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PSYCHOLINGUISTIC THEORIES OF

LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND THE


SAUDI LEARNER OF ENGLISH

Jasser Abdulrahman Al-Jasser, Ph.D


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ABSTRACT

This study seeks to determine the relevance of the behavioristic and


cognitive approaches for Saudi learners’ acquisition of English as a foreign
language (EFL). A special attention is given to learners in EFL programs at
the University level. It also assesses the effectiveness of these approaches
on student in translation program as well. One contention is that while
behaviorist-inspired structuralist methodologies are best applicable at the
beginning levels, transformationalist/cognitivist approach contributes tried
methodologies to enhance the learners’ written and spoken skills in
advanced stages. Advances in translation can be achieved through a study
of the process of translation with an emphasis on a deductive rather than an
inductive approach.
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INTRODUCTION

Foreign language teachers have long been perplexed by a continuum


of abundant psycho-linguistic theories. One approach is the traditional
method to second/foreign language teaching and learning. This embodied
the grammar translation method which developed at the end of the
eighteenth century in Germany and spread throughout Europe (Howat,
1984). The second approach is the direct method that developed in the late
nineteenth century as a reaction against the grammar-translation method
(R.Carter, 1993).
Prior to the time of Chomsky, “little was known about the process of
second language acquisition, and thus (traditional approaches) were
grounded in the linguistic, psychological, and pedagogical theories of their
day.”(1)
The author has conducted literature search through Educational
Resources Index (Eric) was well as Languages Association (MLA) and
Psychological Abstracts (Psyclit). It has been noticed that some work,
mostly dissertation, have dealt with the Saudi acquisition of specific
linguistic features of L2, such as Morpheme acquisition Order (Al-Afaleg,
1991), Temporal Conjunctions (Noor, 1991), English Derivational
Morphology (Al-Qadi 1992) Tense and Aspect (Farraj, 1995) and Second
Language Relative Clauses (Maghrabi, 1997), and Studies on the psycho-
linguistic theories of language acquisition, specifically in relation to the
Saudi learner of English do not seem to exist.
There are four major theories of language acquisition and language
learning which many psycholinguists and applied linguistics are familiar
with:Behaviorism, neo-behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism.
The purpose of this article is to examine two of these theories:
Behaviorism (which is related to structuralism) and cognitivism (which is
related to transformationalism) and then show the extent to which these two
theories relate to language learning and particularly to Saudi learners
enrolled in EFL and translation programs in King Saud University.

STRUCTURAL (BEHAVIORISTIC) VIEW:

The psychological theory behind behaviorist linguistics was founded


by J.B. Watson (1942).(2) The extreme behavioristic stand-point is
characterized by B.F. Skinner’s well-known study, Verbal Behavior (1957)
which presents a theory of language learning even more firmly planted in
the court of Pavlovian animal behavior than the language theories of the
Russian behaviorist school which was itself greatly influenced by the work
of Pavlov. The work that could be regarded as the basic doctrine of the
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structural school of linguistic theory was Leonard Bloomfield’s Language


(1933). In this work, Bloomfield argued that the study of language could be
pursued without reference to psychological doctrines and he took a firmly
behavioristic line aimed at scientific objectivity. Bloomfield did not deny
the role of meaning in language, but he objected to its importance in the
study of language at a time when human knowledge of the vast range of
semantic association attached to every linguistic form was so very little.
Moreover, he viewed semantics as a subordinate element to the primary
stimulus response relationship of verbal behavior.
To Bloomfieldians… “language is nothing but a habit that the child
comes to learn by imitation. In their account of language acquisition, the
child is exposed to linguistic data which he/she internalizes and then
reproduces at a later stage. Language is thus learned from outside, we learn
it in the same way that we learn other habits. Learning a language is not
very much different from the laboratory mouse learning to expect to be fed
each time someone rings a bell.”(3) They believe that, “a scientific theory
must reject all data that are not directly observable or physically
measurable.”(4).
To the behaviorists, habit formation is brought about through
repetition, mimicry, and memorization. Thus no clear distinction seems to
be made between learning the first language and the target language. To
them linguistic habits, generalization and associations have to be repeated
using different data.
Skinner (1957) based his whole theory of language acquisition and
speech realization on the recognizable external forms of what Chomsky
terms “input and “output” and makes no allowance for any internal process
of the organism. Stimulus and reinforcement (or reward) from the input and
the “verbal operant” (or response) forms the output.
The structuralists, whose views are related to behavioral psychology,
see language as a finite list of ordered elements to which one can attach
labels. They undertake a systematic analysis of structure. The teacher
depends on such structural description as the distribution and combination
of elements into a chain of speech. It is based on the process of
substitution, the replacement of one unit by another unit of the same
grammatical class. They follow a taxonomic approach in teaching. Their
view is characterized by the insistence that language is learnt by the
strength of habitual association and by the context generalization (i.e.
general association). It is more of an inductive rather than a deductive
system.
The Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who is an
associationist, believes that “all language items are essentially
interlinked.”(5) He argues that “language was like a game of chess, a
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system in which each item is defined by its relationship to all the others…
language is a carefully built structure of interwoven elements.”(6)

