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491266

2013
SLR29410.1177/0267658313491266Second Language ResearchYoung-Scholten

second
language
Article research

Second Language Research

Low-educated immigrants and 29(4) 441454


The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0267658313491266
language acquisition research slr.sagepub.com

Martha Young-Scholten
Newcastle University, UK

Abstract
Since the 1980s decoupling of the formal study of second language acquisition from pedagogical
concerns, the social relevance of such research has been of little concern. Early studies, in the
1970s, of uninstructed adult learners acquisition of morphosyntax pointed to social implications:
these working class immigrants had varying levels of schooling, and it turned out that those
with the least education made the slowest progress. With a shift in interest to consideration
of poverty of the stimulus effects, researchers no longer needed to rely on adults who were
uninstructed in the second language (L2) while immersed in the target language. Reliance on easy-
to-recruit middle-class secondary school and university participants has had the unintended
consequence of diminishing the attention paid to socially excluded adult L2 learners. This has
left a range of language-external factors unaddressed in second language acquisition (SLA) at the
international level; however, at the local level, interest in the language acquisition and literacy
development of adult immigrants has risen along with increased immigration by adults with little or
no native language schooling. These adults face considerable challenges in acquiring the linguistic
competence and literacy skills that support participation in the economic and social life of their
new communities. Those who teach such adults have very little SLA research to refer to in dealing
with increasingly politicized policies and worsening provision. A return to the type of studies
conducted in West Germany and the rest of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s would serve this
population of learners well.

Keywords
adults, naturalistic, SLA

IIntroduction
What social benefits does research on the representation of language in the second lan-
guage learners mind confer on the learners studied? Against a backdrop of well-studied

Corresponding author:
Martha Young-Scholten, English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Percy Building,
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK.
Email: martha.young-scholten@newcastle.ac.uk
442 Second Language Research 29(4)

foreign language learners with primarily instrumental reasons for learning an L2, there
exists a population of low-educated adult immigrants who have received relatively little
attention over the last several decades for whom successful acquisition of a second lan-
guage and literacy in that language has far-reaching social benefits.1
Four decades ago when second language acquisition (SLA)2 began to emerge as a field
of inquiry in its own right and ceased to be a branch of foreign language pedagogy, such
learners were the focus of several major studies. In the 1970s and early 1980s, a series of
publications emerged from a radical new line of research whose focus was on the most
disadvantaged of all L2 learners: working class adult immigrants past the age of compul-
sory schooling. In West Germany and other northern European countries post-Second-
World-War labour shortages led to recruitment of unskilled/semi-skilled temporary
workers from southern Europe, Morocco and Turkey. Visas were for limited stays and L2
classes were therefore not offered. The study of these uninstructed or naturalistic L2
learners planted seeds for socially relevant research on the acquisition of linguistic com-
petence,3 but these seeds have never properly germinated in generative SLA. Those out-
side of generative SLA circles express similar views, e.g. Ortega argues that instructed
SLA has much to gain when good basic research is inspired by societal and educational
concerns (Ortega, 2005: 432).
If language is an organ, socially-inspired language acquisition research makes no more
sense than socially-inspired research on the human heart. Under strong modularity in
generative SLA, the acquisition of linguistic competence is unaffected by non-linguistic
factors; see, for example, Schwartz, 1993. Research becomes socially relevant when there
are populations of particular interest. Just as there are populations of interest to medical
researchers, there may be populations of interest to generative SLA researchers. The aim
in the present article is to argue for a re-focusing of attention on a population whose acqui-
sition is closely tied to certain non-linguistic variables. Because this population has suf-
fered from long-term neglect among researchers, generative SLA is currently less socially
relevant than it was some 40 years ago. This is unfortunate because in post-industrialized
countries there are now many more adults who fit the profile of those studied in 1970s
West Germany. In formal linguistics-based SLA in general not just in generative SLA
little attention has been paid to such learners, and we therefore know much less about
the L2 acquisition of this population in comparison to what we know about educated, mid-
dle class learners. Lack of a research base on this population has serious consequences for
these L2 learners, who often fail to develop sufficient language and numeracy skills for
living wage employment and participation in society. Nations around the world contra-
vene Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights that Everyone has the right to free,
basic education by limiting the quantity and failing to control the quality of adult basic
education for low-educated adults who immigrate past the age of compulsory schooling.
When asked which classroom practices have been shown to be most useful for such learn-
ers, clear answers are not forthcoming. There is too little systematic research.4 One reason
for this research gap is that generative SLA has long been freed of the need to provide
practical implications of study findings. Basic research need not involve searching for
relevance social or otherwise and researchers will not direct their attention to a popula-
tion of learners simply because their lives might be improved by participation in studies.
Research must also be relevant to SLA theory.
Young-Scholten 443

