroverted learners more successful than introverts?” Let me hasten to add that these are reasonable questions to ask, and they have led to productive research agendas, but such questions ignore intracategory differences among the individuals who compose the group. A related assumption is that group means reflect the performance of members who compose the group. This is certainly not the case, and this ergodic premise results in the spurious assumption that we can capture what is happening with individuals by simply aggregating data on these individuals (Lowie & Verspoor, 2019).

Ironically, it has been individual case studies that have acted as correctives to extant SLA theories that seek to generalize. For example, Ioup et al.’s (1994) participant Julie presented counterevidence to the critical period hypothesis because Julie, an adult speaker of British English living in Cairo, appeared to speak Egyptian Arabic virtually indistinguishably from a native Cairene despite her not moving to Egypt until she was a young woman. Also, there is Schmidt’s (1983) participant Wes, a native speaker of Japanese living in Hawai’i, who, despite having considerable comprehensible input and social proximity to English speakers, never appeared to make progress in speaking English grammatically. Thus, the contribution of individuals to our understanding of SLA has been essential, at least if you feel, as I do, obliged to understand the second language development process of all learners.

Of course, it isn’t the case that theorists have ignored learner involvement in their own learning. Indeed, task-based language teaching (TBLT), for instance, makes such engagement central to learning, and tasks may well be helpful in promoting learning. However, it is well-known that that planning a task and enacting one are different processes. Therefore, because much TBLT research has been focused on identifying factors in the design of a task, which will elicit performance of a certain type, there can be a failure to appreciate what learners contribute uniquely to their own learning. The same underestimation of learners could be said for other language teaching methodologies. Just think of the audiolingual method, where student participation consists of repeating, imitating a model, and so on. There appears to be little room for learner agency here.

But the fact is that we teach learners; we do not only teach language. As an example, Elsa was a keen language learner who told me that she loved the repetition that she received in the audiolingual method. She said that whenever she found the drills boring, she would pretend that the characters in the dialogues, on which the drills were based, were people she knew, and she would ascribe to them certain personal traits. I would say that Elsa exercised her agency to great effect.

It seems to me that any oversight of learner agency is particularly unfortunate these days when being agentive is needed more than ever. In today’s world, one can easily get the feeling of being acted upon. In addition, given the complexity and ever-changing conditions in the world, learners’ ability to create their future (i.e., to create and re-create themselves) will be essential for their maintaining a livelihood and for their wellbeing.

Yet, what is missing from certain theories and methods is an account of how learners can exercise their agency to optimize their own learning. One way is to encourage learners to develop a repertoire of learning strategies. However, in my presentation at TESOL, less prescriptive ways to allow for and to encourage learner agency will be illustrated, such as the adoption of learner-driven feedback, reciprocal teaching, learner-constructed corpora, and a porous classroom.

I will also recommend that SLA theorists incorporate learner agency into their theories. One way to do so is to hypothesize that second-order affordances, rather than input, be the driver of SLA (Larsen-Freeman, 2016). A first-order affordance exists in the environment, and surfaces in answer to the question: What are the properties of the environment, natural or introduced, that affect some outcome? For instance, does the classroom environment afford the possibility of conducting group work? However, it is not simply the properties of the environment, but the agent’s relational stance towards them that creates a second-order affordance. Even if the classroom environment permits group work, if an individual in the group feels that they cannot learn from their peers, I expect not much learning to take place.

Thus, when it comes to perceiving affordances, every individual is unique, something to which all teachers can attest. However, traditionally, researchers seek to generalize, and by so doing, to describe the “average” learner. Traditional models often assume that insights about the population automatically apply “to all individuals…This assumption is simple, it is understandable, and it is necessary to justify the use of averages to understand individuals. However, it is also wrong!” (Rose et al., 2013, p. 152)

Though these teaching and research practices apply to learners of all ages and dispositions, there are no doubt context-specific factors that will have to be managed if my recommendations are to be implemented. I will conclude my TESOL 2020 session with a discussion of these.


