Chapter 2 Theories of First and Second Language Acquisition
In this chapter the author seeks to give a clear definition of what it means to be proficient in a language and also to discuss the various L1 and L2 acquisition models and how they are critiqued. Theories of L1 acquisition will be discussed in order to get a clear understanding of what learning a L2 entails. Second language learning in the classroom environment will then be considered in order to show how L2 theories were influenced by L1 learning in a natural environment.
This chapter draws on theories surrounding bilingualism and learning which presents bilingualism as either adding to children’s learning abilities or subtracting from them; depending on both the social and learning situation in which children find themselves.
LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY DEFINED
Language proficiency has been defined as the ability to use a language accurately and appropriately in its oral and written forms in a variety of settings (Cloud et al. 2000:60). This definition incorporates the four aspects of language namely listening, speaking, reading and writing. The first two aspects represent oral language and the last two aspects represent written language. Although the four aspects of language are closely related, they can develop independently of one another, especially when it is not the learner’s L1. Thus oral proficiency is in most cases developed outside the school environment without any exposure to written language.
On the other hand it is also possible to learn English as a foreign language in the home country without having much exposure to or practice with spoken English. While listening and reading represent receptive skills, speaking and writing represent expressive skills. Receptive skills develop ahead of expressive skills because receiving information is easier than giving it (Cummins 2003:15). Most learners understand more than they can express. The essential aspect of academic language proficiency is the ability to make complex meanings explicit in either oral or written modalities of language itself, rather than by means of contextual or paralinguistic cues, for instance, gestures and intonations.
Proficiency in all these aspects of language is rarely equal in both the languages that a bilingual person uses. The person who is equally proficient in all aspects of both native and second language is called a balanced bilingual. Cummins (2001:37) claims that balanced bilingualism is an exception than a rule. Most bilinguals have more proficiency in some aspects of one language than the other, and it is not always the native language that is the more proficient one (Cummins 2001:36). Proficiency also varies depending on the function, and context of communication. The extent to which language is conceptualised makes a difference on how easily it is processed.
Language that is highly conceptualised is easier to use and is learned more quickly than language that is experienced in a reduced context. Proficiency also varies depending on the function, purpose and context of communication (Lamberger 1997:176). Language used in informal social settings, particularly about concrete topics, may be easier to master than language that is used in more formal settings especially when the content is more abstract and cognitively demanding (Cummins 2001:68).
FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
Common knowledge about language acquisition is based on the two viewpoints that,
- parents teach language to their children and
- children acquire language by imitating the language that surrounds them.
These are the answers to how children acquire their L1 and different theories emphasise either (a) or (b). It is therefore, the aim of a psycho-linguist to find out how much of human language ability is innate and how much is shaped by the environment. This question is known as the nature-nurture debate. Most scholars today agree that both innate and environmental factors play a role in language development but are divided as to which is the more important of the two.
Stages of first language development
Before children learn to match words to the concepts they refer to, they have to go through several important preliminary stages to familiarise themselves with non-linguistic forms of communication such as facial expressions, gaze and gestures (Brown 2000:16).
During their first year children are often heavily dependent on the non-linguistic cues involved in communication such as gestures, actions, facial expressions, gaze and tone of voice. Some of the earliest sounds include involuntary grunts and sighs. Smiling begins within the first few months as an involuntary muscle spasm (Brown 2000:17). Gradually, children realise that smiling and crying can elicit responses from other people and begin using them as conscious behaviour. From the second month children start using voluntary contented cooing sounds. Months 4-7 are characterised by vocal play. According to Brown (2000:18), babies start experimenting with their vocal organs, producing shrieks, murmurs, growls and shouts.
Children acquire their L1 uniformly irrespective of the diverse cultural backgrounds in which they find themselves. During the language acquisition process several stages take place.
There is strong biological evidence that indicates that children are born with the ability to perceive human speech sounds. Researchers like Berko Gleason (1989:42) claims that children as young three days can hear and distinguish their mothers’ voice from other voices. This ensures that babies are receptive to the speech sounds of the person who is most likely to interact with them the most, that is, their mothers.
Even though the ability to produce speech sounds is present from birth, the ability to produce sounds that resemble human speech only emerges gradually as a result of maturational changes during the first two months. It is only during the third and fourth month that consonants start to appear in babies’ cooing sounds.
The babbling stage begins when children are six months old. At this stage they begin to explore the ability of their vocal organs and soon discover that they can make loud and soft noises. The early period of babbling is unintentional and therefore not communicative. This early stage of babbling often involves re-duplication of sounds, like reproducing vocalisations containing repeated sequences of consonants and vowels such as baba or dada (Brown 2000:20).
From about nine months babies’ babbling becomes variegated, that is, consonants and vowels are not repeated, but vary from syllable to syllable. During this stage children also learn to imitate the stress or intonation patterns of sentences they hear around them. Babbled strings of sounds are produced with a variety of stress and intonation patterns that resemble those of simple sentences, for example, rising intonation at the end of a sequence to signal a question. Children often babble like this in play situations, for instance, when paging through books. From their vocalisation they appear to be talking to someone or commenting on the pictures in the book.
