Unit 2. General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. The concept of Interlanguage. The treatment of error.

INTRODUCTION. Perhaps the most essential thing humans learn, since it constitutes the basis for further learning, is language, be it our mother tongue or a second or third language. Much effort and resources are devoted to this task. In spite of that, there is still no ultimate description of language learning processes which can be assumed as comprehensible and infallible. Concepts as interlanguage, or the meaning and influence of errors in language learning and teaching do still spark academic controversy. The present unit endeavours to provide an account of the general theories on language learning and their influence on second language learning theories. 1. A BRIEF HISTORY OF LANGUAGE TEACHING. The history of foreign language teaching goes back to the earliest educational systems whose main aim was to teach religion and to promote the traditions of the people. Roman education provided the Western world the Latin language, classical literature, engineering, law, and the administration and organization of government, but learning Greek was also highly valued then, as it was the language of great philosophers, as well as classical poets and playwrights. Therefore, in the context of language teaching and learning, a clear influence of the Greek and Latin language is present. In Greece, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics examined carefully the structure of language as part of the general study of ‘dialectic’. This study had a major influence on subsequent grammatical thinking which was taken over by the Romans with very little change. In the sixteenth century the status of Latin changed from a living language that learners needed to be able to read, write in, and speak, to a dead language which was studied as an intellectual exercise (Richards & Rodgers 1992). The analysis of the grammar and rhetoric of Classical Latin became the model language teaching between the 17th and 19th centuries, a time when thought about language teaching crystallized in Europe. It was not until the eighteenth century that “modern” languages began to enter the curriculum of European schools where they were taught using the same basic procedures that were used for teaching Latin. 2. GENERAL THEORIES ON FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING AND ACQUISITION. 2.1. Key issues in language learning. Many theories about the learning and teaching of languages have been proposed from a historical perspective, and have been influenced by developments in the fields of linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. The study of these theories and how they influence language teaching today is called applied linguistics. The extent and importance of the teaching of English as a foreign language, and therefore, the development of language learning theories, make it reasonable to define some key concepts within this issue. Acquisition vs. learning According to Stephen Krashen there are two distinctive ways of developing skills and knowledge (competence) in a second language. Thus, acquisition refers to the “natural” way of picking up a language by using it in natural, communicative situations. This term is used to refer to an unconscious process by which language is acquired similarly as children acquire their first language. The term learning, by contrast, means having a conscious knowledge about grammar, and in turn an explicit awareness of language rules and forms which grants the ability to put said knowledge into words. In this context, formal teaching and correction of errors are necessary for “learning” to occur.


Learners use the comprehensible input to deduce rules.3. General theories on language learning. General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. for it was the dominant language of education. The importance of meaning in learning. five hundred years ago it was Latin. and government in the Western world. Gouin. Mother tongue. In the sixteenth century. the Englishman T. taking the position that language is creative (not memorized). followed by Gouin. which states that language is acquired by using comprehensible input (the language that one hears in the environment) which is slightly beyond the learner's present proficiency. Marcel. This is one of the major weaknesses of second language acquisition research. Noam Chomsky and his followers challenged previous assumptions about language structure and language learning. including a de-emphasis on the teaching of grammatical rules and a greater emphasis on trying to teach language to adults in the way that children learn language. the question of how language is learnt. commerce. performance According to Chomsky (1965). from different perspectives. toward the end of the nineteenth century. A third approach claims for relevant concepts such as a comprehensible input and a native speaker interaction in conversations for students to acquire the new language. Nowadays three main theories have approached. The treatment of error. second and foreign language acquisition.1. Language acquisition studies –both first and secondare interested in how competence is developed. Six theories on second language acquisition. It was developed by Brown in 1980. competence consists of the mental representation of linguistic rules which constitute the speaker-hearer’s internalized grammar whereas performance consists of the comprehension and production of language. the interests of reform-minded language teachers. In the mid-late nineteenth century. He was followed by individual language teaching specialists like the Frenchman C. 2. Today English is the world’s most widely studied foreign language. 2. we find several attempts to make second language learning more like first language learning. Beginning in the 1950s. Pendergast was one of the first to record the observation of children in speaking. Pendergast and the Frenchman F. there is no evidence for what is going on inside the learner’s head. Krashen's views on language teaching have given rise to a number of changes in language teaching. they are considered as foreign languages. Acculturation is the process whereby the attitudes and/or behaviours of people from one culture are modified as a result of contact with a different culture. religion. and rule governed (not based on habit).Unit 2. However. General theories on second language acquisition. Attempts to develop teaching principles from observation of child language learning were made but these new ideas were not sufficient within the educational movement at that time. the Frenchman Montaigne described his own experience on learning Latin for the first years of his life. However. because second language acquisition focuses on performance. Throughout the history of language teaching. A mother tongue is considered to be the first language one learns as a child whereas a second language is acquired under the need of learning the language of another country. coincided and first attempts to language learning theories were to be taken into consideration. opportunities for communication increased among Europeans and there was a high demand for oral proficiency in foreign languages. Krashen studied the way that children learn language and applied it to adult language learning. and linguists. when languages are acquired in school. 2 . He proposed the Input Hypothesis. Acculturation implies a mutual influence in which elements of both cultures mingle and merge. 1. Competence vs.3. 2. On the other hand.2. The concept of Interlanguage. The acculturation model. Behaviorism emphasizes the essential role of the environment in the process of language learning whereas mentalist theories give priority to the learners’ innate characteristics from a cognitive and psychological approach. and the interest on how children learn languages as a model for language teaching were the first approaches to a language learning theory.

