The “L” in SLA

tempts to explain SLA focus very much on how people learn a second language, and theories of SLA thus offer a classic causal explanation of the process, in terms of factors in the environment, or social interaction, or mental processes, for example. But many SLA scholars, noteably Kevin Gregg, insist that before attempting to explain how people learn a second language, we must establish what is learned; and in order to answer this question, a linguistic theory is required. As White (1996: 85) puts it:

a theory of language acquisition depends on a theory of language.  We cannot decide how something is acquired without having an idea of what that something is.

White is a committed nativist, so she thinks a theory of SLA should explain not the behaviour of speakers but rather the mental system of knowledge underlying that behaviour; after all, she says, people don’t acquire utterances, they acquire knowledge. So, to explain what this knowledge is (how, that is, L2 competence is instantiated in the mind), we need a “property theory” which describes what the knowledge consists of.  Various answers have been suggested

in the form of connectionist nodes, or in the form of general knowledge representations, or in the form of rules of discourse, Gricean maxims, or in the form of UG (Gregg, 1993: 279).

To explain how L2 competence is acquired, on the other hand, needs a “transition theory” which narrates how the mind changes from a state of not knowing X to a state of knowing X (where X can be any part of what is necessary for L2 competence).  Thus, a satisfactory theory of SLA must describe the L2-related interlanguages (IL grammars) and other aspects of the L2 competence finally attained by learners, and also explain how learners acquired them.

As I mentioned above, not much attention is paid to the question of what is acquired, especially by those working on what can be termed processing approaches to SLA, and I’ve tended to go along with the view that there are more important matters to worry about. In my book (Jordan, 2004) I wrote:

To the extent that we have no clear answer to the question of what L2 competence is, we might be said to be working in the dark. Of course, it would be good to have “more light”, but, unlike Gregg, I do not consider the lack of it to be in any way a fatal weakness in SLA theory construction to date.  There are …. good reasons why SLA should concentrate on the process of SLA….. We should not ignore the question of L2 competence,  but we should not be blinded by it, or persuaded by Gregg that both the methods and the focus of SLA research should faithfully follow the UG approach.

In the history of science there are many examples of theories that started off without any adequate description of what is being explained, although sooner or later, this limitation must be addressed.  An example that comes to mind is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, according to which the young born to any species compete for survival, and those young that survive to reproduce tend to embody favourable natural variations which are passed on by heredity. Darwin’s concept of variation lacked any formal description of variations, or any explanation of the origin of variations or how they were passed between generations. While he recognised that his description and explanation of heredity were limited, Darwin insisted that as long as inherited variation does occur, his theory would work. It was not until Mendel’s theories and the birth of modern genetics in the early 20th century that this deficiency started to be dealt with.

I’m now not so sure that the Darwin analogy is a good one (the theory of natural selection didn’t have rival theories which contradicted it), nor am I so sure that we can just park the question of what the “L” in SLA refers to. So here, I’m just unpacking the cupboard that has all this unaired stuff in it to see what’s there.

Components of Language Competence

Gregg and White, among others, think that UG is the best candidate to provide the framework for describing the IL grammar, but I suggest that while there is no serious rival to UG and the Language Acquisition Device as an explanation for how children acquire their knowledge of the L1 grammar, UG is of little use in describing the knowledge and skills involved in SLA. Let’s take a look.

Chomsky’s model of language distinguishes between competence and performance, between the description of underlying knowledge, and the use of language, influenced as the latter is by limits in the availability of computational resources, stress, tiredness, alcohol, etc.  Chomsky says he’s concerned with “the rules that specify the well-formed strings of minimal syntactically functioning units” and with

an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows his language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance  (Chomsky, 1965: 3).

The underlying knowledge of language that’s acquired is referred to as “I-Language” as distinct from “E-Language”, which is performance data of the sort you get from a corpus of real texts. “I-Language” obeys rules of Universal Grammar, among which are structure dependency; subjacency (which constrains the movement of categories); C-command and government theory (which constrain a number of the subsystems, such as case theory); and binding theory (which constrains the formation of NPs). So,

UG consists of a highly structured and restrictive system of principles with certain open parameters to be fixed by experience.  As these parameters are fixed, a grammar is determined, what we may call a `core grammar’  (Chomsky 1980, cited in Epstein, Flynn and Martohardjono, 1996: 678).

The principles are universal properties of syntax which constrain learners’ grammars, while parameters account for cross-linguistic syntactic variation, and parameter setting leads to the construction of a core grammar where all relevant UG principles are instantiated. Chomsky’s attempts to pin down the essential rules of language require this key distinction between competence and performance, and it’s important to be clear that performance refers to the actual utterances, spoken and written, of language users in their day to day communication. Such data, while doubtless of great interest to those investigating other areas of linguistics, is irrelevant to the development of UG theory, which is a property theory: it attempts to describe the essential rules of syntax governing all languages. It also provides an elegant, hugely persuasive explanation of how children acquire their L1,  but that’s a different story. Let’s continue now with competence.