TRANSFORMATIONAL (COGNITIVE) VIEW:

The transformational (cognitive) theories, represented by Noam


Chomsky have been acknowledged by linguists as a revolutionary
contribution to linguistics, though Chomsky himself related his views to
those of Hambolt and to rationalist philosophers of the Seventeenth
Century such as Descartes. The school of thinking, which has developed
around Chomsky’s ideas, has been variously termed “Cognitive”,
“mentalist”, “generative” and “transformationalist.” His Transformational
Analysis (1955), Syntactic Structures (1957), Aspects of the Theory of
Syntax (1965), and Language and Mind (1968) are regarded as particular
pioneer works of the new approach.
The cognitivists reject the views of the behaviorists. They believe that
“everybody learns a language, not because they are subjected to a similar
conditioning process, but because they possess an inborn capacity which
permits them to acquire a language as a normal maturational process. This
capacity is by definition universal…the nature of language is such that it is
impossible to explain it without postulating an innate mechanism of a fairly
well-defined kind.”(7)
They look for a universal grammar that contains universals relating to
the deep-seated regularities characterizing all languages. For instance,
subject and predicate, negative and adjectival forms are present in all
languages because they are a universal feature, whereas the structuring and
arrangement of these features belong to individual languages. The deep
structure rules are limited by the grammar of each particular language.
Universal grammar, according to Chomsky is “…a theory of the “initial
state” of the language faculty, prior to any linguistic experience.”(8)
To the cognitivist, children are born with an innate capacity for
language development. The human brain is “ready” for language, in the
sense that when children are exposed to speech, certain general principles
for discovering or structuring language automatically begin to operate.
These principles constitute, what Chomsky terms, a child language
acquisition device (LAD). “A child uses its LAD to make sense of
utterances heard around it, derived from his “primary linguistic data”
hypotheses about the grammar of the language-what the sentences are, and
how they are constructed. This knowledge is then used to produce
sentences that, after a process of trial and error, correspond to those in adult
speech: the child has learned a set of generalizations of rules, governing the
way in which sentences are formed.”(9)
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Chomsky emphasizes the linguistic ‘creativity’, that is “..the ability of


human beings to produce and comprehend an infinite number of novel
sentences.”(10)
Basic to this reason, Comsky believes that “Bloomfieldian linguistics
was too ambitious in that it was unrealistic to expect to be able to lay down
foolproof rules for extracting a perfect description of a language from a
mass of data. It was too limited because it concentrated on describing sets
of utterances which happened to have been spoken.”(11)
Whilst the structuralist lays emphasis on the surface structure
(patterns…etc.), the transformationalist lays emphasis on the processes of
the deep structure; the stress is on learning to learn the development of a
strategy of learning rather than the accumulation of information and rules.
The structuralist tends to overemphasize the surface forms and the
development of rules and to neglect the meaning.
Unlike the behaviorists who believe that if there is a response there
must be stimulus, the transformationalists (cognitivists) argue that language
acquisition is autogenic and that the environment serves merely to trigger
off a maturation process. Language comes primarily though the maturation
that the environment triggers off and not through the environment itself.
Erric Lenneberg, who is a cognitivist, also suggests that training is not
necessary and that maturation is enough. His critical period hypothesis
(1967) holds that “language acquisition must occur before the onset of
puberty in order for language to develop fully.”(12)

