Learning foreign languages has been a constant issue in the history of civilization. Taking into account the advances made in communication and technology during the 20th century, the learning of foreign languages has emerged as a pressing need for modern students and professionals. Under these circumstances, a significant question stands out: How do we learn a language? I am going to discuss this issue throughout this topic, dividing it into 5 different sections. First of all, I will have a brief look at the way L1 is learnt, since this is crucial for the understanding of L2 learning theories. In my second section, I will establish a difference between learning a second language in a natural setting and learning it through instruction. Then I will have a look at some theories about second language learning. In my fourth section I will explore a basic concept within the field of second language learning: interlanguage. Finally, I will deal with errors and the treatment of error.
Let’s begin with my second section, dealing with the acquisition of a first language. We have all observed children acquiring their L1 with ease yet struggling to learn a L2 in the classroom and sometimes even failing. These days it is generally recognized that understanding more about the similarities and differences in L1 and L2 acquisition processes can help teachers in the foreign language classroom. Let’s see how L1 is acquired.
Recent studies have shown that babies may become familiar with aspects of their future L1 while they are still in the womb! After birth, learning a language starts with a baby producing its first noises and cries. They are able to mirror their parents’ use of intonation and stress, for example, by waggling their hands in time with parents’ use of stressed syllables, or cooing with similar intonation patterns to those they have just heard. There are a number of stages through which children pass in the process of acquiring their first language.
- Babbling: from birth to around 8 months babies can hear and produce a wide range of noises and sounds. Some of these sounds will later be phased out.
- The first word: at about 11 months infants put names to the objects and people around them. During the second year, the earlier random vocalizations begin to take on the aspect of genuine communication. Through constant exposure to words and by imitating examples heard, infants learn to associate certain objects with certain sounds.
- Two words: between 18 months and 2 years, they enter a genuinely syntactic phase of acquisition by placing two words together to create new meanings (e.g.: there doggy, mummy gone).
- Phonological, syntactic and lexical norms: the third and fourth years are periods of great creativity, when the essential language elements are put in place. The successive grammatical systems which children construct begin to resemble closely the norms of the adults who surround them. Children will have learned all the sounds of their L1 by their school age, but there may be cases of problems (e.g. consonant clusters). By the age of 5, many children will draw on a vocabulary of several thousands words.
- Syntactic and lexical complexity and richness: between 6 and 12 children continue to expand their reading vocabulary and to improve their understanding of words. With regard to grammar, 6 to 7 year olds tend to be confused by certain irrelevant information, complex constructions and the implied meaning of certain words.
- Conversational skills: in interactional tasks, young children may not know that they do not understand or that directions they are given are incomplete and unclear. They may simply continue without showing incomprehension. Older children are more likely to realize that something is unclear and may try to identify the problem and suggest an alternative. As children get older, they are more able to take another person’s perspective and are better at using persuasive arguments.
After dealing with how L1 is acquired, I am going to move on to my second area, in which I am going to compare the learning of an L2 in a natural context with its learning through formal instruction. Most people would agree that learning a second language in a natural acquisition context is not the same as learning in the classroom. Many believe that natural learning is more effective. What is special about natural learning? Can we create the same environment in the classroom? Should we? Or are there essential contributions that only instruction, and not natural learning, can provide?
Natural acquisition contexts should be understood as those in which the learner is exposed to the language at work or in social interaction, or if the learner is a child, in a school situation where most of the other children are native speakers of the target language and where the instruction is directed towards native speakers rather than towards learners of the language. The traditional instructional environment is one where the language is being taught to a group of second or foreign language learners. In this case, the focus is on the language itself, rather than on information which is carried by the language. The teacher’s goal is to see to it that students learn the vocabulary and grammatical rules of the target language. The goal of the students in such courses is often to pass an examination rather than to use the language for daily communicative interaction. Communicative instruction environments also involve learners whose goal is learning the language itself; but the style of instruction places the emphasis on interaction, conversation, and the language use, rather than on learning about the language.
