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1.

LANGUAGE AND HOW


IT IS ACQUIRED
Chapter 1.The Acquisition of
Language
1. How Language Works.

When we study language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence’, the
distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.
Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind.

Descriptions of English and other languages is an American linguist, political writer and a
remained little changed from times of the Greeks leading figure in linguistics, (professor at
and Romans until this century. These Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who in
descriptions were based on an analysis of the role 1965 published a strong attack upon B.F.
played by each word in the sentence. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, and explained his
rejection of the behaviorist model of language
Structuralism acquisition by stating that children were innately
In the 1930s language was first described in programmed to acquire language; he proposed
terms of structural frameworks. By varying the the existence of a “Language Acquisition
words within these structural frameworks, Device” (LAD). LAD is characterized as having
sentences with different meanings can be various innate linguistics properties:
generated. This method of linguistic analysis led
in English language teaching to the development
of the substitution table as a typical means of 1. The ability to distinguish speech sounds from
explaining grammatical patterns. In a structuralist other sounds.
view, sentence patterns were a series of slots into 2. The ability to organize language into system
which specified fillers could be placed. For of structures.
example: 3. The knowledge of what is possible and what
is not in any linguistic system.
Animate Subject transitive verb Direct Object 4. The ability to construct the simplest possible
Jim visited Mary. system based on the linguistic data to which one
The Boy ate an apple. is exposed.

It also represented a behavioral view of language, Language Universals


where language acquisition was seen as a set of Chomsky argued that children were innately
learned habits. programmed to acquire language since they do it
so quickly and with limited (and less than ideal)
input. There must be certain language
Noam Chomsky
universals in the human mind that make it
If all language is learned behavior, how is it that
possible for a child to perceive the syntactic
young children can say things they have never
patterns of the speech of his/her parents and
said before? How is it possible that adults all
allow a person to utter or understand each new
through their lives say things they have never
combination of words. These innate principles
said before? How is it possible that a new
constitute the Universal Grammar and help
sentence in the mouth of a four-year-old is the
children discover the rules of their first language.
result of conditioning? Noam Chomsky (1928 - )
Universal Grammar does not provide
prefabricated rules; instead, it sets parameters
that must be fixed in response to the particular
input data to which children are exposed. Surface Structure vs. Deep
According to the Universal Grammar Theory, Structure
there are basic grammatical elements that are Chomsky argued that when people learn a
common to all natural human languages and that language, they do it by learning how to put the
predispose children to organize the input in words in order, not which word follows another
certain ways. For example, all languages have word. They learn which word category (noun,
vowels, yet each language has a set of vowels verb, etc.) follows which other category. We
selected from all the possible vowels available, understand the meaning of a sentence while
resulting in different phonological characteristics keeping in mind a number of grammatical rules;
in each language. The principles themselves are there is an invisible superstructure holding the
believed to be innate, a product of LAD. words in place, somewhat like an inverted tree:

NP VP

Det A N V NP

The happy boy eats A N


The universal principles that children discover
constitute the “core grammar” which is
Strawberry ice cream
congruent with general principles operating
across all languages. The “peripheral grammar”
consists of rules or features that are not In this case the rule says that the sentence (S)
determined by Universal Grammar, but are contains a noun phrase (NP) and a verb phrase
Language-specific, such as the relative clause (VP). The noun phrase contains a determiner
pattern in English that lacks a relative pronoun (Det), an adjective (A), and a noun (N). The verb
(Give me the pen I write with). Rules of core phrase contains a verb (V) and another noun
grammar are normally acquired earlier than phrase which in turn contains an adjective and a
peripheral ones. noun. There is no need to learn that the adjective
precedes the noun for the subject, and then have
For example, all languages follow a certain word to learn the same thing for the object, and again
order when using an object. There are no for the indirect object (in case there is one);
languages that follow a random order (language people simply use the same kind of phrase in
universal). This means that the choices are: many different positions in a sentence, including:
Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), Verb-Subject-
Object (VSO), Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) and I like the happy boy.
Object-Subject-Verb (OSV). When a child is I gave the happy boy a cookie.
exposed to the language of a community, the The happy boy’s cat eats ice cream.
brain “marks” the forms to reflect the features of
that particular language. Children born into Chomsky stated that the meanings of sentences
Spanish, Chinese and English language could be explained this way. For example: The
environments subconsciously select SVO; a child sailor danced with a wooden leg has more than
born into an Arabic environment subconsciously one meaning. This meaning is the deep
selects VSO; one born into a Korean structure, or abstract representation of the
environment SOV, and so forth (peripheral). relationships expressed in a sentence, and
These rules are often not consciously known by Chomsky developed rules for transforming deep
the speakers of the language. structures into surface structures and for
relating sentences to each other.
In the sentence “He discussed sex with
Madonna”, the two meanings come from the Another example would be the close relationship
different ways in which words can be joined up in meanings between “Don’t give up just because
in a tree. For example, in tree No. 1 (where PP things look bad” and “it ain’t over till the fat lady
means prepositional phrase), sex is the matter to sings”.
be discussed, and it is to be discussed with
Madonna; alternative meaning comes from Chomsky also made a distinction between
analyzing tree No. 2: the words sex with competence (referring to an individual’s implicit
Madonna form a single branch of the tree, and or explicit knowledge of the system of the
sex with Madonna is what is to be discussed language) and performance (the actual
(This sentence is from an interview with Dennis production and comprehension of language in
Rodman, the basketball player, in Time specific instances of language use). Performance
magazine) is often imperfect, due to memory lapses, false
starts, slips of the tongue; thus, performance is
No. 1 not a perfect rendition of competence. This later
led to Hymes (1972) postulation of
S communicative competence, which has since
been modified and refined numerous times.
NP VP Some theorists assume that the same universals
that children use to construct their native
PRO V N PP language are available to adults; others believe
that they are no longer available and that
He discussed sex P NP different cognitive processed must be involved in
adult second/foreign language learning. Another
with Madonna theory holds that they are still available to adults
but are less accessible because of multi-rational
constraints related to aging, linguistic constraints,
No. 2 and the fact that the second language involves
two languages – the target language and the
S
learner’s native language.
NP VP

