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A major factor resulting in the sudden development in SLA studies in the last decades was previous work in first language acquisition (Ellis, 1992). One of the most important issues dealt with in this regard has been 'language transfer', an area of interest to both linguists and language methodologist for several years.
The earliest concern was that of the 'structuralists' who voiced the importance of investigating language learners' errors as a means of gaining deeper insights into language learning. Along with this school of linguistics, 'contrastive analysis' (CA) was proposed which aimed at comparing the components of the languages being learned. Lado (1957) was a pioneer who believed that "by comparing the native language (its structures, its sounds, its lexis) and the target language, we would be able to find out about ease and difficulty of learning , and this belief was a kind of manifesto for what came to be called the contrastive analysis (CA) hypothesis" (Johnson, 2001, p. 60).
In the late 60th when CA emerged, there was a growing inertest in finding the causes of language transfer. Foreign language teachers faced the difficulties that language learners had in mastering a foreign language and sought to locate the sources of the errors observed frequently in language learners' performance (See Corder, 1981). One major source of these errors, referred to as 'interlingual errors', was found to be the language learners' first language. Later on, CA fell into disfavor as transformational-generative linguists questioned the theoretical foundation of the hypothesis. It was argued that CA hypothesis could not satisfactorily account for language transfer. The emergence of this idea was in line with the criticisms leveled at 'structuralism'. Error Analysis (EA) replaced CA to overcome the problems inherent in the theoretical basis of CA, and the task was limited to observing and recording data based on which a number of taxonomies was proposed. However, EA was limited in scope since it was mainly concerned with observed errors of foreign language learners and as a result, it could not provide a comprehensive account of language transfer.
Tarone (1988) set up a number of criteria in evaluating theories on interlangauge variations which can apply to other theories as well. These criteria are 'systematicity', 'empirical verifiability' and the 'power to account for all the known facts'. She stated that "what is needed is a clear, consistent theory which ties all these causal factors together in a single coherent framework - not simply listing them, but showing their interrelationships - a theory which makes empirically verifiable claims" (1989, in Gass et al., p. 20). A reference will be made to these criteria later in the following discussion.
"Markedness Theory" was also proposed which was in line with Chomsky's Universal Grammar. According to this theory, the degree of markedness can be an index of difficulty in acquiring the target language structures. Based on this account, the more marked a structure is, the more difficult it is to be acquired. As a result, it was possible to account for the errors observed in second language performance. However, one major problem with this theory was its being vague. Sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to differentiae 'marked' and 'unmarked' structure. This weakens the theory and as a result, it falls short of the criteria proposed by Tarone (1988) in that it cannot be empirically verified.
More recent accounts account for language transfer from quite different perspectives. Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG) brought about drastic changes in the way language transfer was viewed. Universal Grammar (UG) was proposed by Chomsky in the 1980th. UG refers to "the language faculty built-in to the human mind consisting of principles and parameters" (Cook, 1991, p. 22). It consists of a number of principles and parameters. If L2 learning is a matter of parameter-re-setting, then this might be a source or errors in L2.
A UG-based account of language transfer seems to be more capable of meeting the required criteria put forward by Tarone (1988). Three major positions are proposed as to how UG is accessed in L2 which are referred to as 'direct access", 'indirect access", and 'no access' (See White, 1989 for more elaboration on these positions).These three positions build upon the existence of UG and the degree of learner's access to it influence the way language transfer is interpreted. In the first case, when L2 learners are assumed to have direct access to UG, first language is believed not to be influential. Here, UG is available from the very beginning of second language acquisition and first language does not play a role. Most errors committed by language learners are most likely 'developmental' in nature According to the next view, when there is the possibility of 'indirect access to UG', L1 is known to play a role. This indirect access is through the means of first language. As a result, language learners' knowledge of the first language might influence their learning of the second language. This influence might be positive and thus facilitate second language acquisition or negative and consequently L2 acquisition. The third view, namely, 'no access' to UG raised much considerable discussion (Johnson & Johnson, 1998). In this case, it is not obvious how the role first language can be clarified. Some scholars argue that L2 learning is not different from other types of learning and a number of strategies common to all learning types are utilized here. Some other argue that "the metaphor of access is misguided as UG is itself the process of learning and is itself the product of learning rather than being a separate object (Johnson & Johnson, 1998, p. 40).
A good number of studies confirm the presence of UG either directly or indirectly and this has weakened the third perspective (See White, 1989). On the basis of a number of studies, Flynn (1996; in Ritchie & Bhatia) concludes that differences observed in native speakers' and non-native speakers' performance can be attributed to UG, the properties of L2 and L1 grammar as well.
Ritchie and Bhatia (1996, p. 38) state that the effect of first language influence "on the acquisition of syntax and morphology" has been disputed (See Leather & James; Gass; in Ritchie & Bhatia, 1996). Eckman (in Ritchie & Bhatia, 1996) discusses the functional-typologists, an approach somewhat different from UG and states that "proponents of the UG school have claimed that principles of UG constrain not only L1 grammars, but also L2 grammars" (p. 209). Flynn (in Ritchie & Bhatia, 1996) also elaborates on different proposal about UG and states that the empirical studies "do not support either the no access or the partial access hypothesis. It appears that L2 learners do construct grammars of the new TLs under constraints imposed by UG" (pp. 150-151). She concludes that "UG rather than the learner's L1 restricts the options available to the adult L2 learner" (p. 151). She also points out that those parametric values which are not realized in the first language "do not atrophy and in fact appear to remain available to the L2 learner
Gass & Selinker (1993) also state it as compatible to think of second language acquisition as "being affected by two interrelated processes: first, the learner's build-up of a body of knowledge in which he or she tests hypotheses formed on the basis of the available L2 data â€¦ and second, the learner's utilization of the knowledge of L1 and other languages known to him or her â€¦ " (Johnson & Johnson, 1998, p. 355). This view gives credit to the role of the first language as 'indirect access to UG' did. However, a number of studies conducted so far have not been able to assign a well-defined role to foreign language learners' first language (See Gass et al., 1989). Each position has its own proponents and critics and the debate still remain to exist. Access to UG through first language is a position, which explains language transfer. There might be some mismatch in the early production of language learners and this can be attributed to their first language. Also, if we assume that language learners do not have access to UG, they might resort to their L1 to cope with the deficiencies they might have in L2 performance, a strategy noted by a number of scholars in different studies (See White, 1989).
To sum up, Universal Grammar (UG) enables us to gain deeper insights into foreign language learning process. It is more in line with Tarone's (1988) criteria and the account can more satisfactorily account for language transfer. However, there are mixed findings and more empirical investigations are needed to shed more light on this issue. There are still several controversies, which "persist with respect to the explanatory value of a UG-based approach to the study of L2 acquisition"
(Flynn, p. 121, in Ritchie & Bhatia, 1996).