Duff, P., & Doherty, L. (2015). Examining agency in (second) language socialization research. In P. Deters, X. Gao, E. R. Miller, & G. Vitanova (Eds.), Theorizing and analyzing agency in second language learning (pp. 54–72). Multilingual Matters.

Frost, R., Armstrong, B. C., & Christiansen, M. H. (2019). Statistical learning research: A critical review and possible new directions. Psychological Bulletin, 145(12), 1128–1153.

Ioup, G., Boustagui, E., el Tigi, M., & Moselle, M. (1994). Reexamining the critical period hypothesis. A case study of successful SLA in a naturalistic environment. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 73–98.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2016). Shifting metaphors: From computer input to ecological affordances to adaptation. In Proceedings from the IATEFL 50th Anniversary Conference, Birmingham (pp. 10–19). IATEFL.

Larsen–Freeman, D. (2019). On language learner agency: A complex dynamic systems theory perspective. The Modern Language Journal, 103(SI), 61–79.

Lowie, W. M., & Verspoor, M. H. (2019). Individual differences and the ergodicity problem. Language Learning, 69(S1), 184–206.

Rose, L., Rouhani, P., & Fischer, K. (2013) The science of the individual. Mind, Brain, and Education 71(3), 152–158.

Schmidt, R. (1983). Interaction, acculturation, and the acquisition of communicative competence: A case study of an adult. In N. Wolfson & E. Judd (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language acquisition (pp. 137–174). Newbury House.

Diane Larsen-Freeman is professor emerita of education and linguistics, research scientist emerita, and former director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. She is also professor emerita at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont.


Nicholas Rhea, Nashville, Tennessee, USA

This article investigates student perceptions of native-English-speaking (NES) and nonnative-English-speaking (NNES) English instructors in the EFL setting. In the teaching English as a second language field, the ideal still exists that instructors need be native English speakers from a select group of countries (the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada). This is evidenced by a survey of 60 job postings from four websites (,,, and in which 38% of jobs required applicants to be a native speaker. and had no posts requiring native speakers whereas and had a very high number of posts that required it. Further investigation in this area is necessary but it shows that there are still a number of posts that exhibit signs of the native speaker ideal.

The native speaker ideal also exists in the ESL setting and can, in part, be attributed to reverse linguistic stereotyping (RLS). RLS is when the “attributions of a speaker’s group membership cue distorted perceptions of that speaker’s language style or proficiency” (Kang & Rubin, 2009, p. 442). RLS then, is when a certain attribute of the speaker, such as gender or ethnicity, negatively influences student performance. In a study designed to measure RLS in the ESL setting, Kang and Rueben (2009) found that students did exhibit some signs of RLS and rated an NNES instructor lower than an NES instructor for social attractiveness and superiority. The current study uses a similar matched-guise technique as Kang and Rubin (2009) to address the gap in research of student attitudes toward their language instructors and the proclivity toward RLS in the EFL setting. The central questions of this study are as follows:

  1. Do students perform better on a listening exercise they perceive to be with an NES instructor as compared to a perceived NNES instructor?
  2. Do students rate NES instructors as more qualified than NNES instructors?

Setting and Participants

The study took place in an EFL setting at an English-medium university in Afghanistan. The participants were Afghan, were between the ages of 18 and 22, and were enrolled in a foundation-year program at the university. Students who were placed in the foundations program had paber-based TOEFL scores between 450–500 and needed to successfully complete the program to be admitted to the university. The study included 18 male participants and 16 female participants. All participants volunteered to take part in the study, which was conducted outside of class time. No extra credit or other incentives were offered to participants.