PRO V NP

He discussed N PP

sex P NP

with Madonna
2. The Brain and Language

The brain is the most complicated part of the nerve cells at birth. Even if an individual lives
human body and less is known about it than more than one hundred years, no new nerve cells
about any other part. It is quite small – a normal are formed in this part of the brain. Yet the most
human brain weighs about one kilogram, and a rapid growth of the neocortex occurs during the
bigger brain does not mean a better brain. first ten years or so of life. What, then, is
growing?
The brain receives information from the world
through the sensory system. This information is NEURONS
gathered through the eyes, nose, eras, mouth, and Neurons are brain cells consisting of a compact
surface of the body; scientists have not been able cell body, dendrites, and axons. They are
to find any limit to the amount of information responsible for information processing through
that the human brain can store. the conversation of electrical and chemical
signals. A normally functioning neuron is
On opening the skull, one sees the outer surface continuously firing, integrating, and generating
of part of the forebrain, a wrinkle surface called information. Although a single neuron can
the cerebral cortex (cortex means “bark”). The receive signals from thousands of other cells, and
cerebral cortex deals with higher cognitive its axon can branch repeatedly, sending signals to
processing. thousands more, neurons generally connect most
with other neurons that are close-by, forming
The Brain what are called neural networks.
THE CEREBRAL CORTEX
The outer surface of the cerebral hemisphere, the
cerebral cortex, has a surface area of one to two
square feet – an area that is larger than it looks
because of the folds, or convolutions that allow
the cortex to fit compactly inside the skull. The
convolutions give the surface of the human brain
its wrinkled appearance, its ridges and valleys.
The cerebral cortex is divided into four areas
called the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal
lobes.

The receptive branches of the nerve cells, called


dendrites, are responsible for most of this
postnatal growth. Dendrites are extensions of the
The most recently evolved part of the cerebral nerve cell membranes that receive the input from
cortex, the neocortex, has its full complement of other nerve cells (while the axons are the
transmitters of this output). The small gap visual information from what we see. Stimuli
separating axons and dendrites is called a from the ears reach the cells in the temporal lobe
synapse. Dendrites increase in number with use near areas of the cortex that are involved in
and decrease with disuse. understanding language. The motor cortex
follows the same pattern. Neurons in specific
Increases in cortical growth as a consequence of areas of the motor cortex initiate voluntary
stimulating environmental input have been movements in specific parts of the body, some
demonstrated at every age, including very old controlling movement of the hand, others
age. The greatest changes, however – as much as stimulating movement of the foot, the knee, the
16 percent increases – have been noted during ear and so on.
the period when the cerebral cortex is growing
most rapidly – the first ten years.
ASSOCIATION CORTEX
Since no two human brains are exactly alike, no Parts of the cerebral cortex that are not directly
one enriched environment will completely satisfy involved with receiving specific sensory
all learners for an extended period. The range of information or initiating movement are called
enriched environments for human beings is association cortex. These are the areas that
endless. For some, interacting physically with perform such complex cognitive tasks as
objects is gratifying; for others, finding and associating words with images and other abstract
processing information is rewarding; and for still thinking. Recent research has pinpointed areas
others, working with creative ideas is most associated with concrete nouns and abstract
enjoyable. But no matter what form enrichment nouns, verbs, and so on, but much of this
takes, it is the challenge to the nerve cells that is research is still incomplete.
important. Data indicate that passive observation
is not enough; one most interact with the Most pathways to sensory organs or muscles
environment. cross over as they enter or leave the brain. As a
result, the left hemisphere receives information
Learning is a critical function of neurons. It from and controls movements of the right side of
cannot be accomplished individually – it must be the body, while the right hemisphere receives
done by groups of neurons. input from and controls the left side of the body.
A striking idea emerged from observations of
To our brain, we are either doing something we people with brain damage: damage to limited
already know how to do or we are doing areas of the left hemisphere causes some loss of
something new. Research long ago noted the the ability to use or comprehend language;
importance of automaticity, or seemingly damage to corresponding parts of the right
effortless performance made possible by hemisphere usually does not. By the nineteenth
extensive experience and practice. As a person century, it was apparent that language centers,
gains knowledge or skill, the neural pathways such as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are
become more and more efficient. This speeds up almost exclusively on the left side of the brain.
electrical transmission and reduces interference This suggested that one hemisphere is specialized
from other reactions in nearby cells, in a function with which the other side seems not
strengthening the pathways between to be involved at all. During the 1960s, studies
interconnected neurons, creating neural by Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzaniga, and their
networks. colleagues firmly established that there are
indeed some differences between the
SENSORY AND MOTOR CORTEX hemispheres. More recently, new technologies,
Different regions of the sensory cortex receive such as electroencephalograms (EEGs),
information about different senses. For example, computer-assisted tomography (CT scanning),
cells in the parietal lobe take in information from positron emission tomography (PET scanning)
the skin and touch, pain and temperature; and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are
whereas the cells in the occipital lobe receive allowing psychologists to view the brain while it
is functioning. These techniques have helped
reveal that some complex mental functions
appear to be handled in one particular area of the
brain and the others are not as localized as
previously believed.