When it comes to social relevance, the situation is dire and likely to get worse as cli-
mate change produces more refugees from poor low-lying countries with inadequate edu-
cation. In 2005, the UN Millennium Development Goals Report (United Nations, 2005)
reported that over 115 million children worldwide were not enrolled in school, a situation
predicted to worsen due to HIV-AIDS-related decline in teacher numbers and school
attendance. When some of these individuals become refugees, one third will at some point
immigrate to a highly literate country (Refugee Council UK). It then falls on host coun-
tries to address the educational needs of children, adolescents and adults who have little
or no native language literacy. In post-industrialized countries, literacy level is closely tied
to the economic productivity of that country (Coulombe etal., 2004), and lack of literacy
(and numeracy) to social exclusion, poor health, young parenthood, childrens poor school
performance, increased likelihood of bearing learning-disabled children, and criminality
(Bynner, 2001; Dalglish, 1982). Based on immigrants self-reported second language pro-
ficiency data, Dustmann and van Soest (2002) conclude that oral L2 skills allowing com-
munication with members of the adopted country is probably the most important single
alterable factor contributing to their social and economic integration (2002: 473). Low-
educated adults are the least equipped of all immigrants to be able to communicate with
members of their adopted communities.
The existence of adult uninstructed L2 learners in the 1970s/1980s was serendipitous
and symbiotic: before the introduction of UG and the poverty of the stimulus in the 1980s,
studies sought to eliminate the variable of instruction for a more valid comparison of child
and adult learners. The German research (eg Clahsen and Muysken, (1986, 1989), which
drew on longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of uninstructed adults from Italy,
Portugal, Spain and Turkey, intensified an on-going debate on the interpretation of paths
of development for first language (L1) children and uninstructed L2 adults. However, for
the past several decades, investigation of poverty of the stimulus effects (see, for example,
Schwartz and Sprouse, 2013) to demonstrate post-puberty operation of universal gram-
mar has obviated the need for naturalistic adult learners as a population of research inter-
est. Our assumptions about low-educated adult immigrants L2 acquisition are, however,
based on studies in which non-linguistic factors that vary for this population such as lit-
eracy were not isolated. In addressing two issues of current interest the status of func-
tional morphology and access to L2 functional features absent from the learners L1
research can benefit from a reconsideration of naturalistic adult learners without class-
room exposure to the L2 prior to arrival. For example, we know little about the acquisition
of tense by wholly naturalistic Chinese learners of English. Ab initio naturalistic learners
might display fundamentally different patterns in their mental representation of tense dur-
ing acquisition when compared with the instructed Chinese learners studied thus far.
In what follows I review four publications that point to an unbroken line of research
that is inherently interesting and socially relevant in its inclusion of non-linguistic factors
but which has borne little fruit since the 1970s. These publications are: one of the German
reports on the Heidelberger Pidgin Project, Kurvers in-depth study of non-literate immi-
grant adults (the first such study) in the Netherlands; Tarone, Bigelow and Hansens simi-
lar study of non-literate immigrant adults in the USA; the most recent issue of a journal in
Spain entirely devoted to reporting on research and pedagogical practice with respect to
immigrants. There is method in this selection: these publications represent nearly four
444 Second Language Research 29(4)