The study used a matched-guise technique, a method of assessing attitude that has participants listen to multiple recordings that they think are done by two different people when it is the same person doing both recordings. For the first round, participants listened to a 1 minute 30 second lecture about a blizzard,1 completed a cloze test, and rated the instructor. While the listening was being played, a picture of a White male from North America, was projected, and participants were informed this was the instructor they were listening to. The survey included the categories of social attractiveness and superiority as well as comprehensibility and instructor competence. Social attractiveness reflects social and aesthetic appeal, and superiority is a broad category that includes elements of education and status (Zahn & Hopper, 1985). These categories are both part of the speech evaluation instrument and were chosen because they had “been used in dozens of studies on language attitude” (Kang & Rubin, 2009, p. 446). The subcategories of each category are shown in Table 1. Instructor ability, which did not include any subcategories, was also rated. All ratings were on a 7-point scale and were explained to participants before the study began.

Table 1. Category Descriptions

Social Attractiveness

Foreign/North American accent


Did not motivate/motivate



Inexperience/experienced unqualified/qualified





Easy to understand/hard to understand


Little effort to understand/lots of effort to understand

Simple to comprehend/difficult to comprehend

Instructor Competence


Grammatical accuracy

Vocabulary accuracy

Speed of speech

Overall ability

For the second round, participants listened to a distractor audio of about 1 minute 30 seconds and completed a cloze test. The distractor listening was played without the picture of an instructor (hence the instructor survey was not completed), was on a different topic (a comparison of paper books to e-books), and was in a standard British accent. For the third and final round, the same audio as in the first listening was played, students completed the same cloze test, and filled out the same instructor rating survey. For this round, a picture of a male Afghan instructor was projected and participants were told this was the instructor who was speaking. Both instructors wore similar clothes and stood in front of a blank wall to avoid bias based on professional appearance. As a final part of the study, participants selected their preferred instructor type: NES, NNES, or no preference.


For this study, the subcategories were combined and means were calculated for the larger categories (Social Attractiveness, Superiority, Comprehensibility, Instructor Ability, Instructor Competence, and the cloze test). A paired sample t-test was used to analyze the results.

No statistically significant difference was found between the first and second listening for the instructor rating for any of the categories (Table 2). For the cloze test, participants showed improvement on the second listening (Table 2). This was anticipated because the listening was the same both times. It is interesting to note that in all the categories except instructor competence, the Afghan instructor was rated slightly higher. Superiority and comprehensibility had the biggest difference with an NES mean rating of 5.43 and an NNES mean rating of 5.73 for superiority and an NES mean rating of 5.13 and an NNES mean rating of 5.45 for comprehensibility. The increase in comprehensibility may be related to the repetition of content, but the reason for increase in superiority could be due to a number of other factors, such as appearance or social norms. Both require further investigation.

Table 2. Student Rating of Native-English-Speaking and Nonnative-English-Speaking Instructors


NES rating 



NNES rating 


Sig. (2-tailed)

Social attractiveness


















Instructor competence






Instructor ability






Cloze test






*P<0.05, n = 34

NES = native-English-speaking, NNES = nonnative-English-speaking

It is important to note that when participants were explicitly asked whether they preferred an NES or an NNES instructor, 89% responded in favor of an NES instructor with the rest indicating no preference. These results indicate that the native-speaker ideal does exist in this population, and further investigation of this result would be necessary to draw any further conclusions.


Though this study offers a template to do action research about RLS, there are some limitations to this study that should be kept in mind when interpreting these results.

  1. Students heard the same listening twice. Participants noticed this, which possibly affected the results of both the cloze test and the instructor rating. If this study were replicated, it is recommended to use a different topic for each listening.
  2. The distractor listening did not include a projected picture of an instructor and thus students were not given the rating survey for the distractor listening. In any future iterations of the study, a picture would be projected for the distractor listening and participants would complete the instructor rating survey.
  3. Students, even on an anonymous survey, might not speak ill of a professor to another person of power (the investigator). In Afghan culture, teachers are highly respected, and participants may have felt uncomfortable giving a professor a negative rating.