Damage to the association cortex in the frontal


lobe near motor areas that control facial muscles
can cause problems in the production of speech.
This part of the cortex on the left side of the
brain is called Broca’s area. It was named after
Paul Broca, who in the 1860s described speech
difficulties that result from damage to the region.
Damage to Broca’s area the mental organization Based on the symptoms of damage to brain areas,
of speech to suffer. A person can still sing with combined with anatomical evidence of
ease, but has great difficulty speaking, and what connections among these areas, Wernicke and,
the person says is often grammatically incorrect. later, Norman Gerschwind, proposed a model of
Each word comes out slowly. One patient with how language is understood and produced.
aphasia who was asked about a dental According to this model, language information
appointment said haltingly, “yes …Monday… reaches Wernicke’s area from either the auditory
Dad and Dick…Wednesday 9 o’clock… 10 cortex for spoken language or from visual cortex
o’clock …doctors… and…teeth.” The ideas – for written language. In Wernicke’s area, the
dentist and teeth – are right, but the fluency is words are interpreted and the structure of a
gone. verbal response is formed. The output from
Wernicke’s area goes to Broca’s area, where a
Damage to a different association area can leave detailed program for vocalization is formed. This
fluency intact but disrupt the ability to program is relayed to adjacent areas of the motor
understand the meaning of words. Wernicke’s cortex to produce speech.
area, described in the 1870s by Carl Wernicke, is
on the left side, in the temporal lobe, near the HEARING THE SPOKEN WORD
primary receiving area in the cortex of hearing.
Wernicke’s area is involved in the interpretation
of speech and, because it also receives input from
the visual cortex, is also involved in interpreting
written words. Damage to Wernicke’s area
produces complicated symptoms. A person with
Wernicke’s aphasia may have difficulty
comprehending speech and may also produce
speech that is fluent but difficult to comprehend.
For example, a patient asked to described a
picture of two boys stealing cookies behind a
woman’s back said, “mother is away here
working her work to get better, but when she’s
looking the two boys looking in the other part.
She’s working another time”.

Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are connected


by a bundle of nerve fibers called the arcuate
fasciculus.
SEEING THE WRITTEN WORD brain. When both languages are learned at the
same time early in life, they are represented in
areas that have considerable overlap; they are, in
essence, learning two first languages. These are
compound bilinguals (people who have one
meaning system from which both languages
operate).

Coordinate bilinguals, on the other hand, are


people who learn a foreign language in a separate
context, they have two meaning systems (e.g. a
child that speaks one language at home and is
taught school subjects in another). A second
BILINGUALISM AND THE BRAIN language acquired during the teenage years is
Researchers have discovered that the age at represented in separate locations in Broca’s area
which a second language is acquired determines from the ones registering activity for the native
just where that language is “stored” within the language.
The Divided Brain in a Unified Self
Lateralization is a slow process that begins tendency in adults to overanalyze and to be
around the age of 2 and is completed around too intellectually centered on the task of
puberty; nevertheless, it has been found that foreign language learning.
children up to the age of puberty who suffer
injury to the left hemisphere are able to relocate
linguistic functions to the right hemisphere (but
comparable damage in an adult usually leads to
aphasia).

The precise nature and degree of lateralization


vary quite a bit among individuals. For example,
among about a third of left handed people, either
the right hemisphere or both hemispheres control
language functions. Only about 5 percent of
right-handed people have language controlled by
the right hemisphere.

The hemispheres work so closely together, and


each makes up so well for whatever lack of
ability the other may have, that people are not
aware that their brains are made up of two
partially independent, somewhat specialized
halves. In fact, even if the activity of one
hemisphere is dominant, the effect is usually
detectable only as differences in certain mental
abilities or cognitive styles. For example, a
person with a dominant right hemisphere may
learn toward musical rather than foreign
language studies.

Although the two hemispheres are somewhat


specialized, the differences between them
should not be exaggerated. People are not left
brained or right brained in the same way that
they are left or right handed. Normally the
corpus callosum (a massive bundle of more
than a million fibers that connects the two
hemispheres) integrates the functions of the
two hemispheres so that people are not aware
of their “two brains”.

