You are on page 1of 10

INTRODUCTION The study of language acquisition has been deemed important in order for linguists and language teachers

to gain a better understanding of both successful language learning and effective teaching methodologies. Research has shown that the most successful language learners tend to be children.

Important questions relating to this topic include the following: Is it possible for people to be as successful in learning a second language as it was for them to learn their first language? What makes the second language learning experience so difficult compared to our first language learning experiences? Why are children able to learn their first language much more easily than a second language later in life? While these questions have been researched and discussed extensively within the literature over the past several decades, conclusions still remain controversial. Slobin, a cognitive psycholinguist, states that: The capacity to learn language is deeply ingrained in us as a species, just as the capacity to walk, to grasp objects, to recognize faces. We dont find any serious differences in children growing up in congested urban slums, in isolated mountain villages, or in privileged suburban villas (1994). The purpose of this paper is to consider Slobins statement and discuss whether this capacity to learn language is available for the learning of a second language. The writer attempts to explain his understanding of Slobins statement in relation to Chomskys Universal Grammar, and then discusses some perspectives on the accessibility or availability of this capacity in second language learning in the following sections. Slobins capacity to learn language and Chomskys Universal Grammar Slobin argues that the ability to learn language is innate in humans. Slobin (1979: 118) notes that this ability is a specific neurological capacity that humans are born with, and this capacity is based on a fairly specific, genetically determined propensity to acquire language in human beings, and it is the organization of the brain, which underlies this propensity.

Slobin also discusses this capacity in relation to the critical period hypothesis in that the language hemisphere is predisposed to acquire language at an appropriate maturational stage. Slobin and other cognitive psychologists see this capacity to learn language as a part of general learning mechanism that all humans are born with, which is responsible for all forms of cognitive development, including language (Ellis, 1994: 81-2).

According to Slobin, children have a language making capacityconsisting of universal principles that enable them to perceive and segment items in the input and govern how they organize and store new information (Ellis, 1994: 379). This notion is similar to Chomskys mentalists approach to first language acquisition. Chomsky states that children are born with language acquisition device (LAD), or Universal Grammar (UG), which is a mental faculty consisting of a set of principles which are common to all languages that facilitate childrens first language acquisition (Mangubhai, 2004: 1.12; Lightbown & Spada, 1993: 8). UG also includes parameters, i.e., principles that vary from one language to another.

As well, UG is said to enable children to make hypotheses about the structure of language, test them in its use of language and develop its rule system subconsciously, and/or scan input data and store noticed features in the process of discovery of the rules (Ellis, 1994: 81). UG functions as a black box that language input goes into and the learner constructs knowledge of language out of what goes into this black box (Cook, 1996: 154).

INPUT, CRITICAL PERIOD & LANGUAGE CAPACITY In Chomskys UG, what goes into the black box, i.e., input, is essential, as it creates knowledge of language consisting of principles, parameters and lexical items (Cook, 1996: 154). A childs environment is the paramount source of rich linguistic input to UG, and this input is vital, as UG does not function without it.

Slobin also suggests in the statement above that there is different input available for

children to develop language in the environment that children have access to, and it is the primary linguistic data that enables children to learn language.

Children need adequate, interactive and modified input from the environment around them to their language faculty to fully develop their first language. We can see this from such examples of abnormal language development as in the case of Genie, who did not receive any human interaction (input) until her puberty (Mangubhai, 2004: 1.11) as well as in the case of Jim, who had deaf parents and only received impersonal input through TV up to the age of 3 years and 9 months (Lightbown & Spada, 1993: 15). These two examples both show the importance of input, as well as the importance of the timing to receive it.

However, they differ in their age when they began to receive input; Genie was about 13 years old and Jim was 3 years and 9 months. After their conversational sessions with adults began, their language development showed very different results.

Genie managed to learn many words but her syntax and morphology never fully developed; on the contrary, Jim started develop his language normally for his age by the age of 4 years and 2 months. From these cases we can briefly see that input is essential for first language acquisition and it has to be provided at the right time, i.e., as known as the critical period.

The notion of the critical period was originally formulated by Lenneberg in 1967. Lennebergs critical period hypothesis proposes that language can only be learned during a critical period in the childs life and this period begins from age of 2 to start of puberty. If the child does not learn language then, he/she can never learn it properly (Hardie, 2004: 1).

In addition, Lenneberg suggests that this critical period effect is due to brain lateralization, and Slobin seems to stand closely to Lennerbergs position. He states (1979: 125) that there are specific limitations to how much and what aspects of language

the left hemisphere outside of the appropriate maturational state in development can acquire.

Indeed, Chomsky argues it is due to the maturation of UG, suggesting that input is needed at a particular time in UGs growth and if it is not available then, acquisition will fail (Hardie, 2004: 1).

