Topic 6A – Contributions of linguistics to the teaching of foreign languages. The process of linguistic learning: Similarities and differences between the acquisition of the first school language and foreign language.

Topic 6A – Contributions of linguistics to the teaching of foreign languages. The process of linguistic learning: Similarities and differences between the acquisition of the first school language and foreign language.


Every aspect of language is enormously complex. Yet, children learn most of the intricate system of their mother tongue before the age of six. Before they can add 2+2, children are putting sentences together, asking questions, negating sentences, using the syntactic, phonological, morphological, and semantic rules of the language. Children are not taught language as they are taught arithmetic. They learn language in a different way.


We are far from completely understanding the language acquisition process. We are just beginning to grapple with those aspects of the human neurological and biological make up which explain the child’s ability to acquire language. Certainly it is clear that the child is equipped from birth with the necessary neural prerequisites for language and language use.

Our knowledge of the nature of human language tell us something about what the child does and does when acquiring a language:

1) Children do not learn a language by storing all the words ant all the sentences in some giant mental dictionary. The list of words is finite, but no dictionary can hold all the sentences, which are infinite in number.

2) Children learn to understand sentences they have never heard before, and to construct sentences, most of which they have never produced before.

3) Children must therefore learn “rules” which permit them to use language creatively.

4) No one teaches them these rules. Their parents are no more aware of phonological, syntactic, morphological, and semantic rules than the children are. Children, then, seem to act like very efficient linguists equipped with a perfect theory of language, who use this theory to build up the grammar of the language they hear.

In addition to acquiring the complex rules of the grammar (that is, linguistic competence), children must also learn the complex rules of the appropriate social use for language, what certain scholars have called communicative competence. These include, for example, the greetings which are to be used, the “taboo” words, the polite forms of address the various styles which are appropriate to different situations, and so forth.


Linguists divide the child’s acquisition of a language into prelinguistic and linguistic stages. There continues to be disagreement as to what should be included in these periods. But most scholars agree that the earliest cries and whimpers of the newborn cannot be considered early language. Such noises are completely stimulus-controlled; they are the child’s involuntary responses to hunger, discomfort, the feeling of well-being, etc.


Usually around the sixth month period, the infant begins to babble. The sounds produced in this period seem to include the sounds of human languages. The role of babbling is not clearly understood, but it is absolutely clear that in order that the language develop finally, the child must receive some auditory input.


Sometime after children are one year old, they begin to use same string of sounds repeatedly to “mean” the same thing. Most children seem to go through the “one word=one sentence” stage. The child uses just one word to express concepts or predications which will later be expressed by complex phrases and sentences.


Around the time of their second birthday children begin to produce two-word utterances like: “allgone sock”; “bye-bye boat”; “it ball”; “hi mommy”; “dirty sock”; mummy sock”.

During this stage there are no syntactic or morphological markers; that is, no inflections for number, tense, or person. The two words a child utters can express a number of different grammatical relations which will later be expressed by other syntactic devices.


There does not seem to be any “three-word sentence” stage. When a child starts stringing more than two words together, the utterances may be two, three, four, or five words or longer. The words in a “sentence” are not strung together randomly; from a very early stage, children’s utterances reveal their grasp of the principles of sentence formation.

These first utterances of children which are longer than two words have a special characteristic. Usually, the small “function” words such as to, the, can, is, etc, are missing ; only the words which carry the main message –the “content” words– occur. Children often sound as if they were reading telegrams, which is why such utterances are called “telegraphic speech”. For example: “Cathy build house”; “No sit here”; “Car stand up table”.

As children acquire more and more language, or more closely approximate the adult grammar, they not only begin to use function words but also acquire the inflectional and derivational morphemes of the language. There seems to be a natural order of acquisition of morphemes. It seems that the suffix –ing is the earliest inflectional morpheme acquired. Eventually all the other inflections are added, along with the syntactic rules, and finally the child’s utterances sound like those spoken by adults.



There are those who think that children merely imitate what they hear. Imitation is involved, of course, but the sentences produced by children show that they are not imitating adult speech. Even when children are deliberately trying to imitate what they hear, there are unable to produce sentences which cannot be generated by their grammar.


Another theory suggest that children learn to produce “correct” sentences because they are positively reinforced when they say something right and negatively reinforced when they say something wrong. This view does not tell us how children construct the correct rules.

Whatever “correction” takes place is based more on the content of the message than on its form. That is, if a child says ”Nobody don’t like me”, the mother may say “Everybody likes you2. Besides, all attempts to “correct” a child’s language are doomed to failure. Children don’t know what they are doing wrong and are even unable to make the corrections when they are pointed to them.


The reinforcement theory fails along with the imitation theory. Neither of these views accounts for the fact that children are constructing their own rules. Different rules govern the construction of sentences as the grammar is learned.

