Table of Contents
2. Julia’s case
3. Carlo’s case
4. Comparison of both cases
4.1 L1-related differences
4.2 Universal Grammar
4.3 Universal influences
4.3.2 Context and motivation
Although the study of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) started already in the late 1960s, there is still a lot of incongruency on the subject (Ortega, 2013). Each person seems to differ in his/her respective SLA process, which makes it hard or even impossible to come to an overall truth about how SLA works. Although studies conducted in the last decades might not have led to any overall conclusion, they have verified and falsified different theories, showing that they do not hold true in every case.
From the myriad of different theories and resulting studies, a few will be discussed in connection to the SLA processes of two subjects, which are presented in this case study. In the first part of the paper, the language profiles of each of the two subjects will be analyzed, taking various theories into account and trying to come to an understanding of what have been the causes and effects of their respective language profiles. In the second part, both profiles will be compared. In the conclusion, the most important assumptions will be revised, and a final statement will be drawn.
2. Julia’s case
The first subject is Julia, an 8-year-old girl who lives in Germany. Her native language (NL) is both Japanese and German as her father addresses her in Japanese and her mother in German. This implies that she has two first languages (L1). Her parents speak English to each other, which adds another layer to her L1 as they occasionally speak in English to her as well.
This already complicates the discussion of Julia’s language profile, as it is possible to refer to English as her L1 and not completely as her second language (L2), as she has been exposed to it already in her first years of life. This would make her not a bilingual but a simultaneous multilingual person and lead to the question of whether she acquired or learned the English language. This is a highly debated topic, as Ortega (2013) clearly states that ‘in contemporary SLA terminology no’ (p. 5) clear-cut distinction between acquisition and learning can be made. It might be true that it is difficult to distinguish these two processes at times, but in this paper the distinction will be applied nevertheless as it is a crucial for the analysis of what has led to the two different proficiency levels of the subjects.
In Julia’s case, this early indirect exposition to the English language can have led to a more effortless learning or even acquisition of it. Krashen (1981, in Ellis et al., 2009) first drew on this distinction of acquisition versus learning, which got developed even further by Schmidt (1990, 1994, 2001 in Ellis et al., 2009), saying that acquisition is implicit and automatic, therefore effortlessly, whereas learning is explicit and controlled, resulting in a much higher effort. Furthermore, Ortega (2013) states that ‘the process of acquiring [a] language is essentially completed by all healthy children by [the] age four of life, in terms of most abstract syntax, and by [the] age five or six for most other “basics” of language’ (p. 4). This again would lead to the conclusion that Julia’s English language has to be addressed as being acquired and not learned. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw a clear-cut boundary in her case, as she seems to have had the opportunity to acquire the receptive skill of listening and therefore an overall understanding of the English language at home and then further develop the speaking, writing, and reading skills once she started school.
Indeed, Julia’s language profile says that she has two hours of English a day at school with a lot of communicative activities and feedback to errors she makes. Furthermore, she uses English to communicate with friends, to read books, browse the internet or watch TV. Because of this high quality and quantity of exposure to the English language she has already reached a B2 level, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe, 2001).
Another advantage Julia has regards her brain as she has been bilingual, or even multilingual to some extent, from birth on and therefore her brain works differently when it comes to languages. This makes it easier for her to figure out patterns and rules when it comes to the L2 as she can retrieve help from both of her NL. Here it must be pointed out that she might not be able to use the knowledge of her Japanese language at all when it comes to English as they are not of the same language tree. On the other hand, exactly because of this difference she might understand that languages sometimes vary and that therefore one should not just apply rules from one language to the other. This knowledge might help to prevent negative transfer.
All these factors, which are connected to the context Julia lives in, lead to a higher rate of motivation which makes her like the fact of being trilingual. This motivation can also be attributed to the fact that she seems to be confronted with mostly ‘implicit learning’, as Ellis et al. (2009) describe it. This applies also to her educational domain as her teachers seem to focus more on communication and not much on grammar, making her use the language without being aware of the process. Researchers as Williams (2005, in Ellis et al., 2009) argue that there can ‘be learning without any metalinguistic awareness’ (Ellis et al., 2009, p. 7), but again it is not clear if this applies to Julia’s case as she seems to have almost acquired and not learned the English language.
3. Carlo’s case
The second subject is Carlo, a 30-year-old man who lives in Italy and whose NL is Italian. He has been studying English for seven years but is ‘still’ on an A2 level, according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe, 2001). He encounters English once a week in a language course which lasts one hour, and outside of the classroom he tries to avoid the English language in any possible way. This probably implies that he is confronted with explicit learning only, although it is not known whether his teacher uses an implicit or explicit teaching method. Bloomfield (1933, in Grass & Selinker, 2008) calls speech ‘the practical reaction (response) to some stimulus’ (Grass & Selinker, 2008, p. 91) and although he refers this to the L1 acquisition of children, one can say that this applies to SLA as well. With this, Bloomfield would put down Carlo’s low proficiency of English to the poverty of stimulus and input of English in Carlo’s life.
Furthermore, Carlo completely lacks intrinsic motivation and his only extrinsic motivation is the promotion he would be able to apply for at his workplace if he had a tested B2 level in English. The problem is that he has failed the proficiency test already three times which seems to have demotivated him a lot. Moreover, it is highly probable that even when given the promotion, he might not have to use the English language at the workplace, making this more of a formality than a necessity. This could be the case as the language policy in Italy has just started to change to a more English-centric perspective and therefore English is still perceived as a ‘foreign language’. Carlo therefore might perceive English as useless as it does not fulfil any communicative role in his social environment. With this, even the extrinsic motivation is probably not strong enough for him to really be motivated.
4. Comparison of both cases
4.1 L1-related differences
To start off the comparison of the two profiles, the differences between the NL of the two subjects could be analyzed. It could be argued that German has more similarities to English than Italian does, making it harder for Carlo than for Julia to learn the English language. On the other hand, as both languages are from the Indo-European language tree, it can be stated that positive as well as negative transfer can happen in both cases. As already argued, Julia could encounter further problems as she might transfer information from Japanese to English, resulting in wrong usage of the target language. This train of thoughts would follow the notion of the Contrastive Analysis Theory, for which ‘the major source of error in the production and/or reception of a second language is the native language’ (Grass & Selinker, 2008, p. 96). However, this theory got challenged already in the 1960s by several studies (Dušková, 1984, in Grass & Selinker, 2008; Kellerman, 1987, in Grass & Selinker, 2008; Lado, 1957, in Grass & Selinker, 2008); therefore, the L1 will not be further considered as the main trigger for complications in SLA.
Still, the importance of the L1 has to be taken into account to some extent, as monolingualism and bilingualism have different consequences. Carlo, having been raised monolingually, might not have knowledge about language learning strategies as his brain functions differently to that of bilingual people, as already described in chapter 2.