It is possibly lateralization that makes it


difficult for older people to easily acquire
fluent control of a second language. Many
adults manage to learn new languages, but it
is a more demanding task. The dominance of
the left hemisphere may contribute to a
3. Learning First and Second languages
First Language Development moment of childhood: the first word that marks
How do children learn all the rules of their the flowering of language.
mother tongue without formal study? How can During their first year, infants the world over
we explain the fantastic journey from the first make the same babbling sounds (bababababa,
anguished cry at birth to adult competence in a mamamama). These babblings, which begin at
convincing case that thought is more than about four months of age, are the first sounds
language? From the first word to tens of infants make that resemble speech. Although
thousands? meaningless to the baby, they are a delight to
parents. By 6 months of age, infants in English-
Studying shortly after birth, a baby brain cells speaking homes already have different auditory
proliferate widely, making connections that may maps (as shown by electrical measurements that
shape a lifetime of experience. The brain identify which neurons respond to different
produces trillions more connections between sounds) from those in, for example, Swedish-
neurons than it can possibly use. The waves of speaking homes.
mental activity actually change the shape of the
brain, carving patterns that will enable the new At about nine months, babies who hear only
born infant to perceive a father’s voice, a English start to lose their German gutturals and
mother’s touch, a shinny mobile hanging over the French nasals. At this time, too, they begin to
crib. shorten some of their vocalizations to da, and ma.
These sounds, which soon replace babbling,
At birth, a baby’s brain contains a hundred seem very much like language. Babies use them
billion neurons, roughly as many nerve cells are in specific contexts and with obvious purpose.
there are stars in the Milky Way. Although the
brain contains almost all the nerve cells it will Before there are words, in the world of the
ever have, the pattern of wiring between has not newborn, there are sounds. As small as babies,
yet stabilized. children babble and coo and cry. But most of all,
they listen. Speech does not develop in isolation;
What wires a child’s brain, say Neuroscientists, there must be speech input, for example, French
is repeated experience. Each time a baby tries to children are exposed to French and German
touch a tantalizing object or gazes intently at a children to German. In English there are
face or listens to a lullaby, tiny bursts of phonemes such as the sharp ba’s and da’s, drawn
electricity shoot through the brain, knitting out ee’s and ll’s and sibilant ss’s. In Japanese
neurons into circuits. Around the age of two they are different – barked hi’s, merged rr / ll’s.
months, for example, the motor-controlled When a child hears a phoneme over and over,
centers of the brain develop to the point that neurons in his ear stimulate the formation of
infants can suddenly reach out and grab a nearby dedicated connections in his brain’s auditory
object. Around the age of four months, the cortex cortex.
begins to refine the connections needed for depth
perception and binocular vision. Infants’ Long before infants actually begin to learn
language development goes through certain words, they can sort through a jumble of spoken
stages, no matter what the language is, and seems sounds in search of the ones that have meaning.
to develop about as quickly as the growing brain From birth to four months, babies are “universal
can handle it. Around the age of twelve months, linguists” capable of distinguishing each of the
the speech centers of the brain are poised to 150 sounds that make up all human speech. But
produce what is perhaps the most magical when a child hears a phoneme over and over,
neurons from his ear stimulate the formation of
connections in his brain’s auditory cortex. In – such as “all gone milk”, bye-bye Daddy”,
English-speakers, the neurons in the auditory “gimme toy”, and so forth.
cortex that respond to ra lie far from those that
respond to la. But for Japanese where the sounds
are nearly identical, neurons that respond to ra
are practically intertwined with those for la. As a SOURCES OF INPUT
result, a Japanese-speaker will have trouble Input (up to the age of three) is considered to
distinguishing the two sounds. By just six come from parents and other caretakers. Input is
months, they have begun the metamorphosis into usually one of two types in an infant’s life:
specialists who recognize the speech sounds of
their native tongue. Baby Talk: when an adult repeats words exactly
the way the baby says them, or they say
Researchers find evidence of these tendencies simplified vocabulary items such as “choochoo”
across many languages. In one experiment babies for train and “tummy” for stomach.
listened as a tape-recorded voice repeated vowel
and consonant combinations. Each time the Motherese or Caretaker Speech: Parents are the
sound changed a toy bear in a box was lit up and brain’s first and more important teachers. The
danced. The babies quickly learn to look at the more words a child hears, the faster he or she
bear when they heard sounds that were new to learns language. And researchers have found that
them. Studying Swedish and American six- children who don’t play much or are rarely
month-olds, psychologist Patricia khul found touched develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than
they ignored the subtle variations in normal for their age. These new insights stress
pronunciation of their own language’s sounds, the importance of hands-on parenting, of finding
for instance, the different ways two people might time to cuddle a baby, talk with a toddler, and
pronounce “ee” – but they heard similar provide infants with stimulating experiences.
variations in a foreign language as separate Among other things, parents appear to help
sounds. The implication? Six-month-olds can babies learn by adopting the rhythmic, high-
already discern the sounds they will later need pitched speaking style.
for speech.
The heart rate of infants increases when listening
By eight to nine months, comprehension is more to Motherese, even Motherese delivered in a
visible, with babies looking at a ball when their foreign language. Moreover, motherese appears
mothers say “ball”, for example. According to to accelerate the process of connecting words to
psychologist Donna Thal, it is still impossible to the object they denote. A six-month-old can
gauge just how many words babies understand, at recognize the vowel sounds that are the basic
this point, but her recent studies of slightly older building blocks of speech. Twelve-month-olds,
children indicate that comprehension may exceed directed to “look at the ball” in Parentese, direct
expression by a factor as high as a hundred to their eyes to the correct picture more frequently
one. than when the instruction is delivered in normal
English. Talking to a baby a lot, researchers have
By 12 months, infants’ babbling has acquired the found, also speeds up the process of learning new
sounds of their language. As they reach the end words. For example, recent studies show that the
