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Children in spite of their greatly varying situations throughout the world, ranging from luxury to extreme poverty, successfully learn their first language with out fail, and with miraculous like uniformity (Department of Education 2003, Ellis 1980, Mitchell & Myles 2004, Pinker 1994, Shannon 2005). Can this human success story of first language acquisition be applied to the acquisition of a second language? A second language is often used to refer to the learning of a language after the acquisition of the first, mother tongue, regardless of the situation or purpose of learning (Cook 2001, Mitchell & Myles 2004). However the defining difference, as rightly pointed out by Eric Lenneberg, is that the learning of a second language happens after puberty (Wikipedia 2007).
Few if any, adult learners ever come to master a foreign language or blend with native speakers of the language. In fact, for most adult learners, acquisition stops well before achievement of native like mastery (Mitchell & Myles 2004, Pinker 1994, Shannon 2005). Are these different outcomes for child and adult the result of a different acquisition process? How definitive is the success and failure contrast between first and second language acquisition and what role does instruction, age, and affective factors play? Looking into theses questions enables us to analyse how close the second language acquisition process is to the first and what implications this has for the second language teacher.
Even highly motivated adult second language learners, after years of study and contact with the target language persist in making grammar mistakes and continue to search after vocabulary. Notoriously their pronunciation identifies them as someone with a foreign accent (Mitchell & Myles 2004, Pinker 1994). The learner's second language system often fossilizes. It congeals, becomes stuck at an abnormal stage with enduring errors that are impenetrable to teaching or correction (Mitchell & Myles 2004, Pinker 1994).
If adult second language learners almost without exception do not achieve native like command of the target language and often end up fossilizing, then what are these curious rules and structures which they invent for themselves as they proceed along the path of language learning? Selinker (1972 as cited in Cook 2001, McLaughlin 1987, Lightbown & Spada 2006) named these curious rules and structures as interlanguage. This refers to temporary grammars composed of rules stemming from different cognitive strategies, possessing characteristics of the first and second language and yet distinct from both, composed by second language learners proceeding towards the target language.
Why do adult second language learners hit the brick wall of fossilization, while child first language learners are guaranteed to race to success? When the interlanguage ceases to develop, fossilization occurs. Psycholinguistic reasons, such as the absence of language specific learning mechanisms, which the child can utilise, are given. There is also the possibility of sociolinguistic reasons, such as the lack of opportunity and motivation for the adult second language learner to identify completely with the target language community (McLaughlin 1987, Mitchell & Myles 2004).
An example of the freezing of interlanguage, possibly due to sociolinguistic reasons, leading to fossilization is seen in the case of Alberto. Alberto made insignificant linguistic development during the course of a nine-month study. His interlanguage was simplified and reduced. Schumann (1978 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) saw this to be a form of pidginization, which leads to fossilization when the learner no longer adjusts the interlanguage system towards the target language. Does the extremely slow student who seems to make no process, no matter how many extra lessons he is given provide a case of fossilization? It is possible he is progressing; yet some developments in his linguistic system may be so slow that improvement cannot be perceived. Something that remains a mystery is the possibility of developing a fossilized area at a later point in time. The feasibility of this would make it extremely difficult to distinguish really fossilized areas from areas of slow progress (Hyltenstam 1985). Teachers must incorporate instruction and feedback that helps learners recognize differences between their interlanguage and the target language if fossilization is to be avoided (LightBown & Spada 2006).
This paints a very bleak picture of almost guaranteed failure for adult second language learners. However this is if we regard the final goal of second language learning as native like command of the language, and in reality the achieving of native like mastery of a second language is often an unnecessary and unrealistic goal in many educational contexts (LightBown & Spada 2006).
Children certainly do pass through inevitable developmental stages in first language acquisition (Galasso 2003). However does this apply to adult second language learners? Krashen claimed the acquisition of the grammar of a particular language proceeds in a predictable natural order, regardless of the first language and without consideration to the learner being in a classroom environment or outside (McLaughlin 1987, Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000). Therefore an adult second language learner can learn in the same manner as learning a first language.