decades of research on low-literate adult immigrants, much of which has not appeared in
English. The authors of these publications were not pressed to more widely disseminate
their findings because relevance is to those who teach their native language to L2 adults.
This, I hope, will be a clarion call for those pondering unresolved questions to consider
the role of external variables. Social relevance and research relevance might, as in the
1970s, again enjoy a symbiotic relationship in generative SLA.
The non-linguistic variable considered in these publications, namely literacy, is one that
has received less attention in SLA in general than have, for example, motivation, attitude,
personality or learning style. Without more research it will remain unclear how literacy
might operate on the acquisition of linguistic competence. I conclude this review article with
reference to the Low-Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (LESLLA)
forum, established in 2005, whose aim is to encourage more research that addresses the dual
concerns of research and social relevance, and whose main activities are an annual sympo-
sium and proceedings. At present, there is far too little basic research to speak of application
of research findings to the much-needed improvement of educational provision for low-
educated immigrant adults in their quest to develop the skills that will allow them to partici-
pate fully in the economic and social life of their adopted communities.

II Research on uninstructed adult immigrants


Becker etal. (1977) describe the results of the earliest study the Heidelberger Pidgin
Projekt of uninstructed adult immigrant learners of German. The study and its title
was motivated by the idea that the many migrant workers in West Germany might be
developing a pidgin (as it turned out, they did not), given large numbers of workers who
had been recruited to fill labor shortages, e.g. 1977: Italy (267,000), Spain (104,000),
Greece (169,000), Yugoslavia (377,000) and Turkey (516,000). The study was cross-sec-
tional and involved 24 Italian- and 24 Spanish-speaking foreign workers in Germany (16
male/8 female L1 Italian; 16 male/8 female L1 Spanish), all over 18 years old. The research-
ers categorized the participants by period of residence: up to 2 years, 24 years, 46 years
and more than 6 years. Directed conversation techniques were used to elicit oral data and,
on the basis of 100 successive utterances produced by each learner for analysis, the team
placed them into four proficiency groups. The study included a control group whose per-
formance on these measures was mirrored by the highest L2 group. The lowest group
produced utterances without a finite element, a main verb or a subject. Analysis of the data
reveals the common developmental progression of morphosyntax that has been corrobo-
rated by various studies since; see summary in Vainikka and Young-Scholten (2011).
However, some of the lower literate learners in the study appear to take side routes not
followed by the more educated learners. Level II speaker Tom A illustrates a pattern fol-
lowed by learners with similar educational profiles where modals were used to mark tense.

(1) Ich muss gesehen (= yo lo he visto I have seen it) Tom A, L1 Spanish
I must see-past
(Ich habe das/es gesehen.)
I saw that/it.
Young-Scholten 445

