A Discussion of Language Acquisition Theories

A Discussion of Language Acquisition Theories

by Vedat Kiymazarslan, 2002I. INTRODUCTION

A great many theories regarding language development in human beings have been proposed in the past and still being proposed in the present time. Such theories have generally arisen out of major disciplines such as psychology and linguistics. Psychological and linguistic thinking have profoundly influenced one another and the outcome of language acquisition theories alike. This article aims to discuss language acquisition theories and assess their implications for applied linguistics and for a possible theory of foreign/second language teaching.

Language acquisition theories have basically centered around “nurture” and “nature” distinction or on “empiricism” and “nativism”. The doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from experience, ultimately from our interaction with the environment through our reasoning or senses. Empiricism, in this sense, can be contrasted to nativism, which holds that at least some knowledge is not acquired through interaction with the environment, but is genetically transmitted and innate. To put it another way, some theoreticians have based their theories on environmental factors while others believed that it is the innate factors that determine the acquisition of language. It is, however, important to note that neither nurturists (environmentalists) disagree thoroughly with the nativist ideas nor do nativists with the nurturist ideas. Only the weight they lay on the environmental and innate factors is relatively little or more. Before sifting through language acquisition theories here, therefore, making a distinction between these two types of perspectives will be beneficial for a better understanding of various language acquisition theories and their implications for the field of applied linguistics. In the following paragraphs, the two claims posed by the proponents of the two separate doctrines will be explained and the reason why such a distinction has been made in this article will be clarified.

Environmentalist theories of language acquisition hold that an organism’s nurture, or experience, are of more significance to development than its nature or inborn contributions. Yet they do not completely reject the innate factors. Behaviorist and neo-behaviorist stimulus-response learning theories (S-R for simplicity) are the best known examples. Even though such theories have lost their effect partially because of Chomsky’s intelligent review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1959), their effect has not been so little when we consider the present cognitive approach as an offshoot of behaviorism.The nativist theories, on the other hand, assert that much of the capacity for language learning in human is ‘innate’. It is part of the genetic makeup of human species and is nearly independent of any particular experience which may occur after birth. Thus, the nativists claim that language acquisition is innately determined and that we are born with a built-in device which predisposes us to acquire language. This mechanism predisposes us to a systematic perception of language around us. Eric Lenneberg (cited in Brown, 1987:19), in his attempt to explain language development in the child, assumed that language is a species – specific behavior and it is ‘biologically determined’. Another important point as regards the innatist account is that nativists do not deny the importance of environmental stimuli, but they say language acquisition cannot be accounted for on the basis of environmental factors only. There must be some innate guide to achieve this end. In Table 1 below, a classification around the nurture/nature distinction has been made.
The particular reason why such a distinction between environmentalist and nativist theories has been made in this study is to create a clear-cut picture of the current status of language acquisition theories, present and former studies in the field of language acquisition and language teaching methodology. In the following part, the most important ones of language acquisition theories resulting f rom the two opposing views mentioned above will be discussed.


In this part of the article, eight different views of language acquisition will be discussed. Most of the theories may be considered in both L1 (mother tongue) and L2 (second or foreign language) acquisition even though certain theories to be discussed here have been resulted from second language acquisition (SLA) studies. It is important to note once again that language acquisition theories have been influenced especially by linguistic and psychological schools of thought. Thus they have given relatively changing weights on different factors in approaching the acquisition process as can be seen in the following subsections.

2.1 Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky was a psychologist but his studies on conscious human behavior led him to investigate the role that language plays in human behavior. Vygotsky’s point of view is simply that social interaction plays an important role in the learning process. He places an emphasis on the role of “shared language” in the development of thought and language. The term “shared language” refers to social interaction and can be best elucidated through the notion of “zone of proximal development”.

According to Vygotsky (1962:10), two developmental levels determine the learning process: egocentricity and interaction. We can look at what children do on their own and what they can do while working with others. They mostly choose to remain silent or speak less on their own (less egocentric speech) when they are alone. However, they prefer to speak to other children when they play games with them (more egocentric speech). The difference between these two types of development forms has been called “Zone of Proximal Development”. This zone refers to the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in cooperation with more capable friends of the child. The first thing that children do is to develop concepts by talking to adults and then solve the problems they face on their own. In other words, children first need to be exposed to social interaction that will eventually enable them build their inner resources. 

As for the drawbacks of the views proposed by Vygotsky, it is not clear what Vygotsky meant by inner resources. Also, his emphasis on the significance of egocentric speech in the development of thought and language is worth discussing. He suggests that egocentric speech is social and helps children interact with others. When a child is alone he uses less egocentric language than he uses it when playing games with other children. This implies that speech is influenced by the presence of other people. It seems that Vygotsky overemphasizes the function of egocentric speech in the development of language. It is true that society and other people are important factors helping children to acquire language. However, Vygotsky fails to account for the role of the self itself in this process, even though he stresses the importance of egocentric speech, which is not the self actually, and see the relative role of inner linguistic and psycholinguistic mechanisms that promote language acquisition.