The primary evidence that Krashen relies on is the 1974 work of Dulay and Burt, who were interested in English as a second language, in the area of morpheme studies. This work was founded on and stimulated by the 1973 work of Roger Brown, who found a common sequence of acquisition for functions in first language acquisition (McLaughlin 1987, Mitchell & Myles 2004). Dulay and Burt studied Spanish and Chinese speaking children learning English in New York. Their acquisition sequence was the same, revealing that the target language is more influential on errors than the first language. Dulay and Burt followed this up with a further study involving speech samples from Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Norwegian speaking children acquiring English as a second language. The children's types of mistakes from both studies were strikingly similar. The preponderance of developmental errors in comparison to interference errors suggested second language learning was like first language acquisition stemming from possibly universal linguistic procedures (McLaughlin 1987).
The same sequence of acquisition for functions was confirmed by other researchers such as De Villiers (1973 as cited in Mitchell & Myles 2004). Bailey et al. (1974 as cited in Mitchell & Myles 2004) and Larsen-Freeman (1975 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) conducted similar studies with adults and discovered similar results to those reported in the case of children by Dulay and Burt. All of these studies produced, indicated a shared natural order developmental sequence based upon statistical correlations between learners with numerous first languages (McLaughlin 1987).
The morpheme studies have been criticised. A bilingual syntax measure was used, and study findings may be instrument specific. The studies were not longitudinal but rather cross-sectional and did not measure and reflect acquisition sequence, which was assumed by the researchers, but rather the studies measured and reflected accuracy of production (Mitchell & Myles 2004, McLaughlin 1987). When longitudial studies were conducted they generated acquisition orders that did not match with cross sectional results (Hakuta 1976, Huebner 1979, Rosansky 1976 as cited in McLaughlin).
Dulay and Burt (1973 as cited in Pienemann 1985) concluded that the passing of all children through a natural order in learning means instruction of syntax could be abandoned. Krashen took this up and applied it to second language learners. He came to the same conclusion, not that grammar should be taught in this natural order, but that teaching should be abandoned (Pienemann 1985, Wilson 2000). These studies have been established on faulty ground and do not prove a natural sequence of development will take care of grammar in second language learning without teaching. Even if we suppose that there may be some type of order of sequence, the previous research did not come up with the reasons underlying this order. The supposed sequence, without an explanation of the underlying reasons, has no relevance to teaching (Cook, 2001).
Children have no other language to interfere in the learning of their first language (Pinker 1994). Adult second language learners already have a first language to communicate and think with. This language will influence the learning of a second language. The influence may be an advantage, i.e. knowing how language works and rapid acquisition, or a disadvantage, i.e. making incorrect guesses and pronunciation that bears traces of the phonology of the first language (Department of Education 2003, Lightbown & Spada 2006, Mitchell & Myles 2004). This kind of phenomenon, which according to Kellerman (1979, 1983 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) should be looked at as a cognitive process in learner production, is often called language transfer.
The transfer of first language has been obtained in various studies, at least in some areas of the target language, showing learners with different first languages progress at different rates and follow different developmental routes (Mitchell & Myles 2004, McLaughlin 1987). Keller and Cohen (1979 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) found that a Japanese, a Finish, and a German student acquired the English interrogative with same developmental route, but the use of yes/no questions by the Finnish student was acquired much slower. Zobl (1982 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) discovered different paths to acquisition of the English article by a Chinese-speaking and a Spanish-speaking student.
Interference from the first language may result in avoidance or errors. Schachter (1974 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) contended that Japanese and Chinese students learning English produced fewer relative clauses than Persian and Arabic students learning English because Chinese and Japanese are not right branching. Schachter (1983 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) demonstrated that learner's previous knowledge limits the suppositions that are possible about the new language leading to erroneous generalizations.