Becker etal. suggest the overgeneralization of muss is due to its frequency of use in the
workplace, but a common pattern of such overgeneralization is also found in more recent
data from a Dutch corpus of low-educated adult immigrants oral production compiled by
van de Craats and colleagues. The data show overgeneralization of a functional element
auxiliaries this time to mark functions in a non-target manner. Without further research,
it will remain unclear which of the factors proposed accounts for these patterns.
The adults in the Heidelberg study were manual workers with at least some primary
school education who were socially, politically and linguistically isolated. This project
was the first to demonstrate that (apart from the sub-stage mentioned above), naturalistic
adult learners do not behave idiosyncratically but rather stages of acquisition are more or
less common for all learners, and they pass through them in a well-defined path (1977:
45; translation, MYS). But in comparing proficiency level to length of residence and other
non-linguistic factors, learners rate of development was found to vary. Variation in rate
after the first 2 years of residence was accounted for by type of job, location of residence,
intensity of contact with German speakers, family status, mobility, sex, age at immigra-
tion, attitudes and amount of formal education. For those with higher levels of education,
the relationship between schooling and linguistic competence was no longer linear; how-
ever, those learners who did not finish primary school belonged overwhelmingly to the
lowest proficiency group.
Adding to the accumulating wealth of information on instructed, middle-class learners,
several other large-scale cross-sectional as well as longitudinal studies in the 1970s and
1980s in Germany and elsewhere also investigated the linguistic competence of immi-
grant adults. These included Cancino etal.s (1978) 10-month longitudinal study of
Spanish learners of English (2 children, 2 adolescents and 2 adults), the German ZISA
study of speakers of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish (12 adults over 2 years; 45 adults in
a cross-sectional design) in Germany (see Clahsen etal. 1983) and the 1980s 30-month
longitudinal ESF (European Science Foundation) project of 40 adult speakers of 6 native
languages learning 5 Europe L2s. By 2001, Hawkins could state that second language
learners follow a common path in their development of morphosyntax regardless of age
of initial exposure, native language, input or educational background.
In the early 1980s, social factors were no longer being integrated into accounts of the
L2 acquisition of morphosyntax, and while generative SLA researchers were not denying
their importance, they were of minor interest for this research program since [they] can,
at best, explain what is seen as individual variation (Nicholas and Meisel, 1983: 81). If
social and other non-linguistic factors can explain individual variation, this would be no
small accomplishment. While sociocultural research does consider such factors, they are,
however, not considered in relation to how language is represented in the mind (e.g. Firth
and Wagner, 1997). Factors such as socio-economic stratum and literacy might well deter-
mine how far an individual learner progresses on a common, narrow path. There is indeed
evidence from various studies that low socio-economic stratum immigrants tend to remain
at the earliest attested stage of development; e.g. Klein and Perdues (1997) Basic Variety.
Literacy has rarely been directly investigated. Where participants are reported to have had
only limited education, literacy levels, particularly in the native language, were not deter-
mined. This is unfortunate. While the ZISA study established a common route of acquisi-
tion for all the learners studied, learners were additionally placed into two groups
446 Second Language Research 29(4)

depending on whether they (over-)supplied or omitted functional morphemes.5 It is pos-


sible that level of literacy was a decisive factor (see Tarone etal., 2009).

III Low-educated adults cognitive development:


Kurvers (2002)
The acquisition of literacy in an alphabetic script is a metalinguistic activity that requires
a sophisticated level of awareness. Literacy, along with vocabulary, are main determinants
of initial progress in reading as is syntactic competence for later progress in literacy (see,
for example, Goswami and Bryant, 1990; Morais etal., 1979; Ycesan Durgunolu and
Verhoeven, 1998). In her 2002 book Met ongeletterde ogen [With non-literate eyes],
Kurvers takes up a topic later addressed in Tarone etal. (2009): are non-literate adults a
different population from literates? While there is plentiful research on school-age immi-
grants (with studies often revealing a lag for such children in comparison to their native-
speaking peers), there is far less on adult immigrants. The study on which Kurvers book
focuses examined various aspects of the metalinguistic awareness of unschooled adults (n
= 25), low-educated (4 years of primary school) literate adults
(n = 23) and pre-reading children (n = 24) from Moroccan Arabic, Papiamento (Curaao),
Somali, Sranan Tongo (Surinam), Tarafit Berber and Turkish language backgrounds to
address the question of whether age or education determines metalinguistic awareness.
The non-literate adults had less than 2 years of primary education and could only sight
read some words learned from attending Dutch literacy classes for between 46 hours a
week. The literate adults could read and write simple texts either in their native or second
language, but had no more than 6 years of primary schooling. The children were in their
last term of pre-school. All had lived in the Netherlands between 120 years and most
were female.
The test battery included a range of tasks to measure syllable rhyme awareness, word
awareness, and word and sentence segmentation. The tasks were translated into the learn-
ers native languages and conducted either in one of these languages or in Dutch, depend-
ing on the participants dominant language, which was Dutch for some in the literate adult
group. Statistical analysis showed that only for the word judgment tasks could the results
not be aggregated over languages (Dutch vs. the other languages), and thus the results
refer to data in either the L1 or L2. The non-literate adults differed significantly from the
literate adults in all language-awareness tasks, and the children from the literates but not
from the non-literate adults in nearly all word tasks. On the rhyme tasks, the scores of the
non-literate adults were low compared to those of the children and literate adults. Incorrect
responses on the rhyme production task showed that non-literates produced responses
indicating onset awareness (alliteration); judgment of rhymes, however, showed no inter-
group differences. Compared to the children and the adult literates, non-literate adults
struggled with word segmentation, word referent differentiation (naming qualities of
something when its name changed). For word length judgment and for sentence segmen-
tation, children and non-literates patterned together. The results from the latter task have
interesting implications for acquisition of morphosyntax: the non-literate adults seg-
mented on the basis of content rather than form, and did not isolate function words. The
children, however, often segmented based on syllable boundaries. Kurvers concludes that
Young-Scholten 447

