Topic 2 – General theories about learning and acquisition of a foreign language. The concept of interlanguage.Error analysis

Topic 2 – General theories about learning and acquisition of a foreign language. The concept of interlanguage.Error analysis



1.1. Aims of the unit.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.


2.1. The nature and origins of foreign language learning.

2.2. The influence of Greek and Latin on foreign language teaching.


3.1. Key issues in language learning.

3.1.1. Acquisition vs learning.

3.1.2. Mother, second, and foreign language.

3.1.3. Competence vs performance.

3.2. General theories on language learning.

3.2.1. First approaches.

3.2.2. Present-day approaches.

3.3. General theories on second language acquisition.

3.3.1. Six theories of Second Language Acquisition. The Acculturation Model. Accommodation Theory. Discourse Theory. The Monitor Model. The Variable Competence Model. The Universal Hypothesis.

3.3.2. The Natural Approach and Language Acquisition. The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis. The Monitor Hypothesis. The Natural Order Hypothesis. The Input Hypothesis. The Affective Filter Hypothesis.

3.3.3. Factors which influence Second Language Acquisition. Language Aptitude. The Role of the First Language. Routines and Patterns. Individual Variation. Age Differences.







1.1. Aims of the unit.

The aim of this study is to provide a thorough account of what is known about the way people learn langua ges. A historical background will give a framework for general theories on learning from its origins to present-day trends, in an attempt to depict the major and minor approaches and theories in language learning. At this point, key issues will be useful to review so as to clarify the nuances between some concepts such as acquisition and learning, or terms such as mother, second, and foreign language within a theory of learning. The same overview approach is used to set the link between a language learning theory and the concept of interlanguage. Furthermore, the treatment of error will be described from ancient roots to present-day trends within a positive framework. According to the learner’s needs, new contributions on a language learning theory are offered through current applied linguistics journals. A final section will conclude with an overview of the development of most influential theories on language learning.

1.2. Notes on bibliography.

Introductions to a historical background to language learning include Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language (1993); David Crystal, Linguistics (1985); and Howatt, A History of English Language Teaching (1984); On approaches to the teaching of English as a foreign language, see Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (1992), and Wilga M. Rivers, Teaching Foreign-Language Skills (1981). An influential introduction to general theories on learning and acquisition of a foreign language, still indispensable, is Krashen, S.D., Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (1981); and Krashen, S. D., and T. D. Terrell, The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom (1983). Among the many general works that incorporate the the concept of interlanguage and error treatment, see especially Corder, S. Error Analysis and Interlanguage (1981a). The most complete record of current publications is the annual supplement of AESLA (Asociación Española de Lingüística Aplicada) and the following collections from Universidad de Alcalá y Universidad de Barcelona respectively, Universidad de Alcalá, La Lingüística Aplicada a finales del Siglo XX.

Ensayos y propuestas (2001); Universidad de Barcelona, Trabajos en Lingüística Aplicada (2001). Bibliographical sources are fully presented at the end of this work.


2.1. The nature and origins of foreign language teaching.

The history of foreign language teaching goes back to the earliest educational systems whose main aim was to teach religion and to promote the traditions of the people. These practices trace back to the temple schools of ancient Egypt where the principles of writing, the sciences, mathematics, and architecture were taught. In ancient India, much of the education was carried on by priests with the Buddhist doctrines that later spread to the Far East.

In ancient China, philosophy, poetry and religion were taught regarding Confucius and other philosophers teachings. The Greeks focused on the state and society in reparing intellectually citizens and the concepts they formulated served in later centuries as the basis for the liberal arts, philosophy, aesthetic ideals, and gymnastic training. Roman education provided the Western world the Latin language, classical literature, engineering, law, and the administration and organization of government.

The ancient Jewish traditions of the Old Testament also played an important role in formation of later education systems. The foundation of Jewish education is the Torah (the Biblical ooks ofmosaic law) and the Talmud, which set forth the aims and methods of education among Jews. Jewish parents were urged by the Talmud to teach their children such subjects as ethics, vocational knowledge, swimming, and a foreign language. During the Middle Ages (15th-16th century), the early educational systems of the nations of the Western world emanated from the Judea-Christian religious traditions, which were combined with traditions derived from ancient Greece philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

2.2. The influence of Greek and Latin on language teaching.

In the context of language teaching and learning, a clear influence of the Greek and Latin language is present. In Greece, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics examined carefully the structure of language as part of the general study of ‘dialectic’. This study had a major influence on  subsequent grammatical thinking which was taken over by the Romans with very little change.

