Language Learning Paper


This module looks at how people learn a second or foreign language. The fact is that nobody knows how it’s done: it’s as simple as that. Nobody knows how people who learn English as a second or foreign language learn the grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation of English; nobody knows how they get a handle on discourse, or how they get fluent, or accurate, or why most of them never arrive at a level of proficiency described by various examining boards as “Advanced”.

Of course, something is known about all this, lots of progress has been made here and there, but, to put it another way: there is no complete or generally-accepted theory of SLA. There are lots of theories and bits of theory of SLA; there is hot debate among scholars about the role (if any) of Universal Grammar, and about whether empirically-based research is appropriate, and whether cognititive science or sociology is more helpful, and on and on. But, well, progress is slow. And I should add that nobody knows the best way to teach people English, either. Nobody knows what the most efficacious way of teaching grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation is; nobody knows the best way to teach listening; nobody knows the best way to correct learners; nobody knows the best way to help learners to be fluent or to speak “correctly”. I’m not exagerating: nobody knows!

Thus, learning English as an L2 is still a mysterious process, and teaching it is still an art, a craft, mostly guided by feeling, intuition and experience. Learning English involves the acquisition of a complex set of skills; it is very different from learning geography or history, for example. What learners know about English is only one part of the story: what they can do with English is generally considered to be the more important part. These two parts of the story are often labelled “declarative” and “procedural” knowledge: declarative knowledge refers to knowledge of “what”, while procedural knowledge refers to knowledge of “how”. Procedural knowledge is accepted as being crucial to learning English as an L2, but what kind of knowledge is it? Is fluency knowledge? Does Rafael Nadal (that sublime tennis player who practices just down the road from where I used to teach in Barcelona) “know” how to place his back foot in just the right position when he makes a winning forehand drive? Well, actually, I’d say he did, but it all depends what you mean by knowledge. In any case, let us accept that learning English as an L2 has as much in common with learning to play tennis as it does with learning geography.

To repeat: after 40 years or more of research, how people learn a second or foreign language remains, largely, a mystery. But progress, as I said, has been made. In very general terms, research suggests that the “route” of the SLA process is quite strictly constrained, and that the “rate” of the process varies enormously.

The “route” refers to the stages that learners go through in their learning (the stages of their “interlanguage” as it’s usually referred to), and research suggests that all learners, regardless of their first language, or their age, or their social environment, or even their exposure to various types of instruction, pass through the same stages of development in the same order. They learn the third person “s” of the present tense later than they learn the “ed” form of the past tense, for example. There are, of course, serious teaching implications here.

The rate of learning obviously refers to how quickly or slowly learners progress, and, just to give you a taste, research suggests that rate is strongly correlated to motivation, and weakly correlated to age. The rate of learning is what we, as teachers, can have most influence on.

The two main streams of research into learning English as a second or foreign language are psycholinguistics (individual learning processes that go on in the mind) and sociolinguistics (learning as a social process), although this is a bit of an oversimplification, and some MA TESL courses don’t make much of this distinction. Different MA TESL programmes deal with language learning in various ways: some have modules on SLA, some link it directly to teaching, and most of them, in my opinion make a mess of it. They make a mess of it because they don’t properly identify the key elements involved. So let’s try to make sense of it here.

Towell and Hawkins (1994) say that there are 5 main questions that anybody who wants to explain learning English as a second or foreign language must confront:

1. Transfer – of grammatical properties from the L1 mental grammar into the mental grammar that learners construct for the L2.
2. Staged Development – L2 learners go through a series of “transitional stages” towards the target language, i.e. from the initial-state grammars that L2 learners construct (often heavily influenced by transfer) they subsequently go through stages of development towards the target language.
3. Systematicity – in the growth of L2 knowledge across learners, i.e. learners from different L1 backgrounds acquiring an L2 under different conditions of exposure – naturalistic versus classroom – often go through the same stages of development.
4. Variability – in learners’ intuitions about, and production of, the L2 at various stages of L2 development. These seem to allow for more than one variant for a given construction where the target language has only one form.
5. Incompleteness – most L2 learners do not achieve native-like competence. This phenomenon is referred to as fossilisation by Selinker (1972) and as incompleteness by Schacter (1990).
(Towell and Hawkins, 1994: 15)

Here’s another view, provided by Mitchell and Myles (1998), in their more general survey of SLA. They describe the areas of interest in SLA research slightly differently, and they identify four areas:

1. The role of internal mechanisms
a) Language-specific: how similar are 1st. and 2nd language acquisition processes? (Is UG available?)
b) Cognitive: is SLA similar to learning any other complex skill?
2. The role of the first language: the phenomenon of transfer.
3. The role of psychological variables: how do individual characteristics of the learner affect the learning process?
4. The role of social and environmental factors.
(Mitchell and Myles, 1998: 40)

Finally, here are the main areas dealt with in the Language Learning module of an MA TESL:

• First versus second language acquisition.
• Language transfer.
• The place of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in SLA.
• Krashen: the Natural Approach.
• Early SLA research: Error analysis and the Morpheme Studies.
• Processing Approaches: McLaughlin: Automaticity and Restructuring; Schmidt: Noticing; Long’s Interaction Hypothesis; Pienemann’s Processability Theory; the Competition Model; Emergentism.
• Social approaches: The ethnography of communication, and hermeneutic research; Variable Competence Models; The Acculturalisation/Pidginisation approach; Theories of aptitude and motivation.