The “imperfect” sentences children use are perfectly regular. They are not “mistakes” in the child’s language; they reflect his or her grammar at a certain stage of development. The child seems to form the simplest and most general rule he can from the language input he receives, and is so “pleased” with his “theory” that he uses the rule whenever he can.

The most obvious example of this “overgeneralization” is shown when children treat irregular verbs and nouns as if they were regular. We have probably all heard children say “goed”, “singed”, or “foots”, “childs”. These mistakes tell us more about how children learn language than the “correct” forms they use. The child couldn’t be imitating; children use such forms in families where parents would never utter such “bad English”.

The child’s ability to generalize patterns and construct rules is also shown in the development of the semantic system. For example, the child learns the word “daddy” and later applies it to other men.

Thus, a third theory suggests that language acquisition is a creative construction process, and that children have to “construct” all the rules of the grammar. According to the famous linguist Noam Chomsky., “it seems plain that language acquisition is based on the child’s discovery of what from a formal point of view is a deep and abstract theory – a generative grammar of his language”.

Children seem to be equipped with special abilities or with a “language acquisition device”, residing principally in the left side of the brain, to know just what they can ignore, to find all the regularities in the language.

The details of this “innate” device are far from understood. As we gain more information about brain functions and the preconditions for language acquisition, we will learn more about the nature of human language.


As we compare a child’s acquisition of his mother tongue with the learning and acquisition of a second or foreign language, it becomes evident that the processes and theories involved seem to be, at least to a certain extent, parallel. Other aspects, on the other hand, keep less similarity , as it the case with the stages that children go through.

The learning progression does not take place in a linear way, by successive appropriation of the different subsystems implied, but rather by a global approximation which in the initial stages implies a considerable simplification and an exclusion of peculiarities that are not perceived as essential. Progress consists then in a continuous process of completing, polishing and enriching this global apprehension of the new communication system. Thus, the teaching and learning of a foreign language should not be viewed so much in terms of a series of elemental units of content which are perfectly apprehended before proceeding to the next, but in terms of a communication system which is globally elaborated and whose complexity and communicative potential increases in a progressive form.

It should be pointed out that the information processing mechanisms often work efficiently even when the student is not producing utterances. During the first moments in the learning of a foreign language, there are often silent periods during which the student does not produce at all. This silence, however, cannot unmistakably be interpreted as a lack of learning; it often covers an intense activity that cannot be directly observed and which sometime in the future, will let him produce utterances which reflect the internal representation that he has built during those silent periods. If we accept that creative construction can take place without generating an immediate production, we will have to admit that receptive activities specific comprehension competencies can be developed, but also, what is not so evident, the general communicative competence that is behind every linguistic system.

The above explained makes clear that the process of language learning is complex and that this process takes place in a personal and distinct way for each individual since the strategies which let the subject receive and transform the input he receives are always used in a particular way.


According to Krashen there are five hypotheses, which try to explain the process of acquisition of a second language:


Acquisition in a not conscious process in which the person is not aware of the grammar or the rules he uses. In many ways acquisition can be compared to the process by which a child becomes proficient in his mother tongue. In this way, fluency is progressively gained as the proficiency in consolidated. Errors are accepted as a normal part of the process.

Learning occurs consciously, we have to study the rules which govern a given language. We are not responsible for our fluency since we depend on the activities suggested by the teacher. Learning has only one function: as editor or as monitor, that is, to make corrections and change our output.


This Hypothesis states the grammatical structures are acquired in a fairly predictable order in L1 native language and L2 (second language). In other words, just as children learn their native language in a natural order, so students of a foreign language learn structures in a predictable way.

Nevertheless two points can be made against this hypothesis:

a) We do not have information about the order of acquisition of every structure in every language. Besides, there are individual variations.

b) The existence of a natural order of acquisition does not imply that we should teach second languages following this order.


The monitor hypothesis states the relationship between acquisition and learning. Acquisition plays a far more important role than learning because learning is used as editor or monitor only. The function of monitor is to make self corrections and change the output before of after speaking or writing.

But in order to use the monitor, three conditions need be fulfilled:

a) Time: in order to make a self-correction we need time. Self correction can hardly be used without altering fluency.

b) Focus on form: we have to be aware of the grammar forms we are using and know that there is a choice of forms.

c) Finally, once we have stopped and concentrated on the form, it is necessary to have a correct knowledge of the rules so that the proper correction can be made.

Thus, it can be easily deducted that monitor “overusers” may have difficulty in acquiring fluency. Monitor, however, can be a great help if used for grammar tests and writing.


We acquire language by understanding input that contains i + 1

“i + 1” means a step by step progression. In order to progress the input (i) should be only a bit beyond (1) the acquirer’s current level of competence.

We understand language that we do not “know” by using context, extra-linguistic information, and our knowledge of the world. In the same fashion, language is made understandable to us through the use of devices such as simplified, visual clues, key words and phrases, gestures or familiar topics.