Language transfer's facilitative side is seen from research on vocabulary development (Ard and Homburg 1983 as cited in McLaughlin 1987). There is a response effect that generalizes beyond items that show overt similarity.
One view of second language learning, contrastive analysis, saw its crucial element as the transfer of aspects of the first language to the second language. This ranges from assistance for learners, when the first language shares mutual elements with the second language, to encumbrance where the two languages differ (Cook 2001). This both over predicted, by identifying difficulties that did not arise, as well as under predicted because of errors that are unexplainable on the basis of language transfer (McLaughlin 1987).
Transfer from the first language is important, but its role needs to be determined through research and investigation as opposed to blaming the first language for all the problems in second language learning (Cook 2001). This will empower the second language teacher to actually make use of the first language where it benefits, rather than looking at the first language as merely something intruding on the second language learning process.
Children learn and reinvent language, generation after generation with speed and accuracy all without being taught or instructed. Many people have assumed parents teach their children language through motherese (child directed speech) (Department of Education 2003, Pinker 1994). Without doubt many children in the world do receive motherese, such as in many middle class homes in the developed world, but it is by no means universal and certainly not essential to language development. In many communities and societies around the globe, adults do not engage in any motherese type language, whether conversation or verbal play, with very young children. However, quite miraculously, children in these communities and societies just can't help it and still learn to talk (LightBown & Spada 2006, Pinker 1994).
A clear illustration of children learning or reinventing language without instruction is the phenomena of pidgin languages. The exposing of children to a pidgin at an early age results in the birth of a full complex language, a Creole. Adults do not turn pidgins into Creoles. The example of the birth of Nicaraguan sign language is another example of how children learn language without instruction. Deaf children with make shift home signs brought together for the first time under government care, formed a pidgin sign language. This is used by the children who cultivated it when they were ten years or older. Conversely children who joined the school at four and under have more sinuous signing. They had created a Creole through exposure to the pidgin (Pinker 1994).
According to Krashen adults do not lose the ability to acquire languages in the way children do. Adult second language learners have two ways to develop competence. Acquisition, which is subconscious, like child first language acquisition, consisting of grammatical judgements based on a feel for correctness, and where speakers are not concerned with form but rather meaning. Secondly, learning which is conscious knowledge of a second language, learning about a language, consisting of judgements of grammaticality based on rule (McLaughlin 1987, Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000). However Krashen's distinction between acquired and learned is not clear and can lead to circular definitions (Lightbown & Spada 2006, McLaughlin 1987).
Krashen envisaged first and second language acquisition, as opposed to learning, both occurring when comprehension and understanding of real messages occurs. Second language learners can acquire a new language totally incidentally without awareness in contexts where the meaning is made plain, by using their world knowledge and with focus on understandable communication of structures that are slightly above their level (Mitchell & Myles 2004, Wilson 2000). The current level being i, we move to the next level along the natural order, by understanding input containing i + 1. If sufficient input is understood, according to Krashen, the necessary grammar is automatically provided. Krashen's ideas are all rather vague. The existing state of knowledge (i) is not clear, and whether the i + 1 applies to aspects of language other than syntax, such as vocabulary and phonology, is likewise not apparent (Mitchell & Myles 2004).
For Krashen learning does not turn into or become acquisition. Therefore Krashen saw that second language learners should attempt to acquire linguistic rules subconsciously and in a natural way like a child. His promotion of exposure to comprehensible input led him to malign the role of instruction and claim that acquisition is possible without all-embracing use of conscious grammatical rules or drills (McLaughlin 1987, Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000). This led Krashen to see no need for a grammatical syllabus in the classroom and all second language classes as merely transitional, only being helpful when students are interested in learning about the language. The mode and not the message is the cause of progress, and more students would be interested in different subject material thus reaching higher levels of acquisition than they would in grammar-based classrooms. Numerous people have acquired second languages in the midst of focusing on something else throughout history. According to Krashen we should focus on reading and certainly not focus on explicit grammatical structures (Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000).