In the sixteenth century the status of Latin changed from a living language that learners needed to be able to read, write in, and speak, to a dead language which was studied as an intellectual exercise (Richards & Rodgers 1992). The analysis of the grammar and rhetoric of Classical Latin became the model language teaching between the 17th and 19th centuries, a time when thought about language teaching crystallized in Europe.

It was not until the eighteenth century that “modern” languages began to enter the curriculum of European schools where they were taught using the same basic procedures that were used for teaching Latin. Still nowadays, many of the features of modern language learning theories can be traced back to this early period, and are considered beneficial legacies from the past.


3.1. Key issues in language learning.

A relevant characteristic of contemporary second and foreign language teaching is the proliferation of approaches, methods and theories so as to search for more efficie nt and effective ways of teaching languages.

Many theories about the learning and teaching of languages have been proposed from a historical perspective, and have been influenced by developments in the fields of linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. The study of these theories and how they influence language teaching today is called applied linguistics . As we have seen in the preceding sections, many of our modern practices find their roots, or at the least are inspired, in the practices of our predecessors.

The extent and importance of the teaching of English as a foreign language, and therefore, the development of language learning theories, make it reasonable to define some key concepts within this issue.

3.1.1. Acquisition vs learning.

These two concepts underlie a theory of learning, and are one of the main tenets of Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition. For him, there are two distinctive ways of developing skills and knowledge (‘competence’) in a second language. Thus, acquisition refers to the “natural” way of picking up a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. This term is used to refer to an unconscious process by which language is acquired similarly as children acquire their first language, and probably second languages as well.

The term learning, by contrast, means having a conscious knowledge about grammar, and conscious rules about a language are developed. In this context, formal teaching and correction of errors are necessary for “learning” to occur. We refer to conscious grammar rules only to make changes when correcting. It is important to bear in mind that learning, according to the theory, cannot lead to acquisition

3.1.2. Mother tongue, second, and foreign language acquisitio n.

In learning languages, a distinction is usually made when referring to mother tongue, second language, and foreign languages. In the seventeenth century, the theologian Jan Amos Komensky (1592 – 1670), commonly known as Comenius, already established a distinction referring to those terms. Thus, he claimed that man fell from his original state due to the loss of the original tongue, at the Tower of Babel. For him, the beginning is the learning of the mother-tongue (first language acquisition); there is no point in learning another language if one has not mastered one’s own. After that, one should learn the languages of one’s neighbours (second language); and only after that should one take on the learning of one of the classic languages, such as Latin, Hebrew, Greek or Arabic (foreign language).

At this point, it is relevant to define these concepts in modern terms. For instance, a mother tongue is considered to be the first language one learns as a child whereas a second language is acquired under the need of learning the language of another country. On the other hand, when languages are acquired in school, it is considered as a foreign language. The acronyms ESL and EFL stand for the learning of English as a Second and as a Foreign Language.

3.1.3. Competence vs performance.

A distinction is often made between competence and performance in the study of language. According to Chomsky (1965), competence consists of the mental representation of linguistic rules which constitute the speaker-hearer’s internalized grammar whereas performance consists of the comprehension and production of language. Language acquisition studies –both first and second- are interested in how competence is developed. However, because second language acquisition focuses on performance, there is no evidence for what is going on inside the learner’s head. This is one of the major weaknesses of second language acquisition research.

3.2. General theories on language learning.

3.2.1. First approaches.

From a historical perspective foreign language learning has always been an important practical concern. Whereas today English is the world’s most widely studied foreign language, five hundred years ago it was Latin, for it was the dominant language of education, commerce, religion, and government in the Western world. In the mid- late nineteenth century, opportunities for communication increased among Europeans and there was a high demand for oral proficiency in foreign languages.

