The contribution of Universal Grammar to second language acquisition - Which role is UG likely to play in SLA?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Which Role is UG likely to play in SLA?

First language acquisition and Universal Grammar

Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar
Impairment of the L2 representation
Is UG accessible in second language acquisition?
Basic alternatives of UG accessibility
Full access theories
Partial and indirect access theories
No access theories

Problems with the studies



The Contribution of Universal Grammar to Second Language Acquisition

Which Role is UG likely to play in SLA?

If we take for granted that children acquire their first language with the help of an innate language acquisition device containing Universal Grammar, is it likely that the acquisition of a second language works in the same way? Is Universal Grammar still the driving force or did the prerequisites for the acquisition change in a way that learners need to consult other means and resources, like only their general cognitive abilities and learning strategies?

There are many points in which first and second language acquisition differ. The most striking difference is that in the case of second language acquisition the learner has already successfully acquired one language. This knowledge is likely to influence the process of acquiring a second language, for example, being taken as a further resource available. Another point is the age of language acquirers. In contrast to the first language, which is acquired in early childhood, further languages can be learned at any age. The fact that many second language learners are not children, but adults or youths leads to differences in the prerequisites for first and second language learners, which probably influence the acquisition processes. Willis Edmondson points out that “language development is intimately tied up with our cognitive development” and that “once this cognitive development has been achieved, then it is not possible to go through the same language learning steps once more, because cognitive and conceptual structures already exist (Edmondson, p. 127). The age of second language learners leads to further differences in the acquisition process. If we assume that there is a critical period in language acquisition, a view we can find much evidence for, this “window of opportunity” is likely to be closed, at least for adult learners (Smith, p. 120ff). Do they have to manage without the “help”, of Universal Grammar, that children seem to have acquiring languages? There are also differences like the environments languages are learned in, influencing the kind of input that is available to a learner and the feedback he or she will get, but also the speed of language acquisition, the ultimate attainment that will be achieved and further more (Edmondson, p. 35).

It is these differences that made linguists doubt that first and second language acquisition are entirely the same process.

This paper is concerned with the question whether Universal Grammar is still available for second language learners and whether the mental grammar of L2 learners shows signs of impairment. After a short introduction to the concept of Universal Grammar in first language acquisition, it will turn to Universal Grammar in second language acquisition. In this context it will be considered whether the interlanguage grammar might be impaired and whether UG is probable to influence second language acquisition. Several theories of second language acquisition will be presented in advance to the discussion whether learners are likely to have full access, partial access or no access to Universal Grammar. Before being concluded it will take a short look at the problems that arise in second language research.

First language acquisition and Universal Grammar

Children learn their native language in an impressingly short period of time and manage to construct a complete grammar of their language just on the basis of what they hear. This knowledge is very abstract and unconscious and in the end, after going through a series of acquisition steps all children seem to arrive at a similar mental representation of their language. This led to the assumption that there might be some language acquisition device in the human mind to account for the speed and systematicity of language acquisition.

In his ‘Government and Binding’ theory Chomsky proposes that there are principles underlying all human languages and parameters, which can have two or more different values. It is this variation in possible composition of principles that makes a language unique. Every child is born with this Universal Grammar and acquiring a language means to ‘fill’ the principles, to turn the switches on or off (Chomsky, 1987, p. 68 in Mitchell & Myles, p. 53). As certain set parameters are supposed to “trigger” other parameter settings and all principles will induce their parameters to be set, this concept may well account for the astonishing speed of first language acquisition and explains why, despite the rather random and defective input the child is exposed to, a full grammar is established by every single child. It also prevents the occurrence of any ‘wild grammars’ which cannot be found in native speakers grammars.

According to the “Minimalist programme”, which emerged out of the original theory (Chomsky, 1995), the parameters are not linked to specific principles in a mental grammar, but rather stored in the mental lexicon as different realizations of functional categories. By this learning a language means learning the lexicon of that language, as different languages have different parameter settings of their functional categories (Mitchell & Myles, p. 54).

There is not one unique Universal Grammar theory, but it is still developing and the views linguists have on how it is exactly constructed differ.

This theory can account for the speed of language acquisition. It helps to understand why all children seem to pass through similar acquisition stages and it can also explain why the world’s languages have so many characteristics, principles, in common. But still this view is not commonly accepted among linguists. Some researchers point out that although humans may have inborn ‘help’ in learning a language this does not necessarily have to be language specific (Edmondson, p. 28). Children could acquire their language just on the basis of their general cognitive abilities, which are as unique to humans as language is. Other researchers argue that the concept of principles and parameters might be acceptable to explain the mental representation of a language but that this structural approach is too selective in what aspects of language it focuses on, neglecting for example processing factors (Skehan, p. 86f). Though nativism and the theory of a Universal Grammar is widely accepted and supported by linguists, alternative approaches and theories remain and emerge. The notion of Universal Grammar is not uncontroversial, but this paper is, evidently, based on the assumption that Universal Grammar is the driving force behind first language acquisition.

In contrast to children learning their native language, adults acquiring a second language rarely gain native-like proficiency. Moreover, their grammars seem to stop their developments in the acquisition process leading to ‘fossilization’. By this, second language learners end up with an ultimate attainment of varying degrees and not necessarily a full grammar. In grammaticality judgement tests, second language learners usually perform above chance level, but do not reach native speaker results (Li, p. 91). For an example it seems that second language learners, even if attained end-state grammas, often use the morphosyntax of the target language differently from native speakers (Liszka, p. 212) and in some cases show variable use of inflectional morphology (Prévost and White, p.103).

Does this mean that the underlying grammatical representations of first and second language learners differ? If they do, is this phenomenon due to a difference in the acquisition process? Is Universal Grammar involved in the same way it is in first language acquisition or is it no longer available?

Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar

Although Universal Grammar is not originally concerned with language acquisition (Mitchell & Myles, p. 69), but rather a theory of competence, researches became interested in how the idea of Universal Grammar could apply to second language acquisition in the 1980’s (Cook & Newson, p. 124).


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The contribution of Universal Grammar to second language acquisition - Which role is UG likely to play in SLA?
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Research in Language Acquisition
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Universal, Grammar, Which, Research, Language, Acquisition
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Lena Linden (Author), 2006, The contribution of Universal Grammar to second language acquisition - Which role is UG likely to play in SLA?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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