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General theories on Second language Acquisition and Learning.

Concept of Interlanguage. The treatment of Error.

1. Introduction

Language acquisition is one of the most impressive and fascinating aspects

of human development. We listen with pleasure to the “coos” and “gurgles” of a

three-month-old baby. We laugh and “answer” the conversational “ba-ba-ba”

babbling of older babies, and we share in the pride and joy of parents whose one-

year-old has uttered the first “mommy” or “daddy”. Indeed, learning a language is

an amazing feat, one which has attracted the attention of linguists and

psychologists for generations. How do children accomplish this? On the other hand

how do adults acquire a second or foreign language? The answer to these questions

helps to solve one each other and they will be the subject of the main part of this


2. General Theories of Second Language Learning and Acquisition

2.1. Introduction

Theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) range a continuum from

nativist through interactionist to environmentalist. They differ in the relative

importance they attach to innate mechanisms and knowledge, to interactions

among innate abilities, learned abilities and environmental factors.

2.2. Environmentalist Theories of SLA

2.2.1. General Characteristics

Environmentalist theories of learning hold that an organism’s experience is

of more importance to development than its innate contributions. They deny that

innate contributions play any other role than providing the animal with the internal

structure which environmental factor can proceed to shape. The best known

examples are those behaviourist’s Stimulus-Response learning theories which

enhance the position of an innate knowledge which is conveniently adapted and

shaped according to the stimuli that it receives from the environment. Skinner
developed some theories in his Verbal Behaviour of 1957 which were well noted,

but which were soon overwhelmed by Chomsky´s revision of them in 1959.

In our role of English teachers we have to say that the S-R models little can

contribute to the explanation of a SLA, but a related family of connectionist models

have excited considerable interest in some of their sources to be used for the

development of diverse areas namely motor control, visual perception, and

memory. Of particular interest for language learning theory is the work of

McClelland et all of 1986 on Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP). PDP is a theory

of cognition which assumes no innate endowment. They say that the learning is

based on processing of input, but do not believe that the input processing results in

the accrual of rules, but something much more spontaneous.

While it is arguable that no pure environmentalist theories of

language learning had been advanced in recent years, some other ones have been

developed and indirectly they have fallen into environmental fields of knowledge

when regarding external input for explaining language acquisition. Among the

strongest ones of such theories is Schumann´s attempt to account for naturalistic

SLA as a by-product of acculturation.

2.2.2. The Acculturation Model

Schumann holds that the degree of elaboration observed in later stages of

interlanguage (IL) development is a function of social and psychological variables

that initially produces pidginization, which is a mixture of two languages. And

collectively he makes up a large causal factor in SLA, acculturation, roughly

translatable as “the process of becoming adapted to a new culture”.

He mentions Social Distance as a group-level phenomenon consisting of

eight factors whose values seem negative:

1. Social Dominance: the fact that a learner is member of a social group which

is subordinate to the TL group interferes his/her assimilation in it.

2. Integration pattern: in case in which the learner is reluctant to adapt his

own cultural identity.

3. Enclosure: when the learner belong to a higher enclosure group.

4. Cohesiveness: if a learner belongs to a fairly cohesive group, this tends to

mitigate contact with the TL group.

5. Size: Being a member of a fairly large group tends to facilitate intra-group

contact, rather than inter-group contact.

6. Cultural Congruence: if the learner belongs to a group which is not

congruent with TL group.

7. Attitude: inter-group attitudes can shift from neutral to hostile.

8. Intended length of residence: The shorter the stay, the less likely it is for

extensive contacts with the TL group to be developed.

Schumann differentiates among two types of acculturation. In Type

One acculturation, learners are psychologically open to the TL. The first factor

means that they have enough contacts with speakers for them to acquire the

second language. In Type Two acculturation, learners are socially integrated and

psychologically open, but also consciously or unconsciously wish to adopt the

lifestyle and values of the TL group. Either type of acculturation is sufficient to

ensure SLA.

Now we will see a different approach to SLA through the Nativist

Theories which have been developed being Chomsky the most important name to

be regarded within these theories.

2.3. Nativist Theories of SLA.

2.3.1. General Characteristics

Nativist theories are those which purport to explain acquisition by positing

an innate biological endowment that makes learning possible. Chomsky (1965), for

example, posits innate knowledge of substantive universals such as syntactic

categories (subject, object, noun, and verb) and distinctive phonological features,

and formal universals (abstract principles governing possible rules and parameters

of human languages). In still other nativist theories, the innate endowment involves

both linguistic principles and general cognitive notions. Chomsky´s various theories
of child language development (1965, 1980, 1981) are the best known nativist

claims, and some of his ideas have been invoked (often critically) in SLA theory

construction as well.

