Problem Solving in a Foreign Language: A Study in Content and Language Integrated Learning

Lena Heine, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010, Pp. xii + 217.

Reviewed by
Greg Rouault

Konan University, Hirao School of Management,

The aim of the book, 11 chapters based on Lena Heine’s PhD thesis, is to investigate how learners mentally deal with content-focused activities in a foreign language by using the concept of problem solving tasks for which subjects do not have any immediate solutions. Through empirical evidence, this valuable contribution provides readers with a better understanding of the role foreign language plays in content and language integrated learning (CLIL) which will be of interest to researchers and instructors in cognitive learning, task-based language teaching, and content-focused courses.

In chapter 1, Heine outlines the CLIL paradox where learners have to acquire the subject content while lacking linguistic competence. Since few studies have focused on the role that second language (L2) plays in mental processes for content learning in CLIL settings, the research presented here seeks to explore that gap. The chapters that follow shed light on the interrelationship between the subject and language side of CLIL learning for better implementation in curriculum, materials, and teaching methods.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of theoretical frameworks, models of linguistic knowledge, and the relationship between language and thought in general and more specifically in problem solving situations. This brief historical look at semantic knowledge, conceptual knowledge, cognitive psychology, and social experiences situates the study in the literature and foreshadows the approach used in analyzing the empirical data presented later in chapter 9. The author concludes that although the coding of thought is not bound to language, there is a role for language in building abstract knowledge categories.

In chapter 3, Heine introduces problem solving on a continuum for information processing. Cognitive activity is outlined as neurological processes and in a decomposition of the sub-processes the author defines thinking as “situation-specific activation and construction of different semantic relationships between pieces of information in memory” (p. 26). Solving meaning-focused tasks involves a cumulative sequence of cognitive processes, using more complex, abstract, situation-specific thinking in activating and constructing relations between the reconstruction of knowledge stored in memory and the construction of new knowledge. Content-focused tasks are said to elicit problem solving since specific information, which is not available at the beginning of the process, needs to be constructed.

The relationship to CLIL is made more evident in chapter 4 where Heine argues for a distinction between cognitive processes focused on form (language specific processes) and those focused on meaning (content-specific). She evaluates previous linguistic conceptualizations to arrive at her own model featuring content and language dimensions equally. Chapter 5 introduces Heine’s model of conceptual-linguistic task solving also used in coding her empirical data as shown in chapter 8. The implementation of this model is clarified in chapter 6 which outlines the set of six elicitation tasks designed to answer if and how the foreign language impacts on the cognitive processing of content by being applicable to both bilingual and monolingual learners.

Chapter 7 introduces the think-aloud method used to get at the mental processes involved in the task-solving activities. Chapter 8 features the coding of the empirical data. Chapter 9 provides transcriptions which present the cognitive patterns manifested in the think-aloud data. In this chapter, the analysis of and critical thoughts on the data lead to the author’s hypotheses about the role of the L2 in problem solving on linguistic-rhetorical and conceptual dimensions In chapter 10, the protocols are triangulated with students’ written answers and interview data collected from each student as part of the validation process of the think-aloud method. Chapter 11 summarizes the theoretical model and validation of the think-aloud method. The author also provides implications for the design of learning with CLIL and its content complexity with L2.

Across these chapters, the author does more than a competent job of delineating the steps taken in her research to arrive at the effects of foreign language use in the process of problem solving, making this an approachable and readable monograph. The structure of the volume outlined in Chapter 1 and the useful summaries at the end of each chapter provide access to dip into and review the theoretical underpinnings, empirical methods, or results without needing to digest the well-laid out sequence of the document cover to cover. In a volume largely on cognitive processes, the author is mindful to not overlook how these are embedded in social contexts. In her provocative final remarks, Heine also notes the challenge for research to identify causal relationships between teaching methods and learning.

Given the sub-title, the publication would have done well to make the link between problem solving tasks in the L2 and CLIL more retrievable. Aside from the overview in the first chapter, the index shows only five mentions of CLIL with pages 185-187 on the implications for the design of learning contexts of most significant interest to readers of this Special Edition of the Asian EFL Journal. Unfortunately, not accounted for in the index under CLIL are (a) Table 7 (p. 147) on the deeper semantic processing of CLIL learners, (b) the hypotheses drawn on pages 153 and 159, (c) the assertion on page 157 that “the decoding difficulties of the CLIL learners do not lead to larger problems in processing the content” (all repeated in the summary of empirical results on pages 183-184), or (d) the interview questions and response excerpts on pages 170-171. Further, given the author’s assumption on p. 62 that “automatic activation of linguistic knowledge is not to be regarded as problem solving … [because it does not] tie up cognitive capacities,” the absence of Skehan (1998) as a reference with his analysis of task in terms of code complexity, cognitive complexity (familiarity and processing), and communicative stress is a curious omission. Also the missing reference on page 2 to Garcia (2009) for an international perspective on bilingual education is rather unfortunate as are some non-word spelling mistakes on pages 89 and 178, and a word form error on p. 51.

These shortcomings aside, classroom practitioners and researchers in cognition and tasks alike can find merit in the approach Heine has taken in her in-depth research into the effects of foreign language use on the cognitive processes of meaning-focused problem solving.

The volume successfully meets the aim of contributing to the understanding of how learners deal with content-focused activities while using a foreign language.


Garcia, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Skehan, P. (1998). A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Greg Rouault is a lecturer at Konan University in the Hirao School of Management, Nishinomiya, Japan. He has taught in Japan for over 14 years in a variety of contexts, most recently working with content-based instruction, academic skills, and English for Specific Purposes. His research interests include language and literacy development through brain-based learning, extensive reading, and genre-based writing tasks.