DISCUSSION
Based on the contradictory views of the two schools, a brief
discussion of how these views may relate to second language learning and
teaching will be presented. This will be followed by a presentation
(explanation) of the extent to which these views can apply to the case of the
Saudi learner of English at the university level.
From the preceding background, structuralism (behaviorism) seems to
attribute the function of language to instruction and experience. A process
of habit formation is brought about through repetition, mimicry, and
memorization. There is a little difference between learning a first language
and a target language. Linguistic habits, generalizations, and associations
have to be repeated using different data.
Cognitivism, on the other hand proposes that the processes of second
language acquisition are not identical to those of the first language
acquisition although there are similarities. One of the similarities could be
that L2 may need to be learned at the same time as L1. Nevertheless,
considering the question of universal and maturation, since acquisition of
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an L2 requires conscious control of learning and this cannot be handled at


an early stage, transformationlists (cognitivists) hold that consciously
controlled learning should be left to a much later stage, though there is no
conclusive evidence to support this view.
At this stage of analysis, it can be argued that, first, innate factors are
less important for L2 learning than social factors of environment,
motivation, and reinforcement.
Second, a transformational system can perhaps operate with native
speakers of a language, but although it is too complicated and may be
confusing to be applied in second language/foreign language teaching,
certain aspects may be useful. For instance, identification of kernel
sentences which are similar in different languages, could be economical.
Transformation could work from the comparison of these kernel sentences.
Third, due to abstract characteristics of some of the cognitive views,
the structural acquisition technique is probably more practical for formal
learning in the first stages of the second language, and the cognitive
technique may assume greater importance in the more advanced stages.
Fourth, while some credence should be given to Chomsky’s language
acquisition device (LAD), which explains why children invent new terms
that mean nothing to adults, its limitations become real when dealing with
adults learning a second language. That is when linguistic interference
causes serious obstacles to second/foreign language learners. In such
situation LAD will not be useful.
Fifth, a structuralist method closely linked to Skinners’ stimulus-
response-reinforcement theory of verbal behavior is the audiolingual
approach which advocates the formation of the speech habits. Its feasible
use can be realized through J.B. Carrol’s (1966) following basic terms such
as:
(a) Speech is primary, writing secondary, so the habits that
are formed in language must be speech habits.
(b) Automatic response is best achieved by constant
repetition.
(c) Automatic response is best achieved by constant
repetition. Offshoots of this theory are the language
laboratory, structural drill, imitation, and memorization
techniques.(13)
Finally, cognitive theory advocates the development in the student of
a conscious control of the psychological, grammatical, and lexical patterns
of a given second language. This can be achieved through study and
analysis of these patterns so that facility in using language stems from the
teacher’s understanding of its structure.
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The structural approach (as it employs behavioristic means) has


remained useful in the teaching of English as a foreign language, most
importantly to help the learner acquire good language basis.
For Saudi EFL learners, the use of drills at the phonetic level is of
great help especially when dealing with segmental items that cause either
interlingual or intralingual errors. A Saudi learner not only fail to produce
the voiceless stop /p/ and the voiced fricative /v/ but tends to replace them
with his L1 segments /b/ and /f/ respectively. Similarly, the velar nasal / /
as a phoneme occurring at the final position of a word like “sing”, “long”
which causes some difficulties for the Saudi EFL learner where he replaces
it with the sequence of the two phonetic segments /n/ and /g/, and the
alveo-palatal affricate /č/, occurring in words like “children” and “speech”
where, instead, he transfers his Arabic alveo-palatal fricative /š/.
Emphasis on drills will also enable the learner to reduce a possible
interference of the Arabic syllable structure CVCV into the English
structure. Since some Saudis tend to pronounce English words like
“against” as *againist”, and “first” as *firist”. Structural (behavioristic)
teacher can help in solving other problematic linguistic features such as
agreement and word order which Saudi EFL learner encounter. Thus,
patterns and exercises are needed to reduce erroneous forms such as *”He
play, they buyed, talls buildings, and hypercorrections such as: * “He cans,
and She musts”.
The transformational cognitive orientation can be effective in the
advanced stages of a foreign language acquisition. Thus, for Saudi students
at the university higher levels, where advanced courses on linguistics and
translation are offered, it is logical to assume that structural drills,
repetitions, and memorization techniques will no longer be essential.
At this level of advancement in the intimate knowledge of language
and culture we may conceive a minimal level of interference from the
native tongue (Arabic) of the learners. Yet, such aspects of the target
language as deep structure and transformational rules will enable the Saudi
learner to understand some of the idiosyncratic forms and ambiguous
sentences. Transformational rules will reinforce the learner’s awareness of
the syntactic and the semantic relations between various English linguistic
patterns. Through these linguistic relations, learners can make inferences
and develop some generalizations about the structure of English language.
Communication strategies, conversation, and creative essay writing using
cultural content will be more beneficial at these levels.
With regard to the translation program, the analysis of source
language texts that translators have to translate and the analysis of texts
they have to create, a process of linking aspects from cognitivism with that
of behaviorism should be observed. Negotiating the meaning of the source
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language text is not just a sociolinguistic matter; it is psycholinguistic as