ACCESSABILITY TO THE LANGUAGE FACULTY Lack of input during the critical period may result in incapability of learning language fully, as we have seen in Genies case. However, such direct evidence in support of the critical period for first language acquisition is thin (Hakuta, 1999: 2), and, as a result, the notion of a critical period remains controversial.

Still, the accessibility to UG, or the language faculty in the human brain, is closely related to the issue of critical period, as it is often debated that this innate capacity to learn language is only available up to a certain age (e.g. puberty) (Moskovsky, 2001).

Although Slobin does not discuss this availability of the language capacity in terms of second language acquisition, Johnson and Newport (1989) in Brown (1995: 79) summarizes that there are two versions of critical period hypothesis in relation to second language acquisition, namely (1) the exercise hypothesis and (2) the maturational state hypothesis.

The former claims that if the capacity for acquiring language is not exercised during a critical period, it will disappear or decline with maturation, but if the capacity is exercised, further language learning abilities will remain intact throughout life. The latter claims that the capacity for acquiring language will disappear or decline with maturation. Ellis (1994: 453-56) also summarizes and distinguishes views relating to the availability of UG in second language acquisition, by dividing them into: (1) the complete access view, (2) the no access view, (3) the partial access view, and (4) the dual access view.

FLYN'S PARAMETER-SETTING MODEL Ellis refers to Flynns Parameter-setting Model as a representative example. Flynn argues that the essential faculty for language evidenced in L1 acquisition is also critically involved in L2 acquisition, assuming that adult L2 learners have access to the same language faculty as L1 learners, rejecting the claim that age is a significant factor in L2 learning.

The no access view claims that adult L2 acquisition is very different from L1 acquisition, and this difference arises because L1 learners make use of their language faculty whereas L2 learners use general learning strategies to acquire their second langauge.

The partial access view takes the position that learners may have access to linguistic principles but not to the full range of parametric variation. That is to say, adult learners are constrained by UG principles so they will not make impossible errors, but they will not be able to acquire L2-specific principles that differ from the L1.

Lastly, the dual access view claims that L2 learners have access to UG but that this is partly blocked by the use of general learning strategies.

CRITICAL PERIOD HYPOTHESIS According to Johnson and Newport (1989) in Brown (1995: 80), in terms of the exercise hypothesis, second language learning should not only be equivalent in children and adults but most likely even superior in adults due to their greater skills in their L1 as well as superior cognitive strength in general. On the other hand, with respect to the maturational state hypothesis, the childs brain is assumed to have unique qualities during its maturational state which makes children particularly good at acquiring languages. Thus, children should be better in second language learning as well as first.

Ellis (1994) also states that the complete access view, which corresponds to the exercise

hypothesis, argues that there is no critical period for the acquisition of L2 syntax, and is the most questionable among other positions.

The no access and partial access views assume that there is a critical period beyond which full grammatical competence is unobtainable and that L2 is not the same as L1 acquisition. The dual access view also assumes childrens L1 learning and adults L2 learning differ in this regard, and that adults will fail to achieve full linguistic competence in L2.

Although these three positions have different assumptions, they share similar beliefs that L1 and L2 acquisition are different at least partially, and adults fail to achieve full competence in L2 beyond a critical period. Ellis (1994: 456) further states that it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that differences are attributable to the operation of different learning systems, thus no verdict can be reached from this discussion.

Most children acquire their first language successfully and uniformly in spite of considerable environmental variation, and this uniformity leads us to accept the critical period hypothesis commonly in terms of first language acquisition(Hakuta, 1999: 2). It is also commonly accepted that on average children achieve higher levels of second language proficiency than adult learners in terms of second language acquisition (Moskovsky, 2001: 2). Taking Johnson and Newports argument and Elliss discussion above into consideration, then, we can see that some kind of maturational constraints apply to second language learning as well. The complete access view, or the exercise hypothesis, seems to be rejected and whether the existence of maturational constraints on second language acquisition is solely attributable to the accessibility of UG, or the language faculty, is the question that remains here.

Ellis (1994: 455) notes that the no access or the partial access view does not follow that differences between L1 and L2 acquisition are the result of lost or diminished access to

UG, as they may reflect other variables, such as general cognitive development and socio-affective factors.

ADULT vs CHILD L2 ACQUISITION According to Hakuta (1999: 8), Bailey, Madden and Krashen (1974) compared the performance of adult and child learners of English as L2 and found that there was a remarkable similarity in the performance between children and adults, and the native language background of students did not seem to have affected the results, suggesting that child and adult learners progress along similar paths of development. As well, White and Genesee conduct a test in 1996 to see whether adult learners can demonstrate knowledge that is presumably accessible only through language-specific learning mechanisms, i.e. UG.

