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3.2: Second Language Learning

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    Approaches to Language Learning

    For the many indigenous languages threatened with extinction, modern technology can provide an invaluable service, through recordings to capture high-quality audio and video of native speakers. This enables as well the preservation of cultural artifacts such as traditional stories, folklore, or information about the natural world. Field linguists use the recordings along with other information gathered to analyze the target language and culture, from which they develop dictionaries, grammars, and ethnographic studies. Ethnography – the study and description of the customs of a particular group – has been widely used in anthropology and linguistics, as it supplies authentic information about a culture. It's also a tool that can be used in conjunction with study abroad or community-based learning. Ethnographic studies typically entail conducting interviews with "informants", i.e. local inhabitants, collecting samples of language use and cultural information. Informal ethnographic studies can be done today by students through the use of inexpensive recording devices or mobile phones.

    The language data collected by ethnographers can be a valuable resource for language learning. Dual-language dictionaries, grammar tutorials, and sample dialogs are typically digitized and made available online. Such resources are especially important for less commonly taught languages (Godwin-Jones, 2013). For many world languages, there may not be any locally available learning resources such as classroom instruction or native speakers. There may be few language textbooks or other print materials available as well. There are several sites which collect online resources for less commonly taught languages such as the University of Pittsburgh Less-commonly-taught Languages Center or the University of Arizona's Critical Languages Program.

    While digital resources for language learning proliferate today, the traditional access to language learning materials is the textbook. Since the early 19th century textbooks have provided the essential structure and content for both teacher-led and self-taught language learning. The rich multimedia environment for language learners is a fairly recent phenomenon (see Otto, 2017). The use of audio for improving pronunciation and listening skills, and for exposing learners to more native speaker speech began with the advent of magnetic tape recorders in the 1950s and 1960s. This corresponded to the popularity of the audiovisual method of language learning, which stressed working closely, often memorizing, model dialogs. This behaviorist approach to language pedagogy, emphasizing rote learning of vocabulary and grammar through drills and repetition, continued to be used in the early stages of computer-assisted language learning (CALL) in the 1960s and 1970s. A major breakthrough in CALL arrived with the incorporation of digital audio and video into personal computers in the 1980s. This enabled programmatically guided random access to recordings, allowing audio and video to be used in much more creative and pedagogically effective ways. Quite sophisticated multimedia learning programs were developed which featured authentic video, gaming elements, and branching storylines depending on learner actions (Godwin-Jones, 2017a).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Learning German at the Smarter Language Academy in Nigeria

    Chomsky's concept of universal grammar led to theories of language instruction that postulated the existence of a "natural order of acquisition" (Krashen, 1982, p. 15), that is, that there is for all languages a set, optimal sequence of learning activities. This led to an emphasis in language learning on grammatical rules acquired through psycholinguistic/cognitive processes. However, research from Hymes (1972) and other linguistics scholars began to emphasize a different aspect of language, namely its social aspect. From this perspective language is not just an internal, psychologial process, but has a crucial socio-cultural role – it is the principal means we have to interact with others. We learn our first language from interactions with those around us, our families and peers. This dimension of language began to be increasingly recognized as important as well in second language learning. This has led to a decreased emphasis on purely cognitive approaches such as drill and practice exercises or memorization and more emphasis on cultural aspects of language. This functional view of language puts more of a focus on social practices such as requesting and apologizing and the structure of conversations (i.e. turn-taking or set question-answer sequences). More emphasis is placed on learning language through use. That may mean, for example, learning new vocabulary incidentally through extensive reading or other language contact, not through memorizing word lists.

    This communicative approach to language learning emphasizes the need to go beyond learning vocabulary and grammar, to develop practical and pragmatically appropriate speaking ability (Savignon, 1983). The emphasis is on use of functional language in real communicative contexts, often using a task-based approach. This involves having students use real world situations to practice language. There is a growing recognition that for most learners, functional ability in a second language should be the goal, that is, an ability to use the language appropriately in a broad range of contexts. That involves not just learning grammar, but cultural strategic knowledge and strategic competence as well, i.e., what's appropriate to say in a given context.