literacy makes more of a difference than age: there were more differences between liter-
ate and non-literate adults than there were between the non-literate children and the
non-literate adults. This suggests that while literates are a somewhat different population,
age is no barrier. Indeed, studies by Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) and by Young-
Scholten and Naeb (2010) point to low-literate adults development of phonological
awareness along the same lines as pre-school childrens (for immigrants in the USA and
UK with native language backgrounds including Dari, Farsi, Kurdish, Mipuri, Panjabi,
Pushto, Tamil, Tigrinia, Vietnamese and Urdu).
Patterns of adult immigrants pre-literacy development are similar to those observed
for young L1 children. There is one crucial difference between children learning to read
for the first time and low-educated adult immigrants learning to read for the first time. The
former have acquired much of the morphosyntax and phonology of their language, and
they already have a sizeable lexicon. While there is variation in the rate at which low-
educated adult immigrants acquire linguistic competence in their second language, low
levels correlate strongly with undeveloped basic reading skills. In Young-Scholten and
Strom, the Vietnamese and Somali adults who were at the lowest stage of Organic
Grammar, namely the Bare VP stage (see, for example, Vainikka and Young-Scholten,
2011), in English, could not read simple texts or decode familiar words in isolation.
These studies findings led to a further question: if these adults possess the cognitive
capacity to learn to read for the first time, in a second language, how long will this take?
Kurvers etal. (2010) investigated how many classroom hours an uneducated, non-lit-
erate adult immigrant requires to reach the lowest Basic User Level (A1) of the Common
European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2001) and to demonstrate the
ability to read short and simple texts on familiar topics. The study examined the achieve-
ment of 322 students from 39 countries of whom 80% were women and 61.3% had expe-
rienced no schooling prior to immigration and found considerable heterogeneity in
reaching A1, from 300 hours to 2,700 hours. Kurvers etal.s study corroborated what
Condelli etal. (2003) found in their study of 495 adult immigrants in classrooms in seven
US states: learner success is tied to varied opportunities for active, individual and relevant
learning in the classroom. Among the significant extra-classroom variables in the Kurvers
et al. study was contact with Dutch native speakers.
In considering factors that might contribute to rate of development, Kurvers etal. are
rendered nearly speechless when it comes to the observed individual variation: it is tremen-
dous and they caution against introducing achievement benchmarks tied to programme
funding (2010: 77). Kurvers etal. further note lack of understanding by outsiders of such
learners educational needs and complex profiles (including learning disabilities and trauma)
and the implications this has for current stringent residence and citizenship requirements in
the Netherlands. Kurvers and other studies in Europe have led to a promising development:
inclusion of sub-A1 CEF levels to capture development. In the Netherlands, these are
Literacy A and B (see Janssen-van Dieten, 2006; Stockmann, 2006); see the Low-Educated
Second Language and Literacy Acquisition proceedings for information on levels in other
European countries and similar use of benchmarking in North America (http://www.leslla.
org). Establishment of these levels is tied to the governmental allocation of funding for
immigrants basic skills education. If attaining a level equates to achieving a qualification,
this might secure funding in countries such as the UK where adult education is
448 Second Language Research 29(4)

