Theoretical and Research
The Fundamental Role of Input
Bill Van Patten University of Illinois–Chicago
MichaelLeeser Florida State University
How do second language learners construct linguistic systems? This question has been the central concern of L2 research since its contemporary inception (e.g., Corder 1969; Dulay and Burt 1974). For almost forty years we have seen a number of theories address this question. In the early days, creative construction (Dulay, Burt, and Krashen 1982) and the monitor model (e.g., Krashen 1982) dominated discussion. In the 1980s and 1990s an interest in theory construction emerged that stemmed from theories of language such as the universal grammar (UG) approach (e.g., White 1989, 2003), functional approaches (e.g., Pfaff 1987), fusions of linguistic theories with processing theories (e.g., Carroll 2001; Pienemann 1998), and general nativism (e.g., O'Grady 2003). In contradistinction, some theories have taken nonlinguistic approaches that rely more on constructs and theories from psychology such as connectionism (e.g., Ellis 2003) and general skill learning (DeKeyser 1998).1 Other theories are more hybrid in nature, borrowing from psychology, linguistics, and language processing, including work on input processing (e.g., VanPatten 1996,2004a) and interaction (e.g., Gass 1997). Still other theories fall outside of the scope of inquiry of most of these other theories, focusing instead on processes external to the learner, such as sociocultural theory (e.g., Lantolf 2000). Each theory has proponents and critics, each theory has particular domains of inquiry and (in)appropriate evidence for its domain (see, for example, some of the chapters in Lafford and Salaberry 2003, as well as VanPatten and Williams 2006). It is likely that these various approaches will continue to compete for explanatory adequacy in answering the central question: How do learners construct linguistic systems?
To address practical considerations derived from SLA theory and research, then, is a daunting task. One is immediately confronted with, What theory for what purpose? Because theories treat SLA like the Brahmin treated the elephant—each grabbing a different piece of the puzzle and unable to encompass the whole—to latch onto one theory in particular to address instructional issues may or may not be tenable or may lead to different instructional conclusions, depending on the theory. We believe, however, that there is another route to take by asking the following question: Is there something in common to all or most of the theories and research paradigms in SLA? If there is, are there implications for classroom praxis from such a commonality? We believe there is, and that commonality is the fundamental role that input plays in the creation of a linguistic system.
In this chapter, we will review the role of input in SLA and discuss its implications for classroom praxis. We would like to say at the outset that a focus on input for