    Most current theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) advocate a sociocognitive approach, combining cognitive-mechanical practice and socially-based learning (see Larsen-Freeman, 2018). Language and language learning are both such complex phenomenona, that there is not likely to be one "right" way or best approach to SLA (see Godwin-Jones, 2018). The diversity of learner backgrounds, available learning resources, and level of need/interest mean that no individual is likely to learn a new language in precisely the same way. This has led to a great deal of interest in how language development can be personalized to individual learners (see Godwin-Jones, 2017c; Ortega, 2017). That in turn points to the power of learning a second language to change individual lives: "A foreign language is not simply something to add to our repertoire of skills, but a personalized tool that enables us to expand and express our identity or sense of self in new and interesting ways and with new kinds of people" (Ushioda, 2011, p. 204). Learning a new language broadens our experiences and horizons, providing access to new sources of information and entertainment, and potentially a "transformation of self" (Larsen-Freeman, 2018, p. 62).

    Understanding the nature of language

    Learning a second language provides insight into how language works. Many monolinguals are likely to assume that the difference between languages is largely semantic, that is to say that moving from one language to another is simply a matter of substituting words. We have seen in the example of Warlpiri how far that can be from reality. In fact, the very same word equivalents can be put together in very different ways. Some languages such as Arabic make rich use of metaphorical language, for example. In all languages there are idioms and fixed expressions that have meaning beyond the literal denotations of constituent words. One of the ways words are used differently is in collocations – groupings of words that conventionally go together. In English, for example, we say "make your bed" but "do your homework", with the verbs not being interchangeable despite similarity in meaning. The lexical approach to language learning emphasizes the study of vocabulary in context, including collocations and idiomatic expressions (Lewis, 1993).

    How sentences are put together can vary significantly by language. Learning German, for example, will expose learners to syntax (word order) that is quite different from the way sentences are put together in many languages, i.e. subject – verb – object (SVO). In German, that word order can be used, but it is common to have something other than the subject at the beginning of the sentence. At the beginning of newscasts on German television, it is common to hear the phrase, Ihnen einen guten Abend, literally "to you (formal you) a good evening". German indicates the role of a noun or pronoun in the sentence not by its placement but by its form or ending. These morphological variations – changes in endings – are crucial to understanding what a sentence says. German is not unique in this respect. Some languages add endings to the end of words (suffixes) as well as to the beginning (prefixes). Some Eskimo-Aleut languages build what are in other languages complex sentences by adding on many prefixes or suffixes to a root word (see example in sidebar).

    Sample Inuit word (Eskimo-Aleut language)



    I can't hear very well.

    This long word is composed of a root word tusaa- 'to hear' followed by five suffixes:

    • -tsiaq- "well"
    • -junnaq- "be able to"
    • -nngit- negation
    • -tu(q) indicative third-person singular
    • -alu(k)-: augmentative ("very")
    • -u-: "be"
    • -junga: indicative first-person singular (itself composed of the indicative morpheme -ju- and the first person mark -nga)

    Inuit grammar/Wikipedia

    In some languages, learning sometimes subtle variations in pronunciation can be crucially important. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, there are four tones in which syllables are pronounced and the exact same phoneme (minimal unit of sound) can have four different meanings depending on the tone (high, low, rising, rising and falling). The syllable “ma” in Mandarin could be (mother), (to bother), mǎ (horse), (to scold), or ma (neutral tone, used as an interrogative particle). One of the helpful tools linguists have created in the field of phonetics (the production of sounds) and phonology (how sounds are put together) is the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet (MacMahon, 1986). It allows an accurate representation of sounds in all human languages, including the variety of clicks in some African languages. In some cases, the IPA transcription is easy to understand, for example, “good” as [gud]. In other cases, symbols are used that are not part of the regular alphabet, for example, thicker as [θɪkə] or child as [tʃaɪld].