Second language learning has always tended to follow in the footsteps of first language acquisition and, in fact, throughout the history of language teaching, we find several attempts to make second language learning more like first language learning. The importance of meaning in learning, and the interest on how children learn languages as a model for language teaching were the first approaches to a language learning theory. Thus, if we trace back to the sixteenth century, we find out that the Frenchman ontaigne described his own experience on learning Latin for the first years of his life as a process here he was exclusively addressed in Latin by a German tutor. In the nineteenth century, he was followed by individual language teaching specialists like the renchman C. Marcel, the Englishman T. Prendergast, and the Frenchman F. Gouin (Howatt 1984).

Prendergast was one of the first to record the observation of children in speaking, Followed by Gouin, one of the best known representatives of language teaching due to his observations of children’s use of language. In 1880 Gouin attempted to build a methodology around observation of child language learning when publishing L’art d’enseigner et d’étudier les langues, which turned out to be a total failure. However, his turning to observations of how children learn a second language is one of the most impressive personal testimonials in the recorded annals of language learning.

Attempts to develop teaching principles from observation of child language learning were made but these new ideas were not sufficient within the educational movement at that time. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, the interests of reform-minded language teachers, and linguists, coincided and first attempts to language learning theories were to be taken into consideration.

3.2.2. Present-day approaches.

Regarding the learning of languages, three main theories have approached, from different perspectives, the question of how language is learnt. Thus, behaviorism mphasizes the essential role of the environment in the process of language learning whereas mentalist theories give priority to the learners’ innate characteristics from a cognitive and psychological approach. A third approach claims for relevant concepts such as a comprehensible input and a native speaker interaction in conversations for students to acquire the new language.

Hence, mentalist accounts of language acquisition originated in the rejection of behaviorist explanations of. Chomsky emphasized the role of mental processes rather than the contribution of the environment in the language acquisition process. This “Chomskian revolution” initially gave rise to eclecticism in teaching, but it has more recently led to two main branches of teaching approaches: the humanistic approaches based on the charismatic teaching of one person, and content-based communicative approaches, which try to incorporate what has been learned in recent years about the need for active learner participation, about appropriate language input, nd about communication as a human activity.

Following Richards & Rodgers (1992), prominent figures in this field, such as Stephen Krashen, Tracy D. Terrell, and Noam Chomsky developed the language learning theories which are the source of principles in language teaching nowadays. A psycholinguistic and cognitive approach is necessary to understand learning processes, such as habit formation, induction, inferencing, hypothesis testing, and generalization..

The advances in cognitive science and educational psychology made by Jean iaget and Lev Semenovic h Vygotsky in the first half of the century strongly influenced language teaching theory in the 1960s and 1970s. Their theories were intended to explain the ineffectiveness of the traditional prescriptive and mechanistic approaches to language teaching and later serve as a basis for the new natural-communicative approaches. Beginning in the 1950s, Noam Chomsky and his followers challenged previous assumptions about language structure and language learning, taking the position that language is creative (not memorized), and rule governed (not based on habit), and that universal phenomena of the human mind underlie all language.

In addition to Chomsky’s generativism, new trends favoring more humanistic views and putting a greater focus on the learner and on social interaction, gave way to the Natural (USA) and Communicative (England) approaches. Psychologist Charles Curran’s Community Language Learning and Krashen’s and Terrell’s Natural Approach (in the 1980s) are very representative of this latest trend in language teaching.Stephen Krashen and Tracy D. Terrell have proposed ideas that have nfluenced language teaching. Thus, Krashen studied the way that chil dren learn language and applied it to adult language learning. He proposed the Input Hypothesis , which states that language is acquired by using comprehensible input (the language that one hears in the environment) which is slightly beyond the learner’s present proficiency. Learners use the comprehensible input to deduce rules. Krashen’s views on language teaching have given rise to a number of changes in language teaching, including a de-emphasis on the teaching of grammatical rules and a greater emphasis on trying to teach language to adults in the way that children learn language. While Krashen’s theories are not universally accepted, they have had an influence.

Most recently, there has been also a significant shift toward greater attention to reading and writing as a complement of listening and speaking, based on a new awareness of significant differences between spoken and written languages, and on the notion that dealing with language involves an interaction between the text on the one hand, and the culturally-based world knowledge and experientially-based learning of the receiver on the other.

