What is Second Language Acquisition?

Second language acquisition (SLA) is a multidisciplinary field whose goal is to understand the processes that underlie the learning of a non-native language. SLA draws from a variety of academic disciplines, among them linguistics, psychology, psycholinguistics, sociology, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, and education.

Overview of the Doctoral Program

The Ph.D. in SLA is an interdisciplinary degree offered by FLARE (Foreign Language Acquisition Research and Education). Students interested in the Ph.D. must have completed the M.A. in an appropriate field (e.g., Linguistics, Foreign Language Education, TESOL / ESL) or have equivalent academic experience. Admission is for the fall semester and students are admitted on a full-time basis only.

The Ph.D. in SLA offered by FLARE focuses on languages other than English. Prospective students interested in working with English (EFL / ESL) should investigate University of Iowa Ph.D. programs in Linguistics and Foreign Languages and ESL Education.

Students may pursue their interdisciplinary interests in courses offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Departments of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature, French and Italian, German, Linguistics, Rhetoric, Spanish and Portuguese, and Communication Sciences and Disorders, and the College of Education, Departments of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations and Teaching and Learning. There are more than 20 associated faculty members in these and other departments with whom students may study.

All students in the SLA doctoral program take courses in SLA theory, multimedia, research methods, language learning and linguistics (see degree requirements).  In addition, each student defines an area of specialization, in consultation with his or her advisor. The two broad areas of specialization are Language Learning and Post-Secondary Education, and Linguistics and Psycholinguistics. Students working in the first area are interested in issues where SLA and pedagogy converge. Some examples of areas of interest in this specialization include classroom discourse, assessment, and the acquisition of grammatical knowledge in the classroom context. Within this area students may also focus on aspects of technology and how it facilitates second language acquisition. Students in the Linguistics/Psycholinguistics specialization are interested in studying areas of formal linguistics (e.g., syntax, phonology, morphology) and / or applied linguistics issues related to their particular second language focus. Sample student projects and foci within this area of SLA include the acquisition of the syntactic structures and / or phonological features of a second language, and generative and cognitive approaches to explaining acquisition. Students working within psycholinguistics may also focus on the relationship between language processing and language acquisition.

FLARE’s students, like their professors, represent a broad range of research interests. Students who graduate from FLARE are independent thinkers who are capable of critically exploring and investigating a wide array of phenomena related to the processes of Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Similarly, FLARE students take different paths to get to The University of Iowa. Some have entered the program after completing an M.A. here, while others begin their life in Iowa City when they start their coursework for their Ph.D. in SLA.

The University of Iowa offers a rich and productive context for the study of SLA. The University Library contains more than two million volumes. Holdings in areas related to SLA are excellent, affording a wide range of opportunities for research. A state-of-the-art Center for Language and Culture Learning provides facilities for language learning at all levels, as well as support for research on technology-enhanced learning.

Degree Requirements

The Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition requires 72 s.h., including a maximum of 33 s.h. earned in work toward the master's degree. The required curriculum includes 14 courses, including two required foundation courses, three courses in the area of research methods, two courses in the area of language learning, 2 courses in the area of linguistics, and five courses in the student’s area of specialization.  Students may specialize in Language Learning and Post-Secondary Education (including within this specialization a focus on technology in language acquisition and learning) or in Linguistics and Psycholinguistic Approaches to Second Language Acquisition, focusing on phonetics/phonology or on syntax in a particular second language.

The Ph.D. degree in Second Language Acquisition is a research-oriented degree. Beyond the course work requirements, the Ph.D. requires successful completion and defense of a dissertation representing original research in second language acquisition.

Listed below are the general categories of coursework required to earn the degree; for more specific information on courses, curriculum, and requirements of the Doctor in Philosophy in Second Language Acquisition, visit the UI General Catalog.


Admission to the Second Language Acquisition (Ph.D.) program is limited. Before completing an application, we invite you to contact the department for more information.

Applicants must meet the Graduate College's requirements for admission to graduate study; see the Manual of Rules and Regulations of the Graduate College or the Graduate College section catalog. More information regarding admissions may be found on the FLARE Graduate Admissions Process page or The University of Iowa's Graduate Admissions page.

Strong applicants hold a master’s degree in a related area, have a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.50 in work toward the master’s degree, and speak and write English and another language at a professional level.

Important Deadlines

Application Deadline: January 15