However adult students can profit from more explicit grammatical explanations by accessing more advanced cognitive skills than are available to child learners (Shannon 2005). Does Krashen's theory follow through into practice? Can we give second language learners high frequency exposure in instructional input leading to better knowledge of a particular form without explicit instruction (Lightbown & Spada 2006)?
Marha Trahey and Lydia White (1993 as cited in Lightbown & Spada 2006) carried out a study with young French speaking English learners in Quebec. Adverb placement was spotlighted through communicative and task based learning, utilising reading and comprehension activities, without recourse to teaching of adverb placement or error correction. Enhancement was made in their acceptance of grammatically correct sentences in English but not in French, whereas they persisted in the acceptance of grammatically correct sentences in French but not in English, leading to learning being incomplete They were in need of instruction, and particularly in need of error correction to get rid of an error based on their first language.
The view that second language learners are in need of error correction is not shared by Krashen. Based upon the observation that error correction has a tiny effect on children Krashen assumed the effect was similarly insignificant on second language acquisition, and eventually leads to a strong negative effect on motivation if error correction becomes excessive (Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000). The reality again doesn't match with Krashen's views. Kim McDonough (2004 as cited in Lightbown & Spada 2006) investigated English foreign language classes in Thailand. Through the scrutinization of conditional clauses it was discovered that increased use of negative feedback drastically improved the accuracy of conditional clauses.
Classroom studies have highlighted that the provision of form focused instruction and corrective feedback and strategies within the framework of communicative and content based learning provide a short cut and promote second language learning more efficiently than exclusively comprehension, fluency, or accuracy based learning (Lightbown & Spada 2006, McLaughlin 1987, Mitchell & Myles 2004). In fact the overwhelming majority of language learners want instruction and correction, in opposition to most teachers, in their quest to acquire a second language (Renate Schulz 2001 as cited in Lightbown & Spada 2006).
Krashen's idea of second language learners acquiring the language by just relaxing and getting enough comprehensible input is like a fairy tale that soon turns into a nightmare. There is just no real evidence, and almost consigns the whole teaching industry to the bin. Clearly comprehensible input is not enough for second language learners. There needs to be explicit instruction on particular grammatical points, vocabulary, and the focus of learners' attention on errors. Learners being permitted too much liberty in the absence of explicit instruction and error correction will lead to premature fossilization of errors (Lightbown & Spada 2006).
According to Krashen first and second language acquisition is affected by motivation and self-confidence, and both occur when the acquirer is relaxed. When the affective filter is down, as Krashen names it, or low whilst receiving comprehensible input then language acquisition takes place (Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000). All second language learners need to do is relax like children and receive comprehensible input and they will acquire language. However children acquire their first language successfully despite their varying circumstances (Pinker 1994). How many relaxed adult second language learners fail to make progress in their language study?
Schumann (1978 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) viewed second language acquisition as determined by the degree of social and psychological distance between the learner and the target-language culture. The higher social and psychological distance there is between the second language learner and the target language group the lower the degree of acculturation and hence the lack of language acquisition. Schumann (1978 as cited in McLaughlin 1987) presented the case of Alberto, a Costa Rican working class immigrant, socially and psychologically quite distant from the target language group.
Aberto had a limited clique of exclusively Spanish speaking friends, and worked overtime in the evenings instead of attending English classes. Little linguistic advancement was seen in Alberto during the course of a 9-month study and there were signs of a form of pidginization, which leads to fossilization.
Second language learners are often embarrassed at their deficiency in mastering a language, have a sense of incompetence, and find their motivation and stimulus affected by negative feelings (Lightbown & Spada 2006). Although Krashen's assumption, that child first language learners are relaxed and therefore adult second language learners must merely do the same to acquire language, is a faulty one, his request for having classroom stress minimized is something even Krashen's critics would support (Shannon 2005, Wilson 2000).