In natural acquisition settings, learners are rarely corrected. If their interlocutors can understand what they are saying, they do not remark on the correctness of the learner’s speech. In traditional instruction, however, accuracy tends to be given priority over fluency, and errors are frequently corrected. In natural acquisition settings, language is not structured step by step. The learner will be exposed to a wide variety of vocabulary and structures. This is not so in traditional instruction, where input is structurally simplified and sequenced. Linguistic items are presented and practiced in isolation. In natural acquisition contexts, the learner is surrounded by the language many hours each day, and he encounters a number of people who use the target language proficiently. On the contrary, in traditional instruction there is limited time for learning, and the teacher is frequently the only proficient speaker the learners come in contact with. Whereas in natural acquisition the learner participates in many different types of language events, in traditional instruction students participate in a limited range of language discourse types. Finally, we find that in natural learning contexts modified input is available in one-to-one conversation, but not in situations where many native speakers are involved. In traditional instruction, teachers often modify their language to ensure comprehension.
Despite these differences between learning in natural acquisition settings and learning through traditional instruction, I have to point out that not all language classrooms are the same. The conditions for learning differ in terms of the physical environment, the age and motivation of the students, the amount of time available for learning, and many other varieties. Classroom often differ also in terms of the principles which guide teachers in their language teaching methods and techniques. For instance, the design of communicative language teaching programmes has tried to replace some of the characteristics of traditional instruction with those more typical of natural acquisition contexts.
Up to this point I have dealt with the process of learning a first language and with the differences between learning a second language in a natural context and learning it through natural instruction. Now I am going to move on to my third section, in which I am going to analyse different views on L1 and L2 acquisition. Explanations of L1 and L2 acquisition have changed a great deal in the last 50 years. However, if we think of language acquisition as a jigsaw, we can consider each of these views as a piece, each providing useful insights but only a partial explanation. Let us briefly examine their main characteristics:
Behaviourist views: behaviourism had a strong influence to the audio-lingual approach. Among other things, this approach emphasizes repetition in the form of drills, accuracy and the avoidance of errors. It arose from the work of Skinner. Behaviourists believe that imitation and practice or habit formation are key processes in language development. This view stresses the importance of positive reinforcement in L1 and L2 acquisition, where correct learning behaviour is rewarded by praise. Nowadays, linguists recognize that although imitation and practice are clearly important parts of language, they do not provide the complete picture. It does not explain children’s gift for creativity in language. Although behaviourism offers a partial explanation for routine aspects of both L1 and L2 language acquisition, it cannot explain the acquisition of more complex grammatical structures and lexical relationships.
Nativist view: the nativist or innatist view arose originally from 17th and 18th c. theories that suggested that there were innate and therefore universal features of human mind. In the 1950s these ideas were revived by Chomsky, who changed forever the way we think about language. In the nativist view, children are pre-programmed to learn a language and are highly sensitive to the linguistic features of their environment. The child does not have to be taught; most children learn to use language at about the same time, and early language is essentially the same in all normal human beings. Chomsky challenged behaviourist views by suggesting an internal or innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD), now referred to as Universal Grammar (UG), which allows infants to process all the language they hear and to produce their own meaningful utterances. UG is considered to consist of a set of principles which are common to all languages, and the child comes to “know” certain things about the language simply by being exposed to a limited number of examples. This view inspired a huge range of research studies which revealed the complex ways in which children develop grammatical competence in their L1. This view allowed for the child’s creativity as an important part of L1, a factor which has been carried over to L2 learning. Innatists’ views were another step in the right direction, although there was not enough consideration of communication with real people in real time. Thus, over time, social-interactionists criticized Chomsky’s preoccupation with the structures of language, feeling that other more personal and social aspects of language use were being neglected.