2.3.2. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and SLA

Chomsky as noted above claims the idea that humans are innately endowed

with universal language-specific knowledge, that is called by him Universal

Grammar (UG). Without such endowment language learning (first or second)

would be impossible because the input data are insufficiently “rich” to allow

acquisition ever to occur. Chomskyan view of the input is deficient or “poor” in two

ways. It is claimed to be “degenerate” in the sense that it is marred by

performance features, such as false starts, slips, fragments, and ungrammatically

resulting from these and other pressures inherent in real time communication which

constitute inadequate data base for language learning. Some other senses have

been considered to regard input degenerate, for example when regarding first

language acquisition children´s utterances is full of mistakes and they rarely are

grammatically corrected. The same happens with second language acquisition when

native speakers do not monitor learners of that second language when using

language inappropriately in conversation. Since this lack of correction learners of a

language are unavailable to find out when they have committed a mistake when

using language. Chomsky talks about some principles and parameters innately

endowed which are responsible of correcting the settings triggered by the input.

They constitute what Chomsky calls the “core grammar” and it would be

implemented by some rules developed through experience.

Krashen offers another view on nativist theories through his monitor theory.

2.3.3. Krashen Monitor´s Theory

One of the best known and most influential theories of SLA in the early

1970s and early 1980s was Krashen´s Monitor Theory (MT). It was started not as a

theory of Second Language Acquisition but as an attempt of a model of SL

performance. He took into account two phenomena, first a generalization was

emerging from the “morpheme studies” that there existed statistically significant

associations between the orders of appearance of certain English grammatical

morphemes, accurately supplied in obligatory contexts, in the speech and writing of

SL learners of different ages. And second he observed some disturbances in the

natural order of acquisition of SL learners, specifically in the reading and writing

levels, which were common to most of them.

Krashen stated that two separate knowledge systems underlay SL

performance. The acquired system which is a subconscious knowledge that native

speakers have of their own language (this happens when a native speaker of a

language says that a grammatical construction is correct or not, but he or she does

not know to explain why) that little by little it becomes adapted to SL, and the

learned system which is the product of formal instruction (typically classroom

language teaching) and comprises conscious knowledge of “easy” SL grammatical

rules, such as those for subject verb agreement, pluralizing NPs, etc. The acquired

system was typically the only knowledge source that speakers could use in real

time communication, when they were attending to meaning, not to form; the

learned system served only as a planner and editor with which to inspect, or

monitor, the output of the acquired system. The learned system was only

accessible when three conditions were met: there was time, the learner was

focused on form, and obviously the learner knew the rule. The “natural order”,

Krashen held, was the surface manifestation of the acquired system; disturbed

orders were caused by by (“big M”) Monitoring intrusion of the learned system on

performance tasks which encouraged its use, with the result that certain

morphemes governed by low-level grammar rules, like the third-person singular –s,

regular past –ed and plural –s, were supplied more accurately.

Krashen claimed that (“small m”) monitoring, self-correcting using

conscious or subconscious general awareness of language could be done by “feel”

judgements, using the acquired system.

The two systems like the processes that produced them, acquisition and

learning, operated separately. In a series of books and papers appearing between

1978 and 1985, the Monitor model underwent a number of modifications. It

became a “theory”, Monitor Theory (MT), of (child and adult, naturalistic and

instructed) SLA. There were as many as ten “hypotheses” in the early 1980s,

reduced to five major claims in more recent formulations:

1) The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

It states that there are two independent ways of learning a SL

acquisition and learning, both technical terms in MT: “acquisition” refers

to the subconscious process used by children developing their fist

language; so SLA is similar to L1 acquisition. Errors are accepted.

“Learning” is a conscious process, it is not responsible for our fluency,

but for editing or monitoring our linguistic performance.

2) The Natural Order Hypothesis

SL rules are acquired in a predictable order, one apparently not

determined solely by linguistic complexity, and certainly not by the order

in which the items appear in teaching syllabuses.

3) The Monitor Hypothesis

Regarding the relationship posited between the acquired and the

learned systems during SL performance, the former is the utterance

initiator, while the latter acts in planning, editing and correcting when

the three mentioned conditions are met.

