Second Language Acquisition

The Behaviorist View

The behaviorists believe that FLL consists of learners imitating what they hear and develop habits in the FL by routine practice. In this view, the learners are thought to relate what they know of their L1 to what they recognize in the L2. "Positive transfer" is a result of similarities between the L1 and the L2, because habits used in the L1 easily transfer to the L2. On the other hand, "negative transfer is caused by differences between the L1 and the L2, because errors result from using habits from the L1 in the L2.

Problems with this view of FLL include the fact that imitation does not help the learner in real-life situations. Learners are continually required to form sentences they have never previously seen. A finite number of pre-practiced sentences is not enough to carry on conversation, not even with an intructor. Another problem with this view is that many of the errors made by FL learners are not based on the L1. Instead, the problems most often encountered by learners resemble errors made by children during the period of L1 acquisition.

The Cognitive View

In the cognitive view FL learners are thought to creatively use their skills of cognition in order to figure out the L2 on their own. The learners notice a pattern and construct their own rules accordingly, then go back and change the rules if they are faulty. In this approach to L2 acquisition, the learners benefit from their mistakes because they are playing an active role in the FLL process and learning first-hand how the language works.

One problem with this view is that cognition is not the only factor that learners use to make assumptions about a language. It has been viewed that some errors learners make are based on rules of the L1; they are influenced by these rules as opposed to coming to conclusions based on their cognitive abilities. Another problem is that it is not always possible to deduce what the FL learner meant to say, and therefore the error cannot be clearly determined.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

This hypothesis states that there is a period in a person's life in which he or she must learn a language, or else language acquisition becomes impossible. The basis for this hypothesis is that by puberty the brain is already fully developed and afterwards language acquisition becomes extremely difficult.

There is striking evidence in favor of this belief. "Genie" was 13 1/2 years old when she was found living in conditions of extreme neglect and isolation. Since approximately two years of age until the time in which she was found she had received very little language interaction. "Genie" was eventually able to learn a limited vocabulary, but was never able to grasp on to language as a whole. However, some argue that this evidence does not necessarily support the critical period hypothesis because she may have an overall low IQ. In this case, her inability to master a L1 may reflect cognition and not language acquisition at all.

According to this hypothesis, FLL should occur before puberty for best results. If there is a critical period for learning a L1 then the same would apply to acquiring a L2. Studies have shown that before the brain is fully developed a L2 can be learned more easily than afterwards. However, many people have been able to master the syntax and vocabulary of a FL after puberty. The only conclusive evidence for the critical period hypothesis with regards to FLL is phonology. Learners who have shown great ability to acquire a L2 have not been able to overcome their foreign accents.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

According to this hypothesis language acquisition occurs in a predictable, universal order, and it is the same for the learning both a L1 and a L2. Studies have shown that different learners of English as a L2 make similar errors regardless from which linguistic background they come. Some of these errors resemble the errors most often made be children when learning their native languages.

However, as with any controversial idea, this belief has its criticisms. Very few of these studies have been done, and only a few grammatical errors have actually been analyzed. Another problem is that linguists in general have knowledge of very limited languages. With all the different languages that exist in the world, only a small percentage have been, or could be, thoroughly studied.

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Last updated: 28 May 01