of the first year, specific attempts are made to size of toddlers’ vocabularies depends in a large
imitate words and speech sounds heard around part on how much their mothers talk to them.
them, and about this time they utter their first
“words”. By about 18 months of age these words Compared with conversations among adults,
have multiplied considerably and are beginning parents’ speech to children is slower, more
to appear in combination with each other to form exaggerated in pitch, more directed to the here
two-word and three-word “sentences” – and now. Topics are frequently contextualized,
commonly referred to as “telegraphic utterances” often in a visual or tactile way. It is grammatical,
with slower, shorter sentences, affectionate
encouragement, higher pitch, exaggerated speech capacity mushrooms as they chatter
intonation, duplication of syllables, reduction of nonstop. This fluency continues into school age
consonant clusters and using the present tense as children internalize increasingly complex
instead of past or future. structures, expand their vocabulary and sharpen
communicative skills. At school age, children not
Most parents do not correct the grammar of their only learn what to say but what not to say as they
young children; they are more concerned about learn the social functions of their language.
what is said than about its form. When the little
boy with chocolate crumbs on his face says, “I no When they reach school age, they continue to
eat cookie,” the mother is more likely to respond, internalize increasingly complex structures,
“Yes, you did eat it,” rather than asking the child expand their vocabulary (the average six-year-
to say, “I didn’t eat the cookie.” Meaning is old commands about 13,000 words), and sharpen
being reinforced, not form. communicative skills. By the time they graduate
from high school, the average American knows
INTERACTION AND LANGUAGE about 45,000 words.
DEVELOPMENT
For language to develop there must be CRITICAL PERIODS
interaction in addition to meaningful input. For Many scientists believe that in the first few years
example, deaf parents of hearing children were at of childhood there are a number of critical or
one time advised to have their children watch a sensitive periods, or “windows,” when the brain
lot of television. In no case did the children learn demands certain types of input in order to create
English because it is difficult for a child to figure or stabilize certain long-lasting structures. The
out what the characters in the televised world are window of acquiring syntax may close as early as
talking about, while their parents use sign five or six years of age, while the window for
language to communicate. In addition, television adding new words may never close. The ability
is unresponsive; it does not reply. Human to learn a second language is highest between
speakers also tend to talk about the here and now birth and the age of six then undergoes a steady
in the presence of children; thus it is not difficult and inexorable decline. This plasticity of the
for the child to figure out what is meant, brain enables children to acquire not only their
especially if many of the content words are first language but also a foreign one.
already known.
The brain’s growth spurt draws to a close around
Children typically discover that things have the age of 10. Starting at this age or earlier, the
names before the age of eighteen months. Parents excel connections, or synapses, that are seldom
usually do not notice, because adults expect or never used are drastically eliminated. The
things to have names. But the youngsters, the experiences that drive neural activity are like the
naming discovery can be a shock, as described sculptor’s chisel, chipping away at a lump of
by Helen Keller. Helen Keller was deaf and blind stone. By the end of adolescence, around the age
from the age of two. Then, when she was six, her of 18, the brain has declined in plasticity but
teacher held her hand under a flow of water and increased in power. Whether the potential for
spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on the other. She greatness is realized as a gift for mathematics or
later wrote. “Somehow the mystery of language a brilliant criminal mind depends on patterns
was revealed to me. I knew that w-a-t-e-r meant etched by experience in those critical early years.
the wonderful cool something that was flowing Language develops as a result of the complex
over my hand. That living world awakened my interplay between the uniquely human
soul…, set it free! Everything had a name… characteristics of the child and the environment
every object which I touched seemed to quiver in which the child develops.
with life.”
Order of Acquisition
By around age 3, children can comprehend an Children’s language acquisition is best explained
incredible quantity of linguistic behavior; their as a developing system with its own interim
rules. This sequence of development is called 4. FUNCTION WORD STAGE:
order of acquisition. according to numerous studies in first language
acquisition, children develop grammatical
1. ONE WORD STAGE: The earliest morphemes, like the third person singular –s, or
stage of grammatical development hardly seems –ed for past tenses in a remarkably similar
like grammar at all, since only single words are sequence. The following list shows the
involved. Most of the words at this stage seem to approximate order of their acquisition:
have a naming function: a. Present progressive: Mommy running
Mama, dada, cookie, doggie b. Plural –s: Two books
This stage is most noticeable between c. Irregular past forms: Baby went
18 months. d. Possessive ‘s: Daddy’s hat.
e. Present tense of be as copula: Annie is a nice
2. TWO-WORD STAGE: At around girl.
eighteen months, vocabulary growth reaches the
f. Articles the and .
rate of a new word every two hours that the child
will maintain through adolescence.
g. Regular past –ed: She walked.
h. Simple present, third person singular –s: She
Children also begin to string two or more runs.
words together at this age. As soon as i. Present tense of the verb be as an auxiliary is
two-word utterances are made, they show learned last: He is going.
the target word order:
Children may master these morphemes at
possessor / possessed – Mommy shoe different ages, but the order of acquisition is very
actor / action – Daddy sleeping similar.
action / object – Drink milk
noun / location – Ball floor Second Language Learners
Learning a second language in a natural
3. TELEGRAPHIC STAGE: by age 2, acquisition context or “on the street” is not the
spoken vocabulary probably exceeds 200 words. same as learning in the classroom. A natural
And at this age, many children produce sentences acquisition context is that in which the learner is
that are three or four words in length, and exposed to language at work or in social
combine these words in different ways to interaction; if the learner is a child, it occurs in a
produce a variety of grammatical constructions. school situation where most of the other children
Typical sentences at this stage include: are native speakers of the target language and
Mommy go store. where instruction is directed toward native
-vs.- Mommy is going to the store speakers rather than towards learners of the
Him got car.- vs.- he’s got a car. language.