During the later stages of babbling Brown (2000:21) claims that certain forms start being used fairly consistently in certain contexts, accompanied by eye-contact with the caretaker and gestures like reaching, pointing, grasping and rejection movements. These word-like forms are known as the pro-words and are basically idiosyncratic words invented by the child rather than modelled on actual adult words.
The one-word stage is the period from the child’s first word to the time when the child starts to put two words together. This period can last from one to two years, and is universal, confirming the nativist theory that children are born with innate language abilities (Brown 2000:22).
One of the major problems in the study of the one-word stage, according to (Brown2000:22), is determining what the child actually means when she uses a word. Because context, gestures and intonation patterns always accompany early word use, they provide the caretaker with cues as to what the child might possibly be talking about. Even so Foster-Cohen (1999:30) claims that it is hard to be sure of the child’s meaning.
Children’s first words follow the same articulatory patterns of babbling, that is, a preference for duplication and open syllables, with the difference that words have a fairly stable form and are used to communicate a particular meaning. Children’s pronunciation improves gradually and their words come to sound more and more like the adult target words. Foster-Cohen (1999:35) claims that sometimes children’s pronunciation gets worse before it gets better.
Children’s first words refer to objects in their environment, actions or states and words that facilitate social interaction. The most common of these words includes objects and living things. Objects, that the child can manipulate, function as words such as no and please. Children however use less common words like names for clothing because they cannot easily manipulate names of places or objects in the environment (Cohen-Foster 1999:37).
Evidence from children’s early words show that children do not merely imitate the language used in their environment. If they did it would be expected that they first use the most frequently used words occurring in the adult language (Foster-Cohen 1999:58).
The period between fifteen months and two years marks the beginning of the two-word stage. Children now tune into the unique structural properties of the language they hear around them but often come up with creative utterances like “all gone milk”. This kind of evidence suggests that children are unconsciously constructing utterances according to some pattern, although this pattern may differ from the rules and patterns of adult grammar (Cohen-Foster 1999:38).
Like one word utterances, two word utterances consist mainly of combinations of content words like nouns and verbs. These are the kinds of words that carry the main semantic load in sentences. Functional words such as the, is, in, and that, are omitted, as they would be in a telegram. Hence their speech is sometimes referred to as telegraphic speech as it includes only the words that carry the main message.
Once children start to put words together, their utterances quickly begin to include two-word sentences, three word sentences and even longer sentences. Brown (2000:27) claims that the length of children’s sentences increases gradually throughout pre-school and early school years as they learn the syntactic rules necessary for using functional words and creating more complex sentences. According to Brown (2000:29), children from different linguistic backgrounds achieve linguistic competence at roughly the same age, usually at six years old, in spite of structural differences between languages. By the time children start school they have internalised the majority of the rules of the language of their environment.
The order of acquisition of complex constructions seems fairly consistent with English-speaking children although it may differ slightly in other languages. The typical order of English acquisition is, according to Foster-Cohen (1999:40), present progressive – ing, prepositions, plurals, irregular past tense, possessive, corpula verb, regular tense, third person singular and auxiliaries.
Over-generalisation is a common strategy used by all children, irrespective of the language they are acquiring. This occurs when children apply the rules too widely. Over generalisation occurs once children start analysing the forms and work out the rules. Eventually children learn that there are exceptions to the general rules and start to use correct forms.
Approaches to first language development
Language scholars differentiate between acquisition and learning. Acquisition deals with picking up a language from birth, to pre-school age. During these stages a child learns a language unconsciously, whereas from primary school on language is learned both consciously and unconsciously.
Two major questions being asked in language acquisition are: do children learn a language by imitation or are they taught by their mothers? The second question deals with whether children are born with the ability to learn or whether there are environmental influences.
Research on language acquisition and its use can be divided into L1 and L2 learning settings. The literature on L1 learning is most relevant to child development while L2 learning pertains primarily to adult learning, although most general theories of language learning apply to both (Brown 2000:21).While it is not clear whether different psychological process are involved in first and second language learning there are differences in the way children and adults learn and this has important implications in teaching. Linguistic oriented theories of language learning tend to emphasise genetic mechanisms, for example, the use of universal grammar in explaining language acquisition (Crystal 1997:102).
In the 1950s most explanations of child language development was dominated by a behaviourist or structuralist interpretations. This was especially true in Western societies and the United States in particular. The behaviourist approach focuses on the immediately perceptible aspects of linguistic behaviour, that is, the publicly observable responses and the relationships or associations between those responses and events in the world surrounding them (Brown 2000:22). A behaviourist might consider effective language behaviour to be a production of correct responses to stimuli, if a particular response is reinforced then it becomes habitual or conditioned. Consequently children produce linguistic responses which are reinforced.
