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Authors in the process of writing a book explain what motivated them to
write it, summarize its proposed content and indicate what contribution
they think it will make to Applied Linguistics.
Working memory and second
language learning
Zhisheng Wen Hong Kong Shue Yan University, China
This book introduces a principled approach to incorporating the construct of
working memory (WM) into second language acquisition (SLA) research.
Towards that end, I argue for an integrated framework of WM for SLA that
draws on insights from established WM research in cognitive psychology as
well as initial findings fromSLAstudies looking into the effects of WM. Within
the framework, I also propose a set of general principles that serve as a basis
for further studies probing the WM-SLA nexus. Applying some tenets from
this framework, I report on an empirical study investigating the differential
effects of WM constructs on L2 task-based speech planning and performance,
culminating in forged links bridging WMcomponents and their corresponding
L2 speech performance measures. Further implications of this integrated
framework of WM for SLA are also discussed in the context of “WM as foreign
language aptitude”.
Keywords: working memory, second language acquisition, WM-SLA nexus,
L2 task-based planning research, individual differences, foreign language
aptitude
International Journal of Applied Linguistics

Vol. 22

No. 1

2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Introduction
Given the important role of working memory (WM) in language learning,
recent years have witnessed an increasing number of empirical studies
probing its effects on second language acquisition (SLA). However, due to
a lack of consensus on the conceptualization of the WM construct and its
assessment procedure in SLA, these WM/SLA studies may suffer from some
limitations, which sometimes can lead to caveats in research design and
methodology (Juffs and Harrington, 2011). To overcome some of these
challenges, the present book proposes a principled approach to incorporating
the WM construct into mainstream SLA research. Towards that end, I argue
for an integrated framework of WM for SLA that draws on insights from both
cognitive psychology and SLA research.
As its subtitle denotes (“an integrated framework for theory and
research”), the book is organized in two parts with each addressing issues
related to the theoretical framework itself and its implications for specific SLA
areas. Following the introduction chapter, Part I (“Theoretical background”)
contains four chapters (chapters 2 to 5) that serve to lay the theoretical
foundation for the whole book. In this part, I propose the integrated
framework of WM for SLA by drawing on insights from WM research in
cognitive psychology as well as initial findings from existing SLA research
investigating WM effects.
Part II of the book (“The empirical study”) contains three chapters
(chapters 6 to 8) demonstrating how such a theoretical framework of WM
can shed light on SLA research in specific areas. In particular, it reports on
an empirical study investigating the differential effects of multiple WM
constructs on L2-task-based speech planning and performance, culminating
in forged links that bridge WM components and corresponding L2 speech
performance measures. Finally, chapter 9 concludes the book by adopting the
proposed WM perspective to re-examine the concept of foreign language
aptitude, with a view to placing a final call to incorporate WM as an
individual difference factor in mainstream SLA research. What follows is a
synopsis of the proposed contents of the book.
Working memory theories and language learning: An overview
Though the concept of working memory (WM) can be traced back to as early
as William James’ 1890 demarcation of ‘primary memory’ and ‘secondary
memory’, the most influential model of WM in modern time is that proposed
by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch (1974). In this seminal model of WM,
Baddeley and Hitch abandoned the unitary account of short-term memory
(STM) usually characterized in previous models and postulated instead a
multiple-component system which they labeled WM. WM as conceptualized
in this way subsumes a supervisory attentional system (SAS) and two domain
2

Zhisheng Wen
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
specific slave/buffers (Repovs and Baddeley 2006). The SAS system, that is,
the central executive, is purported to be responsible for various executive
functions such as controlling and allocating attentional resources among
cognitive processes involved in higher level cognition. The phonological loop,
one of the two domain specific slave/buffers, is thought to temporarily store
and hold speech-like information via rehearsal mechanisms while the
visuospatial sketchpad, the other domain-specific slave/buffer, is responsible
for handling visual and spatial information.
Simple as it may appear, this tripartite WM model, since its inception in
1974, has proved to be an extremely useful framework for handling a wide
range of questions regarding higher-level human cognition (Baddeley and
Hitch 2001; Hambrick, Kane, and Engle 2005; Baddeley 2007; 2010). More
importantly, it has served as the catalyst for active research programs in a
whole range of disciplines within cognitive science, making it unequivocally
one of the “100 most influential works in cognitive science” (Conway, Jarrold,
Kane, Miyake, and Towse 2007: Preface).
Baddeley and Hitch’s work on WM is seminal also in the sense that it
triggers considerable enthusiasm towards conceptualizing the WM construct
among many cognitive psychologists with different research perspectives
who subsequently formulate a dozen other models (Miyake and Shah 1999).