Cognitive-developmental views: according to Whitehead, the cognitive-developmental view emphasized that language development was an aspect of general cognitive growth, claiming that certain thinking skills must first mature in order to create a framework for early language development. The view also stressed children’s intentions and meanings and their uses in developing language ability. In terms of L2 learning, the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) suggested that there is a specific and limited time for language acquisition. However, other researchers consider that there are many important factors to consider aside from age, such as motivation and learning conditions. For this reason, the purest version of CPH is no longer held to be valid, although there is general agreement that early language acquisition has cognitive and linguistic dimensions.
Social-interactionist views: These emphasize the importance of human social interactions and the role of adult and child relationships in learning. A crucial element in this view is the way language is modified to suit the level of the learner. As a result, many studies were made of the way the chief caregiver or the mother talked to the child. Brunner showed how an innate device, such as Chomsky’s LAD, was not able to function without the help given by an adult. He called this kind of help the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS). Bruner said there needed to be a child component, incorporating an innate tendency for active social interaction and language learning (LAD), and a social support component provided by other speakers, specially adults (LASS).
In the 1930´s the work of VIGOTSKY was significant. He coined the phrase “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) to explain the fact that children can do much more with the help of someone more knowledgeable or skilled than themselves than they can do alone. This highlights the importance of social interaction and learning from working with others. The notion of ZPD has provided us with insights into how teachers can both support and yet challenge learners through the careful design and staging of tasks. The work of both Vygotsky and Bruner has been influential in developing a theory of how children think and learn language and has helped to emphasise the importance of an interactional aspect in learning a foreign language.
Nevertheless the most prominent theory of second language learning nowadays is Krashen´s Model. This theory articulates on the basis of five central hypothesis:
- The Acquisition/ Learning hypothesis. Krashen´s most important achievement is his distinction between learning and acquisition. Learning is said to be a conscious process, whereas acquisition is unconscious. Adults have two distinctive ways of developing competences in L2s. On the one hand, acquisition, which is using language for real communication; and on the other hand learning, that is, knowing about language. For Krashen, acquisition is the most important process, and he states that only the acquired language is available for natural, fluent communication.
- The Natural Order Hypothesis states that grammatical structures are acquired in a predictable order, independently of the order in which they have been taught.
- According to the Monitor Hypothesis, the monitor is a human brain device that makes self-corrections and changes the foreign language output. Krashen distinguishes between those speakers of foreign language who think too much and whose fluency goes down: over-users; those whose language is fluent but not too correct: under-users; and those who show a high level of fluency though they make minor mistakes: optimal-users. The last ones are, according to Krashen, the best ones because they speak communicative English.
- The Input Hypothesis. According to Krashen, we acquire language in only one way: by receiving comprehensible input, that is, by understanding messages. Using the formula i + 1, Krashen wants to convey the view that in order for learners to progress, the input (i) should be a bit beyond (1) the acquirer’s level of competence. The need of comprehensible input has more recently been complemented by the need for comprehensible output or language production.
- The Affective-Filter is an imaginable barrier that prevents learners from using input which is available in the environment. This has to do with variables like anxiety, self-confidence, motivation…, which are likely to affect the learning process. The lower the filter the better input will be allowed in. The filter will be “up” or operating when the learner is stressed, self-conscious, or unmotivated. It will be “down” when the learner is relaxed and motivated.
After giving an outline of the main theories about language acquisition, I am going to move on to my fourth section, dealing with a concept closely related to L2 learning: the concept of interlanguage. Again at this point we have to ask ourselves: Do L2 learners develop their L2 system in much the same way as L1 learners? Until 1960s most people regarded L2 learners´ speech as an incorrect version of the target language. This incorrect speech was considered to be largely a result of transfer from the learner’s first language. So, for instance, one might predict that a Spanish speaker would be likely to express the idea of being cold as “I have cold” in English because this would be a direct translation of the way this meaning is expressed in Spanish “tengo frio”
In 1970s a different approach in analysing learners´ errors came to light This approach was based on the assumption that the speech of L2 learners is a system in its own right – one which is rule-governed, predictable and very much alike young L1 learners system. As a result, in 1972, Selinker coined the term Interlanguage, though it has been previously called “approximate system” or “transitional competence”. We can define interlanguage as the systematic knowledge of a second language which is independent of both the learner’s first language and the target language. According to Selinker, Interlanguage is the linguistic system that a learner creates on the process of the mastery of a foreign language. It could be said that it is the group of intermediate stages between the native languages and the target language presenting characteristics from both systems.