SL learners can be successful if monitoring is used for grammar tests

and writing; overusers, however, may have difficulty in acquiring


4) The Input Hypotheses

SL is acquired through processing comprehensible input (CI), that is,

language that is heard or read and understood. Language which is not

understood does not help. Not all CI helps, either; understanding

messages in a SL just because they are encoded in target-language

samples which are less complex than the learner is already capable of

dealing with may help the ego, but not to lead to interlanguage

improvement. Progress along the “natural order” is achieved when a

learner receives CI that contains in principle more information that the

one that he is presumed to process according to his learning

characteristics, however he process all the information and adds a new

notion to this input base. That is called I+1, that is, structures which are

one step beyond to the current stage of the speaker. Those structures

which are unknown to the learner are understood through the help of

linguistic and extralinguistic content.

This fact would be improved by Chomsky´s Language Acquisition

Device (LAD) that he would define as an internal language processor that

provides the speaker with the necessary data when the input has been

understood to give appropriate feedback.

5) The Affective Filter Hypothesis

It embodies Krashen´s views that various affective factors, including

motivation, self-confidence and lack of anxiety, play a facilitative, but

non-casual, role in SLA. Lack of motivation, low self-esteem, debilitating

anxiety, and so on can combine to “raise the filter”, to form a “mental

block”, which prevents CI from reaching the LAD

Krashen states that people acquire second languages only if they

obtain comprehensible input and if their affective filters are low enough

to allow the input “in”. When the filter is “down” and appropriate

comprehensible input is presented (and comprehended), acquisition is

inevitable. It is, in fact, unavoidable and cannot be prevented. He

continues with the assumption that the language as a “mental organ” will

function just as automatically as any another organ.

Krashen theories have been widely used in methods for Second

Language teaching, some of the aspects used which are derived

from them are:

-A focus on meaning and not form, by teacher and students at all


- Proscription of structural grading and error correction.

-Creation of a positive affective classroom climate in order to “low the


2.4. Interactional Theories of SLA

2.4.1. General Characteristics

Interactional theories are the most powerful ones since they invoke both

innate and environmental factors. They say that the issue of language learning is

too complex to be explained with nativist or environmentalist factors alone.

Interactionist theories of SLA differ greatly from one another. Some, such as Givon

´s Functional-Typological Theory, originate in functional-typological syntax and

diachronic language change. Others are partly inspired by experimental

psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology. Others are partly inspired by

experimental psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology. Still others draw on social,

cognitive and linguistic theory and on findings from the discourse analyses of first

and second language acquisition to study and explain SLA.

2.4.2. Givon´s Functional-Typological Theory and SLA

Givon´s functional-typological syntactic analysis (FTSA) is functionalist in its

view that syntax emanates from properties of human discourse; that is, syntax has

not been issued separate from language use, it is one of the features of language

that makes it to be understood; and typological in its consideration of a diverse

body of languages, not simply a single language of language family.

It was first used for the study of diachronic syntax, to rate the level syntax

was in a constant flux of change according to the different users of a language over

Givon claims, speakers and linguistic systems move from a discourse-based,

pragmatic mode of communication to a more syntactic mode. This process of

syntacticization operates over a number of features which are contrasted across the

pragmatic and syntactic modes of communication.

2.4.3. The Zisa Group´s Multidimensional Model

The Zisa´s project, one of the most important bodies of SLA research, was

carried out in the University of Hamburg in the late 1970s by using interview data

to study the naturalistic acquisition of German as a SL (GSL) by speakers of

Spanish and Italian. It regards several stages. After an initial period during which

learner production consisted of isolated words and formulae they were adhered to a

developmental sequence stage. Learners did not abandon one IL rule for the next

as they traversed the sequence, but they accumulated rules, adding new ones and

retaining the old.

They used some combinations of speech-processing strategies which can be

used to explain the developmental stages in the word-order data, to which they are

hierarchically related, such that each new one entails and adds to the sophistication

of the previous one, thereby gradually allowing the processing of

psycholinguistically more complex structures.

The stages are by definition statements about what a learner can be taught

at a given step of development. Another application is to teaching methodology,

where knowledge of developmental stages and variational features can serve as a

useful diagnostic resource for teachers, allowing them to identify different kinds of

errors and to asses their “remediability”.

3. The Concept of Interlanguage

3.1. Definitions of Interlanguage

The concept of interlanguage is used in Second Language Acquisition

research to refer to the systematic knowledge of a language which is different from

both the learner´s L1 and the L2 system he is trying to learn. This research

indicated that there were strong similarities in the developmental route followed by
different L2 teachers. As a result of this research, it was suggested that SLA

followed a “universal” route that was largely uninfluenced by such factors as the

age of the learner, the context in which language took place, or the learner´s L1


The term interlanguage was first used by Selinker (1972). First

interlanguage refers to the structured system which the learner constructs at any

given stage in his development.