These diverse theoretical conceptions of WM have been successfully pooled
together in two collected volumes recently edited by Miyake and colleagues
(Miyake and Shah 1999; Conway et al. 2007). The result of such a research
synthesis has been encouraging in that despite controversies on the source of
individual differences in WM, most current WM models have a lot more in
common concerning the nature of the WM construct. Based on this emerging
consensus, an all-encompassing definition of WM can be derived, which
refers to “those mechanisms or processes that are involved in the control,
regulation, and active maintenance of task-relevant information in the service
of complex cognition” (Miyake and Shah 1999: 450). More importantly, three
characterizations of the WM construct are beyond dispute among these WM
models. First, there is structure in WM (thus rebutting the completely unitary
view). Second, it has limited capacity (though the source of this limited
capacity is still debatable). Third, WM is closely linked to long-term memory
(LTM), thus making it a gateway to LTM.
It is conceivable that such characterizations of WM based on those unified
theories are extremely crucial when the WM construct with its applications
has straddled so widely a whole range of disciplines in cognitive psychology
and cognitive neuroscience (Conway et al. 2007). Such a comprehensive
account has a lot to offer to any inquiry into the role of WM in high-level
cognitive activities. Among the many activities of human cognition, language
is arguably the most complex and most intriguing of all (Gathercole 2007).
Therefore, it is argued that any attempt to investigate the role of WM in
language learning should not ignore these unified characterizations of the
construct of WM. Indeed, numerous studies have looked into the different
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3
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
components and mechanisms of WM and their involvement in various
aspects of language learning (Gathercole and Baddeley 1993; Baddeley 2000a).
Broadly speaking, research efforts pursuing this particular inquiry can be
considered along the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean (also see Andrade 2001;
N. Ellis 2005).
When put into perspective, however, research from these two seemingly
disparate camps (the Britishandthe NorthAmericancamps) is complementary
in nature. The reason for this is that such so-called differences between them
actually arose fromtheir respective foci with a specific component of the same
construct of WM (e.g. the phonological loop for the British Camp vs. the
executive function for the North American Camps), rather than reflecting
fundamental differences in their theoretical stance (Miyake and Shah 1999).
Leaving aside all these differences at the conceptual level, both camps have
pointed unanimously to the important role WM plays in various aspects of
language learning. It is indeedthis muchvaluedconsensus, as I will argue later,
that lends great support to the theoretical framework of WM for SLA.
Working memory measures in cognitive psychology
When WM is viewed as the active workspace where task-relevant processing
and storage activities dynamically take place, it becomes clear that its capacity
should be construed as operational capacity available to individuals that can
be measured (Miyake and Friedman 1998). In terms of measuring WM, many
attempts have been made by cognitive psychologists based on their respective
focus with the individual component of the construct. Among the four
components of WM, the phonological loop (i.e. PWM) and the central
executive (i.e. EWM) are deemed to be the most relevant in language learning
(Gathercole and Baddeley 1993), and they have received the most attention.
In view of these, only measures for the PWM and the EWM will be reviewed
below.
Measuring the phonological component of WM (PWM)
The phonological component (i.e. the PWM, or the phonological loop as
was originally conceived by Baddeley and colleagues) is the most widely
researched component of WM in terms of its effects on language learning
(Gathercole 2006). According to Baddeley and colleagues, this subsystemitself
encompasses a capacity-limited phonological store, limited in the sense that
it holds information only for a short duration (generally believed to be about
2 seconds), and an articulatory rehearsal process (analogous to subvocal/
inner speech) which keeps refreshing this information from decaying. That is
to say, speech encoded into the phonological loop will quickly fade if it is not
immediately rehearsed.
4

Zhisheng Wen
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
In terms of measuring the PWM, the assessment methods have developed
from early days with tasks involving immediate serial recall of numbers (digit
span) or words (wordspan) tothe more recent advent of the nonwordspantask
(Gathercole, Willis, Baddeley, and Emslie 1994; Gathercole 2006), in that the
latter measure approximates the complex nature of the construct of PWM
better. Non-words are formed from a string of letters that do not exist in the
given language but still conform to its phonotactic rules. Nonword span tasks
in turn have two formats in implementation, one being based on recognition
only (the so called nonword recognition span task) while the other is based
on recognition plus repetition (the so called nonword repetition span task).
Among all these methods which purportedly measure the PWM, the nonword
repetition span task stands out as the most researched and the most well-
establishedmethodin cognitive psychology (see Gathercole 2006 for a detailed
keynote article on this issue together with comments from other researchers).