qualifications-driven. Applying basic research in this manner does not require re-prioritizing
research aims. Rather, it entails carrying out research on a population who stands to benefit
when more is known about their language and literacy development. What we need is for
practitioners and policy makers to be more accurately informed in their expectations about
the learning of these individuals in the same way that Lightbowns (1985) Great
Expectations article served to do this for L2 learners in general.

IV Literacy and the acquisition of morphosyntax


Where Kurvers and colleagues look at the development of metalinguistic awareness in
relation to literacy, Tarone etal. (2009) consider how literacy might influence the acquisi-
tion of linguistic competence. This line of research is likely to be of greater interest in
generative SLA. One long-standing issue is the post-puberty operation of UG and a rela-
tively recent issue the L2 learners initial state (see Schwartz and Sprouse, 1996). Neither
has been investigated in any great depth with non-literate immigrant adults. We assume
that the operation of UG in L2 acquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with literacy: if
UG operates similarly in children and adults, literacy is irrelevant; see Vainikka and
Young-Scholten (2007). That literacy is not a relevant source of initial state knowledge for
acquisition of L2 linguistic competence is also assumed. Whether literacy affects acquisi-
tion of linguistic competence is a testable hypothesis which has, however, received little
attention apart from a growing body of research in L2 phonology (on orthographic input,
see, for example, Bassetti, 2009).
In Literacy and oracy, Tarone etal. (2009) note that because we know next to noth-
ing about [non-literate learners] processes of oral second language acquisition and
are forced to base an SLA theory of universal cognitive processes on data drawn only
from literate learners the theory is insufficient (p. 1). Here they point out that in the
USA, the percentage of low-educated, non-literate adult immigrants ranges from 3%
to 15%, depending on age. The book begins with an overview of research on the rela-
tionship of phonological awareness to the development of Roman alphabet literacy and
moves on to summarize recent research on low-literate immigrant adults. The authors
then present their study, the purpose of which was to challenge the idea that conscious
processing plays a major role in the acquisition of morphosyntax for all learners
(Schmidts 1990 Noticing Hypothesis) in the context of question formation (see, for
example, Pienemann and Johnston, 1987). A larger study included 35 participants, but
those who were of particular interest were 8 Somali immigrants between the ages of 15
and 27 who had been in the USA between 37 years. Their oral proficiency was estab-
lished as ranging between 3050 on the SPEAK test; there were no significant group
differences with respect to this measure. Their L2 English literacy was tested and
established as low or moderate. Only one of the participants (in the low group)
had had any schooling (7 years) prior to immigration. The test battery was oral and
comprised spot-the-difference story completion, story recall and elicited imitation
tasks. The authors also included a task that operationalizes the notion of noticing: if a
learner is consciously aware of the inaccuracy of what he or she has just produced, he
or she will accurately repeat the interlocutors correct recast. Results for question
recasts showed that those with moderate literacy were significantly better at recalling
Young-Scholten 449