In this setting, a university with faculty from all over the world, students did not exhibit any signs of performing lower on the cloze test because of the instructor’s national origin nor did they rate the NNES instructor as less qualified. This is potentially a good sign, because students may not see their professors as less capable based on where they are from. Though it is not possible to extrapolate the results of this study to other settings, for this university, students did not exhibit signs of RLS, and their performance in English language classes is not directly tied to the whether their instructor is an Afghan male or a White North American male. This information could be a useful tool when hiring potential instructors because it illustrates that the best person for the job might not necessarily be based on their first language or nationality. More studies of this nature can help to move the TESOL field away from the NES instructor ideal to be more inclusive of NNES instructors. It can also be used to inform institutions of possible subconscious bias so that it can be addressed with students and faculty.

Areas for Future Study

There are a multitude of combinations that still need to be studied outside of the White North American male to Afghan male paradigm, such as ethnicity, gender, and NES speaker status. The study outlined in this paper could be useful for institutions to learn about students’ biases toward instructors based on their first language and to dispel the notion that an NES instructor is always the best instructor. A more thorough investigation of cultural norms regarding professors and their status could add important understanding to the survey results. This could be accomplished through a focus group and individual interviews.


Dave’s esl café. (2016). International jobs board. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from

Higher ed jobs. (2020). English as a second language. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from

Kang, O., & Rubin, D. L. (2009). Reverse linguistic stereotyping: Measuring the effect of listener expectations on speech evaluation. Journal of Language & Social Psychology, 28, 441–456.

Teaching house. (n.d.). English teaching jobs – TEFL jobs database. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from

TESOL international association. (2017). TESOL career center. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from

Zahn, C. J., & Hopper, R. (1985). Measuring language attitudes: The speech evaluation instrument. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 4, 113–124.

Nicholas Rhea holds and MA TESL from Northern Arizona University and has taught in Chile, China, and Afghanistan. He currently teaches refugee and immigrant high school students in Nashville, Tennessee.


Dakota J. Thomas-Wilhelm, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA

In current second language acquisition (SLA) research, there is a natural gap between theoretical research (referred to as GenSLA research in this article) and pedagogical research. GenSLA research tends to focus on solving theoretical puzzles with few to no classroom implications for the results of the studies, while pedagogical research is often very instruction-focused and, at times, detached from some of the generative theoretical underpinnings that are essential to all SLA research. (Here, pedagogical research refers to research conducted by instructors themselves. It is often also referred to as teacher research, action research, practitioner research, or exploratory practice; Allwright, 2005.) An additional difficulty is that these two groups also perceive one another’s research to be inaccessible or irrelevant (Whong et al., 2013).

The study discussed in this article seeks to fill this gap by examining the learning task that first-language (L1)–Mandarin (n = 77), second-language (L2)–English learners face when acquiring L2 English articles and noun types. Following the work by Lopez (2019), I create a language pedagogy that is informed by findings and theories within GenSLA. I call this pedagogy linguistically informed instruction (LING), which uses semantic universals to teach L2 English articles and noun types: [±definite] for articles (whether both the speaker and the listener can identify the noun and answer the question “Which one?”; e.g., the is definite and a/an is indefinite); and [±count] (whether the noun can have a plural form) and [±atomic] (whether a noun can be divided into separate parts; e.g., furniture is an uncountable, but atomic, noun that is composed of chairs and tables) for nouns.

The foundation of this study is rooted into two primary questions in the field of GenSLA concerning language transfer and universal grammar, namely if the learner is transferring anything from the L1 and what this transfer consists of and if the learner has access to universal grammar and can actually acquire L2 feature specifications. The project discussed here approaches these questions via Lardiere’s feature reassembly hypothesis (2008), where the learners face difficulty in remapping relevant features from the L1 to the L2. The greatest source of difficulty is said to be in the transfer and reassembly of the same features on different lexical items from the L1 to the L2. This project seeks to explore the acquisition and recognition, as measured by an acceptability judgment task, of L2 English article and noun type features through the use of three different instructional environments for explicit grammar teaching and acquisition in an ESL grammar classroom. Two research questions guide the study:

1. Are there any significant differences between the three instructional contexts at the different testing times?

2. How does the explicit L2 knowledge develop over time within the different instructional contexts?

The Study

The project and data collection took place at a public university in the midwestern United States, and data were collected from four different L2 knowledge instruments at pretest, immediate posttest, and delayed posttest times. Only the acceptability judgment task is presented in this paper.