3.3. General theories on second language acquisition.

According to Ellis (1985), second language acquisition is a complex process, involving many interrelated factors. The term ‘Second language acquisition’ (SLA) refers to the subconscious or conscious processes by which a language other than the mother tongue is learnt in a natural or a tutored setting. It covers the development of phonology, lexis, grammar, and pragmatic knowledge, but has been largely confined to morphosyntax.

According to research in this field, it is thought that acquisition can take place only when peopleunderstand messages in the target language, focusing on what rather than how it is said. There areaffective prerequisites to acquisition such as a positive orientation to speakers of the language, and at least some degree of self-confidence, as well as a silent period before any real spoken fluency develops. The amount of skills and know ledge, called competence, will be acquired through input, and certainly the initial production will not be very accurate. The study of SLA is directed at accounting for the learner’s competence but in order to do so has set out to investigate empirically how a learner performs when he or she uses a second language.

3.3.1. Six theories of Second Language Acquisition. The Acculturation Model.

The term “acculturation” is defined as ‘the process of becoming adapted to a new culture’ (Ellis1985). This is an important aspect of Second Language Acquisition since language is one of the most observable expressions of culture and because in second language settings, the acquisition of a new language is seen as tied to the way in which the learner’s community and the target language community view each other. A central premise on this model is that a learner will control the degree to which he acquires the second language. Accommodation Theory.

This theory derives from the research of Giles and focuses on the uses of language in multilingual communities such as Britain. It operates within a socio-psychological framework and its primary concern is to investigate how intergroup uses of language reflect basic social and psychological attitudes in interethnic communication. Discourse Theory.

This theory is proposed by Halliday (1975) and his view of first language acquisition. It derives from Hymes’s description of communicative competence in which communication is treated as the matrix of linguistic knowledge. Hence, language development should be considered in terms of how the learner discovers the meaning potential of language by participating in communication. Halliday shows in a study how his own child acquired language and puts forward that the development of the formal linguistic devices for basic language grows out of the interpersonal uses to which language is put. One of its main principles is that there is a ‘natural’ route in syntactical development. The Monitor Model.

Krashen’s Monitor Model is one of the most prominent and comprehensive of existing theories in second language acquisition. It is an account on language-learner variability within the framework of the Monitor Model. It consists of five central hypotheses, and related to them, a number of factors which influence second language acquisition. Although this model will be discussed in next sections, we will offer a brief account of it.

The five hypotheses are first, the acquisition- learning hypothesis where the terms acquired’ and ‘learnt’ are defined as subconscious and conscious study of language; secondly, the atural order hypothesis which affirms that grammatical structures are ‘acquired’ in a predictable order; thirdly, the monitor hypothesis, where the monitor is the device that learners use to edit their language performance; fourth, the input hypothesis by which ‘acquisition’ takes place as a result of the learner having understood input a little beyond the current level of his competence; and inally, the affective filter hypothesis, where the filter controls how much input the learner comes into contact with, and how much is converted into intake. The term affective deals with motivation, self- confidence, or anxiety state factors (Ellis 1985). This theory will be approached in detail in the following section. The Variable Competence Model.

This model is proposed by Ellis (1984) and extends on the work of Tarone and ialystok. It claims that the way a language is learnt is a reflection of the way it is used. Therefore, two distinctions form the basis for this model, one refers to the process of language use, and the other to the product.

The product of language use deals with unplanned and planned discourse. Unplanned discourse is related to the lack of preparation or forethought, and also to spontaneous communication. On the other hand, planned discourse requires conscious thought and gives priority to expression rather than thought. The process of language use is to be understood in terms of rules and procedures, that is, linguistic knowledge and the ability to make use of this knowledge. (Ellis 1985) The Universal Hypothesis.

In the words of Ellis (1985), this hypothesis states that second language acquisition is determined by certain linguistic universals. Those working on this tradition argue that there is a Universal Grammar that constrains the kind of hypotheses that the learner can form and that it is innate. The relationship between Universal Grammar and acquisition of the first language is, in fact, a necessary one, as Chomsky’s primary justification for Universal Grammar is that it provides the only way of accounting for how children are able to learn their mother tongue.