The assumptions underlying interlanguage theory were stated clearly by

Nemser (1971).

- At any given time the approximative system is distinct from L1 and L2

- The approximate systems form an evolving series

- That in a given contact situation, the approximative systems of learners at

the same stage of proficiency roughly coincide.

The concept of “hypothesis-testing” was created by Corder (1967) he

suggested that both L1 and L2 learners make errors in order to test out certain

hypotheses about the nature of the language they are learning. Corder saw the

making of errors as a strategy, evidence of learner-internal processing.

“Hypothesis-testing” was a mentalist notion and had no place in behaviourist

accounts of learning, where imitation and repetition where the key to learning.

Selinker (1972) suggested that five principal processes operated in

interlanguage. These were:

1) Language transfer

2) Overgeneralization of the target language rules

3) Transfer of training

4) Strategies of L2 learning

5) Strategies of L2 communication

Selinker also noted that many L2 learners fail to reach target language

competence. They stop learning when their interlanguage contains at least some

rules different from those of the target language system which are apprehended as
patterns. He referred to this as fossilization. Fossilization come to occur when the

learner thinks that he does not need his interlanguage any further in order to

communicate effectively whatever he wants to, or it can occur because changes in

the neural structure of his brain as a result of age restrict the operation of the

hypothesis-testing mechanisms. The structures that comprehended speakers´

interlanguage at a certain stage become constant have no room to be implemented

because of inner resistance of the speaker; this resistance can take place

consciously or unconsciously.

3.2. Acquisition Orders and Developmental Sequence

Interlanguages are variable, they are also systematic. And most of them

presuppose an innate language-specific endowment.

Krashen postulated a “natural order” for ESL (English as a Second Language,

a concept different from EFL-English as a Foreign Language-is the label that English

carries when it is spoken by non-native speakers in contexts where English is the

partial or universal language). An acquisition order, therefore, is the order in

which linguistics forms, rules, and items are acquired in the first-or second-

language learning. According to Krashen the order of acquisition is the following in


1. –ING, PLURAL, COPULA are the morphemes acquired first





All these concerns define the existence of a developmental sequence

which consists of a succession of phases in acquiring new linguistic forms.

3.4. The Influence of the Mother Tongue

The widely held belief in the 1950s and 1960s was that the L1 played a

decisive negative role in SLA, termed interference, and that this interference could

be predicted by systematically comparing and contrasting the learner´s L1 and L2.

Transfer would be then a strategy available to compensate lack of L2 knowledge,

being this lack supplied by terms adopted from L1.

It can lead to errors, overproduction and constraints on hypotheses; besides

similarities between native and target languages tend to cause many problems,

namely false friends etc.

4. The Treatment of Error

4.1. Introduction

Before introducing the concept of error, we have to regard that for the study

of SLA contrastive analyses have been used. They were motivated by the prospect

of being able to identify points of similarity and difference between particular native

languages (NLs) and target languages (TLs), believing that a more effective

pedagogy would result when these were taken into consideration.

A linguist called Lado justified the usage of the contrastive analysis in his

work of 1957, he stated that individuals tend to transfer the forms and meanings

and the distribution of forms and meanings of their native language culture to the

foreign culture when attempting to speak the language and to act in the target

culture. So, any researcher should be familiarised with the contrastive analysis

since the major part of errors come from the interference that the native language

causes in the production of a second language.

4.2. Types of Errors

Corder (1967) made a very interesting distinction between mistakes and

errors. Whereas a mistake is a random performance slip caused by fatigue,

excitement, etc., and therefore can be readily self-corrected, an error is a

systematic deviation made by learners who have not yet mastered the rules of the

L2. In the following schema we are stating some of the most typical errors uttered

by Spanish speakers when using English as a second language.


Interlingual: The omission of the subject pronoun and

Is the book of my
the use of the “of the” possessive appear
Interference to be due to Spanish interference.

Intralingual: The speaker has perhaps

wonder where are
overgeneralized the rule of subject –
you going
Overgeneralization auxiliary inversion and applied it here

The learner incorrectly labels an object

The learner uses but successfully communicates a desired
Communication- Based
“airball” for balloon concept (“word coinage”)

The teacher had given the student a

She cries as if the
definition of “as if” meaning “like”
baby cries; FOR:
without explaining the necessary
Induced errors She cries as a baby
structural change.

