Second Language Acquisition

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Unit 6

Second Language Acquisition

6.1 Introduction

Second language acquisition is learning a second language after a first language is already acquired. Many children indeed acquire several languages as first languages in a multilingual environment. For example, a child born of a Panjabi mother and a Bengali father and growing up in Hyderabad, India may acquire Panjabi, Bangla, Telugu, Dakkhini and probably English at the same time as first languages. Also, this can happen either in a natural way as for instance, if a child grows up in a foreign environment and speaks one language at home and as she grows up, she learns the language spoken outside. A second language can be acquired in a structured way as well, like in a classroom or by a tutor. As we saw in the previous unit, first language acquisition is an amazing process by which very young children acquire very complex language structures of one or more languages with relative ease. Is the same true for second language acquisition? Here we will discuss various theories that try to uncover this question.

About 4-5 years old children are fluent speakers of their home language(s). The medium of instruction in school for some is the language being spoken at home but for most others the medium of instruction is new to them. For example, a child in Bengal who speaks Santhali or Nepali at home may encounter Bengali in school. In addition, the child may also be required to learn English at school in the primary classes. Bengali and English are all second languages for such children; they may even be


foreign languages to them if they are not spoken in the community at all. Acquiring second language(s) in such a situation is challenging for children because in most cases these children are not exposed to Bengali or English at home and even at school they get limited exposure. How do children and adults acquire a second language? What are the mechanisms and how can teachers help them learn a second language effectively?

In this section we will discuss all this and critically examine the generally held belief that languages already learnt by the child interfere with her learning second languages.

6.2 Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis

The main goal of this hypothesis is to compare the differences and similarities of the first language (L1) with that of the second language (L2). The hypothesis is that these similarities and differences are what play a very important role in acquiring a second language effectively. These differences can help us predict the kinds of problems that will be faced by the learner.

It has been suggested that all the problems that are there in the speech of a second language speaker are due to the interference from L1 due to the differences between L1 and L2.

It has been suggested that the greater these differences are, the more severe the learning difficulties. This is because there will be interference from L1 into L2. This transfer/interference is considered positive if the structure exists in both languages and enhances the chance of the learner to acquire that feature in L2 as well; however, on the other hand, if there is a feature that is not there in L1, then it makes it hard for the learner to acquire it in L2. For instance, a learner who wants to acquire English and is a native speaker of Hindi will have difficulty in pronouncing words that start with a „w‟ because Hindi does not distinguish between „w‟ and „v‟. Similarly,


English does not have voiced aspirated stops such as /gh, jh, Dh, dh, bh/ and it is often predicted that native speakers of English will use un-aspirated sounds in place of these sounds.

Again, English has some short diphthongs such as found in words like „make‟ (ei) which most Indians tend to replace by long vowels such as /me:k/. But recent studies have shown that most of such things are developmental errors and if appropriate exposure is provided, the target pronunciation shows up. At the level of words, phrases and sentence structure, there is little evidence of L1 interference. Mitchell and Myles (1998) suggest that not all the problems/errors in learning a new language can be pinned on the differences and similarities between L1 and L2.

Contrastive analysis cannot predict learning problems.

6.3 Error Analysis (EA)

It was believed that Contrastive Analysis (CA) did not predict most of the errors that L2 learners would potentially have.

Thus, Error Analysis came into place. They distinguished between systematic errors (due to lack of L2 knowledge) and mistakes (know the target feature but just made a mistake). EA was essentially a taxonomic classification of the common errors that L2 learners made and their frequency counts. The categories could be things like „grammatical gender‟, „agreement‟,

„aspect‟, „past perfect marker‟ etc. This data was collected from actual L2 learners and was not based on hypothetical assumptions. EA was designed to help teachers design educational material, decide the difficulty level of things that need to be taught, deciding how much reinforcement is needed in which topic and designing testing material for regular and remedial testing.


6.4 Speech learning model

Flege (1995) rejects the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) and proposes the Speech Learning Model (SLM) to account for how individuals learn or fail to learn to produce and perceive phonetic segments in a second language. According to the SLM, the two phonetic subsystems of the L1 and L2 reside in a common phonological space in the bilingual‟s mind. The subsystems then interact with each other via two different mechanisms: „category assimilation‟ and „category dissimilation‟. Category assimilation is when a speaker comes across a new L2 sound (which is not there in the L1), and, at first the speaker substitutes this sound with the closest sound in her existing phonological inventory. Later, when the speaker has more exposure to the L2 sound system, a new „merged‟ inventory from the L1 and L2 sounds is created. Once this merged category is created, it might be hard to separate the two original categories. On the other hand, phonetic category dissimilation causes a newly established L2 category and the nearest L1 speech category to move away from one another in the phonetic space in order to maintain a phonetic contrast in the common phonological space. Thus, phonetic interference can be bi-directional from L1 to L2 and from L2 to L1 (Flege, 1995).

Kang and Guion‟s (2006) study on early and late Korean-English bilinguals supports SLM. Kang and Guion conducted a study on segmental speech production by Korean-English bilinguals who learned English early (M=3.8 years old) or late (M=21.4 years old). The acoustic properties of voice onset time, amplitude difference between the first two harmonics, and fundamental frequency of Korean and English stops produced by these early and late bilinguals were investigated. The results of this study suggest that the early bilinguals seem to have two independent


stop systems, whereas the late bilinguals have a merged Korean- English system.