3.3.2. The Natural Approach and Language Acquisition.

In 1977, a teacher of Spanish, Tracy Terrell, and an applied linguist, Stephen Krashen, both from California, developed a language teaching proposal that incorporated the statements of the principles and practices of second language acquisition. In their book, The Natural Approach (1983), we find theoretical sections prepared by Krashen and sections on classroom procedures, prepared by Terrell.

Their method focuses on teaching communicative abilities and the primacy of meaning, following a communicative approach. Since they see communication as the primary function of language, they rejected earlier methods of language teaching which viewed grammar as the central component.

Krashen and Terrell’s view of language consists of lexical items, structures, and messages.

This method has been identified with “traditional” approaches based on the use of language in communicative situations without recourse to the native language. The term “natural” refers to the principles of language learning in young children in the Natural Method, and similarly in Krashen and Terrell’s principles found in successful second language acquisition.

However, the fact that the Natural Approach was related to the older Natural Method does not meanthat they are synonymous terms. In fact, the Natural Method became known as the irect Methodby the turn of the century. Although they share the same tradition and the same term “natural”, there are important differences between them. Thus the Direct Method places emphasis on teacher monologues, direct repetition, and formal questions and answers, focusing on accurate production of target language sentences. In the Natural Approach there is an emphasis on exposure, or input, rather than practice, that is, what the language learners hear before they try to produce language. Moreover, there is an emphasis on the central role of comprehension (Richards & Rodgers (1992).

The theory of the Natural Approach is grounded on Krashen’s views of language acquisition, which is based on scientific studies (Krashen and Terrell 1983). Therefore it is relevant to present first, the fourth principles on which this theory is based on, and then, the five hypotheses that account for this method.

The first principle is that comprehension precedes production. The second general principle accounts for production to emerge in stages, where students are not forced to speak before they are ready. The third general principle is that the course syllabus consists of communicative goals, organizing classroom activities by topics, not grammatical structures. The final principle is that activities must foster a lowering of the affective filter of the students, encouraging them to express their ideas, opinions, emotions and feeling. A good atmosphere must be created by the instructor. The five hypotheses represent the principal tenets of Krashen’s theory and are examined in the next section. The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis.

The Acquisition-Learning distinction is the most fundamental of all the hypotheses in Krashen’s theory and the most widely known among linguists and language practitioners. The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis claims that there are two independent systems of second language performance: the acquired system and the learned system. Acquisition refers to a natural and subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language in order to develop a language proficiency. Speakers are, then, concentrated not in the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act through a meaningful interaction in the target language or natural communication.

According to Krashen (1983), learning refers to a process of conscious rules for meaningful communication which results in conscious knowledge about the language. This proa non natural way, as a product of formal instruction. According to Krashen ‘learning’ is less important than ‘acquisition’. The Monitor Hypothesis.

The Monitor Hypothesis emphasizes the role of grammar, as the learned knowledge to correct ourselves when we communicate, but through conscious learning, in both first and in second languages. This may happen before we actually speak or write. However, the Monitor use itself is limited to three specific requirements. Thus, the performer first, has to have enough time to think about rules; secondly, the learner has to focus on form , on what rather than how; and finally, the learner has to know the rule.

According to Krashen (1983), the role of the monitor should be used only to correct deviations fromspeech and to polish its appearance. Hence, it appears that the role of conscious learning is somewhat limited in second language performance.

It appears that the role of conscious learning is somewhat limited in second language performance.

According to Krashen, the role of the monitor is – or should be – minor, being used only to correct deviations from ‘normal’ speech and to give speech a more ‘polished’ appearance. Krashen, then, establishes an individual variation analysis among language learners regarding their monitor use. The Natural Order Hypothesis.

According to the Natural Order Hypothesis, the acquisition of grammatical structures takes place in a predictable order in which errors are signs of naturalistic developmental processes. This order seems to be independent of the learners’ age, first language background, conditions of exposure, and although the agreement between individual acquirers was not statistically similar. All these features reinforced the existence of a natural order of language acquisition.