Most relevantly, the advantage of the nonword repetition span task when
compared with the recognition based variant lies in the fact that the latter
obviously does not involve the articulatory processes in the same degree as
the former one or at least not with the same force (Gathercole 2006; also see
Gathercole et al. 1994). It is for this reason that, as I will argue later in the
integrated framework of WM for SLA, the nonword repetition span task
should be a better candidate for measuring the PWM in SLA.
Measuring the executive component of WM (EWM)
The executive component of WM(i.e. the EWM, or the central executive as was
originally conceptualized by Baddeley and colleagues) is the most important
but the least understood component in Baddeley’s early WMmodel (Baddeley
2000a). Baddeley and his colleagues consider it to play various executive
functions, such as co-ordinating the two slave systems, focusing and switching
attention, and activating representations within long-term memory, but claim
that it is not involvedin temporary storage of information (Baddeley andLogie
1999). Later, this storage function is purportedly taken over by a newly
proposedcomponent, namely, the episodic buffer (Baddeley2000b). As already
discussed in the previous section, the consensus reached by various WM
models has been that all groups agreed that there is this homunculus-like
element and its function is to control and allocate/regulate attentional
resources (Miyake and Shah 1999). What follows is a review of some
conventional procedures to measure the EWM.
The most widely recognized EWM measure is Daneman and Carpenter’s
(1980) reading span task, in which subjects need to read aloud increasingly
longer sequences of sentence, and to further state the plausibility of each
sentence. At the end, they also need to recall the final words of all the sentences
in each sequence (Waters and Caplan 2003). For example, at the two-sentence
level (Level 2), participants may be askedto readaloudthe following sentences
(Miyake 2001):
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5
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
a. Due to his gross inadequacies, his position as director was terminated
abruptly.
b. It is possible, of course, that life did not arise on the earth at all.
At the end of this trial, participants are expected to recall the two sentence-
final words, abruptly and all. Results from such reading span tasks have
correlated reasonably high with language comprehension scores (Daneman
and Merikle 1996). In essence, Daneman and Carpenter’s reading span tasks
are different from traditional short-term memory tasks in that they essentially
impose dual-task demands on participants (i.e. simultaneous processing and
storage), thus reflecting the contemporary views on models of WM that
require more than a passive storage of target memory items (Miyake and Shah
1999).
Later, Daneman and Green also developed a spoken version of the reading
span task, i.e. the speaking span task that was ‘modeled after the reading span
test in that it taxed processing while simultaneously imposing a storage
task’ (Daneman and Green 1986: 11). The fundamental difference between
the reading span task and the speaking span task is that the former taxes
comprehension processes while the latter taxes production processes.
Besides the reading span task and its variants (the listening span task, the
speaking span task for example), there is also another equally well-known
measure of EWM in cognitive psychology, namely, the operation span task.
In contrast to the reading span task and its variants that reflect a so-called
domain-specific view on WM, the operation span task was devised from a
domain-general view of WM (Turner and Engle 1989). Such a task normally
involves two processes: (a) mathematical operations; and (b) memorizing
words, in which subjects performsome simple mathematical operations while
maintaining words for later recall (Engle 2001). Though correlations have
been found between the two measures in studies by cognitive psychologists
holding a domain-general view on WM (e.g. Turner and Engle 1989; Engle
et al. 1992), it is argued that the reading span tasks and its variants are more
directly relevant for the integrated framework of WM for SLA in that they
are particularly associated with language processing. This issue relating to the
domain-specificity and domain-generality of WM measures will figure again
in the discussion of the integrated framework itself.
Working memory and SLA: State of the art review
In recent years, an increasing number of SLA researchers (e.g. Harrington
1992; Ellis 1996; 2001; Skehan 1998; Sawyer and Ranta 2001; Mackey, Philp,
Egi, Fujii, and Tatsumi 2002; Juffs 2006; Kormos and Sáfár 2008), have also
become interested in the role of WM in SLA. Drawing on established
cognitive psychology studies investigating the relationship between WM and
L1 learning (such as Gathercole and Baddeley 1993; Baddeley 2000a; 2003),
6

Zhisheng Wen
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
these SLAscholars also subscribe to the viewthat WMplays an important role
in SLA. Such a view is, for a large part, characterized by two theoretical
assumptions derived from the perceivable fundamental difference between
L1 learning and SLA.
