Topic 6C – 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 6C – 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.

The teaching of foreign languages has always developed along with Linguistics,although it has been in this century when the traditional conceptions of science of language has been transformed by a widening and specializing of its knowledge. On the other hand, in the current situation ofLinguistics, there is an intention to overcome the contradictions of previous beliefs, in order to elaborate a new model, much more eclectic and useful for the process of language teaching and learning.


The theoretical aspects upon which the main methods and approaches are based and studied in the field of Applied Linguistics, and a first systematization of these theoretical principles at the beginning of the 19th century.

Before that, the methodology used in the language teaching processes in the 17th and 18th was GrammarTranslation Method whose techniques were based on the model of Latin teaching, when this was already a dead language. This model was, in fact,unsuitable to teach living languages,as it was a mere adaptation of techniques belonging to a prestigious discipline.

However, just from the second half of the 19th century the first applied linguists appeared, looking for some theoretical basis on which they could support the language teaching processes. To do so, they observed the children´s acquisition mechanisms of their first language, the importance of oral communication, and the first steps done in the studies of Phonetics.

Although these first principles had less impact at the moment, they served as an influence on later works. Thus, they are very related with the second researching line, the Reform Movement which supported, on the one hand, the adoption of an inductive approach in which oral production was considered more important than written production, and on the other hand, a deep study of Phonetics in order to introduce more efficient exercises to improve pronunciation.

In the 19th century appeared the Direct Method, based on the model of the first language acquisition. According to this approach, the best way to learn the second language was the practice of oral production just since the beginning with the help of non-verbal strategies to explain the meaning of some of the words or phrases which were likely to appear.

In the 20th century, the works of Applied Linguistics on the field of language teaching point out to their application on academic contexts, and they require the adoption of teaching techniques which take into account the classroom reality.

At the end of the World War II, the American Army had to organize intensive language courses in order to prepare the military staff to work as translators or interpreters in the occupied countries because the Reading Method which was most used, did not guarantee enough fluency in oral comprehension and production, they appealed to the structuralist linguists´ experiences such as Bloomfield.

After the World War II, the Audiolingual Method appeared, partially based on the Army courses. In this method there is a relationship between Structuralism (Bloomfield) and Psychological Behaviourism (Skinner), whose stimulus-response-reinforcement theories would have a great influence on the layout of the mechanic exercises which are characteristical of the Audiolingual Method. For this method, oral production is more important than written and the order for practising the skill is: aural comprehension (listening), oral production (speaking), written comprehension (reading), and written production (writing).

In Great Britain another linguistic school appeared, which worked independently from the Audiolingual. It developed a very similar method of teaching foreign languages: The Situational Language Teaching. It is based on Structuralism but much more formal in their linguistic references.It gives more importance to the situational context and to a selection of vocabulary. Nevertheless, the exercises of both methods do not prepare the students for real situations of communication.

In the Sixties, a new approach appeared in Great Britain: The Communicative Language Teaching in which the situational component of the Situational Language Teaching is the frame for communicative interactions and not only for the practice of structures. In this approach, the term communicative competence was coined by American linguist D.Hymes to refer to the ability of using the linguistic system in an efficient way to communicate in society.

From the decade of the 60s,other approaches have appeared which have contributed to development of Applied Linguistics. These methods are interested in the cognitive processes and in the affective and contextual conditions which must take place for the learning or acquisition of the foreign language.

The first one is the Total Physical Response, based on J.Asher´s methodological criteria. One of the main principles of this new approach is that pupils remember more easily those utterances which they can relate with actions made by themselves. Thus the comprehension of meaning the orders that the teacher asks the pupils to do lead them to produce no-verbal responses such as getting up,opening the door,drawing,etc.

Following the same line, the Natural Approach, based onS Krashen and T.Terrell works, propose the possibility of acquiring a second language in an academic context if the conditions which are similar to those which can be found in the process of acquiring the first language by young children are fulfilled. Language learning as a conscient process lead children to acquire some knowledge which will help them to correct their mistakes, what is called Monitor Theory.

Finally, it is important to quote some approaches, such as The Silent Way, which looks for the learners´ hard concentration on the utterances; Suggestopaedia, which uses relaxation and suggestion as helpers for language learning; and the Community Language Learning, based on group therapy and which uses the target language as a means of expressing feeling.


