Is the Second Language Acquisition discipline disintegrating?
Post written by Jan H. Hulstijn, based on an article in Language Teaching
The second language acquisition (SLA) ﬁeld is characterized by a wide variety of issues and theoretical perspectives. Is this a bad thing? Are there signs of disintegration?
In applied linguistics in general, and in particular in the field of SLA, it is not uncommon to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative approaches or between cognitive and socio-cultural approaches. In my view, what is potentially more threatening to the ﬁeld than a split between quantitative and qualitative subﬁelds is the proportion of nonempirical theories. If an academic discipline is characterized by too many nonempirical ideas and too few empirical ideas, it runs the risk of losing credit in the scientiﬁc community at large (and in society).
In this paper, I propose to distinguish, instead, between theories formulated in a way that allows empirical testing and theories that are not, or not yet, empirical in this sense. I am not advocating banishing all nonempirical ideas from the SLA ﬁeld, but what would really make the ﬁeld more transparent for both SLA-ers and outsiders is if scholars who propose theories were to indicate to what extent their theory is ready for empirical scrutiny. It does not matter whether the field of SLA is inhabited by many theories. However, it would be a good thing if we viewed the field not only in terms of the ‘issues’, as do most of the textbooks, but also in terms of their empirical or nonempirical status. This would also help us gain a better view of the agenda of our discipline.
For this purpose, I provide a list of theory-classification criteria. Sticking out my neck, I categorize a number of theories as having a more or less falsfiable status. While welcoming theories not yet ready for empirical falsification, I also express my concern about the possibility that the non-empirical theories may outnumber the theories that lend themselves to falsification.