Hymes (1972) criticised the Chomskian account of competence as too limited and argued that knowledge of the appropriacy of language use was also important.  Canale and Swain (1980) described communicative competence in terms of three components, and Canale (1983) proposed four components: linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic. Bachman (1990) also proposed four components but omitted strategic competence because, he argued, language competence consists of knowledge of and about the language, while strategic competence (the general cognitive skills involved in language use) are better understood as an ability, or capacity, rather than knowledge. For the moment, we may simply note the kinds of knowledge that are regarded as part of language competence, taken from Bachman and Palmer’s 1996 book. It’s interesting that Bachman’s 1990 book has the same diagram as the one below, but in the 1990 version, all components are labelled “Competence” (Organisational Competence, Grammatical Competence, etc.).



The  model reflects the growing opinion that Chomskian competence is not the best bedrock for a framework for examining SLA.  A description of what constitutes competence in an L2 is very different to a description of the modular knowledge that Chomsky gives for L1 acquisition and so the question “What is acquired in SLA?”, while arguably requiring a property theory, certainly can’t make much use of Chomsky’s narrowly-defined linguistic competence. But what do we make of Bachman’s model? After all, Bachman’s objective in identifying the various types of knowledge or competencies outlined here is to construct adequate tests of L2 learners’ proficiency; his re-organising and re-defining of the terms used previously by Hymes, and Canale and Swain is motivated by a desire to make the terms more testable. But in so doing, Bachman is, at least implicitly, saying that, pace Chomsky,  measures of a learner’s performance, far from being irrelevant, are a good reflection of his or her competencies.

Which brings us back to strategic competence. While Canale saw it as  performing a compensatory role (to be used to repair gaps in knowledge) Bachman gives it a central role, namely: mediating between meaning intentions, underlying competencies, background knowledge, and the context of the situation. It does this by determining communicative goals, assessing communicative resources, planning communication, and then executing the plan.

This, as Skehan (1995) argues, is a model of performance. Skehan argues that by considering strategic competence as not just compensatory but central to all communication

the nature of the relationship between competence and performance is being redefined, since Bachman is proposing a dynamic for communication.  He sees this relationship as being mediated through the operation of a pervasive strategic competence (Skehan, 1995: 93-94).

Skehan concludes that in SLA it’s misconceived to see competence as underlying performance in any straightforward way: psychological mechanisms are key (but are they parts of competence?); formulaic language, everybody seems to agree is not really a competence (but why not?); and planning (not a competence) helps draw on form (knowledge of which is most certainly a competence). So what Skehan is obviously challenging here is both the competence /performance dichotomy, and the knowledge/ skill dichotomy too. Skehan concentrates on the question Is strategic competence part of L2 competence? He points out that although awareness of how to cope can be seen as competence, behaviour during communication is clearly in the realm of performance. The answer to this problem, Skehan proposes, is to see strategic competence as the operation of processes which constitute “ability for use”.

Ability for use, in other words, is what goes beyond Bachman’s (1990) assessment, goal-setting, planning, and execution and is what accounts for the balance between analysability and accessibility as the processing dimension of actual communication  (Skehan, 1995: 106).

Well I give this quote, but it’s hopelessly out of context. The reference to analysability and accessibility is to Widdowson, and you need to know that Skehan’s article appeared in a festschrift to Widdowson, and that when Widdowson talks about these two terms he too is questioning the competence versus performance distinction  But anyway, we may take from all this that Skehan’s “ability for use” construct is one alternative to the usual distinction made between competence and performance.


Another way to look at the problem of competence is to return to the question of language proficiency, as Bialystok (2001) does.

What is the norm for language competence?  What do we mean by language proficiency?  What are its components and what is the range of acceptable variation?  Although these questions may seem to be prior to any use of language as a research instrument or conclusion about language ability in individuals, they rarely if ever are explicitly addressed  (Bialystok, 2001: 11).

Bialystok doesn’t underestimate the difficulties of measuring language proficiency, and she does no more than “point to approaches that may eventually provide a fruitful resolution”, but her book serves to once again call into question the competence / performance dichotomy. Bachman’s work does the same thing since he’s talking exclusively about performance.

I think this is the way to go. If we can get a handle on proficiency, go beyond the very limited frameworks  offered so far by various English (e.g. Cambridge) and international (e.g. the increasingly questioned European Common Framework) bodies, we may have a really useful construct to work with. I’m rather surprised at the lack of research done on Bachman and Palmer’s model.