Phonetics and Phonology.

These two sciences deal with sounds and how they can combine to make meanings.

Phonetics works the whole sound body of a language, studing its phonic elements in a systemic way. It gives the representation of sounds which helps to pronounce the language in a correct way. The main parts of Phonetics are: Articulatory Phonetics, which concentrates on how the sounds are emitted by speakers; Auditory Phonetics, which studies those sounds in relation to the listeners; and Acoustic Phonetics, which deals with the physical part of sounds by using different instruments to register them.

Phonology deals with the function of those sounds in the communicative process and gives an exhaustive analysis of the rules of the sound system within the language.

Phonetics is ,together with Linguistics, one of the main sciences concerned with language and arose in the 16th century as the science that studied the relationship between spelling and sound. In 1886 the International Phonetic Association (IPA) was founded. This association devised a phonetic alphabet, or set of symbols that would serve to represent the sound of any language. This alphabet is now widely used in textbooks and pronouncing dictionaries.

As our present objective is the teaching of a foreign language, the most useful view for this purpose is to regard Phonetics and Linguistics as the two Linguistic Sciences. Both of them study language, but from different angle. Phonetics is interested in sounds and how they are organized and transmitted,whereas Linguistics is concerned with how language is structured grammatically and semantically.


Within Grammar we can find two sciences: Morphology and Syntax.

Morphology studies the form of the words of a language, and deals with the word flexions of genre, number and case, and with the problems which may arise in this area. It also studies among others, the changes which are produced in meaning by the influence of affixes.

Syntax established the rules for sentence combination and analyses the different of the words within the sentences.

Grammar has two main objectives; it gives the rules necessary to generate the meaningful chains or stringswhich are characteristical of a language. On the other hand, it gives rules useful for the speaker to verify that a chain of meaning belongs to the language s/he speaks.

The most important ideas in the field, nowadays, are given by Chomsky´s Generative Grammar, which sets up that a language is built upon a finite vocabulary corpus, this being a group of symbols which combine to make sentences.


Semantics studies the meaning and sense of words, and it applies its researches to three important fields:

· Structural Semantics, based on Saussure´s works. He claimed that the signification of a sign is not only limited to the relationship between the signifier and signified parts of it, but also between this sign and the others.

· Distributional Semantics, in which the meanings of the linguistic units are in relation with the contexts in which they appear.

· Generative Semantics, which does not take into account the different elements of the sentence but the sentence itself as a model.


It is a modern science which considers speech an act by itself, because language is inserted in a productive context. This context is the communicative situation and knowledge shared by the speaker and the listener.

The speech act is regarded as a cooperative process in which the participants´intentions must be interpreted. H.P. Grice established in his book Logic and Conversation,that, in every speech act, there is a conventional meaning given by speakers´knowledge of the language rules, and an implicative meaning, given by the speakers´intention towards their message and towards the listeners, as well as by the context. In this sense, Grice´s Cooperative Principle established that speakers cooperate in their engagement in conversation, their engagement being on four maxims:

· The maxim of Quantity, which says: Make your contribution as informative as it is required.

· The maxim of Quality, which says: Make your contribution true; be sincere.

· The maxim of Relation, saying: Make your contribution relevant; do not be unconnected.

· The maxim of Manner: Avoid obscurity, ambiguity; give order to your speech.

Normally, speakers fulfill these four maxims in their speech acts. However, when one or more of them are broken up intencionally, this fact gives place to what Grice calls a conversational implicature, that is, an implication made by the speaker who intends to say something, in an indirect way, to the listener.


Theexperiments carried out about the learning of the first language lead to the conclusion that only before puberty the child´s brain has a great plasticity that allows him/her perfectly the languages that s/he hears around, but when puberty comes, that plasticity seems to decrease gradually.

Nevertheless, this conclusion says nothing about what happens in the person´s brain when learning a language, nor does it explain how some people after puberty have achieved a mastering of one or several languages, even with a great degree of perfection. Moreover, the methods and techniques of foreign language teaching are exclusively based on the results of teaching experience, but never on a precise knowledge of how the individual´s internal mechanisms work, although, on the other hand, as the process of learning the mother tongue coincides with the first years of life, when the child experiments the most spectacular physical and mental development, it is natural to think that there exists a narrow relationship between these two processes: the first and the second language learning.