Thus the Direct Method places emphasis on teacher monologues. Their method focuses on teaching communicative abilities and the primacy of meaning. this hypothesis states that second language acquisition is determined by certain linguistic universals. Therefore. 2. 3. direct repetition. The product of language use deals with unplanned and planned discourse. Language development should be considered in terms of how the learner discovers the meaning potential of language by participating in communication. where the monitor is the device that learners use to edit their language performance. and formal questions and answers. and related to them. Krashen and Terrell’s view of language consists of lexical items. they rejected earlier methods of language teaching which viewed grammar as the central component. In fact. a number of factors which influence second language acquisition: 1. in fact. On the other hand. and the other to the product. It consists of five central hypotheses. and how much is converted into intake. Since they see communication as the primary function of language. and messages. 2. The concept of Interlanguage. 3. divergence or maintenance by which speakers modify their communication to reduce or increase the difference between speakers in social interaction. the affective filter hypothesis. This theory. deals with the strategies of convergence. This model is proposed by Ellis (1984). Unplanned discourse is related to the lack of preparation or forethought.2.Unit 2. rather than practice. 4. and also to spontaneous communication. one refers to the process of language use. However. planned discourse requires conscious thought and gives priority to expression rather than thought. Discourse theory. the Natural Method became known as the Direct Method by the turn of the century. In the Natural Approach there is an emphasis on exposure. It was proposed by Krashen. In the words of Ellis (1985). It is proposed by Halliday and his view of first language acquisition. 3 . 4. the fact that the Natural Approach was related to the older Natural Method does not mean that they are synonymous terms. The treatment of error. structures. following a communicative approach. the acquisition-learning hypothesis where the terms ‘acquired’ and ‘learnt’ are defined as subconscious and conscious study of language. The Natural Approach and Language Acquisition. the monitor hypothesis. 6. where the filter controls how much input the learner comes into contact with. what the language learners hear before they try to produce language. The Monitor model.3. 5. The relationship between Universal Grammar and acquisition of the first language is. there are important differences between them. a necessary one. The Universal hypothesis. Accommodation theory. Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen developed a language teaching proposal that incorporated the statements of the principles and practices of second language acquisition. the development of the formal linguistic devices for basic language grows out of the interpersonal uses to which language is put. first developed by Howard Giles. two distinctions form the basis for this model. or input. 5. In 1977. the natural order hypothesis which affirms that grammatical structures are ‘acquired’ in a predictable order. the input hypothesis by which ‘acquisition’ takes place as a result of the learner having understood input a little beyond the current level of his competence. It claims that the way a language is learnt is a reflection of the way it is used. 2. The Variable Competence Model. that is. There is a Universal Grammar that constrains the kind of hypotheses that the learner can form and that it is innate. Although they share the same tradition and the same term “natural”. The term “natural” refers to the principles of language learning in young children in the Natural Method. General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. focusing on accurate production of target language sentences.

When students try to express themselves in the target language beyond their acquired ability. opinions. The first principle is that comprehension precedes production. Acquisition refers to a natural and subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language in order to develop a language proficiency. thus ‘What’s your name?’ They may be helpful for encouraging input in the real world. The Input Hypothesis. will be succesful in second language acquisition.3. or “function words” and others to be acquired late such as the third person singular morpheme or the ‘s possessive marker. 2. not grammatical structures. encouraging them to express their ideas. emotions and feeling. 3. The final principle is that activities must foster a lowering of the affective filter of the students. Here Krashen gives a framework to the learner’s emotional state or attitudes that may pass. having the right attitudes. Routines and Patterns. The role of the first language in second language performance is closely related to the term Interference. 3. certain structures tend to be acquired early such as grammatical morphemes. organizing classroom activities by topics. The Monitor Hypothesis. The third one is that the course syllabus consists of communicative goals. and that speaking fluently in a second language come on its own with time. According to Krashen (1983). Routines and patterns are sentences spoken by performers who have not acquired or learned the rules involved. The treatment of error. This concept implies that second language acquisition is strongly influenced by the learner’s first language when we try to speak a second language. The Role of the First Language. impede. they will tend to fall back on the L1. In general. A good atmosphere must be created by the instructor. The Monitor Hypothesis emphasises the role of grammar. The acquisition of grammatical structures takes place in a predictable order in which errors are signs of naturalistic developmental processes. but through conscious learning. Correctly used. 5. such as confidence and encouragement. It means that the performer. This hypothesis points out the relationship between the learner’s input and the language acquisition process and it claims that listening comprehension and reading are of primary importance in a language program. General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. The concept of Interlanguage. 4. The five hypotheses represent the principal tenets of Krashen’s theory : 1. where students are not forced to speak before they are ready.Unit 2. The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis It claims that there are two independent systems of second language performance: the acquired system and the learned system. as the learned knowledge to correct ourselves when we communicate. We will introduce now the four principles on which this theory is based. The affective filter hypothesis. and then. 2.3. Second Language Aptitude. 2. the five hypotheses that account for this method. or block the necessary input to acquisition. 4 . The Natural Order Hypothesis. routines and patterns can help acquirers gain more input and manage conversations. 1. the idea of second language aptitude is related to rapid progress in second language classes. and for those students that have this aptitude. The second principle accounts for production to emerge in stages. a better performance in foreign language classes. Factors that influence second language acquisition. the role of the monitor should be used only to correct deviations from speech and to polish its appearance. Learning refers to a process of conscious rules for meaningful communication which results in conscious knowledge about the language.