When comparing the process of first and second language acquisition, age is the key factor that stands out from all the social and motivational explanations. Infants under the age of six months can distinguish phonemes used in other than their native language whereas adults cannot. Standard language acquisition is guaranteed up to the age of six, and becomes compromised from then until shortly after puberty. Post puberty language acquisition is rare. To understand why a learning capacity ceases we need to understand when a learning capacity is needed. If the answer is, until we have acquired the underlying knowledge of the language from our community then this would explain the redundant need of a language learning ability as we reach puberty (Pinker 1994).
Jacqueline Johnson and Elissa Newport (1989) tested Korean and Chinese born students and faculty members at an American university. Participants' age of arrival to the U.S was a significant forecaster of success in the English morphology and syntax test that they took. The immigrants who had arrived in the States between the ages of three and seven, performed identically to American born students. Those who arrived later up until the age of fifteen did progressively more worse the later they arrived, and those who arrived between seventeen and thirty-nine performed the worst of all, and illustrated mammoth inconsistency in their performances.
Robert DeKeyser (2000 as cited in Lightbown & Spada) replicated the study of Johnson and Newport, with Hungarian immigrants to the United States. Again a formidable relationship between age of immigration and second language proficiency was found. DeKeyser also tested participants' language aptitude revealing that for adult learners aptitude scores were correlated with success, whereas there was no such correlation for childhood learners. Mark Patkowski (1980 as cited in Lightbown & Spada) highlighted, in a study of age in correlation to language acquisition other than phonology, that achievement of complete, native-like mastery of a language was only possible by those who had begun learning their second language before the age of fifteen. All but one of the pre-puberty learners scored like the native speakers, suggesting that, success in learning a second language was almost inevitable. In contrast the majority of the post-puberty group were mid range on the score, but there was a vast scale of variation. The picture was much less lucid when Patkowski examined the other factors that might be thought to affect success in second language acquisition.
Age of acquisition is a very crucial factor in development of native like mastery of a second language and there seems to be a critical period for language acquisition during children's early development (Mitchell & Myers 2004, Lightbown & Spada 2006). People, like Krashen, who insist on adults acquiring a language the same way children do profess that adult acquirers can access the same LAD (Language Acquisition Device) that children use. This rests on a shaky understanding of the LAD. The LAD depicts the child's preliminary state, and the adult is not in the preliminary state and possesses more fully developed cognitive structures (McLaughlin 1987). Adult second language learners have to resort to their considerable intellects, problem solving, and metalinguistic abilities precisely because they can no longer access the innate language acquisition ability they had as young children (Lightbown & Spada 2006, Mitchell & Myers 2004, Pinker 1994, Skehan 1998). Teachers should capitalise on these cognitive abilities available to adults that children don't have and not force adults to learn in a way that has passed them long ago.
The first language learner proceeds along a predictable route of acquisition, with no previous language knowledge to interfere with his progressive march, neither receiving or needing instruction or feedback, not being held back by his surroundings, circumstances, or feelings, and arriving at his goal of inevitable success in perfect ease. The second language learner stumbles behind the first language learner, proceeding haphazardly, being at times hindered and helped by his previous language knowledge, needing and wanting instruction and feedback, but not always getting it, floundering or succeeding due to the state of his mind and his environment, and almost never reaching the un-mountable peak of mastery of the target language.
Looking towards simplified idealised theories, such as Krashen's, and taking the drastic step of abandoning teaching does more harm to the second language learner than good. What is needed is to set realistic goals for second language learners based upon why they are learning the language, goals that meet their needs. Benefit must be made of what second language learners do have access to, their cognitive abilities which are far more developed than a child's, and the practical benefits of second language research, such as the importance of recognizing differences between the learner's interlanguage and the target language, not wildly blaming the first language for all problems in acquiring the second, instruction and feedback, and creating a relaxed learning environment, must be applied to the classroom setting.