Similarities and Common Denominators in Second Language Acquisition Approaches

A Theory of many Theories?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

27 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1 Introduction

2 A History of Second Language Acquisition
2.1 Nineteenth Century Reforms and the Natural Approach
2.2 Behaviorism
2.3 Error Analysis
2.4 Morpheme Studies and Krashen's Monitor Model
2.5 Nativism
2.5.1 Linguistic Nativism: Universal Grammar
2.5.2 Parameter Setting in Universal Grammar
2.6 Connectionist Approaches: The Competition Model

3 Similarities and Common Denominators in SLA Theories

4 Conclusion



1 Introduction

The academic discipline of second language acquisition is a relatively young and broad area of research that tries to answer the question of how humans learn languages in addition to their mother tongue. It focuses on learning and the properties of learners rather than on teaching and teaching styles.1 Second language acquisition, or short SLA, comprises approaches from teachers, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and computer scientists.2 Because of the broadness of the topic, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between theories of language learning and the effects these theories have on teaching methods, although this is not entirely possible since language learning and teaching are closely connected. Due to its interdisciplinary nature and its transformational character, it is difficult to define an exact starting date and a common terminology for all the different theories and key terms in second language acquisition.3 Until today, there is no unified theory that fully explains language acquisition, even if some attempts of writing comprehensible theories have been made. In fact, trying to write a concise history about the growth of the research field may be a futile task, and perhaps it would be more fruitful to explain all the different strings in form of a glossary than in a chronological narration. Nevertheless, not all developments in the field have happened simultaneously, therefore this research paper will make an attempt to outline some of the most influential learning theories. Due to the limitations of this exercise, some theories will be significantly shortened, and a number of theories will need to be dropped completely, such as socio- cultural, functional, and some interactionist approaches.

The aim of the paper is to help the reader to better understand recent developments, find out if and to which extent theories have influenced each other, and to disclose similarities that go beyond the respective disciplinary boundaries. Finally, the paper dares to ask the normative question of “How much more do we know today about how languages are learned than we did over fifty or one hundred years ago?”

Referring to Bill VanPatten and Alessandro Benati contemporary research of SLA is rooted in two seminal publications, namely Stephen Pit Corder's essay The Significance of Learners' Errors from 1967 and Larry Selinker's 1972 article Interlanguage.4 In his essay, Corder claims that language instruction would not move forward until researchers understand the preconditions, which enable or disable learners to acquire a second language. He suggests that L2 learners5, just like children, are equipped with an 'internal syllabus' that does not necessarily match the syllabus of teachers. Moreover, he distinguishes between language input made available from the environment and intake as something that is acquired making its way into the learner's developing competence - a distinction that becomes immensely influential in the 1980s.

The second publication, which can be seen as a point of origin for SLA, is Larry Selinker's article Interlanguage.6 Similar to Corder's internal syllabus, Selinker proposes that learners of a second language possess an internal linguistic system, which functions independently of the native language and the target language. According to him, interlanguage is neither L1 nor an imperfect version of L2 but a language of its own, always in-between L1 and L2.7 Following these two publications, it can be said that SLA, in contrast to other fields, has mainly been concerned with how learners come to internalize the linguistic system of another language.8

2 A History of Second Language Acquisition

2.1 Nineteenth Century Reforms and the Natural Approach

Following the Reform Movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, having turned away from traditional teaching methods such as grammar-translation, a completely new teaching method arises called the direct method, or natural approach.9 In contrast to many examples of educational change, Anthony Howatt argues the Reform Movement begins all of a sudden in 1882 with the publishing of the pamphlet Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren! (Language teaching must start afresh!) by neophilologist Wilhelm Viëtor.10 Viëtor criticizes the methods of language teaching in Germany at the time and calls for an overall reduction of workload, a reduction of grammar-translation exercises, inclusion of phonetics, and, most importantly, demands foreign language classes should be taught in the target-language:

If we can bring our students to think and express themselves in the foreign language in addition to their mother tongue, we shall have accomplished what we set out to do. Translation into the foreign language is an art which is inappropriate for the school classroom. Gradually, the teacher will have to develop a freer approach to the handling of texts in the class, but he should never lose sight of the two basic aims: comprehension and text reproduction. Needless to say, the latter will become increasingly free and spontaneous as the pupils' powers of thought and expression expand. Where then is the grammar? It grows naturally out of the reading texts themselves.11

As this passage shows, Viëtor holds very modern ideas on how language learning works, yet he does not draft out a theory on how exactly the acquisition process should come about. Instead, he criticizes that nineteenth century school timetables reserve too much time for learning activities and too little time for equally important activities. According to him, these factors could considerably affect the learning process, therefore, students should not be required to do any preparatory homework: “Sport, relaxation, physical education: running and jumping, gymnastics and fencing, walking and games - they are still begging in vain for their rightful place, in spite of Hasse, Koch, and Hartwich.”12 More information on how affective aspects can influence language acquisition will be provided in chapter 2.4 in relation to Stephen Krashen's theories.