Formal versus Functional Grammars

In trying to sort out the confusion caused by different takes on the  competence / performance issue, we can also consider the arguments among those that adopt formal and functional approaches to linguistic theory. As Bialystock (2001: 14) says:

We need to establish fixed criteria that supersede the theoretical squabbles and point to critical landmarks in language mastery.  These are lofty goals, but without some framework for evaluating progress it is impossible to produce meaningful descriptions of the acquisition of language.

Bialystock points out that functionalists limit themselves to the claim that language is in the environment, and cite computer simulations, such as connectionist modelling, as evidence of the sufficiency of their explanation.

But what is language, why is it structured as it is, and why are all languages so similar? The functionalist approach treats language as though it were like yogurt: once some exists, it is fairly straightforward to reproduce it, but where did the first yogurt come from? And why does yogurt from different places always come out more or less the same? To make yogurt, one must start with yogurt. There is something essential about its nature. So too with language: once it is in the environment, there are a number of ways one can explain how individual children obtain their own copy, but how did languages develop the predictable regularities they did, especially when the same regularities are observed across highly disparate languages? And why does the path to acquisition always look so similar? The functionalist response is to deny they are dealing with yogurt: the idea of linguistic universals is a fiction and each language is as different from all others as is each child who learns it (Bialastok 2001: 51).

This eloquent defence of formal grammar should not be interpreted as unconditional support: Bialystok not only berates the functionalists for their refusal to accept the idea of linguistic universals; she also admonishes the formalists, whose theories she describes as “equally parochial”.  While in 2004 I considered that the “theoretical squabbles” were of minor importance, and that the sensible thing was to agree that both the underlying rules of grammar and the descriptions provided by functionalists of how we use language for different purposes are important elements of our knowledge of language, I’m now a lot  more concerned about the worrying issues bubbling under the surface here, if you’ll forgive the expression.

Just one last element in the growing conundrum needs mentioning: connectionism, known these days as emergentism.


The “emergentist” approach to SLA is becoming very fashionable these days, notwithstanding (or maybe partly due to) the hopelessly-mangled attempts by Larson-Freeman to promote it. Ellis (2002) explains that emergentists “believe that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment.”  Emergentists reject the UG account of language, and the nativist assumption that human beings are born with linguistic knowledge and a special language learning mechanism. Ellis shows how language processing is “intimately tuned to input frequency”, and expounds a “usage-based” theory which holds that “acquisition of language is exemplar based”. (Ellis, 2002: 143) The power law of practice is taken by Ellis as the underpinning for his frequency-based account, which argues that “a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances” rather than knowledge of abstract rules, is what underlies the fluent use of language. In short, emergentists take most language learning to be “the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language”, and they see fluent language performance as “the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge” (Ellis, 2002: 173).

Seidenberg and MacDonald (1999) suggest that connectionism provides an alternative framework to “the generative paradigm”. In place of equating knowing a language with knowing a grammar, the probabilistic constraints approach adopts the functionalist assumption that language knowledge is “something that develops in the course of learning how to perform the primary communicative tasks of comprehension and production.” (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 571) This knowledge is viewed as a neural network that maps between forms and meanings, and further levels of linguistic representation, such as syntax and morphology, are said to emerge in the course of learning tasks. An alternative to “Competence” is also offered by Seidenberg and Macdonald, who argue that the competence-performance distinction excludes information about statistical and probabilistic aspects of language, and that these aspects play an important role in acquisition. The alternative is to characterize a performance system that handles all and only those structures that people can. Performance constraints are embodied in the system responsible for producing and comprehending utterances, not extrinsic to it. This approach obviates the paradox created by a characterization of linguistic knowledge that generates sentences that people neither produce nor comprehend (Seidenberg and MacDonald, 1999: 573). I’ve written about all this in my book (Jordan, 2004) and there’s an extract from it on the blog under the title Emergentism.