In conclusion, Vygotsky contends that language is the key to all development and words play a central part not only in the development of thought but in the growth of cognition as a whole. Within this framework, child language development, thus acquisition, can be viewed as the result of social interaction.

2.2. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior

Behavioristic view of language acquisition simply claims that language development is the result of a set of habits. This view has normally been influenced by the general theory of learning described by the psychologist John B. Watson in 1923, and termed behaviorism. Behaviorism denies nativist accounts of innate knowledge as they are viewed as inherently irrational and thus unscientific. Knowledge is the product of interaction with the environment through stimulus-response conditioning.

Broadly speaking, stimulus (ST) – response (RE) learning works as follows. An event in the environment (the unconditioned stimulus, or UST) brings out an unconditioned response (URE) from an organism capable of learning. That response is then followed by another event appealing to the organism. That is, the organism’s response is positively reinforced (PRE). If the sequence UST –> URE –> PRE recurs a sufficient number of times, the organism will learn how to associate its response to the stimulus with the reinforcement (CST). This will consequently cause the organism to give the same response when it confronts with the same stimulus. In this way, the response becomes a conditioned response (CRE). 

The most risky part of the behavioristic view is perhaps the idea that all leaning, whether verbal (language) or non-verbal (general learning) takes place by means of the same underlying process, that is via forming habits. In 1957, the psychologist B.F. Skinner produced a behaviorist account of language acquisition in which linguistic utterances served as CST and CRE.

When language acquisition is taken into consideration, the theory claims that both L1 and L2 acquirers receive linguistic input from speakers in their environment, and positive reinforcement for their correct repetitions and imitations. As mentioned above, when language learners’ responses are reinforced positively, they acquire the language relatively easily.

These claims are strictly criticized in Chomsky’s “A Review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior”. Chomsky (1959) asserts that there is “neither empirical evidence nor any known argument to support any specific claim about the relative importance of feedback from the environment”. Therefore, it would be unwise to claim that the sequence UST –> URE –> PRE and imitation can account for the process of language acquisition. What is more, the theory overlooks the speaker (internal) factors in this process.

The behaviorists see errors as first language habits interfering with the acquisition of second language habits. If there are similarities between the two languages, the language learners will acquire the target structures easily. If there are differences, acquisition will be more difficult. This approach is known as the contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH). According to the hypothesis, the differences between languages can be used to reveal and predict all errors and the data obtained can be used in foreign/second language teaching for promoting a better acquisition environment. Lightbown and Spada (1993: 25) note that: 

“… there is little doubt that a learner’s first language influences the acquisition of second language. [But] … the influence is not simply a matter of habits, but rather a systematic attempt by the learner to use knowledge already acquired in learning a new language.”

This is another way of saying that mother tongue interference cannot entirely explain the difficulties that an L2 learner may face. It is true that there might be some influences resulting from L1, but research (Ellis, 1985:29) has shown that not all errors predicted by CAH are actually made. For example, Turkish learners of English simply use utterances just as “No understand” even though the corresponding structure of Turkish (“Anlamiyorum” literally, “UNDERSTAND-NO-ME”) is thoroughly different.

In brief, Skinner’s view of language acquisition is a popular example of the nurturist ideas. Behaviorism, as known by most of us, was passively accepted by the influential Bloomfieldian structuralist school of linguistics and produced some well-know applications in the field of foreign/second language teaching – for instance, the Audiolingual Method or the Army Method. The theory sees the language learner as a tabula rasa with no built-in knowledge. The theory and the resulting teaching methods failed due to the fact that imitation and simple S-R connections only cannot explain acquisition and provide a sound basis for language teaching methodology.

2.3. Piaget’s View of Language Acquisition

Even though Piaget was a biologist and a psychologist, his ideas have been influential in the field of first and second language acquisition studies. In fact he studied the overall behavioral development in the human infant. But his theory of development in children has striking implications as regards language acquisition.

Ellidokuzoglu (1999:16) notes that “many scientists, especially the psychologists are hesitant to attribute a domain-specific built-in linguistic knowledge to the human infant.” Accordingly, they view the human brain as a homogeneous computational system that examines different types of data via general information processing principles. Piaget was one of those psychologists who view language acquisition as a case of general human learning. He has not suggested, however, that the development is not innate, but only that there is no specific language module. Piaget’s view was then that the development (i.e., language acquisition) results mainly from external factors or social interactions. Piaget (cited in Brown, 1987:47, Eyseneck, 1990:51) outlined the course of intellectual development as follows:

– The sensorimotor stage from ages 0 to 2 (understanding the environment)
– The preoperational stage from ages 2 to 7 (understanding the symbols)
– The concrete operational stage from ages 7 to 11 (mental tasks and language use)
– The formal operational stage from the age 11 onwards (dealing with abstraction)

Piaget observes, for instance, that the pre-linguistic stage (birth to one year) is a determining period in the development of sensory-motor intelligence, when children are forming a sense of their physical identity in relation to the environment. Piaget, unlike Vygotsky, believes that egocentric speech on its own serves no function in language development.