Besides Viëtor, the philologist Henry Sweet and the linguist Otto Jespersen emphasize the role of the spoken language and the naturalness of language learning by insisting on using the second language as working language in the classroom.13

2.2 Behaviorism

At the turn of the century, the direct method is established in France and Germany.

Thereupon, language teaching reaches a heightened interest in the United States of America around 1940. According to David Block, who is referring to Dick Allwright (1988), this new interest is brought about by the need for effective language skills for communication with allies in and after World War II, as well as for intelligence and counterintelligence work against enemies. As a result, the US government requests the service of linguists to develop specialized language courses, who in turn make use of structural linguistics, and one of the prevailing theories of learning at the time: behaviorism.14

Behaviorism becomes and remains influential until the late 1960s because it makes it seemingly possible to explain learning behavior of humans and animals without referencing to thinking or mental processes.15 Its early form stems from work in psychology by John Watson (1924), Edward Thorndike (1932) and the linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1933).16

After behaviorism has been particularly applied to language learning in the 1940s and 1950s, it is influenced in 1957 by psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who believes that behavior, including language, is learned through repetition, positive, or negative reinforcement.17 Behaviorism, or behavioral psychology, is based on the belief that behaviors can be measured, trained, and adapted without considering internal mental processes. In other words, language learning is seen as the formation of particular habits based on notions of stimulus and response.

Humans are exposed to numerous stimuli in their environment, that, according to behaviorists, shape our behaviors. Applied to language learning, the environment, or more precisely, the language input can be manipulated in such a way that responses are triggered that are desirable for communication purposes. If successful, the outcome will be reinforced.18 Through repeated reinforcement the same response will be elicited and eventually become a habit.19 Therefore, according to the theory, the environment is the most important - if not the only - factor in learning.20

In general, real-life situations usually call for a particular response. Meeting someone, for example, will call for some kind of greeting. If the greeting is understood and returned by the other person, the particular utterance used will be reinforced, and, if used repeatedly, eventually turn into a habit. If, however, communication breaks down, the particular response will not be reinforced and the learner will abandon it in favor of a response that is hoped to be successful.21

When learning a first language, the process is supposedly simple because a set of new habits is all that has to be learned as children begin to respond to stimuli in their environment. When learning a second language, however, problems arise: second-language learners already have a set of well-established responses in their mother tongue. The process therefore involves replacing those habits by a set of new habits. Yet, the old first-language habits may interfere with this process, either helping or inhibiting it. If structures in the second language are similar to those of the first, then learning will take place easily. If, however, structures are realized differently in the first than in the second language, then learning will be difficult.22 This assumption of interference between first and second language is described by the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis and is often linked to behaviorism. As a result of the behaviorist theory and a heightened interest in 'effective' language classes Nelson Brooks and Robert Lado develop a teaching technique in the 1960s that relies on audiolingual materials and pattern drills.23 Thus, students are supposed to acquire second language habits, learn dialogues by heart and practice sentence patterns, mimicry and memorization.24 During the 1970s, however, the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis falls out of favor as research begins to show that many errors of L2-learners are not a result of transfer.25 These errors are very similar to those of children who are just learning their mother tongue.26 This is exactly the starting point for Stephen Pit Corder's method of error analysis.

2.3 Error Analysis

In his 1967 essay The Significance of Learners' Errors Stephen Pit Corder claims that language instruction needs to take into consideration the preconditions which enable or disable learners in learning a second language.27 Therefore, he suggests a set of procedures for identifying, describing, and explaining L2 learners' errors.28 As it turns out not all errors that learners make can be attributed to L1 influence. Instead, error analysis demonstrates that learners are active creators of linguistic systems.29 Most importantly, Corder is among the first to distinguish between language input and intake.30 While input could come from anything in the environment of learners, it does not necessarily mean it would find its way into learners' L2 competence. Intake, however, describes language information that makes its way into the learner's developing competence.

