Topic 6B – 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 6B – 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.

We will start our discussion with a sort of introduction and continue with the first point that deals with the influences of Linguistic Language Teaching, as well as the influences of other sciences. At this point from a definition of Linguistics, we then move onto Compared Linguistics. Two linguistic theories are also looked into: Structuralism and Generative Grammar. Sociolinguistic is also defined. We will finish this block with the contributions of other sciences such as Pedagogy and Psycology to the process of foreign language teaching.

Secondly, we will look into the language learning process and we shall try to find the differences between the acquisition of the mother tongue and the learning of a foreign language. Within this block, we will also refer to the Curriculum, and the Constructivist Model proposed by it; the difference between acquisition and learning is established and different suggestions to avoid problems in the second language learning.

A conclusion summing up what has been discussed throughout the unit will be fo-

llowed by the bibliography used for the elaboration of this topic.

As a sort INTRODUCTION we shall point out that in the last twenty years the need for change in language didactics has been analysed along the following lines:

1-Change of the concept of Education, where a stronger a stonger focus on communication is given;

2- the need for the study of foreign languages through a better education;

3- how the technological progress and the development of audivisual aids have contributed to the modernisation of teaching;

4- the students demand of an active learning of foreign languages.

Teachers have to take advantage of the large numbers of pedagological theories and approaches and choose those that can be best applied in their students’ specific situation.

Therefore, the teacher has to develop an eminentely creative task and learn how to incorporate into his methodology the latest findings in the field of Linguistics, and the contributions of many other sciences.

Once having begun the unit we are going to deal with the first block of our discussion; which considers the influences of Linguistics on FLT.

The teaching of any subject must be supported by a series of general disciplines that are common to the teaching of any subject, such as Psychology, Sociology and so on.

In LT these disciplines assist in the teaching from any perspective. Linguistics are included here, or more accurately Macrolinguistics, which includes Sociolinguistics and Microlinguistics. The findings from these disciplines used on the teaching of L, help us to make decisions to overcome the problems involved in teaching.

The so called, Linguistic Science or Linguistics, that is, the study of language is a very recent science. For centuries, the interest was only centred on the research of a universal grammar. In the 19th century Compared Linguistics, appeared which established that the relationship among language can be explained in a scientific way. Nowadays, however Applied Linguistics deal with collecting data from those disciplines whose objectives are the study of language, its learning, its use, and to utilise those facts to clarify the factors related to LT.

Let’s move on now to consider what Applied Linguistics is for. It collects data and interprets the results that may achive its aim and uses its findings to carry out its own experimental research.

Applied Linguistics has to do with all those theories that analyse how they can be useful LT and then proceed with their pedagological application.

This knowledge is use to build grammars, to do comparative analysis between two or more languages, to carry out research on the illiteracy rates of the population and to study languages and their regional varieties.

The most interesting field of study deals with second L learning and acquisition. Applied Linguistics uses these findings from other sciences and applies them to LL.

We are going to consider some sciences on which the concept of FLT is based. The most important theories are Structuralism and Generative Grammar.These theories are example of how research in Applied Linguistics can be helpful in explaining the process of mother tongue acquisition and second LL.

Structuralism first appeared with Saussure in the 19th century. This theory defends that language is a social phenomenon which is useful because it works in a community. This approach implies a psychological perspective, its study is centred on speech and not on grammatical structures. He made a distinction between language ( the system ) and speech ( the individual of the system ). They begin with an active study of all speeches, arriving at the general rules. All these structuralistic principles have in commonthe assumption that grammar does not consist of a system of rules that govern the isolated elements of language, but of a set of structures that have to be taught, especially those that are different in the learners’ first language.

The application of structuralism in LT was developed after the 2nd World War. Linguistics examined and classified the structure of the first L and the second L being studied. They analysed which structures were similar to that language and which offered interference, they made drills.

Structuralism is based on “behaviourist psycology stimulus answer response“, and its attitude towards teaching is based on the premise that 2nd L acquisition is the result of habit and condidional reflexes, we learn by imitation and repetition.

Against this theory appeared Chomsky with his “Generative Grammar” Theory. Chomsky observed that structuralism did not explain how the child was able to produce sentences that he had never produced before. Chomsky’s generativist theory postulated the existence of a specific ability in the child, an ability that allowed him to generate an infinitive number of rules. A creative person who can create an unlimited number of sentences with just a few linguistic elements. The child hears his first L and is able to develop a series of increasingly global and correct hypothesis about that language system.