2.4. Cognitive Theory: The Language Acquisition View

Cognitive theory is based on the work of psychologists. Piaget’s work, which dwells on the idea that students can learn things when they are developmentally ready to do so since learning follows development, can be regarded as a starting point of the cognitivist ideas. Cognitive psychologists emphasized the importance of meaning, knowing and understanding. According to them, ‘meaning’ plays an important role in human learning. ‘Learning’ is a meaningful process of “relating new events or items to already existing cognitive concepts.” (Brown, H.D. 1987:47); and it is thought to involve internal representations that guide performance. In the case of language acquisition, these representations are based on language system and involve procedures for selecting appropriate vocabulary, grammatical rules, and pragmatic conventions governing language use.

David Ausubel (cited in Brown, 1987:80), who criticized the popular Audiolingual method for its theory based on reinforcement and conditioning, stated that adults learning a second language could profit from certain grammatical explanations. Whether adults do really profit from such explanations depends on (1) the suitability and efficiency of the explanation, (2) the teacher, (3) the context, and (4) other pedagogical variables. Though children do not use deductive presentations of grammar and they do not have superior cognitive capacities, they acquire their mother tongue quite successfully. 

Cognitive psychologists see second language acquisition, on the other hand, as the “building up of knowledge systems that can eventually be called automatically for speaking and understanding” (Lightbown and Spada, 1993:25). Language learning, in this sense, has some Gestalt characteristics in that language learning is a wholistic process and not analysable as stimulus-response associations. Language learners pay attention to any aspect of the language that they are attempting to understand and produce. Then, step by step, they become able to use certain parts of their knowledge through experience and practice.

In short, the cognitivists claim that language acquisition can be automatically attained. However it is not clear how it will be automatized. And what L1 structures can be automatized through practice in L2 and what structures can be transferred to L2 are not clearly accounted for.
2.5. The Discourse Theory

The Discourse Theory has resulted from a theory of language use. The theory emphasizes that language development should be viewed within the framework of how the learner discover the meaning capacity of language by taking part in communication. Del Hymes’ description of communicative competence (Brown, 1987: 200, 201; Ellis, 1986:259), for instance, reflects the principles of the Discourse Theory. Communicative competence includes knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary, knowledge of rules of speaking, knowledge of how to use and respond to different types of speech acts and social conventions, and knowledge of how to use language appropriately.

It is believed, according to discourse theorists, that language acquisition will successfully take place when language learners “know” how and when to use the language in various settings and when they have successfully “cognized” various forms of competence such as grammatical competence (lexis, morphology, syntax and phonology) and pragmatic competence (e.g., speech acts). A language learner needs to “know” conversational strategies to acquire the language. Halliday (cited in Ellis, 1985: 259), for example, conducted a study on his own son’s first language acquisition experience and asserted that basic language functions arise out of interpersonal uses and social interaction. 

Dwelling on the ideas above, first language acquisition notion of the theory is that children accomplish actions in the world and develop rules of language structure and use. Accordingly, in the case of L2 acquisition, language learners are encouraged to deal with accomplishing actions, which are thought to help them acquire the target language. The Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is the best known example of such a theory. In the communicative classes, students are expected to learn by doing (discovery learning) and expected to acquire the language through the PPP (presentation, practice and production) principle. It is another issue whether or not the CLT techniques promote L2 acquisition.

The Discourse Theory has a number of drawbacks. It overemphasizes the role of external factors in the process of language acquisition and gives little importance to internal learner strategies (i.e., innate processes). The Discourse Theory is similar to the behavioristic view of language acquisition in that environmental factors and input (or positive stimulus) are at the very center in attempting to explicate the acquisition process. The Discourse Theory is of course more sophisticated than the Skinner’s views in accounting for the complex structure of communication. Yet it overstresses the role of “knowledge of competence and functions” in acquiring a language, and hence fails to notice universal principles that guide language acquisition.