    Learning a Second Language

    The degree of difficulty in learning a second language can vary depending on a number of factors, such as motivation, time commitment, and innate ability to learn. Some learners are able to imitate very closely the sounds of a native speaker; others have great difficulty in that area, particularly if they start learning the language later in life. The critical period hypothesis claims that there is an ideal time window for acquiring language, namely as children or adolescents (Harley & Wang, 1997). This is particularly true for developing native-like pronunciation and fluent oral communication skills. Older learners, on the other hand, tend to do well with learning grammar and structure, the analytical aspect of language learning. The degree of difficulty is also dependent on the level of fluency and accuracy one hopes to attain. People learn languages for different reasons, and some learners may just need a reading ability.

    Immigrants sometimes reach a level of ability that provides basic functionality in the language. At that point they may stop formal training or making conscious efforts to improve, their pronunciation and grammar becoming "fossilized" at the functional level achieved (Acton, 1984). In the field of SLA today, a major field within applied linguistics, it is recognized that language learners vary considerably in their goals and needs and that not every learner needs to develop native-like pronunciation or perfect grammar. The standard for most learners is likely to be intelligibility, being able to make oneself understood. In some cases, mispronunciation of individual sounds is less important for intelligibility then intonation or idiomatic word choice. Unfortunately, the public at large does not share the perspective of SLA, so that those who speak with a noticeable accent or use faulty grammar can face prejudice and discrimination, despite being eminently intelligible.

    One of the other determiners of language learning ease or difficulty is the similarity or dissimilarity of the second language to one's native tongue. It is clearly much easier for a native English speaker to learn Spanish or German than to learn Arabic or Mandarin. For those languages, a completely different writing system must be learned. It's also the case that Spanish and German, like English, are members of the same language family of Indo-European, which means that they have similar genealogies. As a result, there are similarities in grammar and vocabulary. A high number of cognates – words which resemble each other – between the two languages can be very helpful, especially in the early stages of language learning.

    Ultimately, if or how well learners acquire a second language depends on the individual. One's attitude is a crucial factor. If one is highly motivated to learn because of extrinsic factors, such as a migrant's need for functional ability in an adopted country, that can lead to more intense and faster learning. There may be compelling professional reasons for needing to learn a second language, such as being posted to a foreign country. Intrinsic motivating factors may play a role. Those might include a desire to learn more about another culture to maintain or establish a connection to one's ethnic heritage. Polyglots, speakers of multiple languages, are motivated to learn as many languages as possible (see resource list for examples).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Author JRR Tolkien knew many languages and invented lan-guages

    In any case, maintaining a positive attitude is important in intercultural communication generally, and is of great benefit as well in language learning. A spirit of openness and curiosity is needed. If one is willing to use the language learned to engage in conversation with other learners or native speakers, faster progress is likely. The author of a well-known textbook on intercultural communication entitled one of the chapters "Language as a barrier" (Jandt, 2012). In fact, the opposite is true, learning a second language is a gateway into another culture, the most effective way to get an inside track on the perspective from which speakers of the language view the world.

    English as a world language

    Often there is a close and natural connection between the language one learns and the culture represented by that language. In fact, interest in the target culture may be the starting point for learning a new language. In some cases, there is a tighter connection to a single culture than for others. Learners of Japanese, for example, are in a different position from learners of Spanish in that there are fewer regional variations and only one nation-state where Japanese is spoken. From that perspective, English is even more diverse culturally than Spanish. That derives not just from the fact that English is the official language of a variety of countries, but that it also functions as the lingua franca for exchanges between people with different native languages. In fact, it's estimated that there are today a larger number of people worldwide who speak English as a second language than as a native language (Crystal, 2003). English is seen in many countries as an essential tool for social and economic advancement. At the same time, English is sometimes seen as an instrument of cultural imperialism, given the history of colonization, evangelization and, spread of US consumer/popular culture from the Anglophone world. The spread of English is often accompanied by Western, more specifically Anglo-Saxon cultural values.

