Topic 6 – 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 6 – 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.

Language is a system of gestures, grammar, signs, sounds, symbols, or words, used to represent and communicate concepts, ideas, meanings, and thoughts. The study of language as such a code is called linguistics, an academic discipline which runs along two major axes (lines): Diachronic versus synchronic and theoretical versus applied linguistics. We shall now explain each of these terms:

Diachronic study of a language covers the history of languages and their evolution over time. This area of linguistics is also called Historical linguistics or comparative linguistics. The aim of this discipline is primarily the study of languages which are recognizably related through similarities such as vocabulary. Diachronic studies have mostly focused on Indo-European languages. Synchronic study of a language, on the other hand, is concerned with its form at a given time. It is, therefore, a non-historic perspective.It started with Ferdinand de Saussure and became predominant with Noam Chomsky.

Theoretical linguistics is concerned with theories about universal aspects of language, and is often divided into a number of separate areas, such as ● Phonetics , the study of the different sounds that are employed across all human languages; ● phonology the study of how sounds function in a given language or dialect; ● morphology the study of the internal structure of words; ● syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences, ● semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences; ● stylistics, the study of style in languages; ● pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used (literally, figuratively, or otherwise) in communicative acts;

Applied linguistics (lingüística aplicada) usually refers to the use of linguistic research in language teaching, but it is used in other areas, as well. For example,

* Computational Linguistics, or the application of the concepts of computer science to the analysis of language. This field is growing immensely, particularly in machine translation and artificial intelligence.

* Psycholinguistics, or the study of the relationships between linguistic and psychological behavior. Psycholinguists study first and second language acquisition and how humans store and retrieve linguistic information, referred to as verbal processing. Language acquisition is an area within this field.

* Sociolinguistics is the study of the interrelationships between language and social structure, linguistic variation, and attitudes toward language.

* forensic linguistics is used to provide evidence in courts.

In this essay we are mostly concerned with Applied linguistics in relation to language teaching

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T- 6. Aportaciones de la lingüística a la enseñanza de las lenguas extranjeras. El proceso de aprendizaje lingüístico: semejanzas y diferencias entre la adquisición de la primera lengua escolar y de la lengua extranjera.

The domain of modern linguistics, defined as the scientific study of language, has a rich and varied history spanning over two centuries. However, people have been concerned with studying language for a very long time. Linguistics is mentioned in the dialogues of Plato (300 BC) and in Roman writings.

Modern linguistics can trace its beginnings to the 17th and 18th centuries when European scholars began to develop the notion of grammars based on universalistic principles, the belief that all languages share common features. In modern times, this philosophy of universal principles is best known through the work of Noam Chomsky, who has influenced an entire generation of scholars described as “generative linguists.”

Modern linguistics is also influenced by another group of scholars who were interested in recording languages that did not have writing systems. In the United States, two men who created the models for recording and analyzing languages in the early part of the 20th century were Franz Boas and Edward Sapir. Their work focused on Native American languages but soon was carried to language groups around the world.

As the field of linguistics became more accepted as a discipline, other scholars from different fields began to incorporate language-related topics into their work. Linguistics found its way into sociology, anthropology, language arts, foreign language learning and teaching, English as a second language, translation and interpretation, literacy, and the development of language policy in countries around the world.

Today the field of linguistics has blossomed into an interdisciplinary science comprising a number of subfields and several schools of thought. Among the subfields are anthropological linguistics, applied linguistics, biological linguistics, clinical linguistics, computational linguistics, educational linguistics, ethnolinguistics, geographical linguistics, mathematical linguistics, neurolinguistics, philosophical linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, statistical linguistics, and theolinguistics.

The basis for all of these interdisciplinary fields is formal linguistics, –the study of the structures of language, and how it works and is organised. Formal linguists includes many areas of study. The main ones are phonetics (the study of the sounds of languages and their physical properties); phonology (the study of how sounds function in a given language or dialect); morphology (the study of the structure of words); syntax (the study of the structure of sentences); semantics (the study of meaning in language); discourse analysis (the study of connected spoken and written discourse); and pragmatics (the study of the social meanings of utterances). Each of these areas also includes subfields. Languages are studied from a historical perspective (diachronic linguistics) or as they are used at a given time (synchronic linguistics). Like most disciplines, linguistics has its theoretical and applied scholars and practitioners.