2.6. The Speech Act Theory

This theory holds that saying something is a way of doing something. In speech act theory, two kinds of meaning are seen in utterances. The fist is the prepositional meaning and the second is the illocutionary meaning. The former refers to the basic literal meaning of the utterance conveyed by the particular words or structures. The latter refers to the “effect” the spoken or written text has on the listener or reader. For instance the utterances including “threatening” or “apologizing” might have “presupposition” or “implicature” effects that listeners strive to figure out. It is, of course, normal for someone to use these utterances in his native language. The problem is how propositions and implicatures are acquired in first and second language. Does a formal instruction environment help the learners acquire them? Or will it create an environment where learners know only “about” them. Can it be labeled “acquisition”? 2.7. The Universal Grammar Theory

Among theories of language acquisition, Universal Grammar (UG) has recently gained wider acceptance and popularity. Though noted among L2 acquisition theories, the defenders of UG are not originally motivated to account for L2 acquisition, nor for first language (L1) acquisition. However, UG is more of an L1 acquisition theory rather than L2. It attempts to clarify the relatively quick acquisition of L1s on the basis of ‘minimum exposure’ to external input. The ‘logical problem’ of language acquisition, according to UG proponents, is that language learning would be impossible without ‘universal language-specific knowledge’ (Cook, 1991:153; Bloor & Bloor: 244). The main reason behind this argument is the input data:

“…[L]anguage input is the evidence out of which the learner constructs knowledge of language – what goes into the [brain]. Such evidence can be either positive or negative. … The positive evidence of the position of words in a few sentences [the learner] hear[s] is sufficient to show [him] the rules of [a language].” (Cook, 1991: 154)

The views supports the idea that the external input per se may not account for language acquisition (Ellidokuzoglu, 1999:20). Similarly, the Chomskyan view holds that the input is poor and deficient in two ways. First, the input is claimed to be ‘degenerate’ because it is damaged by performance features such as slips, hesitations or false starts. Accordingly, it is suggested that the input is not an adequate base for language learning. Second, the input is devoid of grammar corrections. This means that the input does not normally contain ‘negative evidence’, the knowledge from which the learner could exercise what is ‘not’possible in a given language.

As for L2 acquisition, however, the above question is not usually asked largely because of the frequent failure of L2 learners, who happen to be generally cognitively mature adults, in attaining native-like proficiency. But why can’t adults who have already acquired an L1, acquire an L2 thoroughly? Don’t they have any help from UG? Or if they do, then how much of UG is accessible in SLA? These and similar questions have divided researchers into three basic camps with respect to their approach to the problem:

Direct access -L2 acquisition is just like L1 acquisition. Language acquisition device (LAD) is involved.

No access – L2 learners use their general learning capacity.

Indirect access – Only that part of UG which has been used in L1 acquisition is used in L2 acquisition.

Proponents of UG, for example, believe that both children and adults utilize similar universal principles when acquiring a language; and LAD is still involved in the acquisition process. This view can be better understood in the following quote.

[A]dvocates of [UG] approach working on second-language learning… argue that there is no reason to assume that language faculty atrophies with age. Most second-language researchers who adopt the [UG] perspective assume that the principles and parameters of [UG] are still accessible to the adult learner. (McLaughlin, 1987:96) 

To support the view above, the acquisition of the third person “-s” can be given as an example. According to research (1996, Cook: 21) both child L1 and adult L2 learners (e.g. Turkish learners of English) acquire the third person “-s” morpheme at a later stage of their overall acquisition process and have a great difficulty in acquiring it when compared to other morphemes such as the plural morpheme “-s” or the progressive morpheme “-ing”. This shows that such learners are somewhat affected by UG-based knowledge. However, in the case of foreign/second language teaching it is very well known that the third person “-s” is taught at the very beginning of a second language learning program and presented in a great majority of textbooks as the first grammatical item.

Accordingly, Fodor’s views have some parallels with the UG Theory. Jerry Fodor studied the relationship between language and mind and his view that language is a modular process has important implications for a theory of language acquisition. The term modular is used to indicate that the brain is seen, unlike older views such as behavioristic view of learning and language learning, to be organized with many modules of cells for a particular ability (for instance, the visual module). These modules, according to Fodor (1983:47), operate in isolation from other modules that they are not directly connected. The language module, if we are to follow Fodor’s ideas, is one of such modules. This modular separateness has been termed as “informational encapsulation” by Fodor. To put it simply, each module is open to specific type of data. In other words, modules are domain specific. This is another way of saying that conscious knowledge cannot penetrate your visual module or language module or any other subconscious module. 

Basically, Fodor’s arguments are somewhat similar to that of Chomsky or the proponents of UG Theory in that the external input per se may not account for language acquisition and that language acquisition is genetically predetermined. Add to this, such a modular approach to language acquisition is totally different from the views of Piaget and Vygotsky who have laid the primary emphasis on the role of social or environmental factors in language development.

In the case of foreign/second language teaching, the common view is that inductive learning (teaching a language through hidden grammar or) leads to acquisition. However, dwelling on Fodor’s views as discussed above, it is obvious that inductive learning is confused with acquisition and that by learning something via discovery learning, students just improve their problem-solving skills, but not acquire a language.