Although, up to now, the several researches that have been undertaken on this matter have not been able to explain appropiately how second language learning process works, they have shown that some methods and techniques are more efficient than others. In order to establish a solid scientific basis, these researches have leaned on learning processes in general, and on the process of first language acquisition.

There are essential differences between the learning of a second language and the acquisition of the first language. When children acquire their native language, they are answering to their vital necessity of dominating the environment in which they are inserted. When they have this tool, their purpose to learn another language is very different. Indeed, the circumstances in which we acquire our L1 are very different from those in which we learn a L2.

Three important theories can be applied both to the acquisition and the learning of languages:

· SKINNER´S Behaviourism, which is based on experiments made with animals. According to behaviourist researchers, the way how animals and human beings learn is similar. The theory on human speech says that every speech act is produced as a response to a stimulus. This stimulus can have different origins, such as the environment, the speaker needs and another speech act made by an interlocutor. Besides, if the appropiate answer is to be produced, it is necessary some sort of reinforcement. In our case, this reinforcement can be the speaker´s desire to be understood or simply to communicate.

The behaviourist researcher regards language learning as the acquisition of several habits which can only be acquired by repeating the adequate answers in different situations. During this process of continuous repetition the student of a second language adopts a participative role. What is important for Behaviourism is not the meaning of the spoken chains, but the authomatic production of responses to the different stimula.

CHOMSKY´S Innatism appeared in the 60s as a contraposition to Behaviourism. For him, all human beings have innate universal grammatical rules just from before they are born. These rules are valid for all languages. When the child starts speaking s/he applied them to the language s/he listens to around him/her. At the same time, s/he makes his/her own grammatical rules of his/her own language and during the whole process of acquisition , these rules are adapted to the general concept s/he has.

· ASSOCIATIONISM, for its part, include these factors in its researches. This theory claim that communication factors transmit aditional information which children associate with a concrete situation. In this sense, they make relations between expressions that they may hear and the objects or actions which accompany those expressions. Their need to fall back on these relationships decrease as they memorize the associations. Thus, the end of this progression is in their use of the linguistic system without appealing to extralinguistic elements.

Associationism coincides with Behaviorism in making relations between words and object. However, in Associationis, the process is not mechanical, but it result as a consequence of the individual´s intelligence. In this sense, s/he is active participant in the communication process and in the learning processes because s/he is able to draw his/her own conclusions.

It is important to say that, to speak a language, we have to know both the vocabulary and grammar of that language, and that children lean on their own intelligence to establish the rules which will help them to make suitable speech acts. During the whole learning process these rules are continuously revised.

On the other hand, if we want to learn a second language, it is necessary to mention the importance of the teaching process, which is of less relevance in the process of acquisition.


When learning a second language, people have different purposes and the achieve different result. This fact make us suppose that there exist different factors which make influence on this process. Several studies have given place to some conclusions and they set up three main factors which are of great importance in the second language learning process.

1. Motivation.

Motivation seems to be the most interesting factors of all three, because it does not make any influence on the L1 learning processes. The L1 acquisition allows children to get into relation with their environment and to satisfy their needs. As they get to master the use of their first language, they discover the possibilities they have to cover up other necessities and functions which may appear.

If the L2 is learnt when older, the concepts belonging to the L1 language are already settled up and they are used by adults in their L2 learning process. If there is an interest in learning the L2, this teaching-learning process will be followed in a very efficient way because knowing another language implies knowing another culture.

At a glance, it seems that if the learner stays in the host country of the language s/he is studying. S/he will find it easier to learn that language. However, this is only true if the learner is actually interested in participating in social contacts with native speakers. His/her wishes to control the environment are more important here than the teaching aspects.

When speaking about motivation, it is not only important to appeal reward, in the behaviouristic sense of the word, but we must also include human psychological needs. Among them we can find essential ones, such as hanger o fear; and some others dealing with personal security, feeling of belonging to a community, self-confidence and relation with the other members of the community we belong to. Apart from the motivation in satisfying these psychological needs, every individual is more encouraged as his/her objectives are more important for him/her, as for example, those referring to cultural interest, family well-being, etc.