Before Chomsky students were given correct grammatical examples, nowadays students can compare sentences with and without errors, and they are allowed to make mistakes because that is understood as an important step in an autonomous process of learning. This theory gives special importance to free expression and creativity.

Chomsky establishes a distinction between competence (the knowledge that the person has about his mother tongue) and performance, that is the effective use of this knowledge in his normal speech.

We should point out here an essential aspect of the research of applied linguistics, that is, to what extent can the process of first L acquisition be equivalent to the process of 2nd L learning. Thus it can be seen that the process is the same, 2nd Language learners draw hypothesis about the L system, apply the rules and modify them according to the feedback they receive. A 2nd L learner learns from his effort to communicate. If what the learner wants to communicate lies within the possibilities of his system, he will have no problems. The problem arises when he wants to communicate something that is not in his system. Therefore, he can choose to follow other paths, such as using gestures, or transfering the limits he knows, in other words, he will take a risk.

We could conclude from the above that errors that students make reveal the state of development of his system. We must give him enough information on the success or failure of his communicative attempt. He requires input to contrast his production. The student then learns through the process of communicating; he who takes a risk will be the one who learns most.

Up to this point we have shown some of the linguistic theories which help us to explain the acquisition of a mother tongue and the learning of a FL.

Now let us move on to mention the importance of another science: Sociolinguistics. This science studies and states the relationship between the possession of a L and the control of reality. The social level of the family conditions the development of speech abilities and level of performance. The classroom can be a useful substitute for a poor linguistic environment.

We should also mention the studies of some linguists, like Firth and Martinowsky. They spoke about the concept of situational context, that is the meaning of an utterance is a consequence of the cultural and situational context where it takes place.

In the Eighties many programs in ELT were developed. All of them were based on the consideration of a L as an instrument of communication. The threshold level, for instance, whose author is Wilkins, established a program model for a European adult student of foreign L in terms of his communicative needs. It was intended to

create a program based on the areas of his interests.

In Europe L teaching was slowly changing. Linguistics were mainly concerned with oral language as a means of communication. Learners were taught to comprehend and then to speak. The interferance of the first L had to be avoided. Conversation was the main focus of the class.

The process of LT goes parallel to the learning process. In the 70s special attention waspaid to this learning process. The concept of interferance, introduced by Corder, refers to the problems of interferance caused by the mother tongue on the learning of a foreign language.

Now, we shall study the contributions of other sciences to the process of foreign LT.

On the one hand, we find Pedagogy whose contribution to the teaching of foreign L and to the concept of modern education is the following: that the educational principles are flexible, and should be adapted to every social change. An individualised teaching is required, as well as the formation of an integral person with special attention to his creative ability. Group work, collaboration and the participation of students in all the educational process should also be considered.

On the other hand, we find he science of Psycology. Some important studies are the following: in the teaching of foreign L motivation is very important. Apart from motivation a deep knowledge of the pupil’s psychological characteristics is required; we need to know the student’s abilities and rhythm of learning to better adopt the structure of the subject to his structure of knowledge. So the teacher will be able to allow pupils to learn more depending on their own needs and rhythm.

Summarising, we could say that the most important contribution of Pedagogy and Pedagogy to foreign L teaching is that the teaching must be centred on the pupils’ needs and personality; creativity whilst imagination should be developed through motivation.

After having dealt with some of the contributions of Linguistics and other sciences to FLT, we shall analyse the process of L learning and the similarites and differences between the acquisition of the mother tongue and the learning of a foreign L.

The starting point of the theoretical basis of the conception of 2nd L learning is found in the Curriculum: ” The foreign L acquisition process can be characterised as a creative construction process during which the student, relying on a set of natural strategies, based on the input received, formulates hypotheses in order to make up the internal representation of the new L system.”

Knowing a L implies knowing its sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic aspects. The sociolinguistic aspect implies the knowlwdge of the rules related to a given sociolnguistic context; the discourse aspect organises cohesion and coherence in different spoken and written statements; the strategic aspect is responsible for completing the interaction when taking into account the objective of


The Contructive Model proposed by the Curriculum is based on the following aspects:

1- The student is considered the centred of the teaching process;

2- The student has a certain knowledge that adds to the new information

and combines them to produce significant learning.

Another important aspect of the contructive model is that of learning through discovery. L functions as regards rules are learned by a process of discovery. The students generates hypotheses himself and check that they match the established rules.

Before moving on to study some of the theories on the L learning process, let us focus on the differences between the acquisition and learning.