In general, certain structures tend to be acquired early such as grammatical morphemes, or “function words” and others to be acquired late such as the third person singular orpheme or the ‘s possessive marker. However, Krashen (1983) points out that this hypothesis is not a language program syllabus, and in fact, he rejects grammatical sequencing when the goal is language acquisition. The Input Hypothesis.

The Input Hypothesis is Krashen’s explanation of how second language acquisition takes place, and is only concerned with acquisition , not learning. This hypothesis points out the relationship between the learner’s input and the language acquisition process, where the speaking fluency emerges after the acquirer has built up competence through comprehending input. This hypothesis claims that listening comprehension and reading are of primary importance in a language program, and that speaking fluently in a second language come on its own with time.

According to this hypothesis, learners improve and progress along the natural order when receiving second language input. Since not all of the learners can be at the same level of linguistic competence at the same time, Krashen (1983) suggests that natural communicative input is the key to designing a syllabus, ensuring in this way that each learner will receive the appropriate input for their current stage of linguistic competence. The Affective Filter Hypothesis.

In the Affective Filter Hypothesis, Krashen (1983) gives a framework to the learner’s emotional state or attitudes that may pass, impede, or block the necessary input to acquisition. These affective variables are usually related to success in second language acquisition and they contribute to the concept of “low affective filter”. Among the positive variables, we may include motivation, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety. It means that the performer is open to input, and that having the right attitudes, such as confidence and encouragement, second language acquisition will be a complete success.

On the contrary, low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to raise theaffective filter and form a mental block that prevents comprehensible input from being used foracquisition. In other words, when the filter is up, it impedes language acquisition.

3.3.3. Factors which influence second language acquisition.

The five hypothesis seen in the preceding section form the core of the second language acquisition theory that underlies the Natural Approach. We will consider now the implication of the theory to several issues such as second language “aptitude”, the role of the first language, the role of routines and patterns, individual variation, and age differences in second language rate and attainment (Krashen & Terrell 1983). Second Language Aptitude.

Supported by empirical studies, the idea of second language aptitude is related to rapid progress in second language classes, and for those students that have th is aptitude, a better performance in foreign language classes. The speed of learning is measured by grammar-type tests that involve a conscious awareness of language, where the ability to consciously “figure out” grammar rules will lead students to success. Aptitude differences play a large role if grammatical accuracy is emphasized. The Role of the First Language.

The role of the first language in second language performance is closely related to the term interference, which can recast as a learner ‘strategy’ (Corder 1981). This concept implies that second language acquisition (SLA) is strongly influenced by the learner’s first language (L1) when we try to speak a second language (L2).

It was claimed that there is a “fall back” on first language grammatical competence when students have to produce in second language. It should not be thought, according to Krashen (1983) that any approach will completely eliminate this mode of production. When students try to express themselves in the target language beyond their acquired ability, they will tend to fall back on the L1.

During the last decades, there has been considerable disagreement among researchers about the extent of the role of L1 due to behaviorist which see SLA as a process of habit-formation. Hence, according to this theory, errors were the result of interference from the habits of the L1. The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis was an attempt to predict the areas of difficulty that learners experienced, and eliminate the chance of error. But it did not prove to be successful. As the learner’s proficiency grows, L1 influence will become less powerful. Routines and Patterns.

Routines and patterns are sentences spoken by performers who have not acquired or learned the rules involved, thus ‘What’s your name?’ They may be helpful for encouraging input in the real world, as well as to manage conversations. Patterns are partially memorized and may be of considerable indirect benefit. Correctly used, routines and patterns can help cquirers gain moreinput and manage conversations, and on the contrary, they can lead to trouble if not used effectively as they cannot be used for every situation. Individual Variation.

The theory of second language acquisition posits a basic uniformity in the way we all acquire language. It also predicts that acquirers will vary only in certain ways, thus in the rate and extent of acquisition. This is due to two factors: the amount of comprehensible input an acquirer obtains, and the strength of the affective filter. We can also observe variation with respect to routines and patterns use with respect to classroom activities. Students who have no aptitude for grammar or who simply are not interested in grammar, will concentrate almost completely on acquisition activities. Age Differences.

