The role of universal grammar in second language acquisition

Seminar Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1 Universal Grammar
2.2 Interlanguage Grammar
2.3 Competence and Performance

3. Poverty-of-the-Stimulus Argument (Logical Problem of Language Acquisition)
3.1 Deficient Input

4. Differences between L1 and L2 acquisition
4.1 Success and Fossilization
4.2 Critical Period Hypothesis (Age)

5. Role of the L1 (transfer) and Access to UG in SLA
5.1 Mother-tongue-grammar (Full transfer/No access)
5.2 UG-is-dead hypothesis (Partial transfer/No access)
5.3 Combination of complete L1 and parts of UG (Full transfer/partial access)
5.4 Parts of L1 combined with complete UG (Partial transfer/Full access)
5.5 Complete L1 arranged with complete UG (Full transfer/Full access)
5.6 Pure UG hypothesis (No transfer/Full access)
5.7 Parts of L1, Parts of UG and general learning strategies (Partial transfer/Partial access)

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

All students in the seminar “Language Acquisition” (SS 07) are obligated to write a term paper about an issue which fits into the course subject matter. In this case, the topic “The Role of Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition” was chosen. The seminar deals with both, first and second language acquisition. The main focus lies on German and English. However, the course is not supposed to deal with a contrastive view but rather a descriptive way of analyzing language acquisition in general and with a specific concentration on English. The following term paper, primarily, deals with second language acquisition and the Role of Universal Grammar (UG) in the course of the on-going acquisition process. The UG approach is an issue which is often discussed within the linguistic science and the opinions about it are highly diverged. Not only in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), but also in First Language Acquisition the Universal Grammar approach is often seen as not verified, or on the other hand, as opposed to, it is viewed as the only solution to the mysterious question of language acquisition. This term paper defines the essential different sights of UG and its role in the process of SLA. The main question of the paper is:” Does UG plays a role in SLA and if so, what kind of role?” Another issue is whether only UG influences SLA or the first language governs acquisition of a second language. Some researchers even state that there is no UG in language acquisition and others say that UG is ‘dead’ in SLA. There are a bunch of opinions on this topic and all of them show evidence, more or less persuasive. It is not possible to explain all the different aspects of research and all the data and experiments concerning UG and SLA in this term paper. Nevertheless, this paper describes some of the essential views on how UG plays a role in SLA and additionally what kind of influence first language (L1) can possibly have on the process of SLA. Considering L1, UG and L2 is necessary because L1 acquisition is definitely different from SLA. Bilingual aspects are not considered in this context. To describe and define the most important expressions, the paper starts with definitions, before the so-called Logical Problem of Language Acquisition and the differences between L1 and L2 acquisition are portrayed. The main part is about the Role of L1 (transfer) and the access to UG in SLA. To conclude, the main ideas are summarized and discussed, so that the reader will be able to pick the different opinions to formulate his own attitude towards the role of UG in general and, especially, in SLA.

2. Definitions

To understand the whole context of this term paper, it is necessary to define the most important phrases. At first, the essential significance of Universal Grammar (UG) is explained, followed by a definition of Interlanguage Grammar (ILG). The third and last aspect in this chapter is the difference between Competence and Performance in language acquisition.

2.1 Universal Grammar

The wide-ranging process of studying language acquisition has brought up a lot of different research methods, approaches, experiments, ideas, opinions and expressions. The term Universal Grammar (UG) is considered as one of the most discussed about and controversial issue. UG is often associated with Noam Chomsky, a famous American linguist and philosopher. He claims “that language is governed by a set of highly abstract principles that provide parameters which are given particular settings in different languages.”[1] The theory of UG states that all languages are based on the same principles and therefore are connected with each other. The principle-and-parameter explanation means that the principles are the basis for all languages and parameters are triggered differently from language to language. Moreover, universal language principles are declared to be innate, which means they are supposed to be specific to human beings and built up in the human mind. The course of language acquisition is, consequently, exceedingly influenced by a “biologically endowed innate language faculty[2] (a.k.a. Language Acquisition Device; LAD) which is, in combination with language input, the basis for general language acquisition. The UG-theory is also often called the “innateness hypothesis”[3] which, additionally, indicates that language acquisition is completely dissimilar to other kinds of learning or acquisition (e.g. learning to play a game, or learning mathematics). As already stated, UG is highly diverged and controversial. Oppositional theories often point toward the fact that UG is not able to explain all phenomena of language acquisition, such as the different kind of success between L1 and L2 learners (explained in Ch. 4).

Conversely, UG has never been meant to explain all aspects of language and its acquisition. It is supposed to give explanation about how principal features can be acquired even without specific teaching or learning mechanisms. These principal features are often described as core grammar and the supplementary characteristics as peripheral. The core grammar (principles and parameters) is distinguished as already present in the human brain and the parts of the periphery (values of the parameters) can be learned, acquired or triggered by the language input.[4] The different grammars (Interlanguages) in the route of language acquisition and the essential difference between Competence and Performance are classified in the following paragraphs.


[1] Ellis, R. (1997). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 65

[2] Radford, A. (1997). Syntax. A minimalist Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 8

[3] ibid, p. 8

[4] Cf. Cook, V. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Houndsmill: Macmillan, p. 201

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The role of universal grammar in second language acquisition
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Fachbereich für Geistes- und Erziehungswissenschaft, Englisches Seminar)
Language Acquisition
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ISBN (eBook)
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418 KB
Language, Acquisition
Quote paper
Henner Kaatz (Author), 2007, The role of universal grammar in second language acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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