Krashen in his book Language Acquisition Hypothesis makes a clear distinction between acquisition and learning. According to him, the acquisition is a natural process whereas learning is conscious formal process. Acquisition implies an implicit knowledge of rules in contrast with learning which implies the explicit knowledge of rules.

Acquisition is the way a child acquires his mother tongue, whereas learning is the way students learn a foreign language.

After having looked into the differences between acquisition and learnig, we are going to study some of the theories on the acquisition and learning of a second language.

Vigotsky establishes three main stages in language acquisition. The first one is when language is only a means of external communication in a child, both in form and function. The third one is when language is interiorised and becomes verbal thought and then guides cognitive development.

Today it is believed that the first statements of children are due to their individual system, independent from that of adults; language is built or rebuilt by the child who gradually makea a system of rules, an implicit grammar and a set of communication rules with which he interprets what he receives.Thus, the child produces statements correctly but these are mere repetitive routine. The interesting aspect is that the child makes incorrect statements which shows that he is trying to create a language using his own linguistic mechanism, according to certain opearating rules that he himself has generated, it is an internal implicit grammar.

The second language acquisition process goes through three different phases:

1.- Cognitive elaboration: the learner centres his attention on types of models presented to him in the 2nd L. He has an attitude towards comprehending or remembering the different aspects of the models presented.

2.- Associate phase: the child begins to form hypotheses about the input received, as well as its organisation and arrangement, contrasting them with his knowledge and exemplifying them with the production of such models in similar contexts.

3.- Autonomy phase: the child can use what he has learned spontaneously.In order for this phase to take place, a great amount of previous practice is required.

Another important aspect of the constructive model is that the student has an active role in which he will have to implement certain strategies similar to those used in first L acquisition to adapt, generalise, correct rules and so on.

Lastly an assumption in the previous model is that in any learning process there is a semantic motivation. There is a natural predisposition for producing meaning, which is motivating when learning a 2nd L.

Moving on, another section of this topic concerns the basic differences and similarities between the acquisition of a mother tongue and the learning of a foreign


Firstly, we will examine the similarities. They are three:

-the interlingual development,

-the subconcious mental process and

-the variation.

We are going to explain now what we undertand by the interlingual development process. When a language is learned, the learner is not ready to use it for some years. Interlingual development is the process a learner must go through before is able to speak fluently or as well as a native speaker.

The second similarity is the subconcious mental process; the brain organises the input received to allow the mechanisms to speak.

The third similarity is the variation. Not all language learners follow the same path. There are individual variations which make some students learn slower than others. Phychological personality and others also come into play here.

Now, let us consider the differences. There are three important differences between the acquisition of the mother tongue and the learning of a FL. These are:

-the age,

-the phenomenon of fossilitation and

-the transference.

According to many authors, age is a factor that determines the success or failure in 2nd LL. Today there is absolute unanimity in the fact that is approximality in puberty

when the ability to acquire L under natural conditions is lost.

Another difference is the phenomenon of fossilitation. Many 2nd L learners never quite learn the L correctly. Thie causes may be due to the type of teaching is given, the problems of motivation or the students personal characteristics.

The third difference is the transference. When we speak a 2nd L, it is almost impossible not to make mistakes influenced by our native L.

As we have explained, a basic difference between the acquisition of a mother tongue and the learning of a FL is that the first one is a natural process which does not need a methodology, whereas the 2nd one does; the FLL happens in a classroom and not in social life.

In mother tongue acquisition there is a continuos linguistic information, and a direct contact between the L and its cultural envirinment; the correction of errors appears after training and effort. On the contrary, we find that FLL involves planning with special objectives and a specific didactic method.

We should finally point out some suggestions to overcome problems in the 2nd LL process.

Firstly, we should not change the natural order of the interlingual process.

Secondly, pupils must receive a high input. We must respect a silent period and allow children to express themselves in a spontaneous and natural way.

Finally, regarding how to overcome the fossilitation phenomenon, we find different opinions by different authors. Some of then think that pupils should be push to produce, and grammar should be taught. Others state that grammar should be taught in an inductive way, without forcing pupils to use it correctly.

Summarising, we can point out the following. In this unit we have presented some of the most important contributions to FLT; especially the principles of Linguistics, Structuralism and Generative Grammar. After that, we have looked into the most important differences and similarities between the acquisition of the mother tongue

and the learning of a FL.


1- The Teaching of English as an International Language by Abbot, G and Wingard, P. Collins, 1981.

2- Approches and Methods in Second Language Learning by Garner, R.C. and Lambert.

Rowley Press Newbury.

3- Linguistics in Language Teaching by Wilking, D. Edward Arnold, 1972.