and accurately repeating recasts. Length of utterance did not turn out to be significant
for either the low or moderate literate group. Analysis of data from the story retelling
task also showed that verbs erroneously lacking inflection were significantly more
frequent in low literates oral production (50% of the time) than moderate literates
(36%.) The authors conclude that alphabetic literacy has an undeniable effect on the
acquisition of L2 morphosyntax.6 Tarone etal. also ask how working memory capacity
(Gathercole and Baddeley, 1989) might be implicated, and how capacity differences
might relate to development of literacy and acquisition of linguistic competence in
various domains. Addressing these issues with this population has the potential to offer
new perspectives on adult L2 acquisition, but logistic and other challenges must first
be addressed; see Juffs and Rodrguezs (2008) exploratory study.
Like Tarone etal. (2009), Mishra etal. (2012) note the need to question findings based
on studies of middle-class, educated populations, pointing to Henrich etal.s (2010) novel
use of non-literate adult populations in psychology experiments that had heretofore been
conducted only on Western university students. Mishra etal. compared university stu-
dents to low-educated7 adults who were all native speakers of Hindi in Uttar Pradesh.
They measured eye gaze in response to pictures that depicted orally-delivered declaratives
with gender marked adjectives and particles. Unlike the university students, the low-edu-
cated adults did not shift their eye gaze to the target upon hearing the adjective. Mishra
etal. reject as an explanation the idea that speakers grammars differed; rather the tenta-
tive conclusion is that processing is faster for educated individuals and they suggest this
is due to considerable time spent reading.
Dbrowska (2012) is another foray into the relationship between education and lin-
guistic competence which also focuses on native speakers. She argues that sub-university
education is connected to acquisition of grammars which are dissimilar in important ways
to the grammars of more educated members of a speech community, suggesting that the
same reasoning applies to L2 learners. In the keynote special issue in which Dbrowska
appears, the 14 responses most of which take issue with her conclusions turn out to
reveal a marked absence of generative-based research on the relationship of education and
particularly literacy and the acquisition of linguistic competence.
Whether different grammars are acquired and/or processing differs qualitatively or
quantitatively for low-educated non-native vs. non-native-speaking and native-speaking
adults are questions that require both the replication of the above studies as well as newly
designed studies. For low-educated L2 adults, answers are urgently needed. If we find
that processing is simply slower, this means that basic literacy programs must consider
materials used and hours of instruction provided for these learners. If we find that pro-
cessing is not qualitatively different, both learners and practitioners can expect success
with persistence.

V Undiscovered research on low-literate learners


Segundas Lenguas e Inmigiracin (http://segundaslenguaseinmigracion.es) is a relatively
new journal that represents work on the younger and older immigrant population in Spain
and neighbouring Portugal. The existence of Segundas Lenguas e Inmigiracin (likely
unknown to most readers of this journal) serves to underscore two points: first, compared
450 Second Language Research 29(4)

with mainstream SLA and its sociocultural and formal-linguistics-based camps, there is
less protectionism among those who work with the population of low-literate adult immi-
grants. This can be observed in the array of the journals articles whose focus is on coping
with the teaching of both younger and older immigrants from Latin America and for
adults primarily unschooled, from sub-Saharan Africa. Reference is regularly made to
the psycholinguistic aspects of reading development and to the acquisition of linguistic
competence. Second, there is on-going research on naturalistic, low-educated L2 adults of
which mainstream SLA is unaware because the findings appear in languages other than
English, in local journals whose target readership is native-language L2 teachers.
Two examples are lvarez lvarez (2012) and Villanueva Roa and Ramrez
Ortiz (2012) whose articles discuss the training of teachers and development of
materials in relation to what is known about immigrants in Spain among whom are
now Chinese, Moroccan and Senegalese low-educated adults. In Spain as else-
where, there is scant basic research to inform educational practice. Here, however,
there is potential for sharing in this multidisciplinary journal the now considerable
work on the Spanish-speaking population in North America by the researchers
involved.

