One of the courses which I am taking at university is Acquisiation d’une langue seconde – which turns out to be highly relevant to my own experience as an exchange student suddenly immersed in my second language. Already, I am finding myself absorbing sayings and phrases from the people around me. However as I interact more and more and try to express complicated and abstract ideas I also find myself making more mistakes- or maybe just being more aware of them!
The class today focused on key terms on the topic as well as a background on the development of research into how we come to speak and comprehend both our native tongue and any other languages we may acquire throughout our lifetime. Here’s a summary of some of the main ideas on how we pick up language (NOTE: please do not cite me or take this info for absolute truth. I am paraphrasing from a class that was taught to me in my second language- there is plenty of room for error or misunderstanding!).
We acquire language due to the rewards we receive (interaction, attention) when we echo and repeat the sounds made by the people around us, and the reprimands (correction) we receive when we make mistakes.
This point of view is not considered to be very accurate, as we do not correct babies very often for their grammatical mistakes or their failure to create a full sentence. There are also some cultures in which babies are not spoken to at all, and these children still learn the language at the same sort of pace as we see in cultures where parents talk to their babies from a very young age.
We are predispositioned to learn a language. Early theorists argued that we have a very specific area of the brain (a language acquisition device) that is pre-programmed to develop language. Later theorists argue that when we are young our brains are more flexible, and although we have some neurons that are primed for language learning, it is possible for language to develop in other brain areas.
Numerous properties of language seem to be inbuilt and common across all languages. These common attributes are referred to as Universal Grammar, and it is thought that our brains have a natural propensity to understand and learn to communicate through language based on the rules of Universal Grammar.
It seems this innateness hypothesis does seem to explain the our ‘natural capacity’ to learn our first language, but it does little to help us learn more about second language acquisition.
Language is a habit.
According to this point of view, the major source of mistakes when speaking a second language stems from the mother tongue. It considers that the greater the differences between the first and second languages, the greater the difficulties in acquiring the second language. The interaction between the two languages can result in a negative transfer ( we apply the rules of our first language when they do not work in the one we are trying to attain) or a positive transfer (we apply the rules of our first language and they work for us in the new one!).
There are limitations to this point of view though, as large differences between first and second languages do not necessarily result in large difficulties in language learning, just as similarity does not always result in a facility of acquisition. There are also developmental errors that are made during language learning which seem to be universal for second language learners from a variety of mother tongues. Finally, it fails to explain exactly how we actually acquire our second language and reduce our mistakes.
According to this school of thought, mistakes are a window to the learning process which is underway and reveal the language of the learner still “under construction”. It regards our second language as a transitioning state of competence, as we move from speaking and writing in ways that resemble our native language closer and closer to forms that resemble the target language. Here we can talk of critical transfer (we are conscious of our efforts to apply the rules of our target language) or naive transfer (in which we apply the rules without necessarily being aware that we are doing so).
There are a few issues with this theory though. Firstly, a person’s competence is very difficult to pinpoint and this can lead to ambiguity in the classification of competencies. There is also a lack of statistics to support the theory. Finally, (and I can stand as a witness to this) there is the potential for avoidance- if second language learners stick to simple sentences and avoid complicated grammatical structures, they are less likely to make mistakes… thus appearing more competent than they are.
This school of thought views a second language under construction as something intermediate, moving towards the target language. Although the influence of both native and target languages is recognised, it is looked at as though it is a separate linguistic system.
There is still a lot of research underway, most of which surrounds five hypotheses on the process of development of an interlanguage:
1. Learning-acquisition hypothesis:
Some of our language is obtained through methods of learning (similar to the way we learn maths, or science for example), while some is obtained through acquisition (absorption of language into our speaking habits, similar to the way we first learn to speak). Which is more powerful in second language acquisition, and how do they help/hinder each other?
2. Monitoring hypothesis
How conscious are we of our speaking process? Are we more sucessful at communicating in our target language when we are more conscious of the way we are constructing our sentences?
3. Natural order hypothesis
Is there a natural order to the way we learn a language? What elements are necessary to begin speaking another language? Which elements do we fully incorporate and retain most easily?
4. Input hypothesis
How does our access to the target language and our level of interaction with it affect the way we learn a second language? How does an increased/decreased input affect the development of our language later on?
5. Affective-filter hypothesis
How is our language performance affected by our current mood and attitude to language interaction? What is the impact of fear of making mistakes, cultural differences, an audience… ect. on the language we produce?
One of the most important ideas from the class today is that whilst first language acquisition is usually a very similar process for everyone, the conditions in which we learn and acquire a second language vary greatly. I consider myself very fortunate to be here in France and to have the opportunity to be surrounded by francophones, an opportunity I’ve not had before. So far this new environment seems to be very beneficial to my language learning, especially when it comes to speaking more spontaneously and “naturally” (that is to say just a little less unnaturally than I used to)!