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9.6: Second Language Acquisitions Theories and Components

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    9.6.1 Second Language Acquisition Theories and Components, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    Every single one of you has attempted to learn a second language; in some cases, you may have been successful, while in other cases, not so much so. As we go through these next few sections about second language acquisition, keep in mind your own experiences. I'm sure some of them, if not all of them, will be reflected in what we talk about.

    To start things off, this was a hilarious meme that came through Facebook years ago.

    Funny meme about learning different foreign languages

    Having learned or attempted to learn a couple of these languages, I can relate. For a bit more context:

    • Latin: The fact that Latin doesn’t have specific lexicon for ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but there seems to be 3,000 different ways to talk about killing people.
    • Ancient Greek: There's so many different derivations of verbs that you never knew existed until you look at Ancient Greek.
    • Ancient Egyptian: The hieroglyphs are the connection.
    • French: Certainly, if you tried to learn or if you have learned French, it seems that half of what you see written doesn't get pronounced
    • German: If you go back to morphology, we looked at German compounding; look up the word for ‘research’ in German, and that should tell you some things.
    • Mandarin: Remember, it’s an isolating language.
    • Spanish: Remember, it’s a fusional language and a synthetic language.
    • English: Okay, maybe not maybe not hell, maybe not the easiest language to learn.

    There are certain impressions about learning a different language., that some languages seem easier and others are harder. None of that's really true; they're all difficult, and don't think otherwise. Everybody has their path in learning a language.

    Let's talk about some of these theories of language acquisition. With respect to adults, mind you when I say ‘adults’, I’m saying anybody who has hit puberty and beyond. That has to do with the Critical Age Hypothesis; this is a hypothesis that is up for debate in some aspects, but not in others. It does seem to be the case that somewhere around puberty is when our brains have stopped absorbing like sponges. The elasticity and the neural plasticity are not the same when we are teenagers and adults as it is when we are children. Critical Age Hypothesis states that our brains don't seem to be able to pick up various skills as easily, including and especially language. It must be taught via logic, and if you think about a language course, that is really what you're learning: you're learning the logic of the language. Critical Age Hypothesis has its detractors; there are some that suggests that there is no such thing as waning elasticity of the neurons, that any person can learn any skill at any time, and there's no change or difference. That does not seem to be the case at least with respect to this concept of the Fundamental Difference Hypothesis, which states that learning a language as an adult is not at all like that of learning a language as a child. Regardless of the detractors, there is a large amount of data that show that with any major skill, children learn these skills as if through osmosis; they just watch, they practice, and they do, and it seems relatively effortless. The reality may not be the same, but that seems to be the case. As adults, the only time that is true is that if we can build upon a skill we already have; take language.

    For example, I can learn a Romance language pretty easily, because I already have acquired and mastered two; based off of those two, I can use those skills to use to learn another Romance language. I will tell you that Germanic languages for me are very difficult; I'm terrible at learning Germanic languages. I just don't get the logic, despite the fact that I natively speak a Germanic language in English. It's because growing up, I didn't hear much in the way of Germanic languages; there was a Swedish family down the street, but they spoke English, and there was a Norwegian woman that one of my cousins married, but she spoke English, so realistically I didn't have much. I've tried to learn Japanese, and there's aspects of it that I get, but I heard Japanese as a kid by a few neighbors. Even though tonal languages seem to elude me as far as getting the tones down, I do see some of the patterns in them, but growing up, I had a number of friends who whose families were from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, or Taiwan. These are various places that speak different Sino-Tibetan languages, so for me, I start to see those patterns easier because I’ve been around them and have been exposed to them.

    Fundamental Difference Hypothesis underlies mostly language learning, but, as I said, can be extended to other skill sets, especially motor skills. There's this concept with childhood development that when you expose a young child to as many inputs as possible—without overloading but certainly a number of them—and give them consistent access to those inputs, they pick up those talents and skills readily. That it sets up an affinity for those similar skills in their later lives. It's why we try to expose children to music, both listening and playing music from an early age, because if children are exposed to those skills early, they will continue to at least attempt to use them.

