Teach English in Yuanqiao Zhen - Nantong Shi

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Language acquisition has been a very controversial topic among researchers, linguists, and psycholinguists. Several learning theories have been introduced in order to explain the process and techniques used within the human brain to acquire the language. The essay will review and discuss the major learning theories explaining language acquisition and will try to show how the first language acquisition differs from second language acquisition. One of the major traditional learning theories is Behaviorist theory. Skinner (1957), in his book Verbal Behavior, claimed that children acquire language through the principles of conditioning such as stimulus, association response and reinforcement (pp: 30, 32). In other words, the child acquires his or her mother-tongue through the interaction with the environment and imitation of their parents (Skinner, 1957). As its name implies, language acquisition is considered as a human behavioural activity. However, Chomsky (1959) opposed Skinner´s theory. He argued that a child cannot learn a language through imitation because they hear interrupted speech utterances and sometimes ungrammatical sentences; moreover, the child can produce sentences that they have never heard before. Chomsky believes that children are born with an inherited (innate) ability to learn any human language. This ability is called the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which sets the major principles of a language and its grammatical structures into the child’s brain, and that the child only needs to learn vocabulary to start producing an infinite number of sentences (Chomsky, 1959). This hypothesis is called the Universal Grammar or Innateness Hypothesis, and as its name implies, it applies to all languages, since all human languages are similar in a way or another. But what about the suitable age to acquire the first language? Is there a deadline by which the first language should have been acquired? According to Lenneberg (1967), children should be exposed to the first language before puberty; otherwise, the language will not be acquired perfectly. Feral children (e.g. Genie) who were found in isolation couldn’t acquire or learn the language because they had not been exposed to language in their early years. Second Language (L2) Acquisition refers to any language we learn or acquire other than the mother tongue, and people usually decide to acquire or learn a second language for different reasons, such as travelling, studying abroad, etc. According to the Behaviorist Theory, the second language learning learner acquires the language by listening and then imitating what they hear. In other words, acquisition of the second language is similar to the acquisition of the first language; that is, acquiring or developing new sets of habits. Hence, the second language learner may transfer habits or structures from their first language to their second language. However, if the transferred habits or structures are similar to the second language, then we have a positive transfer, but if the transferred habits or structures are different, then we have a negative transfer or interference, and, consequently, we have errors (Lado, 1957). The problem here according to Chomsky (1959) is that imitation is not enough to produce infinite numbers of sentences; moreover, not all errors made by the second language learner are due to the interference of the first language (negative transfer) and a lot of errors can be attributed to the developmental process. The critical period for the first language also applies to acquiring or learning the second language. However, learners can still learn the second language after the critical period, but their accent will be affected by their first language. As we have just seen, the earlier we acquire or learn the language, the easier we master it. In addition, errors or mistakes do occur during the processes of both the first language acquisition and second language acquisition. In case of the first language acquisition, the errors happen due to the acquisition processes, that is, they are developmental; while part of errors made by the second language learners is attributed to the negative transfer or interference of the mother tongue (Corder, 1967). There are, however, several differences between the first language acquisition and second language acquisition. According to Krashen (1987) acquisition (as is the case with the first language) is the product of a subconscious process that requires natural or real communication; while learning (as is the case often with the second language) is the product of a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge about the language e.g. knowledge of grammar rules. Moreover, first language acquisition process occurs in informal or casual situations; while the second language acquisition (or learning) process often occurs in formal environments or classrooms. To sum up, language acquisition is a complex developmental process that cannot be described in one perfect theory; hence, we have many theories and hypotheses struggling to introduce a satisfying explanation to what happens inside the human brain while acquiring or learning a language. Moreover, the first language acquisition is quite different from second language acquisition, and each language acquisition has different circumstances and reasons. References Chomsky, N. (1959). A Review of B.F. Skinner Verbal behavior. Available at: https://chomsky.info/1967____/.pdf (Accessed: 20 February 2020) Corder, S. (1967). The Significance of Learners' Errors Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED019903.pdf (Accessed: 21 February 2020) Krashen, S. (1987). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Available at: https://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html (Accessed: 20 February 2020) Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor. Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language, New York John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Skinner, B. (1957). Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, Inc.