VI The Low-Educated Second Language and Literacy


Acquisition (LESLLA) forum
The establishment in 2005 of a forum to bring together researchers and practitioners
was motivated by two related concerns mentioned above: (1) little was known about
non-literate adults L2 reading development or about the developmental interaction of
literacy and linguistic competence because (2) little attention was being paid to the
language acquisition and literacy development of un/low-educated adult immigrants in
comparison to that of school-age immigrants (see, for example, Genesee etal., 2006).
The latter have regular opportunities to interact with native L2 speakers; for adult
immigrants who resettle in a post-industrialized society after the age of compulsory
schooling, there is far less native-speaker interaction, and there are fewer educational
opportunities.
Adequate funding for basic skills education for uneducated adult immigrants past
the age of compulsory schooling is not guaranteed in many countries, yet these are
the immigrants who remain on the margins of society. If LESLLAs success can be
measured by hundreds of participants at annual symposia whose venues alternate
between North America and Europe, concern (2) above is being successfully
addressed. However, concern (1) remains: there are few studies of such learners
acquisition of linguistic competence in parallel with their development of literacy.
Hawkins (2001) assertion that L2 learners follow a predictable route of develop-
ment largely independent of among other things type of exposure and educational
background needs to continue to be questioned, treating literacy as a variable. The
potential exists, as noted above, for fresh perspectives on a range of much-debated
issues such as the status of inflectional morphology in the development of L2 syntax
(Prvost and White, 2000) and the role of orthography in the development of L2
phonology (Bassetti, 2009).
Young-Scholten 451

VII Conclusions
The recruitment of low-educated immigrant adults as study participants represents a set of
challenges unfamiliar to researchers who rely on middle-class, educated learners in pri-
mary or secondary schools of university language centres and departments. Generative
SLA researchers can take advice from those who carry out ethnographic studies with
adults from backgrounds very different from the researchers (some of whom are involved
in the LESLLA forum), including those in socio-cultural SLA despite fundamentally dif-
ferent research paradigms. Access, along with ethical approval can be a barrier, but the
more experience researchers have, the more smoothly such processes will go. Bringing
low-educated immigrant adults into generative SLA requires more cooperation with the
wider community than researchers have become used to. But this is what socially relevant
research is all about.

Declaration of conflicting interest


The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-
for-profit sectors.

Notes
1. Use of low-educated refers here to either no schooling or too little schooling to result in lit-
eracy. Some individuals may develop literacy without any schooling and, where this is the case,
researchers will have identified such individuals since researchers routinely measure partici-
pants literacy in the languages they report speaking. Immigrant includes asylum seekers, refu-
gees, economic migrants (both documented and not documented). and those joining spouses/
families.
2. SLA refers to generative SLA unless otherwise stated.
3. Note that not all naturalistic learners are immigrants, and not all immigrants are naturalistic
learners.
4. Despite the existence in post-industrialized countries since the 1970s of migrant workers as well
as immigrants with no written language such as the Hmong, practitioners are still waiting for
basic research to inform classroom practice in connection with more opportunities for special-
ized teacher training (see Farrelly, 2013).
5. Non-/low-literate immigrant adults immersed in the target language can still be referred to as
naturalistic despite the fact that some receive instruction. Instruction cannot draw heavily on
metalinguistic skills because these are less developed (though how developed they are is worth
pursuing further). This suggests that immigrant adults will develop implicit, procedural knowl-
edge rather than explicit, declarative knowledge, or in generative terms they will develop
linguistic competence rather than a system based on general cognition (Krashens 1985 acquisi-
tion/learning distinction; see also Schwartz, 1993).
6. Note that if literacy were connected to L2 success, the youngest (pre-school) L2 children studied
would not succeed, nor would we find near-nativeness for older learners who never developed
literacy in their L2; on post-puberty L2 Arabic learner Julie, see Ioup etal. (1994). Certainly there
exist cases of successful post-puberty L2 acquisition by completely non-literate learners but,
apart from anecdotal accounts such as Hill (1970), I am unaware of any such research.
452 Second Language Research 29(4)

7. The low-educated group had received some primary schooling, but not enough to enable them
to read more than 6.3 words on average out of a list of 96 words.

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