On the one hand, some SLA-cum-cognitive-psychology researchers (Nick
Ellis, Brian MacWhinney, and John Williams among others) subscribe to a
connectionist perspective and hold the view that SLA, similar to L1 learning
is in essence a process of learning linguistic sequences or chunks (Ellis 1996).
They further speculate that WM plays an instrumental role in the chunking
process of linguistic sequences, thus placing WM in a critical position for the
acquisition of vocabulary and morpho-syntax (Ellis 1996; Ellis and Sinclair
1996; Williams and Lovatt 2005).
On the other hand, other SLA researchers subscribing to the more
traditional information processing view on language (Harrington 1992;
McLaughlin 1995; Miyake and Friedman 1998), believe that WM plays an
important role in SLA in that SLA processes by contrast are usually
characterized by more controlled processing (as opposed to the more
automatic processing taking place in L1 learning). This kind of controlled
processing, they argue, naturally demands more cognitive resources, thus
relyingmore onWM. Ina similar vein, Skehan(1998; 2002; alsosee Dörnyei and
Skehan 2003) also postulates that different WM components (together with
other aptitude constructs) are functioning distinctively in different stages or
cognitive processes (such as noticing, pattern recognition, automaticity, etc.) of
SLA, thus putting the construct of WM at the very core of SLA.
Drawn from these two arguments, it can be summarized then that similar
to the close relationship between WM and L1 learning (Gathercole and
Baddeley 1993), a certain kind of theoretical association also exists between
WM and SLA. Indeed, such an assumption has motivated some sporadic but
increasing research studies in the SLA field that are devoted specifically to
investigating the WM effects. Mostly, they have emulated the research
paradigms in cognitive psychology to explore the relationship between
various WM components and different aspects of SLA stages or cognitive
processes. This group of WM/SLA studies can be broadly classified into
six categories depending on the specific L2 activities they have targeted
(see Table 1 for more details). Again, preliminary results from them have
been encouraging in that they do seem to corroborate the assumption that
WM plays an essential role in various SLA stages and processes. Pooled
together, these existing WM/SLA studies are lending further support to the
association between WM and SLA.
However, despite this generally positive picture, I need to point out that,
a closer look at these preliminary WM/SLA studies has also revealed some
intractable issues that deserve more caution on the part of SLA researchers
aspiring for this inquiry (see also Juffs and Harrington 2011 for a similar
discussion). These caveats as well as their potential threats to the SLAfield are
discussed below.
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© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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8

Zhisheng Wen
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The first and most imperative issue relates to the confusing use of the term
‘working memory (or WM)’ in the SLAliterature. In this respect, the confusion
emerges from some of these WM/SLA studies when they use the same broad
term of ‘WM’ to actually mean different things, or to be more exact, to mean
different aspects or components of the same construct. Such a practice, it is
further argued, can create formidable difficulties when their results and
findings are to be synthesized for such purposes as conducting a meta-analysis
of WM effects (e.g. Watanabe and Bergsleithner 2006). Of course, a more
detrimental consequence resulting from such inconsistent uses of the three
terms is that it sometimes can lead to methodological pitfalls with WM
measures. For example, the two separate scores of the participants’ PWM and
EWMare combined in some SLAstudies (e.g. Mackey et al. 2002; Winke 2005;
Sagarra 2007) to arrive at a so-called ‘composite Z score of WM’ for statistical
analysis. As far as I see it, there are some worrying elements for this practice.
First, such a composite score may fail to reflect the multiple functions of WM
adequately. Second, it may obscure the distinctive functions of the two WM
constructs (i.e. the PWM and the EWM). Intuitively, even when a person has
high PWM it does not necessarily mean that he/she also has high EWM. Last
but not least, such a practice is not common in cognitive psychology either. For
these reasons, it seems that a clear distinction is desirable for the multiple
components of WM(particularlyPWMandEWM). This becomes one of the key
tenets of the integrated framework of WM for SLA.
If the first caveat is related to theoretical taxonomy at the conceptual level,
then the second caveat inflicting these previous WM/SLA studies relates to
the methodological considerations adopted by some of them. The first issue
here concerns the domain-specificity vs. domain-generality nature of WM
measures. This becomes a particularly more acute issue when SLAresearchers
need to choose among the variant formats of the reading span task from
cognitive psychology. Withsucha wide variety of choices, they may experience
great difficulties in making decisions for a specific WMmeasure. Then there is
also a second issue which concerns the scoring procedures of WM span tasks.