    The role that English as a language plays in a given culture may vary considerably. Given its history as a former English colony, Hong Kong, for example, is a city in which there are many people who speak English in their everyday lives. Hong Kongers use English "quite comfortably with one another when they are at school or in the office. It is considered strange, however, to use it in daily conversation" (Scollon, Scollon & Jones, 2012, p. 6). This is in contrast to Singapore, India, or South Africa, where there may be speakers of a variety of other languages so that English is needed as a lingua franca. In Hong Kong, by contrast, English is not needed, as native Hong Kongers speak Cantonese. Scollon, Scollon & Jones (2012) point out that using English in Hong Kong outside of institutional settings carries with it social significance:

    [This is] based partly on the groups of people that use it such as teachers and other authority figures as well as non-Cantonese speaking “foreigners,” and so by appropriating English into casual conversation with another Cantonese speaker, one might be claiming a certain affiliation with those groups of people, or one might be thought by the people to whom one is talking to be claiming such an affiliation, to be “showing of ,” or, at the very least, to be acting unduly formal (p. 6).

    The different social significance of speaking English across cultures points to the inherent cultural forces language embodies beyond serving as a means of communication. Language choice can be a way to position oneself socially. In many cultures, English may be an important component of individual identity and agency.

    The interest in English has resulted in a boom in English classes in many countries. At the same time, there has been a shift in how English is taught as a second language. It is no longer the case that learning English is tied necessarily to learning as well about the culture of Great Britain or the USA. The kind of English taught may in fact not be either British English or North American English, but rather a version which adapts to a local variety of English or strives to model International or World English. The latter concept has evolved out of the desire to minimize cultural influences from North America and Great Britain in language learning, as well as to deal with differences in usage (spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation) among Englishes in Anglophone countries. There have even been attempts, such as Basic Global English, to create a kind of neutral, bare-bones version of the language (Grzega, 2006). On the other hand, there have been efforts locally to teach English within the context of a local culture. That has been the case, for example, in Vietnam (Kramsch & Sullivan, 1996) and Pakistan (Malik, 1993).

    Many people are learning English for highly utilitarian reasons, to advance socially or professionally. As a result, there is a lot of interest in "English for Special Purposes," English classes tailored to those with particular professional needs, such as business, tourism, or a highly technical field. This may lead to a limited proficiency in English within a narrow semantic field. An example is Aviation English, called AirSpeak, the version of English universally used by pilots and air traffic controllers (International Civil Aviation Organization, 2003). There have been some concerns expressed that pilots with AirSpeak-level English proficiency can deal very well with routine situations that occur in the air, but might have some difficulty describing unusual events in English. The example given in the sidebar illustrates potential issues with language, but also possibly with sociocultural factors, namely the possible reluctance of a pilot to admit ignorance.

    Example: Airspeak

    On August 2, 1976, a Boeing 707 cargo flight departed from Tehran to Seoul and collided with the mountain due to a wrong turn. The following is the conversation between Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and the pilot. Standard Instrument Departure (SID) is published flight procedure followed by aircraft immediately after takeoff from an airport

    • ATC to Pilot: “Follow SID 11”
    • Pilot to ATC: “What is SID 11?”
    • ATC to Pilot: “Standard Instrument Departure 11”
    • Pilot action: Silence

    Hazrati & Touiserkani (2016)

    In the early days of the Internet there was concern that English would crowd out all other languages. That has not, however, been the case. Statistics show much faster Internet growth in countries where English is not the dominant language (Internet World Stats, 2017). In 1996, more than 80 percent of Internet users were native English speakers. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 27.3 percent. Online services are increasingly available in multiple languages, Wikipedia in 295 languages and Facebook in 101 (Ortega, 2017). However, it remains a reality that English growth may lead to the decline of other languages. In some countries, private universities have opened up in which the language of instruction is English. The popularity since 2012 of MOOCs (massively open online courses), which have predominantly been offered in English, from US universities, has led some to worry about that form of distance learning in English replacing local educational resources (Godwin-Jones, 2014). Whether the cause is or is not the spread of English, it does remain that a large number of the world's languages are today threatened with extinction (Choi, 2014). Given the close connection we have discussed here between language and culture, losing language communities also means a loss of human cultural capital, which is irreplaceable. For the majority of the world languages which do not have a written language, losing the last remaining speakers can mean the disappearance of the spoken stories and traditions. It can also mean a significant loss of knowledge of the natural world. Losing words for native plants can mean loss of knowledge of how that plant can be used for medicinal or other purposes. Ultimately, losing a language entails losing a unique view of our world.

    3.2: Second Language Learning is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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