    These two hypotheses are just that: they're hypotheses. We cannot officially make them into laws or universals, because there are exceptions always. In order to test them properly, we would need some very unethical training and activities, and we're not going to do that. We're not going to deprive a child linguistic input to see what can happen. We're not going to force them to do all sorts of activities that they may not be able to do physically. We're not going to do those things. We do have a goodly amount of evidence that shows that Critical Age Hypothesis does not say that you cannot learn a language once you hit puberty; it says that it must be taught as language acquisition based on logic. It can't be through osmosis.

    There are certain common errors and processes that all adult language learners do. Whether they stay in this error-laden stage, or they get past these errors, this depends on a number of things. Fossilization is the big one; this is the situation of a language learner who keeps producing incorrect language in certain areas, but it's so ingrained in their mind that they just think it's the right way to do it. A couple of definitions: L2 and L1. ‘L’ refers to ‘language; ‘L2’ is the second language, while ‘L1’ is the first or native language. An example of a fossilization error: I teach Spanish, and one of the huge ones that I still get from intermediate students and beyond is, “Me llamo es." Spanish speakers, I apologize; I know how cringe worthy that is. "Me llamo es" is wrong in every way. "Me llamo" is 'I call myself'; it's what you say, when you say, “Oh, my name is Sarah,” you say "Me llamo Sarah;" I call myself Sarah. "Es" is a verb; it means 'is'. The problem is "llamo" is also a verb; it means 'I call', so "Me llamo es" is never going to work because you have two conjugated verbs that don't go together. It is a big error.

    Interlanguage and interference are connected. Interlanguage is what we do as we're learning a language, when we combine elements to try and succeed in producing more of the target language. Think of telegraphic speech in child language acquisition, and this is kind of the adult version. Interlanguage is described as having more basic sentences that eventually lead to more complex sentences and phrases. We use interlanguage as we try to put our pieces together. Sometimes as we do that, we end up having interference or sometimes it's called transfer grammar. When your L1 interferes with your L2, for example as a native English speaker if I go to learn Russian, and I keep trying to use English phrasing, words, and pronunciation, instead of staying in Russian and learning the Russian, that's interference or transfer grammar. This is really common of all folks who learn a second language; we also see them children, but mostly we see this in adults.

    Any language learner can get through all of this. In part, this is done through good instruction, which involves aspects that we're going to talk about soon: encouraging and open environments, like allowing students to feel like they can take a risk. Part of this is also internal motivation; we’ll talk about learner affect soon enough. But there are always going to be little bits that keep you from being a native speaker; we can be a near-native speaker, and I’ll explain more that in a minute, but some of those near-native elements are directly related to interference and the related to fossilization. But you can get around it.

    I would be remiss to not talk about heritage learners. A heritage learner is somebody who is trying to learn the language of their heritage or ancestors; frequently it's the language of their parents or grandparents. Think of a case where you have a family that integrates to a new country, a new linguistic community. Their children and grandchildren may learn that new language very quickly, but then may drop the first language, the heritage language, along the way. Many folks, including maybe some of you, try to learn that heritage language in puberty or adulthood. This is a different process; it's not quite the same as learning from scratch. There are various levels of heritage learners. A low-level heritage learner knows the sounds and some words, but isn't really able to construct the basic sentence in that language. A mid-level or high-level heritage speaker can produce much more. There's always conflicting or competing issues going on with heritage learners, and they have to be addressed in the language and learning environment. There is frequently a desire to ‘speak properly’; I can't count the number of heritage Spanish speakers who sign up for first semester Spanish because they want to learn the language ‘properly’, thinking that what they know is not proper or accurate and somehow substandard. Frequently, that's not the case; in the vast majority of cases, that person is marginally, if not fully, fluent in that language. They just may need to boost their literacy, or learn more complex structures so that they can speak at a higher level, but they are fluent, at least at a basic level. There's also language attrition, which we talked a little bit about in child bilingualism. In many cases, once the heritage learner started their formal education in preschool or kindergarten, that is when they had to stop speaking their heritage language; they were forced into speaking the new language. As a result of societal pressures and everything else, they just ‘lose’ the first language; it's attrition. Just like a muscle that you stopped using and it atrophies, the same thing can be said for a ‘home language’ or heritage language.