We do not teach speaking directly

Speaking fluency emerges on its own over time, thus, the best way to “teach” speaking is to provide comprehensible input. For the same reason, early speech is typically not accurate. Direct error correction should be avoided.

The “best” input should not be “grammatically sequenced”

It is enough by providing genuinely interesting and comprehensible input. Teachers should organize content on the basis of themes or topics which are relevant to the students’ needs and interests (communication-based syllabus or curriculum).


It deals with the effect of affective variables on L2 acquisition. They are variables like anxiety, motivation or self-confidence.

The affective filter produces a mental block which prevents inputs to enter the “language acquisition device”.

Krashen summarizes his five hypothesis with a single claim:

“Comprehensible input is the only causative variable in second language acquisition. People acquire second languages when they obtain comprehensible input and when their affective filters are low enough to allow the input in”.


Older acquirers are faster in the early stages of second language acquisition because:

a) they are better at obtaining comprehensible input as they have good conversational management;

b) they have superior knowledge of the world, which helps to make input comprehensible;

c) they can participate in conversation earlier, via use of first language syntax.

Younger acquirers tend to attain higher levels of proficiency in second languages than adults in the long run due to a lower affective filter.


The five hypothesis about L2 acquisition predict that any successful L2 teaching program must have the following characteristics;

a) It must supply input in the L2 that is:

– Comprehensible.

– Interesting and relevant to students.

The goal is, thus, to transmit messages, not to practice grammar.

b) It must not force students to speak before they are ready and must be tolerant of errors in early speech. We improve in grammatical accuracy by obtaining more input, not by error correction.

c) It must put grammar in its proper place. Some adults, and very few children, are able to use conscious grammar rules to increase the grammatical accuracy of their output; and even for these people, very strict conditions (time, focus on form, and knowledge of the rule) need to be fulfilled before the conscious knowledge of grammar can be applied, given the monitor hypothesis presented above.



The first language has long been considered the major cause of a learner’s problems with the new language. It “interferes” with the learner’s acquisition of his of her L2.

If a structure in L1 differs from that of L2, errors that reflect the structure on the L1 will be produced. This process has been labelled interference or negative transfer.

Spanish structure: adj + noun: La casa grande

Interference with English: *The house big

If a structure in both languages is the same, there will be positive transfer or zero interference, and there will be no errors in L2 performance.

Spanish plural marker “-s”: libros

English plural marker “-s”: books

The contrastive Analysis treatment of errors was popular up through the 1960’s. A large part of the rationale for the Contrastive Analysis hypothesis was drawn from principles of behaviourist psychology.

There are two central concepts in transfer:

a) the automatic and not conscious use of the old behaviour (habits) in new learning situations (behaviourist view);

b) the use of past knowledge and experience in new situations (other educational and psychological views).

In recent years there have been enough data accumulated to place the L2 learner’s first language in a “respectable” role. Present research results suggest that the major impact the L1 has on L2 acquisition may have to do with accent, not with grammar.


Many teachers and researchers noticed that a great number of the errors that students make could not possibly be traced to their native languages. The theoretical climate of the late fifties and early sixties provided the ultimate rationale for the error analysis approach:

Noam Chomsky’s, Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1959) questioned the very core of the behaviourist habit theory which accounts for language learning. Chomsky’s views, along with Piagetian psychology, succeeded in highlighting the previously neglected mental make-up of learners as a central force in the learning process, not a habit formation.

Interlingual and developmental errors

The term error is used to refer to any deviation from a selected norm of language performance, no mater what the characteristics or causes of the deviation might be.

In the Error Analysis view, errors that reflect the learner’s L1 structures are not called interference but interlingual errors.

Development errors are errors similar to those made by children acquiring their native tongue. For example, students of English as a foreign often say things such as:

He cans play football very well.

This error is also found in the speech of children acquiring English as their first language.

Researchers have consistently found that, contrary to widespread opinion, the great majority of errors made by second language learners are not interlingual, but developmental. Although adults tend to exhibit more L1 influence in their errors then children do, adult interlingual errors also occur in small proportions.

Implications of error analysis for L2 learning

Error Analysis has yielded insights into the L2 acquisition process that have stimulated major changes in teaching practices. Studying learner’s errors serves two major purposes:

a) it provides data from which interferences about the nature of the language acquisition process can be made; and

b) it indicates to teachers and curriculum developers, which part of the target language students have most difficulty to produce correctly and which error types detract most from a learner’s ability to communicate effectively.


Interlanguage is the linguistic system that a learner constructs on his way to the mastery of a target language.

Methodologically, interlanguage may be said to incorporate the assumption of both Contrastive Analysis and Error Analysis. While Contrastive Analysis contrasts the learner’s native language and the target language, and conventional Error Analysis involves contrast between the learner’s performance and the target language, interlanguage take all three elements into account, explicitly incorporating the contrastive analysis of the learner’s interlanguage with both his native and the target language.