According to the Natural Order Hypothesis. 5. 4. they can lead to trouble if not used effectively as they cannot be used for every situation. It is related to a theory of learning that stresses the learner-internal factors which contribute to language acquisition. In the first half of the twentieth century. it is the older learners who reach higher levels of proficiency. Error Analysis declined because of enthusiasm for Contrastive Analysis proposed by Chomsky. General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. Corder (1981) suggests that both L1 and L2 learners make errors in order to test out certain hypotheses about the nature of the language they are learning. thus in the rate and extent of acquisition. and that age was a factor only when it came to morphology and syntax. According to the theory of the second language acquisition there is a basic uniformity in the way we all acquire language. behaviourist accounts approached the concept of error as a sign of non-learning. THE CONCEPT OF INTERLANGUAGE. He saw the making of errors as a strategy. the acquisition of grammatical structures takes place in a predictable order in which errors are signs of naturalistic developmental processes. Literature research shows that although age improves language learning capacity. This is due to two factors: the amount of comprehensible input an acquirer obtains. proposed by Krashen (1983). Age differences. It also predicts that acquirers will vary only in certain ways. It involves collecting samples of learner language. Where success of SLA is concerned. and on the contrary. 3. THE TREATMENT OF ERROR. The interlanguage identifies the stages of development through which L2 learners pass on their way to proficiency. and evaluating their seriousness. This view was in opposition to the view of the SLA presented in the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis where L2 errors are the result of differences between the learner’s first language and the target language. The treatment of error. performance may peak in the teens. Where rate is concerned. Another mentalist feature that needs mentioning is that the child builds up his knowledge of his mother tongue by means of hypothesis-testing. Errors are no longer seen as ‘unwanted forms’ but an active learner’s contribution to second language acquisition. the prevention of errors was more important than mere identification. and the strength of the affective filter. identifying the errors in the sample. Rate and success of SLA appear to be strongly influenced by the age of the learner. One of the dominant figures in this field was Corder. It was not until the late 1960s that there wa s a resurgence of interest in Error Analysis. the more native-like L2 proficiency becomes. 4. Age is the variable that has been most discussed when dealing with second language acquisition because of the belief that children are better language learners than adults. In accordance with behaviorism. There has been considerable research on the effect of age on this field. The earliest records about the treatment of errors trace back to the seventeenth century when errors were faced up with brutal punishment. Individual variation.Unit 2. claimed that the child’s knowledge of his mother tongue was derived from a Universal Grammar which consisted of a set of innate linguistic principles to control sentences formation. describing and classifying then according to their hypothesized causes. The term interlanguage was first coined by Selinker (1972) and refers to the systematic knowledge of a second language which is independent of both the learner’s first language and the target language. as they were thought to interfere with the acquisition of second language habits. the general finding is that the longer the exposure to the L2. The strong form of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis claims that differences between learner’s first language and the target language can be used to predict all errors whereas the weak form claims that differences are only used to identify some of the errors that arise. The concept of Interlanguage. Chomsky. This is one of the main tenets of our current educational 5 . The question was to what extent the order of development paralleled that in L1 acquisition.

General theories on foreign language learning and acquisition. CONCLUSION. . The treatment of error..Richards. J. 1992. W. and the only one we should use. 1983. BIBLIOGRAPHY. Maybe the best method to use when teaching a second language might be a mixed method that would “pick up” the most succesful aspects of the methods we know nowadays always introducing innovations that might help to reach the goal of making our students proficient in the second language. (1984). A history of English Language teaching .. . T. S. system where errors are seen as a positive contribution to language learning.Unit 2. D. some others not so much. many of them based on the way children learn their mother tongue. D. T. A. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. . and Terrell. many approaches and methods have been proposed through history to reach the perfect way to learn a second language. & Rodgers. Teaching Foreign-Language Skills. As we have seen. and give LOGSE students an active role on language learning process. 6 . based on first language acquisition. The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom.Krashen. The concept of Interlanguage. 1981. The conclusion is that none of these methods has proved to be the best one.Rivers. . Some of them have proved to be partly successful. that is.Howatt.

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