Instructional Contexts Under Investigation

The three instruction contexts are LING (n = 35), “traditional” instruction (TRAD, n = 23), and a control context which received no explicit instruction (NOEX, n = 19). Note that participant group sizes differed because of retention issues over the 5 weeks of the project. All participants were L1-Mandarin, L2-English language learners with ages ranging from 17 to 23, and each group was a mixed-gender class.

The LING group received a 1-hour workshop with explicit instruction of English articles and noun types using materials that were developed and informed by recent research in GenSLA. These materials taught the particularities of English articles using the feature [±definite] and noun types using the features [±atomic], [±countable], and [±plural] to encourage feature transfer, reassembly, and acquisition. Following are examples of features taught in the LING workshop.

a. [+definite]: Both the speaker and the listener can identify the noun and answer the question “Which one?”

b. [–definite]: Only the speaker, not the listener, can identify the noun.

c. [±count]: The feature of a noun that determines whether it can have a plural form

d. [±atomic]: The feature of a noun that determines if it is made up of individuals and can be divided into separate parts

These materials also included a side-by-side comparison/contrast of articles and noun types in the two languages under investigation. (E.g., while there is no equivalent of the English definite article the in Chinese, there are other determiners, such as zhèi [this] and nèi [that], which mark definiteness.) Materials also noted common mistakes/notable differences of which learners should be particularly aware. (E.g., an ungrammatical construction of many homeworks can be corrected in two possible ways: [+count]: many assignments, or [–count]: a lot of homework).

In contrast, the TRAD group received a 1-hour workshop with explicit instruction of English articles and noun types using the assigned textbook from their grammar course, Grammar & Beyond 4. Though these chapters are in the participants’ assigned textbook, they are not assigned to students in the curriculum for the grammar course during their regularly scheduled classes; only students in the TRAD group received explicit instruction using these materials during the 1-hour workshop. NOEX did not receive any instruction on English articles and noun types.

Instrument and Procedure

The research project data collection and instructional intervention took place over a 5-week timeline outside of regularly scheduled classes where, in Week 1, the pretest (T0) data were collected; in Week 2, the researcher administered the instructional intervention to the LING and the TRAD groups and collected immediate posttest (T1) data; and, in Week 5, the delayed posttest (T2) data were collected. Data collection instruments consisted of a preparticipation questionnaire that collected biographical and language use data, an English placement test, and the acceptability judgment task.

The acceptability judgment task consisted of 60 items testing four noun types in five different article/number contexts. The participants were asked to rate items on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not natural at all) to 7 (very natural). Of the 60 items, 45 were grammatical and 15 were ungrammatical.

Data Analysis and Results

To explore the first research question, whether there are any significant differences between the instructional contexts at different testing times, a series of one-way ANOVAs were run, followed by Tukey post-hoc analyses.

As for the acceptability ratings of grammatical sentences at T0, differences were found between LING and NOEX, but not between LING and TRAD. At T1, significant differences emerged between LING and TRAD, but not between LING and NOEX. At T2, a significant difference between LING and both TRAD and NOEX was found.

With regard to ungrammatical sentences at T0, significant differences were found between LING and NOEX, but not between LING and TRAD. At T1, statistical differences emerged between LING and both NOEX and TRAD. At T2, a statistical difference between LING and TRAD, but not NOEX, was found.