Researches have shown that there are two types of motivation:

· Integrative motivation, referring to the students´feeling of belonging to the community of native speakers of the language they are learning and of participating in their cultural environment.

· Instrumental motivation, dealing with the learners´need to learn the second language to apply for a job or to study abroad.

This second type of motivation is very common in Primary Education, and as teachers, our role is to encourage in our students the integrative motivation. To do so, there are a series of techniques: bringing to the classroom material (pictures,brochures,leaflets,…) about the country; organizing competitions on sports characteristical of the country; or accompanying the students to shows (films,plays,concerts,…) in the foreign language.

On the other hand, teachers must have in mind that children are better receivers of these kinds of activities than adults, and that they are easily encouraged to participate in tasks where they can play an active role (dramatizations,games,mural making,..).

Language aptitude.

It has been shown that there are some people who can learn a language more easily than other people,who, in turn, find it rather difficult to get enough competence in that new language. A lot of research has been made in this sense to find the relationship between our own aptitude or inner ability and the results achieved in our learning process. Thus, it has been shown that there is no direct connection between our intelligence and our aptitude for language learning. On the contrary, it seems to exist a dependence on series of factors, such as the brain ability to record and memorize certain phonetical material; our own faculty to tackle grammatical information; our capacity to remember new words; and our ability to discover or infer, without help, linguistic forms and rules.

The Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) is used to measure these abilities, although it is only based on linguistic elements. Besides, it seems that this test only gives us 50 per cent of certainly, and that is the reason why the Language Aptitude Battery (LAB) was also used to measure language aptitude, but including other extralinguistic elements such as motivation. According to the results given by this test, the students who get satisfactory results in the other subjects usually get good qualifications in foreign language. Indeed, this is usually true, but there are other students as well who are very good at foreign language, but not at rest of the subjects. In conclusion, there does not exist definitive criteria for us to base on when dealing with this matter.

However, the fact that intelligence does not make great influence over foreign language acquisition does not mean that teacher leave it aside. On the contrary, it is important to take intelligence into consideration when choose the appropiate methodology in class. Thus, for less intelligent students, the most useful method seems to be that of repetition, whereas a methodology based on explanation of what they are learning seems to suit better to cleverer pupils.


Here, the question is, “which is the appropiate age to start learning a second language?”. According to some studies the best age to foreign language learning is between four and eight years, because the child experiments an intensive process of evolution characterised by his/her ability to learn through mere exposition to data. Nevertheless, there some teachers who think that children should not start learning a second language until they have enough fluency on their first language. They even say that an early start in L2 learning can prevent children from acquiring their L1 efficiently.

All these opinions leads us to analyse the advantages and disadvantages of foreign language learning early start. In order to do that, we can have a look at those cases of emigrants´children who get competence in a L2. As opposed to them, those children who learn a foreign language at school do not usually achieve that degree of perfection.

For all this, one of the main reasons to introduce L2 learning in Primary Education is the better assimilation of phonetical elements that children have at this age. Besides, children usually are less reticent to participate actively in class, just as they do not have the adults´sense of ridiculous, although adults normally have less dificulty on getting concentrated. All these age factors, however, should not interfere on the teaching-learning process, and we should think that, wether younger or older, the human being has mechanisms of every type to acquire foreign languages if they are motivated to do so.

What, in fact, should worry us is the fact that the little success which the student may have in Primary School is, unfortunately, due not to the factors of age, aptitude or motivation, but the teacher´s low level of preparation in relation with how to let the students into a foreign language.


According to Chomsky, the difference between acquisition and learning is that acquisition can only take place up to a certain age because when we have already got the mechanisms which allow us to register those cncept, procedures, and pieces of information in order to use them in our daily lives for different purposes,all which we can get afterwards is not tackled through our mechanisms of acquisition, but through our learning processes. It is just during acquisition when children make their own grammar, by verifying which rules are correct and which are wrong. This checking process is made through their analysis of input data which are contrasted with their own innate rules.

Chomsky´s theories on this field are nowadays considered and followed when dealing with how children acquire their first language, and they are very useful to study those processes which give place to foreign language learning and to put them into practice when teaching that foreign language at school.


