Studies in Second Language Acquisition


(A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition)

Nick C. Ellis a1c1
a1 University of Wales, Bangor
c1 Nick C. Ellis, School of Psychology, University of Wales, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2AS, United Kingdom; e-mail:

This article shows how language processing is intimately tuned to input frequency. Examples are given of frequency effects in the processing of phonology, phonotactics, reading, spelling, lexis, morphosyntax, formulaic language, language comprehension, grammaticality, sentence production, and syntax. The implications of these effects for the representations and developmental sequence of SLA are discussed. Usage-based theories hold that the acquisition of language is exemplar based. It is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them. Determinants of pattern productivity include the power law of practice, cue competition and constraint satisfaction, connectionist learning, and effects of type and token frequency. The regularities of language emerge from experience as categories and prototypical patterns. The typical route of emergence of constructions is from formula, through low-scope pattern, to construction. Frequency plays a large part in explaining sociolinguistic variation and language change. Learners' sensitivity to frequency in all these domains has implications for theories of implicit and explicit learning and their interactions. The review concludes by considering the history of frequency as an explanatory concept in theoretical and applied linguistics, its 40 years of exile, and its necessary reinstatement as a bridging variable that binds the different schools of language acquisition research.