About the Program-Modern Languages - Carnegie Mellon University

About the Second Language Acquisition Ph.D. Program

The goal of the graduate program in SLA is to create independent and insightful researchers capable of using analytical and empirical methods to illuminate and understand the acquisition, use, and maintenance of second languages.

Cross-linguistic Emphasis

The first distinctive characteristic of the graduate program is a strong commitment to cross-linguistic and cross-cultural research. To date, the SLA research agenda has been driven largely by issues in the acquisition of English as a second language (ESL), and developments in theory based on empirical results from ESL studies. This program broadens the focus by encouraging research in the context of multiple languages and the training of scholars to carry this out.

Admission to the program will require a level of proficiency in at least one language other than English that will allow incoming students to do substantive research in that language.

Interdisciplinary Orientation

The second defining characteristic is an interdisciplinary research program based in the Department of Modern Languages. The strong tradition of interdisciplinary research at Carnegie Mellon, coupled with the world-class quality of the related programs, makes Carnegie Mellon a natural setting for the SLA graduate program. The SLA doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon encompasses cognitive, linguistic, social, and instructional perspectives, as well as the interaction among these perspectives. These core areas of research draw on the strengths of faculty in Modern Languages, Psychology, English, and Philosophy. Students are also encouraged to interact with faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, particularly those in the departments of Linguistics and Instruction & Learning, and those affiliated with the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC).

The SLA program draws on areas related to SLA in these other departments and programs. Courses in these related areas will provide the student with a background in the methodology and theories of areas which inform the multidisciplinary field of SLA.

  • Linguistic Analysis
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cross-Cultural Issues
  • Issues In Rhetoric, Literacy, and Pedagogy

Students are also expected to seek appropriate training in statistical methods, in accordance with the particular area of SLA that they choose for their dissertation research.

SLA Research Base

The program has a major commitment to a research infrastructure that facilitates rigorous quantitative and qualitative work. In an environment distinctive among SLA graduate programs, the undergraduate language courses and related extracurricular and overseas programs serve as laboratory settings for research. This gives graduate students and faculty structured access to learners, and provides language learners with exposure to language learning research. The close working relationship between graduate research and undergraduate instruction serves to enhance both the teaching and research missions of the department. The integration of research and instruction provides a controlled setting for data collection, an ongoing source of examination, and evaluation of instructional processes and outcomes.

Research Program

The SLA doctoral program encompasses two major categories of research which draw on the strengths of faculty in Modern Languages and other departments.

  • Second Language Literacy: Reading and Writing
  • Contexts of Learning: Classroom, Immersion, Study Abroad, and Virtual Settings

Comparative Advantage of Work at Carnegie Mellon

The doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon provides hands-on training through research collaboration with faculty, as well as unique opportunities to join research with teaching. Our faculty have established local, national, and international partnerships with numerous colleagues interested in these same questions. Study in our department affords students the opportunity to share in such partnerships and to develop the expertise to conduct individual research that furthers insights into and understanding of these areas.

Career Prospects

Graduates of the program will have the skills and knowledge required to be successful in second language-related fields in academia, business, and government. We expect most individuals completing the program to seek a career in academia. However, graduates of our program will be desirable candidates for teaching and research positions in both academic and non-academic programs. The number of such programs is growing worldwide. Increasingly, departments of Modern Languages seek scholars trained in second languages with expertise in SLA. In addition, there are numerous opportunities in the fields of business, technology, and government as growing global interdependence in economic, political, and cultural spheres increases the need for trained individuals who can play leadership roles in the private and public institutions that mediate this process.

Graduation Requirements

The M.A./Ph.D. in SLA consists of four years of course work, an M.A. thesis, a Ph.D. comprehensive examination, and a Ph.D. dissertation. Although the M.A. degree is offered as a step toward the Ph.D., the program does not accept students for the M.A. only. However, students with a previously-earned M.A. in SLA or a related field can bypass the M.A. and enter only for the Ph.D.


Students will complete two years of interdisciplinary coursework for the M.A., which includes a broad base in SLA theory, analysis of language, research methodology, and research experience. Students are expected to enroll full time (36 units) during the semesters they are working toward the degree. The Graduate Program Advisor and the Graduate Committee will review previous M.A.-level coursework for approval to bypass the M.A. Students earning the M.A. at Carnegie Mellon can transfer toward this degree no more than four courses taken prior to enrollment at Carnegie Mellon. Chosen in consultation with the advisor, two additional years of coursework will follow the M.A. thesis.

Students entering with an approved M.A. should expect to enroll in the core SLA courses with other entering students and must complete a university residence requirement of a minimum of four semesters of full-time coursework. Previous coursework cannot be transferred in lieu of Ph.D. requirements.

Language Teaching

As part of the training in SLA, all students are expected to teach one language course per semester at Carnegie Mellon while working toward their degree.

M.A. Thesis

Students will complete (or will have completed) an M.A. thesis that is comparable to a publishable research paper on a chosen topic.

Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination

The student will submit to the examination committee for approval a reading list covering three of the four areas of SLA research: instructional issues in SLA, linguistic approaches to SLA, cognitive aspects of SLA, and social and cultural issues in SLA. One of the areas selected will be designated as the primary area, normally the one in which the student plans to conduct dissertation research. The student will complete a written examination containing questions covering the three selected areas. Part of the examination may involve the analysis of data and, following the exam, the committee may conduct an oral examination to clarify the content.


The student will select a dissertation committee comprised of no less than three members: a committee chair from within the department, and two additional members (one may be from outside the department or university). This committee will convene to approve the proposal no later than the end of the eighth semester. The committee chair will schedule a defense upon satisfactory completion of the dissertation.

Research Seminar

The Graduate Research Seminar provides a forum designed to keep faculty and students abreast of current SLA research in the department and in the field. While progressing through the program, all students are expected to participate in the research seminar through presentations and discussion.

Study Abroad

The department strongly encourages students to participate in exchange programs at language acquisition research centers abroad.