When they begin speaking, children produce certan utterances which they have not heard before. Thios fact leads us to think that there must be an inner mechanism which, basing itself on the outer linguistic data, allow the production of different grammatical structures. From this generative-transformational point of view (Chomsky´s) these phenomena can be explained through the Language Acquisition Device, which make childen know the linguistic universals (word order,linguistic categories, etc), as well as the procedures which are necessary to acquire a language.

Mother tongue acquisition begins in the very moment the child is given birth, when s/he hear the first sounds,voices and even his/her own cry. When s/he is three or four years old, s/he has already got hold of the way how his/her language works, and is able to communicate more or less effectively with the speakers of the same language.

The innate ability to oral communication is characteristical of all human beings, except from those who suffer from some sort of serious congenital illness or disability. As it has been said before, intelligence is not directly related to language acquisition because those people who are not relatively clever have been succesful in acquire their native language.

Within the whole process of mother tongue acquisition, there exist some steps followed by children:

· Prelinguistic stage: From birth to the age of eight months, children acquire spontaneously the use of auditory mechanisms. It is the stage when they produce non-symbolic sounds.

· First word production: When they are 11 months old, children produce a voice sound which is somehow symbolic for them. This is the stage in which they give names to people or objects placed around them.

· Second year: Children´s messy vocalic structures begin to get shape and they begin to participate into communicative exchanges. Their parents´role gets more and more important. However, it is not a matter of repetition of what they say, but beyond that, children create by themselves sounds which they regard as correct or wrong depending on the adults´reactions. These criteria of validation help the child to take or opt out the different strings of language they are giving birth to. Those strings which s/he considers to be correct are the same that the ones produced by adults and are reinforced by means of continuous repetition.

· Between 3 and 4 years old: The process of acquisition keeps on developing. This a period of great creativity and less difficulty for auditory discrimination, and for imitation. The essential aspects of the process of acquisition are developed in full. The following grammatical system children build on are very similar to those which respond to the adults´grammatical rules.

· Entering school: The school substitutes their parents in the acquisition process and provides them with written code. It is just in this moment when the process of learning behings, and it will all their lives.


The fact that children start acquiring their mother tongue when they are babies suggests that it would be quite a good idea to take advantage of this ability to make them acquire some others. Indeed, there are people in many places who are bilingual since they were born, this ocurring in families where two or more languages are spoken at the same time. Besides, we must take into account that, from a phonetical and auditory point of view, children have all the biological characteristics to be able to acquire naturally more than one language just from their childhood.

In some cases children can acquire simultaneously their mother tongue and their father tongue. However, “bilingualism” does not mean “same lingualism”, that is, both languages being used with the same frequency of time. On the contrary, their use depends on the circumstances around, and normally, one language is more often used that another.

On the other hand, several researches have shown that it would be of great help for children to be bilingual since the beginning, in terms of psychological development. However, this is only possible whenever the contact with their parents´languages is as more natural as possible; if not, there may exist a possible slowing down in their acquiring process.

Bilingualism is essentially the result of family circumstances, or of other natural ways of contact with different languages, such as those cases in which children live long periods of time in a foreign country, or in which two languages coexist in the same country.

Nevertheless, those bilingual or multilingual countries, such as Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, or Spain, can not always offer their citizens the possibility to take advantage of this situation when they are acquiring their first language/s. The main reason for this is that those languages often compete among them, that is, they are rivals, and people belonging to one of the linguistic communities often have a negative attitude towards the other/s, as it is case of Canada.

It is in Canada where an inmersion program was put into practice in 1965. The experiment began in a little village called Saint Lambert, and it was completed and assesed by the psychological department of the University of Montreal. The program consisted in the alternation of French and English. Children spoke English at home, but at school, they were taught French by using it in the different subjects they had to study. This project had great relevance and has given place to a lot of research in that country.

With regard to Europe, only in bilingual countries can this program be put into practice. Luxemburg is a case apart, because it is a trilingual country: Luxemburguese is spoken at home, German is taught from the first year of Primary Education, and French, from the third year. This early trilingualism is completed in Secondary Education with the teaching of English. The citizens of Luxemburg, where there are not universities, have the possibility of choosing among those universities of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Canada and the United States. This situation is very difficult to achieve in many other European countries.

However, something similar is what is called bilingual education, which implies the teaching in a foreign language of one or more topics well kown by the pupils. The methodology is being carried at school in Netherlands, Germany, France and Scandinavian countries.