Selinker´s theory of Interlanguage ends with a positive view. If according to Chomsky the L.A.D atrophies with age, Selinker states that it depends on your motivation and interest. And so, successful learners will be able to use the L.A.D. in a proper way in adulthood.
In close connection with the process of interlanguage, we find the notion of error, since through this in-between process, every learner makes mistakes. In my last section I am going to concentrate on the treatment of errors. Attitudes towards learners’ errors have changed considerably in recent decades. Approaches based on behaviourist principles advocate the initial avoidance of errors, and their diligent correction when they occur. More recent attitudes have displayed more tolerance. Advocates of communicative language teaching, for instance, recognize the need for fluency practice, and this may lead to occasions when errors are allowed to pass uncorrected, though perhaps only temporarily. Others point out that in L1 acquisition mistakes often go uncorrected, yet are eventually eradicated; error correction in this situation appears to be unnecessary and to have little effect. The current “toleration of mistakes” doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t matter. A teacher can learn a lot about the teaching/learning process by considering their pupils mistakes. First, they are direct evidence of what the students know about the language system, and second mistakes are evidenced of problems the students are having.
Error correction is a form of feedback. There is a wide literature on the topic; however, the result is that in this area there tend to be more expressions of opinions than of fact. We would have to ask: should errors be corrected? If so, when? Which errors? How should they be corrected and by whom? It has been noted that error correction has little effect on L1 acquisition. Krashen, among others, assumes that this will also be the case for L2 acquisition.
There is evidence that teachers tend to correct more errors on occasions when there is greater form-focus in the class. Regarding the question of which errors are corrected, there is also evidence that discourse and content errors receive more attention than errors in phonology and grammar. However, studies on error evaluation indicate the necessity to consider exactly who is doing the correction; considerably differences exist between native speakers and non-native speakers as regards the focus of correction.
Regarding the types of errors, several kinds of errors may be distinguished Those which reflect the learner’s L1 are called interlingual errors. This would be the case of a Spanish speaker saying in English “This dress red like me”. The other type is the so-called development errors, being similar to those made by children when acquiring their native language. For instance, students of English as a foreign language often say “Peter have a beautiful girlfriend”. On the other hand, errors of overgeneralization are those caused by trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong, for example the addition of the ending –ed to an irregular verb (take-taked). The last type of errors are called errors of simplification where elements of a sentence are left out (i.e. I not eat bread) or where all verbs have the same form regardless of person, number or tense.
I would like to point out that some authors establish a distinction between errors and mistakes. For them, errors are caused by a lack of knowledge, whereas mistakes are caused by a failure to put what is known into practice.
The last question is who should correct errors. A possible answer may be that errors should be corrected by the teacher, the learner making the error and other learners. All these three occur in different situations. For instance, peers might be effective correctors of one another’s writing; self-correction is easier in the written mode than in the spoken one, and so on.
Finally, I would like to point out that in general students say that they want to be corrected a lot, although they recognize that when this happens communication is hampered.
To sum up, throughout this topic I have had look at the way L1 is learnt; I have established a difference between learning a second language in a natural setting and learning it throughout instruction; I have discussed some theories about second language learning; and have explored the concepts of interlanguage and the treatment of error. As a final word I would like to say that teaching methodologies differ because they reflect opposing theoretical views concerning the most effective way to learn a second language in a classroom setting. Theories have been proposed for the best way to learn a second language in the classroom and teaching methods have been developed to implement them. But the only way to answer the question “Which theoretical proposal holds the greatest promise for improving language learning in classroom settings?” is through research which specifically investigates relationships between teaching and learning, and as of yet, sufficient research has not been done.