Preliminary Reading

First, read your course notes. Then, I suggest you read the best introduction to this area: Lightbown and Spada’s How Languages are Learned. It’s a great, easy, interesting, lively, short book. My serious advice to you is: read this, and nothing else, until you decide on your topic. Another piece of related advice: don’t bother trying to read Rod Ellis’ monumental The Study of Second Language Acquisition, which gives inordinately long descriptions of everything, without properly explaining anything.

Choose a Topic

This is such a vast area that it becomes even more important to quickly focus on one well-defined area. Some popular choices are:

• Is there a “Critical Period” for SLA?
• What does Krashen’s “Natural Approach” explain?
• How do L2 learners process input? Automaticity and Restructuring in McLaughlin.
• The role of “Noticing”; a review of Schmidt.
• What is “Aptitude?”
• The effects of age on the rate of learning a second language.
• Stages of development: How does Interlanguage develop?
• The roles of Input and Output in SLA.
• What makes a good lanaguage learner?
• The importance of motivation in second language learning.

Perhaps in this module, due to its scope and relative complexity, you will find it difficult to quickly identify a well-defined topic. If so, at least try to find the general area that interests you most: the individual learning process (interlanguage; input; processing; individual differences; …), or the social aspects of learning (being a member of a speech community; the influence of culture; extrinsic motivation; …) or some specific theory or approach to SLA.

Read in Depth

If you’re interested in SLA, the best book is, in my opinion, Mitchell and Myles’ Second Language Learning Theories. Another good book is Vivian Cook’s Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. Apart from these, Oxford University Press publish a Handbook of Second Language Acquisition every seven years or so, and this always has a really excellent collection of papers. Doughty and Long were the editors of the most recent issue, published in 2003. If you want to look at Krashen, read the book he wrote with Terrell: The natural approach: language acquisition in the classroom, and then read Gregg’s article “Krashen’s monitor and Occam’s razor”.

If you want to know about Chomsky, I advise you not to try reading the man himself: his stuff is seriously daunting. White’s Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar is authoritative, but quite tough going, and I like Towell and Hawkins’ Approaches to SLA, which discusses Chomsky, and then attempts to use UG as a key part of an overall theory of SLA.

If you want to look at other areas, Skehan’s book on Individual Differences is a model of clarity and scholarship, and if you’re interested in attitudes and motivation, then Dörnyei is by far the most important scholar working in this area, and he’s doing some great work. His 2009 book The psychology of second language acquisition is the best place to start. As usual, you’ll find full references for all these books at the end of the chapter.

Write an Outline and submit it to your tutor.

Write the First Draft

This is the first module we’ve discussed where your important assignment has to describe, explain, critically evaluate and discuss ideas, hypotheses and theories. Whereas assignments about grammar and pronunciation are quite technical, when we discuss L2 language learning, we are in much more open territory, where the coherence and cohesion of your paper need more attention. I deal with the key questions of coherence and cohesion in Chapter 9, but, for the moment, be aware of the need to plan your paper so that there is a clear argument running through it, and that the various sections of this argument are properly organised and signposted.

Write the Final Version of the Paper

Do this in line with the recommendations made already in previous pages.

Model Paper on SLA

Here’s an example that I made up.

Title: To what extent does Krashen’s Monitor Model explain the SLA process?

Submitted by: J. Thribb

1. Introduction
Krashen’s Monitor Model is an example of a linguistic approach to SLA, heavily influenced by the paradigm provided by Chomsky’s UG theory (Chomsky, 1957; 1959; 1965; 1975). Krashen (1985) re-formulated what Corder (1967) had called, in relation to SLA, a “built-in syllabus” into a Natural Order Hypothesis.

To my knowledge, this hypothesis was first proposed by Corder (1967). It states that we acquire the rules of language in a predictable way, some rules tending to come early and others late. The order does not appear to be determined solely by formal simplicity, and there is evidence that it is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes. (Krashen, 1985: 14)

Krashen (1977a, 1977b, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1985) developed this idea into the Monitor Model, which contains five hypotheses. The aim of this paper is to critically evaluate Krashen’s Monitor Model, and to suggest that, despite its wide popularity and inuiitive appeal, its hypotheses use badly-defined terms, circular arguments, and lack any empirical content.