Towards the age of 3, there is a major Order of Acquisition and Order of


grammatical advance, with the Difficulty
appearance of sentences containing more Several studies in second language acquisition in
than one clause: natural settings (non-instructional environment)
I let go ‘cos it hurted me. found that second language learners, even those
coming from different first language
Children can speak in grammatically backgrounds (e.g. Spanish and Chinese),
correct sentences; the most common acquired grammatical morphemes in much the
error is overgeneralization: for example: same way that first language learners do, and this
the child puts a regular suffix, like the natural sequence is not determined by the
past tense –ed, onto a word that forms its learner’s first language.
past tense in an irregular way (i.e., goed).
However, related studies have found that the A child or an adult learning a second language is
order of difficulty (from easy to more difficult) clearly different from a child learning a first
for second language learners is: language in terms of both personal characteristics
1. Plural –s and conditions for learning. All second language
2. Progressive –ing learners, regardless of age, have already acquired
3. Present tense of be as copula at least one language (with the exception of
4. Present tense of verb be as an auxiliary children that grow up in a bilingual home
5. Articles the and a environment). This prior knowledge can be an
6. Irregular past forms advantage in the sense that the learner has an
7. Simple present, third person singular idea of how languages work. On the other hand,
8. Possessive’s it can also lead learners to make incorrect
guesses about how the second language works
For example, processing the third person –s is a and this may cause errors which a leaner of a first
complex operation. Speakers have to keep track language may not take.
of the following details:
• Whether the subject is the third person or The Role of L1 in Language
not. Learning
• Whether the subject is singular or plural During the 1950s most linguists believed that
• Whether the action is present or not errors were due to interference from the mother
• Whether the action is habitual or going on at tongue, and they placed a great deal of
the moment of speaking. importance on contrastive analysis. According
to this theory, if linguists could analyze the
The order of difficulty cannot be interpreted as systems of both the first and second languages,
an order of acquisition; researchers have realized they would be able to identify and predict the
that it is not necessarily true that things that are errors that would occur during second language
easy to use are learned first and vice-versa. An learning. For example, if the first and second
order of acquisition cannot be based solely on an languages were similar, language learning would
order of difficulty. In addition, the frequency of be easy, but if the languages were dissimilar,
occurrence of the language items also affects the learning the second language would be more
order of acquisition, as well as the need to use it difficult. This theory was based on the
when communicating. behaviorist model of learning: language is
basically a set of conditioned verbal habits
Learning another language does not follow a learned through pattern drills; mistakes represent
linear sequence, nor is a language learned the persistence of old habits and the failure to
through the process of erecting a linguistic learn new ones.
“building” in a step-by-step manner, one
linguistic “brick” at a time, with the easy Examples of typical interference errors are:
grammatical bricks at the bottom of the wall, I am agree with you.
providing a foundation for the more difficult Put attention!
ones.
However, contrastive analysis was not a very
An organic approach to grammar dramatizes the good predictor of errors in L2. Research has
fact that different forms enable learners to shown that learners appear to go through
express different meanings. Learners, in fact, basically the same stages in the process of
“grow” their own grammars. Learners do not learning a language. In a breakthrough study,
master an item and go on the next; instead, they Corder (1967) found that second language
learn a variety of things simultaneously (and learners produced errors that were both
some better than others). This implies that systematic and creative in nature. His work gave
language learning is an extremely complex rise to the field of error analysis, which
phenomenon. examined systematic errors to determine that
underlying rule-governed behaviors of learners.
These studies show that though some errors are Selinker (1972) coined the term into language to
due to transfer from the learner’s native refer to errors due to interference from L1 and
language, many have nothing to do with the first intralanguage to refer to errors caused by the
language, rather, are based on developmentalism target language itself. Each new feature of
(learning develops in stages as learners interact language acquired by the learner requires
with the environment). Errors reflect the adjustments in the learners developing
learner’s creative capability of using language, competence: some of the rules the learner
for example: acquires may be permanent or stable, while other
may be constantly changing. The emphasis
Ladies may have a fit upstairs shifted to explaining mistakes in terms of the
Outside a Hong Kong tailor’s developmental stages the learners go through in
shop actively constructing their second language
competence; this occurs regardless of their first
language.
English Well Talking
Outside a shop. The most recent research in errors of second
language learners supports the following
assumptions: errors occur both as the result of
interference from the mother tongue and as a
In Case of Fire Do your utmost result of incomplete transitional grammar of the
to alert hotel porter learner; language learning is characterized by the
At a hotel. creation of language and by the comparison of
the learners interim language system with that of
At first, L2 learners rely heavily on L1 structures adult or native speech.
and even vocabulary to get meaning across. As
the L2 becomes more internalized, the L1 is Probably a lot of mistakes are caused by a variety
relied upon less and less. Investigations of errors of factors. A learner may overgeneralized a rule
by second language learners have revealed or may assume that a structure can be used in the
surprising statistics. Although some errors are the same way as in the first language, on the basis of
direct result of native-language interference, the evidence that it sometimes is and thus
percentage is not as large as had previously been overapplying it. Other factors can contribute, too;
believed. The errors tabulated by Dulay and Burt learners may be more likely to make mistakes
(1973) indicated that only 3% of the errors in with a certain tense, for instance, if they are
their study were due to interference and 85% of concentrating on another one, or to make more
the errors were developmental. mistakes if they are tired. The same mistake
might have different origins on different
occasions.
4. Acquiring a language: Krashen’s
Hypotheses
Stephen Krashen is
an American linguist, The Monitor Hypothesis
currently the author The third hypothesis set forth by Krashen, is
of more than 175 directly related to his position on learning /
articles and books in acquisition. It states that acquisition is the sole
the field of ELT, initiator of all second-language utterances and is
whose ideas have had responsible for fluency, while learning
a great impact on (conscious knowledge of rules) can function only
modern language as an “editor” or “Monitor” for the output.
teaching programs. He summarized his
theoretical research by stating the following five The monitor functions only when there is
hypotheses about second language acquisition. sufficient time, the focus is on form, and the
language use knows the rule being applied. This
The Acquisition / Learning hypothesis takes into consideration three types of
Distinction Hypotheses monitor users:
Krashen made a distinction between learning and
acquisition, where adults are seen as having two 1. Over-monitor users are learners who