Age is the variable that has been most discussed when dealing with second language acquisition because of the belief that children are better language learners than adults. There has been considerable research on the effect of age on this field. The available evidence suggests that age does not alter the route of acquisition, and according to Ellis (1985), child, adolescent, and adult learners go through the same stages irrespective of how old they are.

However, rate and success of SLA appear to be strongly influenced by the age of the learner. Where rate is concerned, it is the older learners who reach higher levels of proficiency. Literature research shows that although age improves language learning capacity, performance may peak in the teens, and that age was a factor only when it came to morphology and syntax. Where success of SLA is concerned, the general finding is that the longer the exposure to the L2, the more native- like L2 proficiency becomes.


In this section we will relate the concept of interlanguage to its background in mentalist views on language acquisition and the sequence of development in second language acquisition. Closely related to interlanguage is the nature of errors, but we will examine it in next section.

The term interlanguage was first coined by Selinker (1972) and refers to the systematic knowledge of a second language which is independent of both the learner’s first language and the target language. T he term is related to a theory of learning that stresses the learner-internal factors which contribute to language acquisition, and it was the first attempt to examine empirically how a learner builds up knowledge of a language.

Interlanguage was a construct which identifies the stages of development through which L2 learners pass on their way to proficiency. The question was to what extent the order of development paralleled that in L1 acquisition. Mentalist accounts of first language acquisition (FLA) stressed the active contribution of the child and minimized the importance of behaviorist concepts, such as interference, imitation and reinforcement. One of the most prominent figures in this field, Noam

Chomsky, claimed that the child’s knowledge of his mother tongue was derived from a UniversalGrammar which consisted of a set of innate linguistic principles to control sentences formation.

Another mentalist feature that needs mentioning is that the child builds up his owledge of his mother tongue by means of hypothesis-testing. Corder (1981) suggests that both L1 and 2 learners make errors in order to test out certain hypotheses about the nature of the language they are learning. He saw the making of errors as a strategy. This view was in opposition to the view of the SLA presented in the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis where L2 errors are the result of differences between the learner’s first language and the target language. In the following section, we will offer an account of the treatment of error.


Earlier records on error treatment trace back to the early seventeenth century, when universities of most European countries started to exchange and spread their scientific and cultural knowledge. Children entering “grammar schools” were initially given a rigorous introduction to Latin grammar (Howatt 1984) and errors were often met with brutal punishment.

Since then, error analysis has been approached from a quite different perspective. Prior to the early 1970s, it consisted of little more than collections of ‘common’ errors and linguistic classification. In the first half of the twentieth century, behaviourist accounts approached the concept of error as a sign of non- learning, as they were thought to interfere with the acquisition of second language habits. The goals of traditional Error Analysis were pedagogic, in order to provide information to be used for teaching or to devise remedial lessons. There were no serious attempts to define ‘error’ in psychological terms.

Error Analysis declined because of enthusiasm for Contrastive Analysis proposed by Chomsky. The strong form of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis claims that differences between learner’s first language and the target language can be used to predict all errors whereas the weak form claims that differences are only used to identify some of the errors that arise. In accordance with behaviorism, the prevention of errors was more important than mere identification.

It was not until the late 1960s that there wa s a resurgence of interest in Error Analysis. It involves collecting samples of learner language, identifying the errors in the sample, describing and classifying then according to their hypothesized causes, and evaluating their seriousness. One of the dominant figures in this field, Corder (1981), helped to give this error treatment a new direction., elevating the status of errors from undesirability to that of a guide on language learning process. According to the Natural Order Hypothesis, proposed by Krashen (1983), the acquisition of grammatical structures takes place in a predictable order in which errors are signs of naturalistic developmental processes. Errors are no longer seen as ‘unwanted forms’ but an active learner’s contribution to second language acquisition. This is one of the main tenets of our current educational system where errors are seen as a positive contribution to language learning, and give LOGSE students an active role on language learning process.


Current research questions are approached from a wide range of interdisciplinary subjects. Thus, language acquisition current research has brought about an exceptionally concise portrayal of changes in language teaching methodology and a focus on form. During the 1970s previous methodological approaches, such as audiolingualism or grammar-translation were nder pressure from more communicative approaches. In addition, approaches to second language acquisition research were added to emp hasize the need to engage acquisitional processes within an interaction- driven approach to interlanguage development, and special attention to the concept of interference when dealing with languages in contact from a sociolinguistic perspective.