What seems to have happened is that Chomsky’s “competence” construct got mixed up in subsequent attempts to talk about the “L” in SLA; and, slowly but not at all surely, a distinction is made between knowledge and skills, so that language knowledge is seen to be interacting with the other non-linguistic factors. In particular, strategic competence (a non-linguistic general “ability” that enables an individual to use available resources by regulating online cognitive processes in accomplishing a communicative goal)  is separated from language competence. But this hasn’t, alas, resulted in all those working on a theory of SLA having a clear picture of what is acquired. Bachman’s description of language competence, while designed to measure language use, indicates the kinds of knowledge and skills that are involved in developing IL systems, and Bialystok has suggested how the search for proficiency measurements might contribute to clarifying the matter. But it’s the differences between formalists and functionalists, with the added ingredient of emergentism weighing in on the functionalist side, that now strike me as demanding closer attention and evaluation. Maybe for the practical purposes of ELT we can get along quite well using a combination of grammar rules and exemplars, particularly lexical chunks, but I think that for those interested in theory construction, major concerns involving such weighty matters as mind versus brain and rationalism versus empiricism need to be resolved. Both nativist (UG) and empiricist (connectionist) theories of SLA actually provide both a property and a transition theory of SLA. I think they’re both wrong, but I recognise that my own view – based on a rather bolted together and incomplete cognitive transition theory – offers nothing very substantial to put in their place. A satisfactory description of the “L” in SLA would certainly help.


Bachman, L. (1990) Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bachman, L. and Palmer, A.S. (1996) Language Testing in Practice. Oxford, OUP.

Bialystok, E. (2001) Bilingualism in Development.  Cambridge: CUP.

Canale, M. (1983) On some dimensions of language proficiency.  In Oller, J. (ed.): Issues in Language Testing Research.  Rowley, M.A.: Newbury House.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980) Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1: 1-47.

Chomsky, N.  (1965) Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Cook, V. J. (1993) Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Basingstoke:Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002) Frequency Effects in Language Processing and Acquisition.  Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24,2, 143 – 187

Epstein, S., Flynn, S., and Martohardjono, G. (1996) Second Language Acquisition: Theoretical and experimental issues in contemporary research.  Behavioural and Brain Sciences.  Vol. 19, 4, 677-758.

Hymes, D. (1972) On Communicative Competence. In Pride, J. And Holmes, J. (eds.) Sociolinguistics.  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Seidenberg, M.S. and MacDonald, M.C. (1999) A probabilistic constraints approach to language acquisition and processing.  Cognitive Science, 23, 569-588.

Skehan, P. (1995) Analysability, accessibility, and ability for use.  In Cook, G. and Seidlhoffer. B. (eds.): Principles and Practice in Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6 thoughts on “The “L” in SLA

  1. Thanks again, Geoff. There’s certainly plenty to pore over here. I continue to find your posts unfailingly useful and instructive. It feels a bit presumptious to comment but I’m just wondering whether what Chomsky is trying to pin down can most helpfully be called ‘the essential rules of language,’ Isn’t his project, more modestly, to pin down certain innately endowed restrictions on the forms that may be taken by syntax, syntax being, surely, only one among many things that are entailed in linguistic competence, some of which are no less ‘essential’ than syntax? Just before reading your post I was watching ‘First Dates.’ On it someone said, ‘I’m my father’s daughter.’ Interpreted literally this is an empty tautology (supposing we know the speaker to be female.) Nonetheless, none of us have any difficulty in taking the speaker of this remark as saying something substantial about her upbringing and her emotional attachments. Interestingly, I think, we do not understand her first as uttering a tautology, then wonder what she must have meant, and only then arrive at a plausible interpretation of what she must have meant. Rather, what we all recognize as her real meaning, our grasp of which seems to depend on a certain amount of folk-psychology and a familiarity with the formula ‘such and such is her/his + genitive form of one or other progenitor + one or other of only two filial terms,’ is the first one that occurs to us. Indeed, probably only someone interested in linguistics or philosophy would ever notice that she has uttered a tautology. Her real meaning seems to strike our comprehension as primary, and not as derivative. I’ve only read your post once and it will certainly repay reading more often than that. It’s entirely possible that you have well dealt with my observation and that I’ve simply been too obtuse to notice.


  2. Hi Patrick,
    You’re quite right: I should have said “the essential rules of grammar” or “…syntax” not language. The question of to what extent Chomsky is concerned with semantics or meaning is a very interesting one – Katz and Fodor’s (1963) “The Structure of a Semantic Theory,” published in 1963, was the first attempt to do semantics in generative linguistics, and these 2 have been publishing fascinating work of their own, often connected to Chomsky’s work, ever since. Most people see speech act theory as having rather separated off from UG studies, and they turn to that when looking at things like your example. Searle himself published an article (or maybe a book??) on Chomsky in the early 60s which, while I can’t remember much about right now, makes interesting reading – I mean it’s interesting to read the “father” of speech act theory explain Chomsky to sceptical (structuralist) colleagues.


    1. You refer to Searle as the father of speech act theory, though you put the word in prophylactic inverted commas. My own example also involved paternity. I think Freud, and Derrida, and Neil Macmillan, would have interesting things to say about this.


      1. Yes, this is it. Good to see it again. Thanks; I’ll read it today. As for Freudian slips and prophylactics, I’ll let you young ‘uns worry about them.


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