Similarly, Flege, Schirru, and Mackay (2003) conducted a study on the interaction of Italian L1 and English L2 vowels in early and late bilinguals. Early bilinguals who did not use the L1 very often produced English /eɪ/ with greater formant movement than English native speakers, whereas late bilinguals produced this vowel with less movement. This greater formant movement by early bilinguals was attributed to an effort to dissimilate the English /eɪ/ from the Italian /e/. The less formant movement in late bilinguals is considered an effort to assimilate the English /eɪ/ with the Italian /e/.

6.5 The Monitor Model Theory

The Monitor Model Theory was introduced by Stephen Krashen.

Krashen‟s theory of second language acquisition consists of five hypotheses:

1. Acquisition-Learning hypothesis: According to Krashen there are two different systems of second language performance:

'the acquired system' and 'the learned system'. Language acquisition refers to developing competence in a language by using it in natural, communicative situations as available while learning languages we hear in our homes and the neighbourhood. Language learning on the other hand refers to developing competence in a language by learning its rules and vocabulary through explicit teaching in a classroom setting.

“Language acquisition (is) a process similar, if not identical, to the way children develop ability in their first language. Language acquisition is a subconscious


process; language acquirers are not usually aware of the fact that they are acquiring language, but are only aware of the fact that they are using the language for communication… (in this process) we are generally not consciously aware of the rules of the languages we have acquired. Instead, we have a "feel" for correctness.

Grammatical sentences "sound" right, or "feel" right, and errors feel wrong, even if we do not consciously know what rule was violated. Other ways of describing acquisition include implicit learning, informal learning, and natural learning. In non-technical language, acquisition is "picking-up" a language. The second way to develop competence in a second language is by language learning. We will use the term "learning" henceforth to refer to conscious knowledge of a second language, knowing the rules, being aware of them, and being able to talk about them. In non-technical terms, learning is

"knowing about" a language, known to most people as

"grammar", or "rules". Some synonyms include formal knowledge of a language, or explicit learning.” (Krashen, 1982:10)

2. Monitor hypothesis: This hypothesis explains the relationship between learning and acquisition. According to Krashen, conscious learning is limited in L2 performance.

However, what we have acquired in our language can be monitored by a self-correcting system. The learning system performs the role of the 'monitor' or an 'editor' that acts in a planning, editing and correcting function when the L2 learner has sufficient time at her disposal and knows the rules of L2. The role of the monitor is only to correct deviations from 'normal' speech and to give speech a more


'polished' appearance. The monitor system is user-specific – over-used, under-used and optimal use.

3. Natural Order hypothesis: When someone acquires a new language, some grammatical structures are acquired earlier than others. The L1 of the speaker, age of acquisition, amount of quality of input and exposure are irrelevant for this sequence. However, based on this Krashen does not suggest a particular grammatical sequence in language teaching pedagogy.

4. Input hypothesis/Comprehensive Hypothesis: We only acquire language when we have sufficient comprehensible input in the oral or written form. L2 learners use their linguistic competence with their general world knowledge to progress the „natural order‟ when she gets L2 input that is a little more than her current linguistic competence stage.

This hypothesis is only concerned with acquisition, not learning. Krashen suggests:

“The best way, and perhaps the only way, to teach speaking, according to this view, is simply to provide comprehensible input. Early speech will come when the acquirer feels "ready"; this state of readiness arrives at somewhat different times for different people, however. Early speech, moreover, is typically not grammatically accurate. Accuracy develops over time as the acquirer hears and understands more input.” (Krashen, 1982:22)

5. Affective Filter hypothesis: Krashen claims that if we have high motivation, high self-confidence and a low level of


anxiety we will be better equipped to learn an L2. The way we generally teach language, we tend to raise the anxiety levels of learners; their affective filter is thus raised obstructing comprehensible input to become intake. Unless input gets converted into intake, no learning will take place. We must therefore make every possible effort to lower the affective filter of learners.

All second language learning passes through many phrases. It is important for us to understand the stages in order to be effective L2 teachers. The best way to help our L2 students is by providing comprehensible input in natural, communicative situations that are meaningful to children. For example, if children in your class know some words in English then

„comprehensible input‟ might mean using these words in sentences that are meaningful for them. A teacher may give instructions like – pick up the pencil, open your notebook etc., to children where the context will help the child in building meaning for words like open, pencil, notebook etc. While doing so, it is also important for us to make sure that our students are self- confident and not anxious, since this would lead to minimal learning. This also means that our focus should always be on a text, a discourse that makes sense to learners; it could be a poem, a story, a dialogue or even a picture or a sequence of pictures. Isolated words or phrases without context are not of much use.



1. Which language do you consider your second language(s)?

2. What factors are important for children to acquire their second languages?

3. What is the difference between learning and acquisition?


Flege, J. 1995. Second-language speech learning: Theory, findings, and problems. In W. Strange (Ed.), Speech perception and linguistic experience: Issues in cross-language research (pp. 229–273). Timonium, MD: York Press.

Flege, J., Schirru, C., & MacKay, I. 2003. Interaction between the native and second language phonetic subsystems. Speech Communication, 40, 467–491.

Kang, K.-H. & Guion 2006. Phonological systems in bilinguals:

Age of learning effects on the stop consonant systems of Korean- English bilinguals. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 119, 1672-1683.

Krashen, S. 1982. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Pergamon Press Inc.

Mitchell, R. and Florence M. 1998. Second language learning theories. London: Arnold.


Suggested Reading

Doughty, C. J. and Long, M. H. 2002. The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics).

Dulay, H., Burt, M. and Krashen, S. 1982. Language Two. Oxford:

Oxford University Press.




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