The paper begins with a review of the literature, and then outlines the five hypotheses that comprise Krashen’s Monitor Model. Each hypothesis…. In Section 4, the main criticisms of the overall model are discussed, and subsequently, ….. The paper concludes with some recommendations…
2. Literature Review

In order to situate Krashen’s Monitor Model, we must briefly examine the enormous paradigm shift provoked by Chomsky in 1957, and then review the literature pertaining to error analysis, Corder’s built-in syllabus (Corder, 1967, referred to above), and to the subsequent development of a theory of interlanguage (Selinker, 1972).

In 1957, Chomsky suggested that
3. Krashen’s 5 Hypotheses
3.1. The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis.

According to Krashen, adults have two ways of developing competence in second languages. The first way is via acquisition, that is, by using language for communication. This is a subconscious process and the resulting acquired competence is also subconscious. The second way to develop second language competence is by language learning, which is a conscious process and results in formal knowledge of the language. For Krashen, acquisition, picking up a language naturally like children do their L1, is a process still available to adults, and is far more important that language learning. Furthermore, ..
3.2 The Natural Order Hypothesis

The rules of language are acquired in a predictable way, some rules coming early and others late. The order is not determined solely by formal simplicity, and it is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes.

3.3 The Monitor Hypothesis

The learned system has only one, limited, function: to act as a Monitor. Further, the Monitor cannot be used unless three conditions are met:
1. Time. “In order to think about and use conscious rules effectively, a second language performer needs to have sufficient time.” (Krashen, 1982:12)
2. Focus on form “The performer must also be focused on form, or thinking about correctness.” (Krashen, 1982: 12)
3. Knowledge of the rule.
34. The Input Hypothesis

If there is a Natural Order, how do learners move from one point to another, from one stage of competence to the next? The Input Hypothesis explains the learner’s progress. Second languages are acquired by understanding language that contains structure “a bit beyond our current level of competence (i + 1)” by receiving “comprehensible input”. “When the input is understood and there is enough of it, i + 1 will be provided automatically. Production ability emerges. It is not taught directly.” (Krashen, 1982: 21-22)

3.5 The Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Affective Filter is “that part of the internal processing system that subconsciously screens incoming language based on … the learner’s motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states.” (Dulay, Burt, and Krashen, 1982: 46) If the affective Filter is high, (because of lack of motivation, or dislike of the L2 culture, or feelings of inadequacy, for example) input is prevented from passing through and hence there is no acquisition. The Affective Filter is responsible for individual variation in SLA (it is not something children use) and explains why some learners never acquire full competence.

3.6 Summary

There is a beguiling
4. Discussion

Krashen’s hypotheses have very serious deficiencies as a theory of SLA, and these are explained immediately below. They are a good example of how a rigorous theory (in this case, Chomsky’s) can be misappropriated, and of how what seems like a powerful, intuitively-appealing theory turns out on closer inspection to be lacking in coherence, content and explanatory power.
The biggest problem with Krashen’s account is that its propositions are not capable of being subjected to an empirical test. There is no way of testing the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis: we are given no evidence to support the claim that two distinct systems exist, nor any means of determining whether they are, or are not, separate. Similarly, there is no way of testing the Monitor hypothesis: with no way to determine whether the Monitor is in operation or not, it is impossible to determine the validity of its extremely strong claims. The Input Hypothesis is equally mysterious and incapable of being tested: the levels of knowledge are nowhere defined and so it is impossible to know whether i + 1 is present in input, and, if it is, whether or not the learner moves on to the next level as a result. Thus, the first three hypotheses (Acquisition-Learning, the Monitor, and Natural Order) make up a circular and vacuous argument. The Monitor accounts for discrepancies in the natural order, the learning-acquisition distinction justifies the use of the Monitor, and so on.

Nor does Krashen’s account
How, for example, is the Filter selective in terms of grammatical structures? Gregg (1984) gives the example of a Chinese native speaker with near native-like knowledge of English who had not, however, acquired 3rd person singular -s. If the Affective Filter explains this, how did it let most of the input through and filter out the 3rd person singular?
McLaughlin (1978) and Gregg (1984) both question the claim of the Monitor hypothesis that learning is available for use in production, but not in comprehension, which is highly counter-intuitive. Gregg calls it “an extraordinary claim” which Krashen offers no evidence whatever for.
Nicola (1991) suggests that in order to make the input hypothesis less than vacuous, i.e. to give it empirical content, we need to operationalise “comprehensible input”. While Nicole agrees with McLaughlin that comprehension is an introspective act that is “woefully inadequate” for empirical research, she argues that nonetheless “a workable operational definition for classroom purposes is not difficult to attain.”
In order to give the hypotheses in Krashen’s model more empirical content, a good start would be, as Nicola suggests, to operationalise the concepts, starting with comprehensible input. My own view is that
5. Conclusion