    Finally, there's this thing that I like to call ‘heritage speaker guilt’. As far as I know, this is a Sarah-ism; I don't know if this is an official term, but it's a specific kind of learner affect. When we are learning a new skill, including a new language, we suffer from some element of learner affect. That is the emotion that bubbles up inside of us and says that we can't do it, or we're scared to do it, or we're not confident in our abilities and we don't want to be made to feel the fool. When we're learning a language that does not have our heritage, you have learner affect in varying forms. But when it's part of your heritage, it's present at even higher levels, and it's a very specific one. There are a few flavors of it; there's the ‘why aren't I doing this correctly?’ or ‘why can't I get this right, why aren't I speaking properly?’ flavor. There's also the ‘why aren't I remembering this?’, ‘this was something I used to speak or hear when I was a child, why the heck can't I do it as an adult?’ flavor. (Frequently stronger language is used. 😉) Learner affect as a whole is an emotional block, and it takes some psychology to go past it, but it doubles down when it is your heritage language. I didn't have this problem as much when I learned Italian, because it was my great-grandparents that immigrated here and spoke it. But my mother was a different story; my mother, to this day, cannot learn Italian. It’s not to say she can't really learn it; she actually speaks Spanish, which she has not learned since high school many moons ago. If she goes to Mexico, she can give basic instructions to the taxi driver. That's Spanish, though; that's not Italian. She's got such a block on Italian. She has tried multiple times; first, she wanted me to teach her, which was a bad idea. (We have an amazing relationship, but learning from your child is a little bit different.) I suggested that she take classes at the community college or that she goes to the Italian Cultural Center in San Francisco. She tried a number of ways, and she's never been able to get over that heritage speaker guilt. In her mind, this should be instantaneous, and it's not.

    How do you include heritage speakers? The answer is: whenever possible, especially the higher-level heritage speakers. We try to separate them out into their own class, and that makes sense; they're going to learn the language in a way that's different from a complete beginner. But the big one is support, even if you have a separate class, but especially if they're mixed in with the general population, as it were. You have to give them that emotional support, so they feel like they can take that risk, but also that they can feel pride in what they already know. You include their experiences, especially when discussing elements of culture. One of my favorite lessons when we do intermediate Spanish is when we talk about Spanish in the United States. I love this section, because we start picking apart this concept of what it means to be bicultural. There are so many folks in the class that are bicultural with different cultures, that it brings this really rich conversation. You start seeing the pride well up in them; that starts breaking down the learner affect, the heritage speaker guilt. Alongside that is to expand their knowledge. There are many people who say, “well, I don't need to learn the language; I’m already fluent in it, I already know everything about it.” Learning a language, especially a language that has multiple cultures and dialects—English, Spanish, and Mandarin are just three that come to mind—when you start expanding their horizons and cultural knowledge, they start feeling more of that pride. I always grew up with this pride of being an Italian-American. Even though I could count to 10 in our dialect and I knew words for certain food items, and certain not-so-nice things to say to people 😜. But when I was a senior in high school, I started taking Italian at a local community college. It expanded my horizons. Suddenly, I was learning about all sorts of things with respect to Italian culture, and not just my little neck of northwestern Italy, where my family is from. I suddenly was starting to learn about all these different concepts and different ways to phrase things. To this day, I still can't say focaccia, the bread, without visualizing the term; it still is always going to come out for me as fogassa, which is what we say in Lombardy. But I do know there's a difference, and I know that difference, and I express that difference. That all comes from learning about my heritage language and the cultures and the dialects that are associated with it.

    9.6: Second Language Acquisitions Theories and Components is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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