As for the problems with Universal Grammar, it can be said that UG’s particular aim is to account for how language works. Yet UG proponents had to deal with acquisition to account for the language itself. “Acquisition part” is thus of secondary importance. A second drawback is that Chomsky studied only the core grammar of the English language (syntax) and investigated a number of linguistic universals seems to be the major problem. And he neglected the peripheral grammar, that is, language specific rules (i.e., rules of specific languages which cannot be generalized). Thirdly, the primary function of language is communication, but it is discarded. The final and the most significant problem is a methodological one. Due to the fact that Chomsky is concerned only with describing and explaining ‘competence’, there can be little likelihood of SLA researchers carrying out empirical research. 

In summary, UG has generated valuable predictions about the course of interlanguage and the influence of the first language. Also, it has provided invaluable information regarding L2 teaching as to how L2 teachers (or educational linguists) should present vocabulary items and how they should view grammar. As Cook (1991:158) puts it, UG shows us that language teaching should deal with how vocabulary should be taught, not as tokens with isolated meanings but as items that play a part in the sentence saying what structures and words they may go with in the sentence. The evidence in support of UG, on the other hand, is not conclusive. If the language module that determines the success in L1 acquisition is proved to be accessible in L2 acquisition, L2 teaching methodologists and methods should study and account for how to trigger this language module and redesign their methodologies. The UG theory should, therefore, be studied in detail so as to endow us with a more educational and pedagogical basis for mother tongue and foreign language teaching.

2.8. The Monitor Model

Krashen’s Monitor Model is an example of the nativist theories. The model forms the basis of the Natural Approach, which is a comprehension-based approach to foreign and second language teaching. The model consists of five hypotheses The explanations of the hypotheses below have been taken from an article titled “A Promising Approach to Second Language Acquisition” (Kiymazarslan, 2000:72-82).

(1) The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis 

Krashen (1985), in his theory of second language acquisition (SLA) suggested that adults have two different ways of developing competence in second languages: Acquisition and learning. “There are two independent ways of developing ability in second languages. ‘Acquisition’ is a subconscious process identical in all important ways to the process children utilize in acquiring their first language, … [and] ‘learning’…, [which is] a conscious process that results in ‘knowing about’ [the rules of] language” (Krashen 1985:1).

Krashen (1983) believes that the result of learning, learned competence (LC) functions as a monitor or editor. That is, while AC is responsible for our fluent production of sentences, LC makes correction on these sentences either before or after their production. This kind of conscious grammar correction, ‘monitoring’, occurs most typically in a grammar exam where the learner has enough time to focus on form and to make use of his conscious knowledge of grammar rules (LC) as an aid to ‘acquired competence’. The way to develop learned competence is fairly easy: analyzing the grammar rules consciously and practising them through exercises. But what Acquisition / Learning Distinction Hypothesis predicts is that learning the grammar rules of a foreign/second language does not result in subconscious acquisition.

The implication of the acquisition-learning hypothesis is that we should balance class time between acquisition activities and learning exercises.

(2) The Natural Order Hypothesis 

According to the hypothesis, the acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predicted progression. Certain grammatical structures or morphemes are acquired before others in first language acquisition and there is a similar natural order in SLA. The implication of natural order is not that second or foreign language teaching materials should be arranged in accordance with this sequence but that acquisition is subconscious and free from conscious intervention.

(3) The Input Hypothesis 

This hypothesis relates to acquisition, not to learning. Krashen (1985:3) claims that people acquire language best by understanding input that is a little beyond their present level of competence. Consequently, Krashen believes that ‘comprehensible input’ (that is, i + 1) should be provided. The ‘input’ should be relevant and ‘not grammatically sequenced’. The foreign/second language teacher should always send meaningful messages, which are roughly tuned, and ‘must’ create opportunities for students to access i+1 structures to understand and express meaning. For instance, the teacher can lay more emphasis on listening and reading comprehension activities.

(4) The Monitor Hypothesis 

As mentioned before, adult second language learners have two means for internalizing the target language. The first is ‘acquisition’ which is a subconscious and intuitive process of constructing the system of a language. The second means is a conscious learning process in which learners attend to form, figure out rules and are generally aware of their own process. The ‘monitor’ is an aspect of this second process. It edits and makes alterations or corrections as they are consciously perceived. Krashen (1985:5) believes that ‘fluency’ in second language performance is due to ‘what we have acquired’, not ‘what we have learned’: Adults should do as much acquiring as possible for the purpose of achieving communicative fluency. Therefore, the monitor should have only a minor role in the process of gaining communicative competence. Similarly, Krashen suggests three conditions for its use: (1) there must be enough time; (2) the focus must be on form and not on meaning; (3) the learner must know the rule. Students may monitor during written tasks (e.g., homework assignments) and preplanned speech, or to some extent during speech. Learned knowledge enables students to read and listen more so they acquire more.

