AAAL 2022 Invited Colloquium

Bringing underrepresented populations into focus in SLA: Opportunities, challenges, and lessons learned


Aline Godfroid (she/her), Michigan State University
Sible Andringa (he/him), University of Amsterdam
Elaine Tarone (she/her), CARLA, GPS Alliance, University of Minnesota


Colloquium abstract

SLA researchers, like many social scientists, tend to rely on research participants that are easy to recruit – convenience samples composed of university students – who generally share an academic background and many life experiences with the researchers themselves (Andringa & Godfroid 2020). Because university students are not representative of the population at large (Andringa 2015), their predominant use in research raises important theoretical, methodological, and ethical questions (Ortega 2005, 2019; Bigelow & Tarone 2004). This colloquium will provide a platform to reflect on the consequences of our sampling biases with researchers who have framed their research agendas around underrepresented groups of second language (L2) learners and who have built expertise in working with and addressing the needs of these underrepresented groups. We will hear perspectives from researchers working with learners in third age (Cox), learners who are adults at emergent levels of literacy in any language (Pettitt), multilingual adults in Sri Lanka (Indrarathne), and multilingual children in Côte d’Ivoire (Zinszer). Together, we will consider the challenges, lessons, and benefits of conducting research with non-academic, underrepresented groups. The colloquium will be guided by the following questions: (1) To what extent has the reliance on convenience samples in SLA skewed theoretical accounts of L2 learning and teaching?; (2) What can we learn from replicating SLA research with underrepresented populations?; (3) Does the field of SLA have the instruments needed to research underrepresented populations?; (4) What is entailed in doing meaningful and ethical research in a underrepresented community as an outsider?; (5) To what extent can SLA theory address the practical needs and questions of those working with underrepresented groups? The discussant (Tarone) will weave together recurring themes and lead the way for an open discussion and reflection with the audience. This colloquium is a part of the SLA for All? initiative (Andringa & Godfroid 2020).



Welcome and introduction

Godfroid & Andringa

10 min

1. SLA in third age


15 + 5 min

2. Literacy and language learning


15 + 5 min

3. Multilingual research in Sri Lanka


15 + 5 min

4. Multilingual research in Côte d’Ivoire


15 + 5 min



10 min

Discussion with audience

All presenters

20 min


Incorporating older adults into SLA research: Who, why, and how

Jessica G. Cox (she/her), Franklin and Marshall College



Relying on samples of university students has constrained theories of adult SLA to the language learning of a narrow population that excludes many adult learners and learning contexts. Older adults (often defined as aged 60+, although there is no definitive cutoff between life stages) are a growing demographic in many societies, including in language classrooms, and likely differ from young adults in cognitive abilities, accumulated experience in one or more languages, motivations for language learning, and more (Cox 2020). Thus, they will not have the same expectations for or experiences in the language classroom. Additionally, studies of older adults may illuminate effects of learning or knowing multiple languages specific to older ages, such as on physical well-being (Ihle et al. 2020).

While there are now several studies that investigate older adult learners, there is much left to explore because older adult populations can be even more heterogeneous than young adults. There are also multiple distinct situations in which an older adult might undertake language study, from migrating to a country where a different language is the dominant one to learning a new language as a retiree who uses the majority language of their region (Cox 2020). Older adults may study on their own or take a class, which might or might not include learners from other age groups (Cox 2020). Thus, there are multifaceted connections between language, social contexts and interactions, and cognition that will vary for different groups of older learners (Pot et al. 2019). 

This presentation will discuss relevant SLA theoretical frameworks, considerations for working with older adults for researchers not of the same age group who may or may not share cultural identities, and potential limitations. The importance, both scientifically and societally, of studying older adult learners outweighs the additional effort needed to do so.


Epistemological legitimacy in SLA: What’s literacy got to do with it?