In this essay we are mostly concerned with Applied linguistics

in relation to language teaching


I will now make a historical overview of the main methods (ver nota aclaratoria al final) and approaches in language teaching.

The methodology used until the 19th century was the GrammarTranslation Method, whose techniques were based on the model of Latin teaching. Today this model is considered unsuitable to teach living languages because the oral skills are completely lacking.

In the second half of the 19th century the first applied linguists appeared, looking for some theoretical basis on which they could support foreign language teaching. To do so, they observed children´s mechanisms of acquisition of their first language. (The first steps in the studies of Phonetics also belong to this period).

The first important reaction to the Grammar-Translation method came in the last quarter of the 19th century with the Reform movement and the Direct Method as its main approach. Overall the principles were: immediate contact with the target language, lively interaction, no translation, no word-lists, inductive rule-formation for grammar, emphasis on oral use. All over the Western world ministries of education and professional organizations adopted these principles under various names and variants: reformed method, phonetic method, intuitive method, natural method… . In the early years of the 20th century, came the decline and death of the Direct Method, in spite of all the enthusiasm that it had engendered in many countries.

The period between 1910 – 1940 was one of intense scientific research in the field of language teaching and learning. In 1917 H.E. Palmer published his famous The scientific study and teaching of languages, pinpointing the criteria to place language learning on a scientific foundation. There are dozens of other similar works from that period. The methods from this period are commonly called “eclectic methods“, with many variants under various names, one of the most widely used being “the active method”. Indeed, these methods did not reject the good that the Reform Movement had stressed, namely communication as a vital aspect of language learning. Dialogues in daily situations remained the core material in most textbooks, but with careful gradation, and preceded or followed by the clear identification of new lexicon and grammar, with many appropriate exercises for correct integration, including translation exercises. At one point one strategy was especially stressed: the importance of progressive reading in the foreign language. Intensive reading of graded readers was therefore strongly recommended, to the point that the 1930s are sometimes referred to as the period of the Reading Method.

By 1940, however, behaviorism and a view of language as habit-formation became the emerging trend. As the Second World War brought with it a sudden, extreme need to know foreign languages, in the U.S. the Army Method was developed, a very intense language program for intelligence officers. It was a rigid, drill and practice approach, but which still used translation for efficacy and some grammar to provide a framework. After the war, the method survived in a limited way. But overall the eclectic methods remained the most widely used until the end of the 1950s.

Another method from the post-world-war-II period was the Audio-lingual Method, 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 characteristic of the Audio-lingual Method. For this method, oral production is more important than written production and the order for practising the skills 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 Audio-lingual. It developed a very similar method of teaching foreign languages: The Situational Language Teaching. It is also based on Structuralism but 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 Method 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 onwards, the development of Applied Linguistics has contributed to the creation of other methods. 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 they perform. Thus the comprehension of the teacher’s orders lead them to produce non-verbal responses such as getting up, opening the door,drawing, etc.

Following the same line, the Natural Approach, based on Krashen’ s and Terrell ‘s 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, which is called Monitor Theory.

Finally, it is important to quote some other 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.

The language learning process (basado en el tema de Magister)

The next part of our topic is the language learning process. It is important to make a distinction between first and second or foreign language learning and acquisition because although the two processes have things in common, there are also some differences. We will start with first language or mother tongue acquisition.

There are four main aspects imitation, innateness, cognition and input.

Language imitation refers to the popular view that children copy the utterances they hear. According to this theory, children gradually build up their linguistic competence by having the correct utterances reinforced and the wrong ones corrected. The main criticism to this theory is that children’s language acquisition is more a matter of maturation than of imitation.

The idea of innateness ( capacidad innata) derives from Chomsky’s notion of linguistic competence which holds that children are born with an innate capacity for language development. According to this theory, human beings are born with and possess what theorists call the “Language Acquisition Device”, or L.A.D. This innate device (mecanismo innato) allows infants to make sense of the linguistic input they receive and enables them to form hypothesis about the way language works so they can produce their own speech.