4.3. Hierarchy of Difficulty

Stockwell´s et al. (1965) established a hierarchy of difficulty according to

acquisition of English by Spanish speakers regarding all those concepts that could

be graded according to the difficulty they present. The following table represents the

basis of Stockwell´s work.


1. Split x----x/y su----his/her
2. New 0----x possessive>s
3. Absent x----0 adjective plural morpheme
4. Coalesced x/y----x por/para----for
5. Correspondence x-----x -ndo ---- -ing

4.4. Correction

During the stage when students are asked to repeat and practise a certain

number of models, there are two basic correction stages: showing incorrectness

(indicating to the student that something is wrong) and using correction


4.4.1 Showing Incorrectness

This means that we will indicate to the student that a mistake has been

made. If the student understands this feedback, he or she will be able to correct
the mistake and this self-correction will be helpful as part of the learning process.

There are a number of techniques showing incorrectness:

1) Repeating: We simply ask the student to repeat what she or he

has just said by using the word “again” with a questioning intonation,

it indicates that the answer has been unsatisfactory although it could

be misunderstood as only indicating that the teacher has not heard

the student´s response.

2) Echoing: We will be even clearer if we repeat what the student has

just said, using a questioning intonation, since this will clearly

indicate that we are doubting the accuracy or content of what is

being said. Sometimes we can echo the complete student response,

probably stressing the part of the utterance that was incorrect.

Another possibility is to echo the student´s response, but only up to

the point where the mistake was made. Echoing in this way is

probably the most efficient way of showing incorrectness.

3) Denial: We can simply tell the student that the response was

unsatisfactory and ask for it to be repeated. It may be a bit more


4) Questioning: We can say: “Is that correct?” asking any student in

the class to answer our question. This has the advantage of focusing

everybody´s mind on the problem, though it may make the student

who made the mistake seemed somewhat exposed.

5) Expression: Many teachers indicate that a response was incorrect by

their expression or by some gesture. Economical and also funny but

can be dangerous if the student thinks that it is a form of mockery.

For showing incorrectness once the teacher has realized that the usage of

correction techniques is necessary, tact and consideration are two features to be

carefully taken into account.

4.4.2 Using Correction Techniques

If students are unable to correct themselves, we can resort to one of these


1) Student corrects student: We can ask if anyone else can give the correct

response. We can ask if anyone can “help” the student who has made the

mistake. If another student can supply the correct information, it will be

good for that student´s self-esteem. However, the student who originally

made the mistake may feel humiliated if this technique is used insensitively.

2) Teacher corrects student(s): Sometimes we may feel that we should take

the charge of correction because the students are extremely mixed-up about

what the correct response should be. In that case we can re-explain the

item of language which is causing the trouble. This will be especially

appropriate when we see that the majority of the class are having the same

problem. After the re-explanation we can move to choral and individual

repetition (if necessary) before moving on.

It is important, therefore, that when we have used one of the techniques

suggested above, we ask the student who originally made the mistake to give us a

correct response.

When students are involved in activities that demand some kind of creativity

or in doing a drill-type activity (asking and answering some questions for example)

and they commit an error another possibility of correction is seen, this is gentle

correction. This involves showing the student that something is wrong, but not

making a great fuss of it, and not asking for repetition. It also means telling the

students what went right. Where they have achieved a successful outcome, or

whether they have used good, appropriate language, they need to be told this. If

so, the learning process will be one with low affective filter.

5. Conclusion

Acquiring a second language is a hard issue, and it has been demonstrated

in the theme that we have exposed. So, regarding our role as English teachers we
have to take into account the difficulties that have been realized during the

exposition of the topic and deal with all the possible solutions that have also been

exposed. First of all, it is very important to be acquainted with what teaching

English as a second language consists of. This is the reason why different theories

revolved around that fact have been proposed, dealing with nativist,

environmentalist or interactionist models. It is important for the teacher to choose

what is more relevant for him of them, taking into account all the actions that are

going to be carried out by a teacher in order to fulfil some objectives, to know all

what is essential about the background of these actions. And how them have been

previously studied and worked upon by some other linguists in search of accuracy.

Interlanguage is an important concept since it is recognizable in every stage of a

learner, even the teacher will be in a stage of the interlanguage and has to facilitate

the students to follow the convenient steps to be able to go across the different

stages, once the teacher has been in that same stage of the interlanguage students

are in this very moment, and once the teacher has been a student too.

And finally the most important concern that has been stated in the theme

regarding our role as teachers is the treatment of error, it comprehends a great

deal on education, since capabilities of the student dealing with their affective

status, and their comprehension of correctness towards error are completely linked

with this point.