(5) The Affective Filter Hypothesis 

The learner’s emotional state, according to Krashen (1985:7), is just like an adjustable filter which freely passes or hinders input necessary to acquisition. In other words, input must be achieved in low-anxiety contexts since acquirers with a low affective filter receive more input and interact with confidence. The filter is ‘affective’ because there are some factors which regulate its strength. These factors are self-confidence, motivation and anxiety state. The pedagogical goal in a foreign/second language class should thus not only include comprehensible input but also create an atmosphere that fosters a low affective filter.

The Monitor Model has been criticized by some linguists and methodologists McLaughlin (1987: 56), notes that the model fails at every juncture by claiming that none of the hypotheses is clear in their predictions. For example, he notes that the acquisition-learning distinction is not properly defined and that the distinction between these two processes cannot be tested empirically. Although it is true that some parts of the theory need more clarification, it would be harsh to suggest that the Model is a pseudo-scientific. Hasanbey (personal communication) define acquisition as follows:

“Any systematic linguistic behavior, the rules of which cannot be verbalized by its performer is the outcome of acquisition. So if one uses a specific language rule in proper contexts and if the same person cannot articulate the underlying language rule which determines its proper context, then that person is said to have acquired the rule in question. On the other hand, if a person can verbalize a language rule, with or without its proper implementation during performance then that person is said to have conscious knowledge of that rule. So one might have acquired and learned the same rule in theory.” 

While writing these very sentences, I have displayed a curious example of committing an error which proves the acquisition-learning distinction. In the statement “Hasanbey (personal communication) define acquisition as follows” the verb define should have an “-s” attached to it. I, as an EFL learner/teacher of English for about 20 years, “consciously” know when to attach that suffix to the verbs. But when it comes to fluent writing and speaking during which only subconsciously acquired rules have a say, I frequently miss that third person singular –s. So I and many other L2 learners who commit this error in spite of knowing the underlying rule at a conscious level, are the irrefutable evidence proving the distinction between acquisition and learning. The on-going interest in Krashen’s theory and the emergence of articles supporting his theory in recent journals also proves that his theory is far from being pseudo-scientific. Here is a typical example:

“Krashen’s ‘acquisition-learning’ distinction has met harsh criticism but the theory he put forward deserves a more sympathetic reappraisal. First of all, the theory is not insulated against falsification. The results of the studies examining the effects of explicit positive and/or negative evidence in formal learning are not inconsistent with it. Recent studies on the acquisition of functional categories lends support to the existence of the natural order in English L2. It is also possible to single out major dimensions on which processes and products of the ‘acquired’ and ‘learned’ systems differ using the principles of markedness and differences in computational complexity.”(Zobl, 1995:35) 
So far eight theories of language acquisition have been discussed (see Appendix for a brief account of other theories and a classification of theories based on the distinction made here). It can be seen that none of the theories is complete and most of them need developing. Each theory, however, is important for their implications and provides invaluable information as to how a language is acquired. and how language teaching should take place. III. CONCLUSION

The most important implication of language acquisition theories is obviously the fact that applied linguists, methodologist and language teachers should view the acquisition of a language not only as a matter of nurture but also an instance of nature. In addition, only when we distinguish between a general theory of learning and language learning can we ameliorate the conditions L2 education. To do so, applied linguists must be aware of the nature of both L1 and L2 acquisition and must consider the distinction proposed in this study.

Ridgway (2000, 13) notes that the educational linguist (not the applied linguist) is a practitioner who applies and adapts the policies of others in the classroom creatively. If the educational linguist is to adapt language models proposed by others (applied linguists) for classroom practice, it becomes more important “how” he or she will adopt them. How, for instance, should s/he utilize the findings of SLA studies conducted on syntax or natural order and use them for his or her particular classroom settings? How should grammar points be handled? Should they be taught inductively or deductively? Or should there be a balance between grammar lessons and acquisition lessons just as proposed by the proponents of the Monitor Model? How should vocabulary teaching be like and how should a syllabus be designed? How will the results of language planning proposed by the government be implemented? Most of these “how” questions can be answered properly only through a detailed analysis and a thorough understanding of language acquisition theories.

Here, on the shoulders of the methodologists lays quite a heavy responsibility. As we often see, linguistics and TEFL/TESL are largely based on the nurturist facet of language acquisition, emphasizing discourse and ethnolinguistic studies. It would, of course, be unwise to deemphasize such studies and their role in accounting for language acquisition and reaching a possible theory of educational linguistics. However, in this article it has been shown that language acquisition is also a considerable matter of innate factors. What is then the role of that “nature” part of theories in the overall sketch of language acquisition and methodology?