The Natural Approach (Krashen and Terrell, 1984), which summarised Krashen’s views and also suggested how they could be implemented in the second language classroom, became widely-read and even more widely referred to by language teachers. Krashen’s explanation of SLA was intuitively appealing, and it “clicked” with all those who had embraced the so-called “Communicative Language Learning” approach, and who had rejected the old audio-lingual methodology in favour of “language in context” and methodologies that recognised the importance of affective factors. But its implications for teaching were far more radical than most teachers realised:



Suggested Reading

***** Excellent **** Very Good *** OK ** Not Good * Don’t go near it! ??? Beats me

Top Suggestions for the Module

A. Overview of L2 Language Learning
***** Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. 1999. How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Brief, concise, fresh, interesting: a jewel.

B. More Depth

***** VanPatten, B., & Williams, J. (eds.) (2007). Theories in second language acquisition. An introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. The best Introduction of them all.

***** Mitchell, R. and Miles, F. 2004. Second Language Learning Theories. London: Hodder Educational. Excellent, clear Introduction.

***** Mitchell, R., Myles, F., and Marsden, E. 2011. Second Language Learning Theories. London: Routledge. This is the third edition, where Marsden has contributed too. Even better now!

***** Doughty, C.J. and Long, M.H. 2003. The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell. The best collection of articles on all aspects of SLA. An absolute must for the serious SLA scholar. Both the authors are, in my opinion, a credit to their field: true scholars who maintain the highest standards in everything they write. There is a more recent edition of The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition edited by Ritchie and Bhatia, 2009, but, IMHO, it’s not as good, although there are several very good articles in it.

***** Skehan, P. 1989. Individual Differences in Second Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold. A really great book that influenced me a lot. It’s a bit outdated (see Dörnyei for more up to date stuff on motivation, for example), but still a classic.

***** Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The psychology of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Dörnyei has done more than anybody to pin down the slippery concept of motivation and make it the subject of rigorous research. This book synthesises his work to date, but you can bet there will be more.

***** Dörnyei, Z. 2001. Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow: Longman. This is where he started.

***** McLaughlin, B. 1987. Theories of Second Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold. My favorite, but that’s because I tend to agree with just about everything he says!

***** Towell, R. and Hawkins, R. 1994. Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. , Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. A very ambitous attempt to put together a general theory of SLA. Another of my favorites.

***** Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Extremely well-written, clear, scholarly, highly recommended.

***** White, L. 2003. Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. If you’re really interested in Chomsky, White will explain.

***** Robinson, P. (ed.) 2001. Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A fine collection of papers.

**** Cook, V. 2008. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold. Scholarly, clear, a great bridge between theory and practice.

*** Krashen, S. and Terrell, T. 1983. The natural approach: language acquisition in the classroom. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press. Hugely influential, very easy to read, very beguiling, almost like an opiate. Read Gregg (see below) for the antidote.

* Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Boring, badly-organised overkill. This is what happens when you know a lot, but haven’t a clue how to present it in an interesting way, or to make sense of it.

C. Articles
***** Gregg, K. R. 1984. Krashen’s monitor and Occam’s razor. Applied Linguistics 5, 79-100. Nobody writes like Gregg: he’s like Glenn Gould playing Bach: in a class of his own. He writes beautifully and is the best critic in the field of SLA by a country mile. Here, he performs an elegant hatchet job on Krashen. Elsewhere, in his many articles, Gregg makes the most finely-crafted criticisms of various aspects of theories of SLA you’ll ever read. Google “Kevin Gregg”; download everything he’s written, and enjoy yourself. Scholarship and critical accumen are perfectly combined; sparkling prose mingles with the dryest wit.

***** Long, M. 1990. The Least a Second Language Acquisition Needs to Explain. TESOL Quarterly 24/4: 649-666. Long knows his stuff like nobody else, and does not suffer fools. This is a really first class article: scholarly, well-argued, unforgiving. A must read.

***** Schmidt, R. W. 1990. The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, 11/2: 129-158. Brilliant! Not exactly easy reading, but it has had a huge impact on SLA research. Another “must read”.

***** White, L. 1990. Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12/2: 121-133. If her book is a bit too much for you to cope with, try this article.

***** Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics, 10/1: 52-79. Good introduction to Pienemann’s attempts to plot the stages of SLA development.

***** Selinker, L. (1972), Interlanguage. IRAL, 10: 209-231. Seminal reading.

***** Long, M. H. 1985. Input and second language acquisition theory. In Gass, S. M. and Madden, C. G. (eds.). Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 377-93. Excellent, scholarly, critical review.

D. Books for Teachers
See next page.

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