well. Saudi trainees in our translation program happened to have rendered
the meaning of “They are into the habit of splitting straws” based on
knowledge acquired through some behavioristic approach and produced a
literal erroneous translation outcome. This means that there is always much
room for the smaller scale experimentation on the factors affecting the text
conversion process. The transformation of a text originally in one language
into an equivalent text in a different language demands that the content of
the message and the formal features and functional roles of the original text
should be retained. In this regard the Saudi trainees translated the verb
“laid” in “They laid him open to blackmail” without any reference to a
likely secondary meaning that the verb “lay” might imply. This approach
supports the belief that much of our experience of the external world of the
senses and of the inner world of the mind is mediated by language and by
the concepts stored in our memories. These factors refer to entities via the
convention of language and do so variably depending on the medium of
communication (language used).
It is the process that creates the translation outcome and it is only by
understanding that process that we can hope to help our Saudi trainees to
improve their linguistic skills. Having said that, it is difficult to see how
translation theories can move beyond the subjective and the normative
evaluation of texts without drawing heavily on aspects from both
behaviorism an cognitivism.
Translation theories have made little systematic use of the techniques
and insights of contemporary linguistics. With this fact in mind, Saudi
translation trainees should be trained within a framework that combines
features from all branches of cognitivism and behaviorism. This entails
developing in the trainees’ performance and competence a familiarity with
and a competence in the use of the psychological and psycholinguistic
models of memory and information processing on the one hand, and
linguistic models of meaning, including meaning beyond the sentence on
the other. Logic of the examples provided above asserts the validity of
some aspects of the two psycholinguistic views.
Cognitive approach may operate with some specific semantic and
pragmatic aspects of L2 by means of exploring features as cohesion,
conceptual and connotative meanings, speech acts and kinetics. Such
features should, at this stage, receive due consideration.
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CONCLUSION
From the above analysis proceeds that with regard to language
acquisition, behavioristic theory can provide much useful information
concerning verbal responses and reinforcement. But it is inadequate to
account for innate and cognitive features. Transformational theory, on the
other hand, provides much useful information on the basic nature of the
organism and its internal processes, but makes little or no account of
stimulus-response-reinforcement relationships. Unlike the cognitive
approach, behavioral approach tends to manipulate the language and
disregard the content.
Despite the pedagogic significance of both theories, it seems that none
of their approaches is complete in itself. For one reason, the nature of the
Arabic language has significantly different phonetic and grammatical
structure from that of the English language. Due to this difference and as
advocated by Smith (1987) there are “… far fewer areas of facilitation, and
far greater areas of interference…” (14) The situation of the Saudi EFL
learners at the university level requires an eclectic approach with combined
aspects derived from the approaches stated earlier. This approach can
guarantee more effective outcome at the pedagogical level.
I believe the attitude, the age, and the aptitude of the learners are three
factors that should be considered in second language acquisition. A
combination of innate propensities and objective necessity create the most
favorable attitude. All these factors, including the teaching strategies, stand
for fundamental variables in learning a foreign language.
Relationship between communicative exchanges and syntactic forms
alert the translator to the mechanisms that link the highly abstract and
universal proposition with the totally physical and context-dependent
utterance or text.
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