The results show that although children performed better, many adults strikingly showed equivalently high performance to child learners and native speakers, implying that adults are capable of learning highly abstract rules that are said to be accessible only with UG. (Hakuta, 1999: 9-10) Based on this result, it is suggested that UG, or the language faculty, is at least partially or for some adults, accessible in the process of L2 learning. These findings contradict with the above mentioned no access view. MATURATIONAL CONSTRAINTS & MATURATION OF LANGUAGE FACULTY Children and adults may follow similar paths of development in language learning, as suggested by Krashen, et al. (1974). From discussion above, it seems UG is still accessible, at least partially, by adult L2 learners. However, it is also commonly accepted that children are better language learners comparing with adult learners, and there are many differences in the language learning process between children and adults.

Consequently, the following question arises: if UG is accessible by adult learners, why cant adult learners end up with uniform, native-like linguistic competence? Adult learners show some kind of maturational constraints as discussed above, but it is not appropriate to say that the maturational constraints are all caused by the accessibility to

the language faculty, as the existence of or the accessibility to UG in second language learning is still a very complex and controversial issue.

Then, if it is not that the accessibility to the language faculty is solely attributing to the maturational constraints in Adult language learning, what else can attribute to them? In relation to Elliss note on general cognitive development and socio-affective factors above, Moskovsky (2001) notes that any area of general learning involves a large number of interacting social and psychological variables and they have been also found in adult second language acquisition. He also notes that there is an age-related decline in cognitive ability with the general result that as a rule older learners do not achieve as highly as younger learners. Bialystok and Hakuta (1994) re-analyze Johnson and Newport s data obtained in 1989 and claim that the gradual decline of language learning ability is the age-related decline of general cognitive ability, by showing that there was statistically significant evidence for a continued decline in L2 acquisition well into adulthood (Hakuta, 1999: 6). Hakuta further argues that:

failure to find supporting evidence for a critical period simply means that the view of a biologically constrained and specialized language acquisition device that is turned off at puberty is not correct. The gradual decline over age in the ultimate attainment of a second language most likely means that there are multiple factors at work physiological, cognitive, and social (1999: 12).

In a more recent study, Hakuta, Bialystok and Wiley (2003) analyze 1990 U. S. Census data and show that the predicted affects of a critical period for second language acquisition is not supported. The results do not show any evidence of a change or a welldefined discontinuity in language learning potential at the end of critical period.

In fact, the degree of success in L2 acquisition shows a steady decline throughout the life span. Consequently the authors argue that this result should be attributed to normal cognitive aging. They also point out that the importance of socioeconomic factors, such as the amount of formal education, may have affected the degree of success in L2 acquisition (2003: 37).

CONCLUSION From the discussion above, we can see how complex language learning process and the issue of the accessibility to the language faculty are. It is generally true that children are better language learners than adults; many adults cannot learn a second language as successfully as children do regardless of the fact that adults have cognitive abilities that are so much greater than that of a child. It can be at least partially ascribable to adults maturational constraints on language learning.

This difficulty that adult L2 learners have can be discussed in terms of the accessibility to UG or cognitive aging; if UG is the key to master a second language, we will have to say adults probably have less accessibility to it comparing to children; and if we see cognitive aging as the key to the ability to learn things generally, it can also explain adults difficulty in learning a second language.

We should also be aware of the fact that the process of second language learning involves so many other factors that may affect the attainment of a second language too, such as neurological, psychomotor, affective and linguistic factors, and that these factors may all influence the outcome of language learning at the same time.

REFERENCES Cook, V. 1996.Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold.

Ellis, R. 1994. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Galasso, Joseph. 1999. A Working Paper on Second Language Acquisition Research: Some Notes on Theory and Method. Retrieved on March 15, 2005. from http://www.csun.edu/~galasso/wkpap.htm

Hakuta, K. 1999. A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition? A Status Review. Retrieved on March 15, 2005. from http://www.stanford.edu/~hakuta/mp_papers.htm

Hakuta,K., Bialystok, E. & Wiley, E. 2003. Critical Evidence: A test of the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition. Psychological Science, Vol. 14. January. pp.31-38

Hardie, A. 2004. Ling 208 Week 5: Universal Grammar in Action. (Handout) Retrieved on March 15, 2005. from http://bowlandfiles.lancs.ac.uk/staff/andrewh/my208.htm

Johnson, J.S. and Newport, E.L. 1989. Critical Period Effects on Second Language Learning: The Influence of Maturational State on the Acquisition of English as a Second Language. In Brown, H.D. and Gonzo, S. 1995. Readings on Second Language Acquisition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall Regents. pp. 75-114.

Lightbown, Patsy M. and Spada, Nina. 1993. How Languages are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mangubhai, F. 2004. Principles of Second Language Learning. Toowoomba: University of Southern Queensland.

Moskovsky, C. 2001. The Critical Period Hypothesis Revised. Proceedings of the 2001 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society. Retrieved on March 10, 2005. from http://linguistics.anu.edu.au/ALS2001/papers/Moskovsky.pdf

Slobin, D. I. 1979. Psycholinguistics. (2nd ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.