In order to explore the second research question, the development of explicit L2 knowledge over time, a series of paired-sample t-tests were run within each group to compare acceptability scores of grammatical and ungrammatical sentences from T0–T1, T0–T2, and T1–T2.

As for the acceptability ratings of grammatical sentences by LING, there was a significant increase in ratings from T0 to T1 and T2. For TRAD, there was a nonsignificant decrease in ratings from T0 to T1, but no differences from T0 to T2. As for the NOEX group, there was no statistical difference between T0 to T1, but there was a statistical decrease in ratings from T0 to T2.

With regard to ungrammatical sentences, LING showed a statistical decrease in the ratings from T0 to T1 (here, a decrease in acceptability ratings of ungrammatical sentences would be trending in the direction of rejection), but these data virtually reversed and there was no statistical difference between T0 and T2. For TRAD learners, there was a statistical increase in the acceptance of ungrammatical sentences from T0 to T1, but there was no statistical difference from T0 to T2. NOEX showed no statistical differences in acceptability scores from T0 to T1 or T2.

These data show that between-group differences in grammatical and ungrammatical sentences emerged between the LING and the TRAD groups and also the NOEX group. Within-group improvement in linguistic knowledge was found most notably in the LING group, especially at immediate posttest. While the TRAD learners demonstrated some improvement, the NOEX group showed no improvement, and at times declined improvement, across testing times.

Conclusion and Further Research

Though results found significant improvement in linguistic knowledge in the LING group from pretest to immediate posttest, these results are often not maintained to delayed posttest. It is important to also bear in mind that articles are challenging to acquire and, often, do not interfere with comprehension. The kind of intervention applied here is limited to 1 hour. These data do suggest that if linguistically informed instruction was implemented in a systematic and prolonged way, using a more syntax- and semantics-focused approach to teaching challenging grammatical concepts, it may have a greater effect on linguistic knowledge.

If classrooms and instructional contexts became learning environments that encouraged and facilitated feature (re-)assembly, then acquisition may happen quicker and more efficiently for not only challenging elements of language, but all. For example, instructors could use the features [±count, ±atomic, ±plural] to teach noun types and plural –s in English by having students conduct linguistic analyses of the vocabulary they are using and/or learning. Instructors might also choose to include a side-by-side comparison/contrast of articles and noun types in the two languages under investigation. These are both examples of linguistically informed materials that can also be applied in an ESL grammar classroom.

With regard to this project, further research and analysis will investigate breaking the analysis down by article context and noun type, working to fit a linear model with the data, and comparing these data to other measures of implicit linguistic knowledge that were also collected in the same project.


Allwright, D. (2005). From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9–31.

Lardiere, D. (2008). Feature-assembly in second language acquisition. In J. Liceras, H. Zobl, & H. Goodluck (Eds.), The role of formal features in second language acquisition (pp. 106–140). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lopez, E. (2019). Teaching the English article system: Definiteness and specificity in linguistically-informed instruction. Language Teaching Research, 23(2), 200–217.

Whong, M., Gil, K.-H., & Marsden, H. (2013). Introduction: Generative second language acquisition and language pedagogy. In M. Whong, K.-H. Gil, & H. Marsden (Eds.), Universal grammar and the second language classroom (pp. 1–13). Springer Netherlands.

Dakota J. Thomas-Wilhelm is a lecturer in English as a Second Language Programs at University of Iowa and a PhD student in advanced English studies at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.


Robert Taferner, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima, Japan

This study is part of an ongoing large-scale project that focuses on the topological features of in and on for a variety of contexts, including vehicles, as demonstrated in this article. Due to the difficulty second language (L2) learners have with the use of the English prepositions (or more generally adpositions which also include postposition particles in other languages), this article expands Taferner and Yamada’s (in press) crosslinguistic investigation of the spatial prepositions in and on for vehicles.