One of the best known attempts to construct a behaviourist model of linguistic behaviour was embodied in B.F. Skinner’s classic, Verbal behavior (1957). Skinner was commonly known for his experiments using animal behaviour. His contribution to education is through teaching machines and programmed learning which he designed (1957:14).
Skinner’s theory of verbal behaviour is an extension of his general theory of learning by operant conditioning. Operant conditioning refers to conditioning in which an organism emits a response without a necessarily observable stimulus. Skinner (1957:15) maintains that the operant is maintained by reinforcement for example, a positive verbal or non-verbal response from another person. He argues that verbal behaviour, like other behaviour, is controlled by consequences. When consequences are rewarding, behaviour is maintained and is increased in strength and perhaps in frequency. When consequences are punishing, or when there is a total lack of reinforcement, the behaviour is weakened and eventually extinguished.
In an attempt to broaden the base of behaviourist theory some psychologists proposed a modified theoretical position. One of these positions was mediation theory in which meaning is accounted for by the claim that the linguistic stimulus (a word or sentence) elicits a mediating response which is self-stimulating. Brown (2000:11) called the self-stimulation a representational mediation process. The mediation theory attempts to account for abstraction.
The mediation theory still leaves many questions about language unanswered. The abstract nature of language and the relationship between meaning and utterance remain unresolved. All sentences have deep structures which are intricately interwoven in a person’s total cognitive and effective experience. Such depth of language is not addressed by the mediation theory.
Nativist approaches emphasise the natural factor in the acquisition of language. This view is known as nativism. The nativist approach is derived from the fundamental assertion that language acquisition is innately determined, that people are born with a genetic capacity that predisposes them to systematic perception of language around them resulting in the construction of an internalised system of language (Chomsky 1959:94). It was during the 1960s that the generative transformational school of linguists emerged through the influence of Noam Chomsky. The generative linguists were interested in arriving at an explanatory level of adequacy in the study of language that is, the principled basis, independent of any particular language for the selection of the descriptively adequate grammar of each language.
Chomsky (1959:104) criticised the behaviourist approach of B.F. Skinner who suggested that language development is largely determined by training based on trial and error, and not by maturation. Instead, Chomsky (1964:65) emphasised that humans have biological endowment, which he called the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which enables them to discover the framework of principles and elements common to attainable human languages. The LAD includes basic knowledge about the structure and nature of human language which is termed Universal Grammar (UG). Although the grammatical rules of sentence structures are limited no one could exhaust all possible sentences of a language.
Chomsky (1964:67) hypothesised that, in their language acquisition, children move from the initial state to the steady state as if by flipping a series of switches. The linguistic revolution originated by Chomsky has exerted enormous influence on contemporary studies such as Slobin (1986:2); Wanner and Gleitmaan (1982:30). Crystal (1997:220) stresses the rule of natural language acquisition saying that if the behaviourist theory were applied to language acquisition it would be assumed that the child’s behaviour is reinforced by the caretaker’s approval only when the child follows the caretaker’s lead. Crystal (1997:236), while acknowledging the role of the environment or parental interactions, such as when mothers modify their speech to their child’s by simplifying, repeating and paraphrasing, emphasises that the process of language acquisition cannot be explained by behaviour stimuli response reinforcement alone.
Crystal (1997:238) pays special attention to three processes that characterise the child’s acquisition of syntactic structures. Analysing toddler’s language acquisition she concluded that mother-child interaction, which is a cycle of imitations, reductions and expansions, helps the inductive processing of the latent structure of the target language.
CHAPTER 1: BACKGROUND, PROBLEM FORMULATION AND AIMS
1.2 PROBLEM STATEMENT
1.3 AIMS OF STUDY
1.4 RESEARCH METHODOLOGY.
1.5 DEFINITION OF TERMS
1.6 CHAPTER DIVISION
CHAPTER 2: THEORIES OF FIRST AND SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
2.2 LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY DEFINED
2.3 FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
2.4 SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
2.5 MODELS OF SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.
2.6 FACTORS INFLUENCING SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
CHAPTER 3: LANGUAGE POLICIES ON EDUCATION IN SOUTH AFRICA
3.2 LANGUAGE POLICY IN SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLING: A POLITICAL HISTORY
3.3 IMPLICATIONS OF LANGUAGE POLICY AND RESEARCH
CHAPTER 4: RESEARCH DESIGN
4.2 LITERATURE STUDY
4.3 EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION
4.4 DESCRIPTION OF SELECTED SCHOOLS
4.5 PHASE 1: SELECTION OF STANDARDISED TESTS
4.6 ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
4.7 DATA ANALYSIS
4.8 VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY
CHAPTER 5: FINDINGS OF EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATIONS
5.3 GENERAL DISCUSSION.
CHAPTER 6: RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS
6.2 SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
6.3 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT OF PRACTICE
6.4 AREAS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT