Theories On Second Language Acquisition English Language Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Language Reference this


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Several studies have revealed how dynamics in cultural identity influenced the learning of a second language (Graham & Brown, 1996; McCarthy, Giardina, Harewood, & Park, 2003). The process of language learning itself is socially and culturally constructed (Norton-Piece & Toohey, 2001). How social formations, individual identities, and interpretations belonging to a particular culture is crucial to the development of language.


As defined by Brown (2007), culture is “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, and tools that characterize a given group of people in a given period of time” (p. 380). A more comprehensive definition of culture developed by Díaz-Rico and Weed (2006) views it as:

The explicit and implicit patterns for living, the dynamic system of commonly agreed upon symbols and meanings, knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, behaviors, traditions, and/or habits that are shared and make up the total way of life of a people, as negotiated by individuals in the process of constructing a personal identity. (p. 233)

This definition highlights the fact that culture is a dynamic, instead of static process and is neither something to be memorized nor a program that can be encoded to dictate behavior. The process of learning a new language while being immersed in a new culture involves cultural conflict and reconciliation of that conflict in order to come to terms with the host culture. Learning a second language even demands of an individual “to take on a new identity” (Guiora, 1995, p. 145). As a consequence, one’s basic sense of self and confidence in one’s abilities are challenged in this process of developing a new identity to cope with the acquisition of a new language. This process is called acculturation, generally referred to as the act of adjusting to a new culture.


There have been different models to explain the role of acculturation in the acquisition of a second language. Many authors have suggested that acculturation need not mean the eradiction of the old culture itself. Acculturation is “adapt[ing] to a second culture without necessarily giving up one’s first culture” (Diaz-Weed, 2007, p. 246). This is contrary to the view that acculturation is synonymous to assimilation (total absorption into the new culture) or accommodation (mutual adjustment of cultures). Absorbing particular domains of a new society does not mean total surrender of the old or the “zero-sum trade off” (Berry, 1997, p. 34). Degrees of acculturation could be in four levels: integration (positive relationship to new and old), assimilation (relinquishing old, embracing new), segregation (retaining old, rejecting new), and marginalization (relinquishing old and new) (Berry, 1997).

Theories on Second Language Acquisition

The earliest research on second language acquisition (SLA) have been motivation studies which hypothesized that motivation is the fundamental factor toward SLA. Founded on the work of Robert Gardner and Wallace Lambert, the relationship of motivation and SLA have been helpful in understanding how the social and cultural environments of L2 learners shape their attitudes and motivations toward the L2, its culture, and L2 speakers (Gardner, 1979, 1980). These studies have pointed out that as a consequence, learners display behaviors which could either promote or impede their SLA outcomes (Gardner, 1979). Motivation for learning an L2 is divided by Gardner into two components: instrumental and integrative motivation. Instrumental motivation concerns an individual’s primary concern for linguistic growth, apart from social goals in SLA (Gardner, 1979, 1983, 1988; Gardner & Lambert, 1959, 1972). Integrative motivation refers to an individual’s willingness and interest in promoting L2 acquisition through social interactions with members of the L2 group (Gardner & Lambert, 1959, 1972; Gardner, 1979, 1983, 1988). Instrumental motivation is suggested by Gardner and Lambert to have a primary role in learning of the L2, while integrative motivation is depicted playing a lesser, supporting role (Gardner, 1979, 1983, 1988; Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret, 1997; Gardner & Lambert, 1972).

Many theorists have criticized motivation studies as not sufficiently explaining the role of acculturation in SLA. According to Brown (1980, 2007), second language learners are optimally suited to learn the Culture and SLA second language when certain conditions of acculturation are met. Specifically, the optimal period is when learners are in the third stage of acculturation and also see themselves as outside of both their native culture and the second culture.

Schumann (1986) claims that acculturation, or the integration of the L2 learner into the target linguistic community, is not a direct cause of second language acquisition (SLA), but rather it is the first in a chain of factors which results in natural SLA. He proposes that “acculturation as a remote cause brings the learner into contact with TL-speakers and verbal interaction with those speakers as a proximate cause brings about the negotiation of appropriate input which then operates as the immediate cause of language acquisition” (p. 385). Acculturation (made up of social and affective variables) is the causal varibale of SLA. That is, if learners acculturate, they will learn; if learners do not acculturate, they will not learn. Acculturation initiates a chain reaction including contact in the middle and acquisition as its outcome.

Schumann’s (1986) acculturation model includes seven social variables (1. social dominance, 2. assimilation, preservation, and adaptation, 3. enclosure, 4. cohesiveness and size, 5. congruence, 6. attitude, 7. intended length of residence) and four affective variables (1. language shock, 2. culture shock, 3. ego permeability, and 4. motivation) which presumably affect the quantity and quality of contact that second language learners have with the target language community, thus affecting SLA. Schumann argues that “the degree to which a learner acculturates to the TL group will control the degree to which he acquires the second language” (Schumann, 1978, p. 34), but he makes his claim only for the context of natural SLA, i.e., where learning takes place in the environment where the L2 is spoken and without direct language instruction (1986, p. 385).

Language proficiency and acculturation

There has been a dearth in empirical studies that examined the impact of a learner’s degree of acculturation on language proficiency or acquisition. Extant studies have however suggested that acculturation and language acquisition have a positive relationship.

Acculturation is a more significant determinant in language proficiency than motivation or attitudes, as evidenced by Clement’s (1986) study. Clement (1986) showed how the interplay of motivation, individual attitudes and degree of acculturation result to SLA proficiency in quantitative cross-sectional study. In a correlational research conducted in a bilingual Canadian university, students were asked to fill up questionnaires that assessed ethnolinguistic vitality, motivation, and attitudes. Moreover, interviews were conducted among respondents to evaluate their proficiency in spoken English as a second language. Minority group members exhibited more self-confidence in their skill of speaking English as a second language and were also judged to be more proficient than members of the majority group. The level of acculturation measured by the frequency of L2 use and frequency of contact with L2 speakers was revealed to be functional in language proficiency. Motivation and attitudes toward L2 speakers, and L2 culture were not significantly correlated to language proficiency.

Friendships and immersion with native English-speaking people is also important in cultivating SLA and proficiency. As shown in Graham and Brown’s (1996) study in a bilingual community in Mexico, the difference in proficiency among native Spanish speakers in speaking English could be a result of the varying levels of their acculturation to native English speakers. Using Schumann’s (1986) acculturation model and variables, the degree of acculturation was measured among native Spanish-speaking households in Colonia Juarez town. To measure language proficiency, an oral proficiency interview was conducted. Native-like English proficiency among native Spanish speakers was attained only by those enrolled in bilingual schools. Their enrollment in the schools proved favorable to their SLA. Moreover, they developed more positive perceptions about the English-speaking community and developed more intimate friendships with their English-speaking peers (Graham & Brown, 1996).

Degree of acculturation, age, and marital status are also important factors in language proficiency. Lee (2005) investigated the relationship of English proficiency and degree of acculturation in terms of U.S. media consumption. The results revealed that the use of Korean language over the Internet negatively correlated with acculturation. Those that did not use English when consuming and participating in Internet-based communication were less proficient in speaking English than those that used English frequently. Moreover, younger and single Koreans were more proficient in speaking English than older and married Koreans due to their higher levels of U.S. media consumption (Lee, 2005).

Lee’s study is consistent with the findings from Jiang et al. (2009) which found that greater degrees of immersion in American society leads to higher proficiency in the English language. Jiang et al. (2009) studied acculturation and Enlighs proficiency by studying an older Chinese-English population. Correlational analyses revealed a strong relationship between the degree of immersion in the dominant society and proficiency in oral English. Nevertheless, while speaking proficiency was found to be correlated with acculturation, accents were not.

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