Features of Spatial Prepositions

Spatial prepositions are used to illustrate relationships between objects i.e., figure and ground. Spatial prepositions include prototypical core and polysemous non-core functional usages (see Landau, 2018). Prototypical or core uses of prepositions generally have geospatial frames of reference with figure and ground features combined. Two examples illustrating these features are:

(1) The ball is in the box.

(2) The ball is on the table.

In (1), the ball (i.e., figure) is contained in the box (i.e., ground). While in (2), the ball is on the surface of the table. For polysemous (i.e., semantic extensions) and more abstract meanings (see e.g., Jamrozik & Gentner, 2015) of (1), we can conceptualize in line, in trouble, and boxed in. Extended meanings of (2) include on TV, on the ball, and on the money. These examples go beyond what we would consider core to the notion of in or on with additional non-imaginable non-spatial dynamic properties or senses such as the inclusion of emotion.

To understand these phenomena, this study will utilize prelinguistic image schema conceptualizations of how objects (i.e., figure and ground) are spatially related to each other and meaning is constructed through redescriptions of perceptual events (see Mandler & Cánovas, 2014, p. 17). Image schema include building blocks known as spatial primitives (figure and ground), simple spatial events represented by image schemas (spatial primitive configurations), and schematic integrations (image schemas plus non-imaginary non-spatial information). Image schemas plus additional non-spatial information create schematic integrations that may be too complex for L2 learners to comprehend, and thus require explicit instruction supported by contrastive analysis of linguistic and schematic features.

Contrastive Analysis: An English–Japanese Example

When there is a difference between the first language (L1) and the L2, there is a strong likelihood that negative transfer of L1 features to the target language (TL) will occur, affecting learners' output. To determine the possibility of negative transfer, contrastive analysis of linguistic features can be useful for identifying problems that need further clarification, especially for non-prototypical usages. For the contrastive English-Japanese cases illustrating vehicular transport in (3), (4), and (5), English spatial prepositions are used; however, the Japanese translations may omit the equivalent postposition particles naka (for in) and ue (for on) in preference for the non-specific particle ni and verb notte-iru which can be used for transportation.

(3) Jim is in a car to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no car ni notte-iru.

(4) Jim is on a train to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no train ni notte-iru.

(5) Jim is on a motorcycle to Tokyo. Jim wa Tokyo e no motorcycle ni notte-iru.

Relying only on traditional contrastive analysis of linguistic features for these items would not be very effective as English and Japanese do not always have appropriate adposition compliments to compare. If L1 transfer is to take place, we may need to turn to prelinguistic schematic representations for some additional insights.

Image Schema Theory

As an addition to traditional contrastive analysis of linguistic features, variations in prelinguistic conceptual image schema can also be used to illustrate their differences. These variations between languages suggest that non-imaginary features may be sufficient to facilitate negative L1 transfer to the TL and cause misunderstandings. In particular, imperceptible spatial qualities in non-prototypical scenes are the most difficult to explain between two languages. These subtle differences between image schema provide an approach by which explicit instruction facilitates learners’ comprehension of many complicated prototypical and non-prototypical features of spatial prepositional usages. Simply, the greater the difference in image schema between languages, the more difficult the spatial interpretations may be for L2 learners. The application of this approach has the potential to uncover many hidden spatial features necessary for L2 learners to improve their understanding of adpositions in any TL.

The Case of In and On for Vehicles

In the case of vehicles, the prepositions in and on can be used to show both simple prototypical spatial relationships indicating inside a container and on a surface, as well as non-prototypical use of in or on a vehicle for the purpose of transportation. To my knowledge, there has only been limited investigation into crosslinguistic analysis of spatial image schema. Therefore, a crosslinguistic comparison of English and Japanese can be used to show examples of how spatial features may be embodied in different languages. Taferner and Yamada’s (in press) grammar test results report correct responses for in/on boat was only 27.5% (see Figure 1 and Figure 2); in the car was 79.6% (see Figure 3); and only 18.0% of the learners had correct answers for all of these items.

Figure 1. There is a boy in the small boat.

Figure 2. There is a boy on the boat.

Figure 3. There is a man in the car.

These results suggest that further research is needed to enhance learners' knowledge of these prepositional usages.

In Table 1, contrastive analysis of the English prepositions in and on for vehicles and the Japanese postposition equivalents naka and ue is shown with their equivalent image schema (i.e., containment, scale, and platform support).

Table 1. Contrastive Analysis of In and On for Vehicles

English explanation

Japanese explanation

(i) in small boat

containment (scale)

ue platform support

(ii) on large boat

platform support (scale)    

ue platform support

(iii) in car

containment (scale)

naka containment

(iv) on train

platform support

ue platform support

(v) on motorcycle     

platform support

ue platform support

From Table 1, it appears that in some cases the non-imageable properties of ground (i.e., vehicles) may be imperceptible to the L2 learner and L1 transfer is likely to shape prelinguistic conceptualization. For items i, and ii, in and on is used for different boat categories, where the distinction of scale or size of the vehicle (see Landau & Jackendoff, 1993) is important in English but not in Japanese. Item iii, car, further shows scale, which mandates the use of in for small vehicles where the figure (e.g., person) is enclosed or partially enclosed by the ground (e.g., small boat, canoe, car, helicopter). These scalar features of vehicle are likely to be unknown to L2 learners, and thus learners likely rely on other cues such as the English family resemblance of vehicles and/or L1 transfer of the container image schema to this context. This reliance, however, leads to poor performance, as suggested by Taferner and Yamada (in press). Item iv, train, is representative of a typical vehicle used for transportation with an emphasis on platform support. Item v shows that vehicles generally used for individual transportation, emphasize platform support, where there is little or no possibility for figure containment.

Experimental Treatment and Pedagogical Implications

The treatment used for this experiment includes three categories for vehicles:

Category 1: On + Vehicles that you can walk around on

Category 2: In + Vehicles that you cannot walk around on easily

Category 3: On + Vehicles that are usually meant for individual transportation and cannot be entered

Description of each category includes bilingual (English and Japanese) explanations highlighting image schema, three model sentences, and accompanying sketches illustrating figure and ground features. After reading the description of each category, participants make new sentences and sketches of these scenes. These are then shared with classmates and instructor for comments and feedback.

A variation of this treatment of spatial prepositions can be adapted for classroom usage. First, contrastive analysis of L1 and L2 may be conducted to find comprehension difficulties for any prepositional category. If traditional crosslinguistic analysis does not explain why learners are having problems, consider the possibility of differences in image schema as part of the solution. This crosslinguistic image schema differential research on prepositions and the natural extension to adpositions has the potential for a significant contribution to cognitive sciences including cognitive linguistics, psycholinguistics, and second language acquisition (SLA), culminating in more effective L2 classroom pedagogy.


Jamrozik, A., & Gentner, D. (2015). Well-hidden regularities: Abstract uses of in and on retain an aspect of their spatial meaning. Cognitive Science, 39, 1881–1911.

Landau, B. (2018). Learning simple spatial terms: Core and more. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1-24.

Landau, B., & Jackendoff, R. (1993). “What” and “where” in spatial language and spatial cognition. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 217–238.

Mandler, J.M., & Cánovas, C.P. (2014). On defining image schemas. Language and Cognition, 6, 510-523.

Taferner, R.H., & Yamada, J. (in press). Complications in the L2 acquisition of the simple spatial prepositions in and on: Crosslinguistic differences in image schema and family resemblance. Journal of Second Language Studies.

Robert Taferner is an Associate Professor at Hiroshima University, Japan. His research interests include Psycholinguistics and acquisition of prepositions/adpositions through the development of the Crosslinguistic Image Schema Differential (CISD) Hypothesis.


I would like to thank Professor Emeritus Jun Yamada (Hiroshima University) for his guidance and friendship as we explore psycholinguistic and cognitive realms of spatial and temporal adpositions.



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