There has also been a longstanding concern among researchers, educators, and parents about the intellectual development of children and a focus on cognitive processes. Current research focus on actual effect that bilingualism has on children’s cognitive development across a number of areas of thought. The attempt is to identify what aspects of cognition are affected by childhood.On learning and acquisition of languages, we find an interest on Spanish Language approaches, writing analysis of second language performance, the role of second and foreign language classroom settings, and research on advanced learners’ interaction in a foreign language context, where the concepts of input and feedback are addressed.

There is a considerable interest on curriculum design and language teaching approaches within the classroom context. The terms acquisition and learning are still present in most articles on language teaching methodology regarding writing and selectividad test skills.

Another current concern turns on new technologies, such as practising language learning on the web for distance courses. The traditional home study methods for distance learning have been replaced in the last few years by the use of computers and CD -ROMs. New exciting possibilities become availa ble via Internet and much literature is being written about it as a way to enhance learning through technology.


Over the centuries, many changes have taken place in language learning theory with the same specific goal, the search of a language teaching method or approach that roves to be highly effective at all levels. In the preceding sections we have examined the main features of language learning proposals in terms of approach and theories from the most traditional approaches to the present-day trends.

We have been concerned in this presentation about the approach to second language learning on adults following language learning theories on children. One set of schools (e.g., Total Physical Response, Natural Approach) notes that first language acquisition is the only universally successful model of language learning we have, and thus that second language pedagogy must necessarily model itself on first language acquisition. An opposed view (e.g., Silent ay, Suggestopedia) observes that adults have different brains, interests, timing constraints, and learning environments than do children, and that adult classroom learning therefore has to be fashioned in a way quite dissimilar to the way in which nature fashions how first languages are learned by children.

Another key distinction turns on general theories on language learning, and language acquisition, paying special attention to those theories that have developed into present-day methods for second language acquisition, such as the Natural Approach. The concept of interlanguage has been approached in order to understand its current importance in the field of language teaching, and hence, the treatment of error as an important part in the process of learning.

Chomsky challenged the beha viorist model of language learning with a cognitive approach. He proposed a theory called Transformational Generative Grammar, according to which learners do not acquire an endless list of rules but limited set of transformations which can be used over and over again. For Chomsky, behaviorism could not serve as a model of how humans learn language, since much of that language is not imitated behavior but is created anew from underlying knowledge of abstract rules. In his own words, language is not a habit structure.

Chomsky’s theory of tranformational grammar proposed that the fundamental properties of language derive from innate aspects of the mind and from how humans process experience through language (Richards & Rodgers 1992). His theories brought about the mental properties on language use and language learning existing within the learner’s competence, that is, his ability to generate sentences from abstract rules.


A historical background to language learning

– Baugh, A. & Cable, T. 1993. A History of the English Language. Prentice-Hall Editions.

– Crystal, D. 1985. Linguistics. Harmondsworth, England. Penguin Books.

– Howatt, A. (1984). A history of English Language teaching . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

On approaches to the teaching of English as a foreign language

– Rivers, W. 1981. Teaching Foreign-Language Skills. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

– Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. 1992. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

On general theories on second language acquisition and learning

– Krashen, S. D. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford:Pergamon.

– Krashen, S. D., and Terrell, T. D. 1983. The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Oxford: Pergamon.

On the concept of interlanguage and error treatment

– Corder, S. 1981a. Error Analysis and Interlanguage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

New directions in language teaching

– Revistas de la Asociación Española de Lingüística Aplicada (AESLA): De la Cruz, Isabel;

Santamaría, Carmen; Tejedor, Cristina y Valero, Carmen. 2001. La Lingüística Aplicada a finales del Siglo XX. Ensayos y propuestas. Universidad de Alcalá.

– Celaya, Mª Luz; Fernández-Villanueva, Marta; Naves, Teresa; Strunk, Oliver y Tragant, Elsa.

2001. Trabajos en Lingüística Aplicada . Universidad de Barcelona.6/ 16