The cognitive theory further develops the idea of innateness. It results from the work of Piaget and its main theorists are Ausubel, Lakoff, Johnson, Fillmore, Goldrberg and Langacker. This theory owes much to the current understandings of the human mind. The guiding principle is that language use must be explained with reference to the underlying mental processes.

The role of input in first language acquisition is exemplified by what linguists have called “motherese”, or the language of mothers. According to Crystal, mothers have a special way of talking to their babies or infants which facilitates language acquisition by the children. The characteristics of “motherese” are: simplicity, clarity, a special affective tone and a high pitch voice which is attention-catching. Children often encounter higher levels of language formality in the academic setting, so the role of school can also be mentioned here as an important place for language input.

Second language acquisition.

So far, we have studied some of the processes behind first language acquisition. We will now focus on second language acquisition. Some of the theories of first language acquisition also apply for foreign language acquisition. The cognitive theory, for example, applies to both cases. We shall look at behavioursim, constructivism, and Krashen’s five hypothesis

Behaviourism was dominant until the 1960s. It is based on Ivan Pavlov’s idea that any living being can be train to do something if a certain procedure is followed. This procedure is stimulus > response > reinforcement. The American psychologist Skinner applied this theory to the way humans acquire language in a book calle Verbal Behaviour. The same as with the cognitive theory, behaviourism deals with both, first and foreign langue acquisition. In applying his principles to language, Skinner theorized that parents or other caretakers hear a child say something that sounds like a word, they reward the child with praise and attention. The child repeats words and combinations of words that are praised and thus learns language. As regards second language acquisition, the theory can be summarized as follows:

The capacity to speak a foreign language consists of a series of habits. If learners can develop all these habits, they will speak the language well. The audio-lingual method which based on using drills for the formation of good language habits is based on this theory.

Constructivism encourages self-dependence on personal cognitive abilities to understand, perceive and create. Constructivism was developed during the 1980s and it is based on the philosophy that knowledge comes from the coordination of careful observation and logical thinking according to Janet Taylor. According to her “it consists of new understandings about knowledge and how knowledge is acquired… It’s a theory of interaction between the ability of the mind to act on the environment as well as the environment to act on the mind”. She adds “Constructivism brings that theory to the practice of teaching so that we encourage the kind of curriculum that fosters the thinking of children and sees children as active constructors of their own knowledge.”

Krashen is an important theorist who developed five hypothesis on language learning:

1. The acquisition versus learning hypothesis puts forward the idea that the first language, or mother tongue is “aquired” in a not-conscious way, whereas the second or foreign language is “learnt”, in a more or less conscious manner.

2. The natural order hypothesis states that both the first and the foreign language are learnt following a series

of “logical” or “natural” steps

3. The monitor hypothesis implies that knowledge of grammar can be used as a “monitor”, in the sense that students can use the conscious knowledge, the monitor, to correct what they are going to say before they say it.

4. The input hypothesis takes into account the fact that we progress in our command (dominio) of a second language by understanding what Krashen calls “i + 1”. (input + 1) . This hypothesis refers to a step-by-step type of progression.

5. Finally, the affective filter hypothesis deals with the importance of affective variables on L2 acquisition. They are variables such as anxiety, motivation, self confidence, etc.

Conclusion: My personal reflexion on this topic is that if 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 involved seem to be parallel. Another important aspect is that the teaching and learning of a foreign language should not be viewed in terms of a series of elemental units of content which are perfectly apprehended before proceeding to the next, but rather in terms of a communication system which is globally elaborated and whose complexity and communicative potential increases in a progressive form.

Aclaración sobre la palabra “method” Several meanings: (1) a specific method as a descriptive framework with its own name, such as Suggestopedia, Community Language Learning or Total Physical Response. (2) a specific textbook of such a method, (3) a grouping of specific methods that have a common emphasis or core idea, such as, in fact, the Direct Method which I mentioned in the introduction. The so-called communicative approach of the past 25 years is also a conglomerate of various specific methods. In that sense the word “approach” is better suited as it suggests a broader front in which specific methods can exist. Sometimes the term “methodology” is suggested as a grouping of similar methods.) Esto es solo a modo de aclaración, NO forma parte del tema