Teach English in Jiepai Zhen - Yancheng Shi

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The question of language acquisition has raised a growing interest as international exchanges intensified in the last centuries. It has more recently become a science of its own, and is at the interface between linguistics and didactics studies. In my opinion, this title of this summative task encompasses the ambivalence of a topic that has occupied specialists for decades : on one side, there are obvious differences in the processes of acquiring a first language and a second one, while some similarities can be observed. On the other, isn’t it a flaw to consider the word “acquisition” as accurate when attempting to describe the process an individual goes through when learning a second language? Many linguists have discussed this topic and have agreed that both processes should be distinguished, and that we should therefore be specific in the terminology we use to refer to them. The dichotomy can be summarized as follow : A first language is acquired while a second language is learned. Acquisition typically refers to the way a young child learns his/her mother tongue in the early stages of his/her life : it is a more “natural”, unconscious process that usually happens in informal settings. The actors involved are the child himself and his direct social environment (especially his family). the child experiments with the language, observes his environment, repeats what he hears and gathers information without it being organized for him. It is an internal and highly individual process, that is (usually) not monitored, manufactured or influenced by an educational institution. Learning, on the contrary, refers to the application of a conscious effort to develop new skills or knowledge. The backbone of this process is usually an institution ( schools, universities, …) which designs a curriculum and has designated specialized actors (teachers, administration team) to induce and monitor the progress of the students. It is planned and formally evaluated, with goals and objectives being decided upon for the learner by an external source of authority. It should be noted, though, that some specialists consider that a knowledge/skill that has been learned, within an institutional setting, can be considered as “acquired” from the moment it has been completely internalized and assimilated by the student. To me, the question that lays behind the title of this task could be : “Can a second language be learned/acquired/taught/ induced in the same way a first language is?”( in an unconscious manner, by contact, through interaction with the direct environment and without the intervention of an institution?). Instinctively, we are drawn to answer positively to this question : we can immediately think, for instance, about the case of bilingual children, who are being raised in their first language until their parents move overseas for whichever reason, and are then socialized in a new language. In this specific case, the aforementioned children seem to be going through the same process for the acquisition of their second language as they do for their first one. Looking at their situation from this simplified and superficial perspective is tempting but it negates an essential factor that makes it impossible to actually compare the two processes : their first language is already present in their mind at the time they learn the second, and as a result, it influences, it interacts with the learning process of the new language. This condition must absolutely be taken into consideration. The cognitive processes of interaction between the two languages present in one individual’s mind can be considered as “interferences”, when they have a “negative impact” on the development of the target language. All areas of the language can be exposed, from the syntax and morphology to the pragmatic and semantic aspect, as well as lexicon, phonology, etc. The presence of a first language in the mind of a subject, however, can have a positive impact on the L2 learning. It is then referred to as “Positive transfers” in the metalanguage used by Selinker, the linguist behind the “Interlingual Competence” theory that was developed in the 70s and 80s. To him, each individual navigating between two (or more) languages is equipped with an “ Interim grammar”, developed internally by learners on their way to their target language. This “Interim grammar” is systematic, dynamic and constantly evolving as the language is exposed to the language. In the history of didactics discipline, the question of the transferability of methods used in FLA (First Language Acquisition) to SLA (Second Language Acquisition) has been recurring, and teaching technics and methodologies have evolved in a to-and-fro motion, with periods where recommendations were to try to mimic, as much as possible, the processes at stake in FLA to the extreme opposite. Nowadays, SLA specialists tend to consider that in the SLA process, some parts can occur in a quite natural, uncontrolled manner, but some others must be accompanied through extensive, specific training. For example, in an interactionist perspective, some researchers like MacKey, De Keyser or Slabakova (2005), seek to identify which linguistic structures benefit the most from classroom interaction. According to Slabakova, who “endorse(s), justif(ies) and promote(s) MacKey’s theories”, the morphological competence should be accorded a special status. From a set of recent research, the author draws the conclusion that an enhanced focus on practicing grammar in language classrooms could be overly beneficial. Other theoreticians, whose work draws from the application of Complex Dynamic Systems Theories to Language Acquisition (See Van Geert, De Bot, and Lowie), choose to focus on the interaction between various factors (social, cognitive and environmental) and an initial state ( CDST being an attempt to describe and explain a change, a process, the presupposition of an initial state is logical) during the acquisition process. According to this theory, by acting on one specific factor within these four sets ( ie attention, memory or motivation which are considered cognitive factors) can completely alter the learning trajectory in the long run. As education professionals, our aim is to facilitate the learning process of our students. Knowing that we cannot necessarily and freely interfere, for ethical, technical or material reasons, with all of these factors, we should aim at identifying the levers we can capitalize on with each individual, in order to maximize their chances of progress.