In addition, the author wishes to emphasize the necessity of the subfield “educational psycholinguistics”. In Stubbs’ point of view (1986:283), a thorough description of language in use, language variation, levels of language such as phonology, morphology and syntax, semantics and discourse will form the bases of a complete educational theory of language. If such a theory is expected to be beneficial to foreign and second language teaching, then it should not only include these environmentalist components but also include the subfield “educational psycholinguistics” which would mainly focus on “naturist” accounts as discussed in previous parts of this article. The inclusion of educational psycholingustics in this sense will make the current position of applied linguistics and language teaching far stronger. No longer should mind and innateness be treated as dirty words (Pinker, 1994:22). This will most probably lead to innovative proposals for syllabus development and the design of instructional systems, practices, techniques, procedures in the language classroom, and finally a sound theory of L2 teaching and learning.


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Overview of Other Language Acquisition Theories

Gramsci’s Theory of Language (reflects the environmentalist view): Language is important in establishing cultural hegemony and the prescriptivist teaching of prestigious forms of language to workers and peasants is encouraged in order to empower them. This theory has not resulted from any prevailing schools of psychology or linguistics.

Bakhtin’s Theory of Polyphony or Dialogics (reflects the environmentalist view): Language cannot be usefully studied in isolation from social and political factors. The theory stresses the value of linguistic diversity and pluralism. Language evolves dynamically and is affected by the culture that produces it as it helps to shape that culture. In this sense, the theory can perhaps partially be likened to Sapir-Whorf’s “relativity theory” asserting that each language imposes on its speaker a particular world view. There is no record showing that this theory has arisen out of any prevailing schools of psychology or linguistics. Yet it is obviously seen that Bakhtin has been influenced from Vygotsky and Piaget to some extent.

The Competition Model (reflects the environmentalist view): Language has four main facets: word order, vocabulary, word forms and intonation. Whatever the speaker wants to communicate has to be achieved by means of these four. Children learn their mother language by attaching particular weights to particular clues. For example, the English children lay the emphasis on word order while the Russian children on word endings. This model is an example of discovery learning and fails to account realistic language acquisition. 

The Acculturation Model (Socio-Educational Model) (reflects the environmentalist view): Successful learning means acculturation, that is, becoming part of the target culture. Learners should view them as neither superior nor inferior in the target language community to acquire the language better. Sociocultural factor may be important in acquiring a language, but is it not possible to acquire a foreign/second language without being a part of the target society? According to the nativists, it is possible to acquire it anywhere in case the necessary conditions for acquisition are provided.

Accommodation Theory (based on the environmentalist view): Language acquisition is seen as a matter of nurture only. Learners adjust their speech towards that of the person they are talking to when they want to reduce social distance, show solidarity or get something from that person yet adjust their speech the other way when they wish to create social distance. This theory might help us to know more about some sociolinguistic preconditions in maintaining communication rather than help us see how a language is really acquired. 

The Variable Competence Model (based on the environmentalist view): This is an L2 theory stating that language acquisition is a two sided phenomenon: the process and the product of language. The process refers to the distinction between the linguistic rules and the ability to make use of these rules. The product of language refers to discourse types to be generated from unplanned to planned.

The Identity Theory (based on the environmentalist view): This theory holds that any language which is capable of serving as a medium for inter-personal communication must necessarily presuppose the existence of a motivationally ideal environment for a child to acquire L2 and L1 successfully. According to Erik Erikson (cited in Murphy, 1983:123), the self or identity is a dynamic state by which the child continually defines selfhood. A learner (student) may act more differently at home than he acts at school. It is not a static phenomenon. Erikson does not see identity crisis, therefore, as an evil or as a malfunctioning of the personality. The theory implies that, in language acquisition, both motivational and sociolinguistic factors are of crucial importance in facilitating the overall language development.

The Connectionist Model (based on the environmentalist view): Language learning is seen as establishing the potencies between the vast numbers of connections in the brain and language acquisition does not take place in a gradual mode but simultaneously. This model fails to account how language is acquired because it just studies how the brain makes the connections when a language is processed. The only difference from the other nurturist models is that the black box (i.e., the brain) is opened, yet not studied as the nativists do. 

The Interactionist View of Language Acquisition (based on the environmentalist view): The acquisition of language is viewed as the result of an interaction between the learner’ mental abilities (cognition) and the linguistic input. This model might perhaps be regarded as the best model since it seems as if it combines both naturist and the nurturist ideas. However, it is not for the nativists believe that the combination of general learning capacity (cognition) and the environmental input do not lead to language acquisition.