distinct and independent ways of developing seldom trust their acquired competence, and
competence in a second language: verify every sentence they produce by using their
learned competence. Such speakers are sure to
Acquisition is a subconscious process similar, if speak hesitantly and with no fluency.
not identical, to the way children develop ability
in their first language. 2. Under-monitor users are speakers who do not
really care about correctness, only about
Learning refers to the conscious knowledge of meaning. These speakers are usually very
the rules of grammar of a second language and talkative in their mother tongue and, although
their application in production. they may make more mistakes than over-monitor
users, they also convey more meaning.
The Natural Order Hypothesis
In this hypothesis, krashen maintains that 3. Optimal-monitor users are acquirers who
acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in manage to use the monitor only when it is
a predictable order when that acquisition is appropriate, e.g. when writing. Optimal-monitor
natural (i.e. not by formal classroom learning). users usually give the impression that they posses
This natural order is not identical to first more competence than under-monitor users of
language order, but there are some similarities the same level of acquisition, because they can
and second language learners pass through use their learned competence together with the
predictable stages as well. Regardless of the acquired competence, and in many cases can use
learner’s first language, all learners seem to their mother tongue’s grammar adopted, with
acquire many features of the second language in logical changes, to English by means of the
similar order. However, this is not always the monitor.
case. Researchers have found that there are
exceptions. The Input Hypothesis
Krashen was among the first to question the
facilitative effect of simplified input for all
groups of learners. For Krashen, simplified input presented, and enough of it is made available, the
can only help those who are in the beginning structures will be automatically sequenced… The
stages of language development. He suggests that acquirers will receive comprehensive input
the single most important factor for language containing structures just a little beyond them if
development is not simplifies input, but what he they are in a situations involving genuine
terms Comprehensible Input. According to the communication, and these structures will be
hypothesis, we acquire language proficiency… constantly provided and automatically reviewed.
They need not worry about missing the past tense
“…by going for meaning, by focusing on what is forever. With natural comprehensible input, the
said rather than how it is said. We are aided in hypothesis predicts that they will hear the past
this process by extralinguistic context (e.g. tense again and again.
pictures and hand movements), and our
knowledge of the world. We do not acquire by Krashen also proposed the presence of the “silent
first learning about the structure of the period”, a period of time before the acquirer
language. We try to understand the message and actually starts to speak. The silent period is
the structure is thereby acquired”. noticeable in child second language acquisition:
(Krashen 1985). young children in a new country may say nothing
(except for some memorized phrases) for several
The input hypothesis maintains that more months. According to the input hypothesis, there
language is acquired only when students are is a time during which they are building up
exposed to comprehensible input –language that competence via input, by listening and
contains structures that are “a little bit beyond” a understanding. When they are ready, they start to
current level of competence, but which is talk. This initial silent period has been
comprehensible through the use of context, incorporated into Krashen and Terrel’s natural
knowledge of the world, and other extralinguistic approach.
cues. The language the students hear or read
should contain language they already know as A number of studies have now demonstrated that
well as language they have not yet seen. comprehensive input may facilitate language
development, but it does not guarantee mastery
The input should be at a slightly higher level than of the language. Learners need exposure to the
the student is capable of using, but that he is specific types of input that the learner needs to
capable of understanding. Krashen suggests that acquire. This may vary from learner to learner,
if the input is too easy, the learner won’t learn but all learners benefit from input received and
anything new; if it is too hard, he claims that it used in language-promoting interaction.
would be beyond the learner’s grasp.
The Affective Filter Hypothesis
A second part of the input hypothesis maintains Krashen’s fifth hypothesis states that
that speaking fluency cannot be taught directly, comprehensible input can have its effect on
but rather “emerges” naturally over time. acquisition only when affective conditions are
Krashen maintains that although early speech is optimal, when the acquirer…
not grammatically accurate, accuracy will • is motivated
develop over time as the acquired word hears and • has self-confidence and good self-image
understand more input. • has a low level of anxiety
A third part of this hypothesis states that input The affective filter acts like a gate controlling
need not be deliberately planned to contain the amount of input received. When learners
appropriate structures: if communication is become defensive, the affective filter is high and
successful and there is enough of it, input is comprehensible input is prevented from entering.
provided automatically. Krashen (1985) states: If they are relaxed and in a pleasant environment,
“the best input is not grammatically sequenced. more acquisition will take place. This is why it is
Rather, if the acquirer understands the input important to provide an appropriate environment
in the classroom, eliminating anxiety and Virtually everyone recognizes the need to
encouraging students. provide learners with “comprehensible input”
and finds his recommendations that affective
In recent years, Krashen’s theories have been considerations are of primary importance very
repeatedly questioned. In spite of the many appealing.
criticisms on a variety of points, his theories have
had a strong influence on language teaching.
5. Characteristics of Language Learners
Children as Language Learners
Children, given a normal developmental
environment, acquire their native language • Show them patterns (“Notice the –ed at the
fluently and efficiently; moreover, they acquire it end of the word”) and examples (“this is the
“naturally”, without special instruction, they way we say something happened yesterday: I
experience a considerable amount of the watched TV.”) to call their attention to certain
language in situations where they are involved grammatical concepts.
with communicating with an adult (usually a • Certain more difficult concepts or patterns
parent); their gradual ability to use language is require more repetition than adults need. For
the result of many subconscious processes. example, repeating certain patterns (without
boring them) may be necessary to get the brain
Cognitive Development: generally we think that and the ear to cooperate.
children easily “acquire” a second or foreign
language, but, in fact, it implies a tremendous Most young learners do not feel nervous about
cognitive and affective effort. Young second attempting to use the language. However, even
language learners begin the task of language very young (pre-school) children differ in their
learning without the benefit of some of the skills nervousness when faced with speaking a
which adolescent and adult learners have. language they do not know well. Some children
School-age children may actually have difficulty chatter away happily in the new language; others
in acquiring a foreign language for a multitude of prefer to listen and participate silently in social
reasons. Ranking high on those reasons are a interaction with their peers. Fortunately, for these
