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

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

I have based this essay on the following source:

– Richards J.C & Rodgers T.S. Approaches and Methods in Language


– Nunan, D. The Learner-Centred Curriculum.

In this theme I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly with general learning theories: Behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism.

Secondly with second language acquisition: T. Pica.

Thirdly, interlanguage: Selinker.

To end up with error analysis: types of errors.


The learning of different languages has been very important from the very first stages of human race, due to the need of maintaining communication among different cultures. Nowadays, there are more than 3,000 languages spoken in the world.


FLT was at one time thought to be a matter of teaching techniques and learning would automatically follow. Therefore, teaching was the active skill and learning the passive one. Today, the active role of the learner is an established principle. It is recognized that there are important individual differences among learners that can influence the teaching outcome. Research is therefore now directed not only at the way teachers teach, but also at the way learners learn.

The term “acquisition” is sometimes used to replace “learning” in this context.

There are three main theories:


According to Skinner & Pavlov: Language learning is a form of behaviour, a formation habit. It is a model of stimulus, response and reinforcement.


Ausubel: tried to discover psychological principles of organisation and functioning of learning.

Chomsky: Generative-Transformational Grammar can be considered the beginning of contemporary psycholinguistics.

Chomsky stated:

  • The ability to learn a language is innate: all individuals are born with the knowledge of general grammatical rules (UG), common to all languages.
  • Language implies competence and performance. Competence is the knowledge and performance is the use of language.
  • Learners are thought to use their cognitive abilities in a creative way, to create hypotheses and to try out hypotheses and alter them when inadequate.


The 3 pioneers of Constructivism are Piaget, Bruner and Vigotsky. According to them: learning occurs through adaptation to interactions with the environment.

  • According to Piaget, learning follows these steps: disequilibrium, assimilation and accommodation.
  • According to Bruner and Vigotsky learning is also a social process. Vigotsky coined the term zone of proximal development. This is the area of exploration for which the learner is cognitively prepared but requires help and social interaction to fully develop.
  • Bruner points out that TT and SS should actively discuss issues and concepts: Socratic learning.

Nowadays, Constructivism maintains that individuals create or construct their own new understandings or knowledge through the interaction of what they already know and believe, and the ideas, events, tasks and activities with which they come in contact.

The Curriculum of Secondary Education is based on Constructivism.


Psycholinguistics is a hybrid discipline created out of the psychologist’s interest in language and the linguist’s interest in psychology. Its major concern is to describe the operation of the mind dealing with language.

Applied linguistics is the study of human and social problems connected with language, language learning and language use.

SLA is the field on Applied Linguistics, which deals with the acquisition of a second or a foreign language (L2) in formal or informal environments. The acquisition of an L1 is very different from the learning of an L2 because the learner approaches an L2 already having a certain set of believes and/or attitudes.

There has been much empirical research done in SLA. Nowadays, according to T. Pica, there are three keys aspects for successful SLA:

  • Input has to be meaningful and comprehensible (similar to Krashen).
  • Attend to the form of the input as well as meaning (Long, focus on form / Ellis grammar conscious-raising task).
  • Production of L2 and give feedback (Selinker).


IL was coined by Selinker in 1969. It is the learner’s language, i.e. the type of language produced by learners who are learning a L2, which is different from both their L1 and L2.

IL has the following elements:

· some characteristics of the learner’s native language.

· some characteristics of the L2.

· other characteristics, which are very systematic and common to all learners.

And it is characterized by being:

· PERMEABLE: the rules of the IL can evolve if new rules enter the system.

· DYNAMIC: IL is constantly changing.

· SYSTEMATIC: IL is based in coherent rules.

The notion of Fossilization is also connected to the idea of IL. It takes place when a learner makes no further progress in his/her IL. Due to:

· Low motivation.

· Age may influence.

· Personality.

· Limited range L2 input.


Error analysis is an approach consisting of empirical research into the nature and causes of deviation from the L2 norm, focusing on the L2 learner’s language.

According to Corder (1971) there are 2 types of errors:

Errors of Competence: application of rules that do not correspond to the L2 norm.

· Interlingual: transfer errors caused by the structure of L1

· Intralingual: caused by the structure of L2, they are not predictable, they are interpreted as overgeneralizations.

Errors of Performance: mistakes in language use. Learners can recognize and correct them.

According to other SLA researchers there are 3 types of errors:

· Developmental Errors: similar to errors made by children learning L1. They are assumed to be a natural product of a gradually developing ability (-s 3rd person, -ed past, questions,).

· Transfer or interlingual errors: are attributable to first language influence (pronunciation, accent, false friends).

· Errors that cannot be classified in either group (the same as intralingual by Corder).

Errors are significant because they provide to the researcher evidence of how a language is learned.

As language learning is a continuum process, a certain amount of trial and error in indispensable. This is positive because it facilitates feedback and therefore, correction and remedial work.

Before dealing with an error we must detect the type of error and then decide whether we treat it through an explanation, or through recast, or providing tools for peer or self-correction, etc. For example, if it is a developmental error is little we can do until the learner is ready, apart from speeding up the process. According to T. Pica, if we focus on form as well as on meaning, only an error can be treated and we should use indirect ways of dealing with grammar.

In terms of foreign language instruction, as teachers we are constantly looking for the best approach and method. There is not a unique approach, but many, depending on the issue we are dealing with and our students’ interests and needs. Goals must be accomplish, contents and methodology selected according to our students’ needs and evaluation will help us to assess our work and students’ process of learning.