With respect to scoring, based on previous literature on WM research, two
scoring measures have been adopted for WM span tasks (Miyake 2001): first,
the so-called ‘maximum set size’ score, in which the participants are given
credit for a set if they repeated correctly all the items in a set. Besides this, there
is also the so-called ‘total performance score’ in which participants are given
credit for all the items they have successfully recalled. But then, what are the
advantages and disadvantages for these two scoring measures? It is fair to say
that most previous WM/SLAstudies have not addressedthese issues seriously
enough when deciding on the WM measures and scoring procedures to be
implemented (also see Dekeyser and Juffs 2005; Juffs 2006; and Juffs and
Harrington 2011 for a similar argument). In viewof this, it is high time to bring
in a kind of standardized guidelines for SLA researchers to select appropriate
WM measures and scoring procedures. This will translate into another key
tenet of the integrated framework of WM for SLA.
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The third caveat looming in existing WM/SLA studies has to do with
issues related to research designs. Most of these previous WM/SLA studies
have mainly focused on the main effects of WM while ignoring the fact that
there may be other possible effects of WM that are also at play (such as the
interaction effects). In terms of research design, most of them have adopted a
kindof ‘correlational design’. Obviously, ‘correlation’ is not equal to ‘causation’
(McLaughlin 1995; Miyake and Friedman 1998). Though a ‘correlational
design’ can still be helpful in establishing association in the first place, it may
fall short to offer a more satisfactory explanation as to the nature and the
strength of such association. This will then be addressed by the third tenet of
the integrated framework of WM for SLA, which calls for more choices of
rigorous designs in WM/SLA studies that can go beyond the correlational
nature to elucidate the differential effects of WM on various aspects of SLA.
With these three caveats and their potential threats to the exploration of
the WM-SLA nexus, it becomes critically important for the SLA field to have
a principled approach to incorporating WM into its mainstream research.
Towards that end, I now propose an integrated framework of WM for SLA
that draws on insights from both WM research in cognitive psychology and
those initial findings of existing SLA studies.
An integrated framework of WM for SLA
More specifically, the integrated framework thus proposed consists of three
key parts, namely, the definition of WM for SLA, the structure of WM for SLA
as well as the measures of WM for SLA. Within the framework, I also propose
a set of general principles that hopefully can inform the WM-SLA nexus and
serve as a basis for studies probing their relationship.
First, concerning the definition of WM for SLA, it is argued that WM for
SLAbe defined as ‘the limited capacity of multiple mechanisms and processes
in the service of complex L2 activities/tasks’. This definition is rooted in
unified theories of WM as reviewed in the previous section. According to
these unified theories of WM, the most important feature of the construct
lies in its multiple components and mechanisms that facilitate execution of
complex human cognitive activities/tasks (Characterization 1). Based on this
first characterization, it is better to conceptualize WM as comprising multiple
components, subsuming such components as the PWM component and the
EWM component. Also in line with these unified theories of WM, another
characterization of the WMconstruct is its limited capacity (Characterization 2).
Therefore, it is better to conceptualize WM in SLA as possessing limited
capacity, thus exerting some kind of central bottleneck effect in complex
cognitive activities that normally involve more than one sub-task (Ferreira and
Pashler 2002). This implicationmanifests itself inthe so-called‘trade-offs’ effect
evident in many SLA phenomena (Skehan 2009). A third characterization of
WM derived from these unified theories is that WM is closely linked to LTM
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andsometimes evenhelps tomake changes inLTM, thus renderingit a gateway
to LTM (Characterization 3). This again will have significant implications for
SLA.
Second, concerning the structure of WM for SLA, it is suggested that in
WM/SLA studies it is better to focus only on those WM components that are
most directly implicated in the SLA process though not ignoring the effects of
other possible WM components. Based on previous WM research in cognitive
psychology regarding its effects on L1 learning and based on preliminary
WM/SLA research regarding its effects on SLA (Table 1), the phonological
WM component (i.e. PWM) and the executive WM component (i.e. EWM)
become the most obvious candidates. Other components, such as the visuo-
spatial sketchpad or the newly proposed component of the episodic buffer, are
not included here because their direct relevance to SLA has not been firmly
established. For these reasons, I propose in the framework that the structure of
WM for SLA mainly involves the phonological WM (PWM) and the executive
WM (EWM).
Third, concerning measuring WM for SLA, it is suggested that the
nonword repetition span task be used for measuring the PWM component
and the complex memory span tasks (the reading span task and its variants)
for measuring the EWM component. The rationale for this is again based on
insights fromWMresearch in cognitive psychology regarding WMmeasures.
For measuring the PWM, it is generally believed that the nonword repetition
span task is more appropriate than the nonword recognition span task in that
the former engages both purported mechanisms of the construct to a larger
extent (i.e. the phonological store and the articulatory rehearsal) while the
latter fails to represent the articulatory rehearsal function (Gathercole 2006).