Nicole Pettitt (she/her), Youngstown State University, Ohio



It has been nearly 20 years since Bigelow and Tarone (2004) asked, “Doesn’t who we study determine what we know?” thus beginning to shed light on questions surrounding the L2 learning of adults at emergent levels of reading and writing in any language, including their home and community languages. Many of these adults were denied ongoing access to formal, school-based learning in their home communities or communities of migration due to injustices such as war, forced migration, social unrest, internal displacement, economic precarity, climate disasters, gendered norms surrounding schooling, some combination of these, and more (Bigelow & Schwarz 2010). This paper revisits early and more recent scholarship with this learner population to engage with questions such as: What is meant by “literacy”? In what ways do scholars believe “literacy” may shape L2 learning? How have emerging scholars in particular pushed methodological, theoretical, and epistemological boundaries to expand knowledge in this area of L2 research? What lessons can be gleaned from their work, as well as from the dilemmas and tensions they faced as de facto outsiders and new researchers? What is (not) lost when L2 adult emergent readers and writers are excluded from language education research? More broadly, this paper asks us to consider Ortega’s (2012) call to “interrogate the moral ends of our research, thus probing the social value and educational relevance of what we choose to investigate and of the knowledge we generate” (p. 207) by examining the mechanisms and mechanics of epistemological legitimacy construction in SLA, including how SLA knowledge is constructed (i.e., what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for making an SLA knowledge claim), who is a legitimate “knower,” and who decides?


Doing SLA research in South Asia: Possibilities and challenges

Bimali Indrarathne, University of York



South Asia is home to one fourth of the world population and English enjoys a prestigious place in the region due to its colonial roots. English is mostly spoken as a second language in South Asia and in almost all countries in the region it is taught in schools, probably as the most important second language. Apart from English, there are several other second/foreign languages taught and spoken within the region. Although teaching and learning L2 has been given such prominence in the region and there is a huge participant base which can provide rich data, SLA research based in South Asian contexts is scarce, particularly in reputed academic publications. This indicates that approximately 15%-20% of L2 speakers in the world are underrepresented in SLA research. This also indicates that some of the adverse L2 teaching and learning conditions common in the region in terms of lack of resources and trained practitioners have also been underrepresented in SLA research. Therefore, the existing SLA research and theoretical accounts may not provide a true picture of the classroom realities apparent in the region.

In this talk, I will draw on my experience of conducting SLA research in South Asia and discuss how the SLA field can expand its scope to the participant base in the region. Particularly, I will highlight what works well in either replicating SLA research or implementing new projects in terms of securing participants and getting research assistance. I will also discuss the challenges an SLA researcher would face in doing so, such as accessing sophisticated equipment, going through unclear local ethical procedures and handling influences of local academic culture and how established links with the region and understanding local culture would help them overcome barriers.

Non-linguistic statistical learning and SLA: Potential for greater inclusivity and limitations of current methods

Benjamin Zinszer (he/him/his), Swarthmore College


Fabrice Tanoh, Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny


Hermann Akpe, Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny


Kaja Jasińska, University of Toronto



Many children around the world undertake second language acquisition (SLA) as a simultaneous challenge with their first steps towards literacy. Primary education is often conducted partly or entirely in a language different from the dominant language of the community or family (e.g., Kenya: Jasinska et al. 2019; South Africa: Schaefer & Kotze 2019; China: Feng & Adamson 2019; USA: August & Shanahan 2006). In these cases, children’s progress from oral language to print skills to literacy occurs simultaneously and in an SLA context.

Our literacy research in Côte d’Ivoire — where mastery of an L2 (French) is central to primary education — has revealed new methodological challenges, and we are, in turn, adapting experimental designs for children outside the laboratories and classrooms of high-income communities. This talk focuses mainly on statistical learning (SL), tested in a simple paradigm where infants, children, and adults can all learn probabilistic relationships underlying sequences of non-linguistic stimuli, such as cartoon images. In the past ten years, statistical learning research in high-income regions has linked performance on SL tasks with children’s first- and adult’s second-language literacy. This connection between SL and literacy offers the possibility of using it as a language-independent measure of individual differences linking research on literacy development over a wider array of linguistic, educational, and cultural contexts.

Across a series of SL experiments and related cognitive measures, we outline the challenges to implementing these common tasks for our research setting and population. Challenges vary from logistical (e.g., electricity infrastructure) to technological (e.g., touchscreen interfaces) to linguistic and cultural (e.g., re-framing typical task instructions). Even a simple, non-linguistic skill like SL has proven sensitive to these factors, and our presentation will describe the methodological changes that have been most effective for our study of SL and literacy in primary schoolers of rural Côte d’Ivoire.

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