number of complex personal, social, cultural and children, the learning environment rarely puts
political factors at play in elementary school pressure on them to speak when they are not
teaching. Depending on their age, children are ready.
still at the developmental stage that centers on
the “here and now” and the functional purpose of Attention span: one of the main differences
language. The fact that they have little awareness between adults and children is attention span.
for the language used to describe and explain Children definitely do not have short attention
linguistic concepts means that rules, spans – just put a child in front of a TV with a
explanations, and other even slightly abstract talk favorite cartoon show and they will stay riveted
about language must be approached with extreme to their seats. The short attention span comes
caution. They still have far to go in the area of only when they are bored; they find something
world knowledge before they reach the levels useless, or too difficult. The teacher’s job, then,
already reached by adolescents and adults. And is to make language lessons interesting, lively,
children learning a foreign language in school are and fun.
under a traditional expectation of learning instead • Activities should be design to capture their
of natural language development. immediate interest, since children are focused on
the immediate here and now.
• Don’t use terms like “future perfect” or • A lesson needs to have a variety of activities
“hypothetical situation” to express grammar. to keep interest and attention alive.
• Avoid rules that are stated in abstract terms • A teacher needs to be animated, lively, and
(Don’t tell first graders: “to transform an enthusiastic about the subject matter. The
affirmative statement to negative, add the teacher’s energy will be infectious to others.
auxiliary do or does and not”). Children need a certain exaggeration to keep
spirits buoyed and minds alert.
• A sense of humor will go a long way to • Language needs to be firmly context
keep children laughing and learning. embedded. Story lines, familiar situations and
• Children have a lot of natural curiosity. characters, real-life conversations, meaningful
This helps the teacher maintain attention and purposes in using language – these will establish
focus. a context within which language can be received
and sent and thereby improve attention and
Sensory input: children need to have all five retention.
senses stimulated. Activities should go beyond A whole language approach is essential. Don’t
the visual and auditory modes. break up language into too many bits and pieces
• Pepper the lesson with physical activity, or students won’t see the relationship to the
such as having students act out things (role-play), whole.
play games, or do TPR activities.
Adults as Language Learners
• Projects and other hands-on activities will
Adults usually learn a foreign language in a
help children internalize language.
classroom setting; they may or may not be
• Sensory aids will also help children motivated by the need for communication itself,
internalize concepts: the taste of foods, liberal but rather by some type of extrinsic motivation
doses of audio-visual aids, songs, music – all (i.e. promotion, career, etc.); they are often
these are important elements in children’s distracted by problems and have other priorities
language teaching. or they are impatient and under pressure to learn;
• Nonverbal language is important, as and contrary to children learning their first
children notice facial features and gestures. language, they frequently need a teacher. They
may also believe that knowing a language is
Affective factors: children may have as many knowing “about” (i.e., rules, definitions, etc.)
inhibitions as adults do about learning a instead of knowing how to use it.
language! They are extremely sensitive,
especially to peers: what do others think of me? Most adult students are quite comfortable with
What will so-and-so think when I speak in structured learning environments. The linguistic
English? Children are in many ways more fragile support given in this environment allows students
than adults; their egos are still being shaped. to practice within a controlled framework and
Teachers need to help them overcome potential build their confidence.
barriers to learning.
Older learners are often forced to speak – to meet
• Help students laugh with each other at the requirements of the classroom or to carry out
various mistakes that they all make. tasks such as jobs interviews.
• Be patient and supportive, to build self-
esteem, yet at the same time, be firm in your One condition which appears to be common to
expectations of students. learners of all ages is access to modified input.
• Elicit as much oral participation as possible This adjusted speech is called caretaker talk for
from students, especially the quieter ones, to give first languages, and foreign talk or teacher talk
them plenty of opportunities for trying things out. for second languages. Most people who interact
regularly with foreign language learners seem to
Authentic, meaningful language: children are have an intuitive sense of what adjustments are
focused on what this new language can actually needed to help learners understand.
be used for right here and now. They are less
willing to put up with language that doesn’t hold Error correction tends to be limited to corrections
immediate rewards for them. of meaning – including errors in vocabulary
• Children are good at sensing language that is choice – in first language acquisition. In informal
not authentic; it will simply not be accepted. second language acquisition, errors which do not
interfere with meaning are usually overlooked.
Most people would feel they were being impolite
if they interrupted and corrected someone who Adults are no less successful in learning a foreign
was trying to have a conversation with them! language than children are. Adults have the
Nevertheless, they may “correct” if they cannot advantage of being able to learn and retain a
understand what the speaker is trying to say. larger vocabulary. They can utilize various
Thus, errors of grammar and pronunciation are deductive and abstract processes to shortcut the
rarely remarked on, but the wrong word choice learning of grammatical and other linguistic
may receive comment from a puzzled concepts. And, in the classroom, they usually
interlocutor. The only place where error learn faster than a child. So, while children, with
correction is typically present with frequency is their fluency and naturalness, are often the envy
the language classroom. of adults struggling with foreign languages,
children in classrooms may have some
difficulties.
ACTIVITY.

Work in pairs. Complete the following chart showing the profiles of four language learners:
a) A child learning his or her first language
b) A child learning a second language informally
c) An adolescent learning a second language in a formal language learning setting
d) An adult learning a second language in a formal setting

Use a + for a characteristic which is usually present, a – for a characteristic which is usually absent, and a?
for cases where the characteristic or condition is sometimes present, sometimes absent, or where you are
not sure of your opinion.

Learner Characteristics Child L1 Child Adolescent Adult


(informal) (formal) (formal)
1. The learner already knows another language.
2. The learner is able to engage in problem
solving, deduction, and complex memory
tasks.
3. The learner can define a word, say what
sounds make up a word, or state a rule such as
“add an s to form the plural”.
4. The learner’s general knowledge of the
world is extensive.
5. The learner is nervous about making
mistakes and sounding “silly”.
Learning conditions
6. The learning environment allows the learner
to be silent in the early stages of learning.
7. There is plenty of time for language learning
to take place, plenty of contact with proficient
speakers of the language.
8. The learner receives corrective feedback
when he or she makes errors in grammar or
pronunciation.
9. The learner receives corrective feedback
when he or she uses the wrong word.

From how languages are learned (1993) by Patsy Lightbrow and Nina Spada, OUP