On the other hand, it is also suggested that the complex memory span task is
a suitable measure for the EWM in that it purportedly taxes the dual functions
of storage and processing that are subsumed by the executive component of
WM (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Perrig, and Beat 2010).
At this juncture, it is hoped that the above integrated framework of WM
for SLA have taken into account of the theoretical advances in WM research
from cognitive psychology and also successfully incorporated results and
findings from preliminary WM/SLA studies. Provided that such a principled
approachtotheorizingandmeasuringWMfor SLAhas beenfirmlyestablished
and the main engaging WM constructs clearly identified together with their
measurement procedures, the next issue becomes howtoapplythis framework
inactual WM/SLAresearch. Tofacilitate future studies toprobe the WMeffects
in SLA, I further suggest some general principles that hopefully can serve as a
starting point for designing empirical studies to investigate the WM/SLA
nexus.
Principle 1: It is proposed that the constituent components of WM be treated
separately in WM/SLA studies as they are purported to exert distinctive influence
on various aspects of SLA.
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That is tosay, the twoWMconstructs of PWMandEWMidentifiedearlier inthe
integratedframeworkshouldbe treatedseparatelyinfuture WM/SLAstudies.
Building on this principle, it can be further argued that a clear demarcation is
desirable for the three closely related terms of PWM, EWM and WM. In this
regard, it is further proposed that the termPWMshould be used to refer to the
phonological aspect of WM only, and EWM for the executive control aspect of
WM, while WM be used as the umbrella term covering all these specific
components constituting the whole cognitive construct.
Principle 2: It is proposed that a domain-specific view (rather than a domain-
general view) be adopted for constructing complex memory span tasks to measure
the EWM in WM/SLA studies targeting specific L2 activities or L2 sub-skills
(such as L2 listening, speaking, reading and writing).
That is to say, when a WM/SLAstudy is set out to investigate the effects of WM
on a certain L2 sub-skill (e.g. listening, speaking, reading or writing), then it is
better to construct the corresponding domain-specific complex memory span
tasks for measuring the EWM, for example, a listening span task, a speaking
span task, a reading span task or a writing span task. Through this procedure,
it can be expected that the WMmeasure will tax the underlying construct more
closely. Applying this principle, it is not difficult to predict why some previous
WM/SLA studies should have failed to record significant effects of WM on
specific L2 activities; for example, Payne andWhitney (2002) andMizera (2006)
used the reading span task to investigate L2 speech.
Principle 3: It is proposed WM should not be thought of as a dichotomous
variable and should instead be understood as a continuous variable. Therefore, it
is further proposed that a ‘total performance score’ (rather than a ‘maximum set
size score’) should be adopted as the scoring procedure for WM span tasks.
Previously, some WM researchers in cognitive psychology have pointed out
that the total performance score should better approximate a continuous
variable such as the WM span (Miyake 2001; also see Sunderman and Kroll
2009; Rai et al. 2011 for a similar argument). This is particularly so when most
previous studies of WM and language have adopted the psychometric
correlational design, so that a continuous score of WM would be more
appropriate in some statistical analyses (such as correlation analyses and
regression analyses, etc.). For this reason, it is therefore proposed that the
‘total performance score’ be used to represent both the nonword repetition
span task and the domain-specific complex span tasks (e.g. the listening span
task, the speaking span task, the reading span task and the writing span task).
Principle 4: It is proposed that in WM/SLA studies, more possible effects of WM
should be taken into account and a variety of research designs be adopted to
explore their respective effects.
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Obviously, such research designs can be experimental or longitudinal or both
in nature. Most importantly, such designs should incorporate results from
previous SLA research. Then, in terms of WM effects, these can be the main
effects of WM independently, the interaction effects of WM interplaying with
other factors, and/or the threshold effects of WM for a certain L2 activity. The
implicit argument of this principle is that, should some studies fail to identify
the main effects of WMon a certain aspect of SLA, it is not the end of the story
simply because there may be other types of effects at play that should have
been included in the research design.
Working memory and L2 task-based speech planning and
performance: An empirical study
Though the integrated framework of WM for SLA thus proposed above is
intendedtobe applicable for all aspects of SLA, this present bookdemonstrates
its application by focusing first on the specific L2 task-based speech planning
and performance. Such a decision has been made for two obvious reasons. For
one thing, among current SLA research paradigms, L2 task-based planning
research occupies an important position and has recently attracted increasing
attention among SLA researchers (R. Ellis 2005; 2009). For another, some SLA
researchers in this area have also begun to interpret their results and findings
(of planningeffects onL2 task-basedspeech) interms of WMeffect (e.g. Skehan
and Foster 1999; R. Ellis 2005), though empirical studies directly addressing
this issue have been relatively scarce (see Fortkamp 1999 and Guará-Tavares
2008 for two exceptions).