A Neurofunctional Theory (based on the environmentalist view): Ellis (1985:273) notes that this theory is based on two systems: the communication hierarchy and the cognitive hierarchy. “The communication hierarchy” means language and other forms of interpersonal communication. “The cognitive hierarchy, on the other hand, refers to a number of cognitive information processing activities possibly related with “conscious” processes. The theory also makes a sharp distinction between Primary Language Acquisition (PLA) and Secondary Language Acquisition (SELA). PLA is seen in the child’s acquisition of one or more languages from the age of two to five. SELA is found in both adults and children. It is, in addition, divided into two parts (a) foreign language learning, that is formal classroom language learning, and (b) second language acquisition, that is, the natural acquisition of a second language after the age of five. This theory claims that PLA and (b) is marked through use of the communication hierarchy while (a) is marked by the use of the cognitive hierarchy only. If we are to accept the existence of some innate and subconscious linguistic properties, which is what the nativists have claimed, we then have the right to ask the question of why (a) is treated only as a cognitive process.

The Deficit Theory (based on the environmentalist view): This theory holds that children from working-class or immigrant backgrounds have insufficient command of grammar and vocabulary to express complex ideas and thus that they are unable to succeed in school.

The Difference Theory (based on the environmentalist view): Unlike the Deficit Theory explained above, the proponents of the theory argues that the speech of working-class children is fully capable of expressing complex ideas, even though their speech is different from the standard speech of middle class speakers and penalized in school. 

The Information vs Communication Theory: This, in fact, is a mathematical theory of communication. It is concerned particularly with the transmission of data in one direction and it takes no account of the person receiving the communication. In the case of The Communication Theory, on the other hand, a source encodes and transmits a message along channel; then the message reaches its destination and decoded. Consequently it produces its effect. In SLA and FLA, the latter, the communication theory, is more relevant.

The Immersion Theory (based on the environmentalist view): This theory claims that a learner is expected to acquire a language and communicate in that language when he or she is surrounded by the language and when s/he hears nothing else.

The Submersion Theory (based on the environmentalist view): This theory holds that a language may be acquired when the language of instruction is not the first language but the target language for some of the learners. This particularly happens when immigrant children enter school.

The Cognitive Code Theory: This theory holds that language learning is a process which involves active mental processes and not simply the forming habits. The learner’s active part is more important particularly in the course of learning grammar rules. The CLT takes some ideas from this view. 

The Mediation Theory (based on the environmentalist view): The theory is the outcome of psychological studies. It holds that certain types of learning occur in terms of links which are formed between a stimulus and a response. This one and such type of theories are obviously associated with behavioristic views.

The Schema Theory: The Schema Theory is based on the term schemata. Schemata (plural of schema) consist of structured groups of concepts that constitute the generic knowledge about events, actions, or scenarios which has been acquired from past experience. According to the Schema Theory, schemata influence the way that new information is processed in a number of ways such as recalling the relevant and irrelevant information and using them. In language acquisition it poses an important question particularly on the role of background knowledge in attaining language proficiency. Its implication for both L1 and L2 teaching, for instance, can be providing the students with anticipation exercises in a reading course, or presenting new vocabulary items in a context whose subject matter appeals to learners (i.e., familiarity) in a way such as to activate the students’ background knowledge (i.e., schemata).

The Bulge Theory (based on the environmentalist view): This theory is a sociolinguistically oriented theory of language development. In his article, Wolfson (1986: 82) notes that examining the rules of speaking for a particular speech community is the initial step in understanding what it means to be communicatively competent among that group. It is important to have reliable descriptions of these rules and patterns in order to improve second language instruction and assessment. For instance, there is a qualitative difference between the speech behavior which middle-class Americans use to intimates, status-unequals, and strangers, on the one hand, and with nonintimates, status-equal friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, on the other. This is called the bulge theory by Wolfson because of the way the frequencies of certain types of speech behaviors. An implication for education linguistics is that analysing the society for varieties of speech is still important However, in the case of L1 and L2, it fails to account how these speech behaviors are acquired. Therefore, it needs probing further to lay on a pedagogically sound basis. 

The Interlingual Theory (based on the environmentalist view): The term interlanguage refers to a language system created by someone learning a second language and it is regarded as a “reduced” version of the target language with many features carried over from the learner’s mother tongue. The theory asserts that language acquisition is a matter of transfer of linguistic items from L1 (interlingual) and L2 (intralingual). The theory emphasized the study of spoken and written discourse to reveal errors that might pose difficulty on acquisition (i.e., the intermediary language).

(This article by Vedat Kiymazarslan has been published in Science Journal of Army Academy in 2002, and appeared in TESL, the Internet TESL Journal. The article is also a paper sumbitted to Prof.Dr. M.Demirezen for a course titled Educational Linguistics, a PhD Course at Hacettepe University, Dept. of English Language Teaching.)



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