In the 1970s, error analysis is taken up by scholars such as Marina Burt, Heidi Dulay, Elaine Tarone, Jack Richards, and Jacquelyn Schachter. However, as theories from linguistics, psychology, and other disciplines appear, it ceases to be a central research domain.31 Corder's distinction between input and intake still exists today, and among others has influenced Steven Krashen's Monitor Model, a set of hypotheses, which has become greatly influential in the 1980s.32 Krashen, too, is concerned with making a distinction between conscious learning and unconscious acquisition and argues that these two processes are autonomous and unrelated.33

2.4 Morpheme Studies and Krashen's Monitor Model

The 1970s witness an array of studies looking for developments in second language acquisition, which appear to be systematic and at the same time independent of a learner's first language.34 The so called second language morpheme studies are inspired by first language acquisition work of the social psychologist Roger Brown (1973) and attempt to investigate possible similarities in the acquisition order of the same grammatical morphemes that have been discovered in first language acquisition. In his longitudinal study Brown finds out that students of English as a first language learn 14 grammatical morphemes in a consistent order. These findings are confirmed by other researchers such as De Villiers and De Vielliers (1973). When Burt and Dulay (1973) explore the acquisition order of Spanish-speaking children acquiring English as a second language, their cross-sectional study reveals that eight of Brown's morphemes are produced in learning the second language as well.35 In 1982, Burt and Dulay eventually reach the conclusion that “children of different language backgrounds learning English in a variety of host country environments acquire eleven grammatical morphemes in a similar order”.36

Although the morpheme acquisition studies receive criticism for the fact that their elicitation technique biases the results of their early studies, the basic argument that both child and adult learners of English as a second language develop a number of morphemes in a set order survives.37 Table 1 shows the 14 morphemes isolated by Brown in the acquisition order demonstrated by the three subjects in his longitudinal study.


1 Bill VanPatten and Alessandro G. Benati. Key Terms in Second Language Acquisition, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010, 1.

2 ibid.

3 Second language acquisition is transformational in so far, as sometimes teaching methods are developed under certain assumptions of how languages are learned in one time period, and are later adapted to fit modern learning theories. One example could be the Natural Approach or the Direct Method, which was developed in the late nineteenth century and adjusted to exemplify similar claims in the 1980s.

4 VanPatten and Benati, 2.

5 L1 and L2 are short forms for first and second-language learners.

6 Larry Selinker,

7 VanPatten and Benati, 2-3.

8 VanPatten and Benati, 1.

9 Vivian Cook. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Hodder Education, 2008, 3-4.

10 Anthony P.R. Howatt. A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, 170.

11 Wilhelm Viëtor, Language teaching must start afresh! A Translation of Viëtor's “Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren!” Second Edition, 1886 in: Howatt, Anthony P.R., A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, 361.

12 Wilhelm Viëtor in: Howatt, Anthony P.R., 361.

13 Howatt, 170-173.

14 David Block. The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh University Press, 2003, 12-13.

15 VanPatten and Benati, 68.

16 Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles. Second Language Learning Theories. London: Hodder Education, 2004, 30.

17 VanPatten and Benati, 68.

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 Bill VanPatten, Jessica Williams. Eds, Theories in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, New Jersey, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007, 19.

21 Mitchell, 31.

22 Mitchell, 30.

23 Patsy M. Lightbown, Nina Spada. How Languages are Learned. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 34.

24 VanPatten and Benati, 68.

25 VanPatten and Benati, 77.

26 ibid.

27 VanPatten and Benati, 2.

28 VanPatten and Benati, 82.

29 ibid.

30 ibid.

31 ibid.

32 Stephen Krashen. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.

33 VanPatten and Benati, 47.

34 Mitchell, 43.

35 Mitchell, 39-40.

36 Heidi Dulay, Marina Burt and Stephen Krashen. Language Two. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 207-209.

37 Mitchell, 40-43.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Similarities and Common Denominators in Second Language Acquisition Approaches
A Theory of many Theories?
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
HS Second Language Acquisition
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ISBN (Book)
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similarities, common, denominators, second, language, acquisition, approaches, theory, theories
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Bert Bobock (Author), 2012, Similarities and Common Denominators in Second Language Acquisition Approaches, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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