As such, the objective of the empirical study presentedhere was to examine
the effects of WM on L2 task-based speech performance. More specifically,
it was set out to investigate both the main effects of WM (i.e. ‘the internal
resources hypothesis’, SundermanandKroll 2009), andits interactionwithtwo
external factors, namely, pre-task planning and task structure (’the interaction
hypothesis’, Sunderman and Kroll 2009), on different aspects of L2 speech
performance (in terms of fluency, accuracy and complexity).
As such, three independent variables (IVs) were involved. First, following
the tenets of the integrated framework, the WM construct was conceptualized
as comprising multiple mechanisms and was operationalized as consisting of
the PWM and the EWM. Also by following the integrated framework, an
L2-based nonword repetition span task and an L2-specific speaking span task
were adopted to measure the EWM. Second, following well-established
conventions in L2 task-basedplanning research in SLA(e.g. Foster andSkehan
1996; Skehan and Foster 1999), the independent variable of pre-task planning
was operationalized as whether the participants were allowed time to prepare
before they spoke. That is to say, the planners had 10 minutes to prepare
after they finished watching the video prompt, while the nonplanners had to
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begin speaking immediately after they finished watching the video prompt.
Third, the independent variable of task structure was operationalized as
whether the narrative had a clear story plot line (Skehan and Foster 1999), that
is, the structured narrative task had a clear or tight story plot line and the
unstructured task did not have a clear story plot line.
The dependent variables (DV) of the study were eight L2 speech
performance measures adopted from well-established L2 task-based speech
planning research (Foster et al. 2000; Ellis and Barkhuizen 2005; Skehan 2009).
These include words per minute (speech rate), reformulation, false start,
replacement, conventional global accuracy measure (Accuracy Type I), length
of clauses that are producedaccurately(AccuracyType II) (Tavakoli andSkehan
2005), syntactic complexity (Complex) and lexical diversity (D) (Malvern and
Richards 2002; Skehan 2009). In terms of research design, the study adopted a
psychometric between-groups design that has been commonly used in the
cognitive psychology research of WM (see Swets, Desmet, Hambrick, and
Ferreira 2007). Speech samples from 40 participants entered the empirical
study, with 10 participants in each planning condition. All 40 participants
were administered both WM tasks (the nonword repetition span task and the
speaking span task). Subsequently, several rounds of statistical procedures
were conducted to demystify both the main effects and the interaction
effects of both PWM and EWM on L2 task-based speech planning and
performance.
As regards the results and findings of the empirical study, the main effects
of pre-task planning and task structure were both recorded significantly. More
intriguing were the results and findings with the differential effects of the two
WM constructs. Specifically, it was found that PWM particularly advantaged
some speed fluency measures (speech rate and replacement) and the more
conventional measure of global accuracy (Accuracy Type I). EWM, in slight
contrast, seemed to have affected more on repair fluency measures (e.g. false
start and reformulation), and the length of clauses that could be produced
accurately (Accuracy Type II). Finally, it was also found that both PWM and
EWM were sensitive to both the syntactic complexity and the lexical density
(D) measures of the L2 learners’ oral speech. The study thus reiterated that
due to their distinctive effects on different aspects of L2 task-based speech
planning and performance, the two WM constructs (PWM and EWM) should
be distinguished in future WM/SLA studies.
Based on these findings concerning the relationship between the two
WM constructs (PWM and EWM) and the various measures indexing the
three different dimensions of L2 speech (fluency, accuracy and complexity),
theoretical links between them could be forged correspondingly (as shown in
Figure 1). These hypothetical links in turn gave rise to a series of theoretical
proposals for understanding and predicting L2 learners’ speech performance
under different planning conditions and/or task features (Table 2).
Despite their rudimentary and sketchy nature, these theoretical links
clearly demonstrate the distinctive effects of the two WM constructs on
14

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© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
the three dimensions of L2 speech performance, thus providing us with a
clearer view on the attentional limitations of the cognitive mechanism of
WM underlying L2 task-based speech planning and performance. In this
sense, they are lending initial empirical supports to the key tenets of the
integrated framework of WM and SLA by contributing to one aspect of
the WM-SLA nexus, namely, WM and L2 task-based speech planning and
performance.
Conclusion
At this juncture, it is hoped that the empirical study reported in the book has
been able to demonstrate to some extent that the integrated framework of WM
for SLA thus proposed has a lot to offer to applied linguistics. The final
chapters of the book are devoted to discussing specifically how such a
principled approach can shed light on further studies exploring various
aspects of the WM-SLA nexus. For example, building on the empirical study
reported in the book, more research can be conducted to further demystify the
interaction effects of WM constructs (e.g. PWM and EWM) with other
planning conditions (such as task repetition, within-task or on-line planning,
post-task planning, etc.) or other task design features (Tavakoli 2009), on L2
task performance. Equally interesting should be studies identifying the
so-called threshold effects of WM(e.g. Sunderman and Kroll 2009), on various
Table 2. Hypotheses/Proposals for a WM-based L2 speech performance model
WM and Pre-task Planning on L2 Fluency, Accuracy and Complexity
PWM and Planning (time) ,storage/(-) rehearse ,no extra effect from PWM
,if (+) rehearsal allowed ,+ more fluent speech
EWM and Planning (time) ,more resources directed to monitoring
,+more accurate speech
WM and Task Structure on L2 Fluency, Accuracy and Complexity
PWM and Task structure ,structured tasks ,no direct effect from PWM
,unstructured tasks ,effects of the EWM emerges
,+ more accurate speech (accu1)
EWM and Task structure ,structured task ,no direct effect from EWM
,unstructured task ,effects of the EWM emerges
,+ monitoring ,+ more accurate speech (REFOR)
WM, Planning and Task Structure on L2 Fluency, Accuracy and Complexity
,Low PWM L2 learners doing unstructured tasks under the no-planning condition
,worst performance
,High EWM L2 learners doing the structured tasks under the planning condition
,best performance
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Zhisheng Wen
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
task planning conditions in L2 task-based speech planning and performance.
A more specific agenda has been set in the book for research into this
particular aspect of the WM-SLA nexus.
Besides L2 task-based planning research, another SLA area that can
potentially benefit from such a principled approach towards WM is research
into foreign language aptitude. In the light of the tenets from this integrated
framework of WM for SLA the book revisits the concept of foreign language
aptitude by tracing its key developmental milestones, including John Carroll’s
(1990) classical four-factor view and the more recent proposals by Skehan
(2002; and Chan, Skehan and Gong 2011) and Robinson (2005). Such a critical
review culminates in the possibility and feasibility of incorporating WM as a
component of foreign language aptitude. Building on previous SLA research
on aptitude, the book concludes that three (pre)conditions have been satisfied
for WM to be incorporated as foreign language aptitude. First, there are
variations in WMthat are specific to individual L2 learners and such variations
can be measured (by a whole range of WM span tasks). Second, WM plays a
very important role in various SLA stages and cognitive processes and such
effects are constant and pervasive. Third, different components of WM (PWM
andEWMinparticular) are foundto be highlycorrelatedwithdifferent aspects
of L2 performance and development (vocabulary, grammar acquisition) and
with specific L2 skills development (listening, reading, speaking, writing and
interpreting). Given such a central role WMplays in SLAand L2 development,
the book thus makes its ultimate call to the SLA field to reopen the research
agenda of foreignlanguage aptitude byincorporatingWMas the most effective
modification to the existing aptitude construct. Extending from this, the book
goes as far as to call for incorporating WM as an additional member of the
individual difference (ID) factor in SLA. Again, some more specific guidelines
are contained in the book to facilitate WM to make its foray into this broader
stream of SLA research.
To conclude this preview article, it should be clear by now that a
perceivable advantage of this WM-based perspective on SLA research is that
it opens up a new window for us to peer into the nature of cognitive
mechanisms underlying various SLA activities and L2 development. Even
more so, it will allow us to strive for an account of how different IDs (in this
case, WM) can affect different aspects of second language performance. With
more research efforts concerted towards this direction, it is conceivable that
more details will be unveiled with respect to the various links constituting the
WM-SLA nexus.
Acknowledgements
I wish to thank Professor Peter Skehan for his supervision of the empirical study
reported here and for his Foreword written for the book. I am also greatly indebted
to the two anonymous reviewers of this journal for their constructive comments.
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17
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Needless to say, I am solely responsible for all remaining errors and shortcomings of
this preview article.
Note
Zhisheng Wen’s book Working memory and second language learning: An integrated
framework for theory and research will be published by Multilingual Matters in late 2011.
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email: wenzhisheng@hotmail.com [Received 22 July 2011]
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