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Topic 2A – General theories about learning and acquisition of a foreign language. The concept of interlanguage.Eerror analysis


Language is something we take for granted in human beings, since most children are able to use it acceptably well by the age of 6. However, the acquisition of a language, either the first or the second one, is a highly complex phenomenon whose process is not actually completely explained, especially when acquiring a Second Language, where many variables play a role: learner variables (age, educational background, etc, motivation, needs), variables related to how this language is actually learnt (in a formal/informal situation, what method is used?), transference of knowledge from a previous language system, social factors (to what degree is the learner integrated in the target language community).

Many theories have been proposed to explain both First Language and Second Language Acquisition throughout time, all of them offer interesting insights on the process although not any single one has been able to explain completely how this process takes place and what are the factors that actually determine the learning of what we consider communicative competence, a concept proposed by many authors (Hymes, Canale and Swain, Halliday, Savignon), which broadly consists of knowledge about the language system (phonological, lexical, grammatical rules), about the social rules of interaction when communicating (sociolinguistic competence), knowledge about the rules of discourse (shaping the language and communicating in different genres, using cohesion and coherence devices), and strategic competence (ability to solve breakdowns in communication).

In this unit we are going to review the main theories on First and on Second Language Acquisition, proposed by linguists, psychologists and sociologists. Furthermore, we will study the role of the First Language on Second Language acquisition, that is, theories on contrastive analysis, error analysis and the concept of Interlanguage, and the implications all these theories have on second language teaching.

2. Theories on First Language Acquisition:

Children learn language differently than adults. Neurological evidence suggests that we are born equipped with neural structures which favor the acquisition of linguistic competence. Children go through different stages in this learning process: the babbling stage, the holophrastic stage (one-word stage), two-word stage, and telegraph to infinity. As they acquire more and more language, they resemble adult speech more and more, and they will acquire (in different degrees) all the components of communicative competence (some of them through formal instruction). Different theories have tried to explain how this process takes place:

2.1. Imitation. This theory poses that children just imitate what they hear and they learn because they receive positive reinforcement. It is based on Skinner’s theory on learning, called Behaviourism. However, the theory is not clearly sufficient to explain acquisition, since children do not just “store” information they receive, on the contrary, at some point, they are able to construct their own sentences and meanings. Furthermore, they try to “regularize” rules in the language, which they cannot have heard before, e.g. I comed.

2. 2. Innateness. The previous behaviourist theories were criticized by Chomsky, who claimed that human beings are equipped with what he called a Language Acquisition Device(in-built device), which has the ability to distinguish speech sounds from others, organize language into a system, construct the simplest possible system with the data received and decide on what is possible and what is not in a language. Furthermore, since he proposed the existence of a Universal Grammar, he claimed as well that there is a set of grammatical elements which are common to all languages, which predispose children to organize the input in certain ways.

2.3. Cognitive Theories. Based on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, who viewed language acquisition as just an instance of general human learning, and that language development should also take into account social factors and interaction with other speakers. In this sense, we also need to mention the following

2.4. Input theories, which claim that parental input is essential, since we give children clear simple utterances, together with lots of attention catchers (like tone of voice, pitch, positive reinforcement) which are essential. This “special” system used to communicate with them is called “motherese” and is supposed to help children construct the language system at the first stages.


As we have seen with first language acquisition, there are many theories which try to explain how the acquisition of a second language takes place. But first of all, let’s consider that acquiring a second language is not the same as the first one. First of all, we need to consider that most of the times, SL learners are older than children learning a SL, most of the times teenagers or adults who already have knowledge of “another” system. Second, the environment in which it takes place is most of the times different (through formal education), and third, the motivations, needs, interests of the learners are completely different form those of a child learning to communicate in his/her L1.

These are some of the most relevant SLA theories proposed up to now:

3.1. SLA theories based on General Learning theories:

3.1.1. Behaviourism: Just as in L1 acquisition, behaviorist theories claim that an L2 or any subsequent languages are learned through a process of habit formation, through repetition and reinforcement. This theory had a deep impact in SL Methodologies in the first half of the XX century, giving rise to Audiolingualism in the USA and The Direct Method in Britain.

3.1.2 Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. As well as in L1 acquisition, he proposes that human beings are endowed with knowledge of Universal Grammar principles. Competence in a FL will be acquired by the same means as in the L1, through the Language Acquisition Device and the construction of personal meaning, using, of course, meaningful imput.

This theory, as we have mentioned above, reacted against behaviourists theories.

3.1.3 Constructivism. Based on Krashen’s theories, which we will analyze later on and Congnitivism, proposes that language is communication. Ausubel proposed his theory of meaningful learning: Effective learning will depend on the reception of relevant INPUT, which responds to the learner’s needs. Furthermore, this input must be comprehensible and easily linked to previous knowledge. Errors need to be allowed, as part of a natural learning process.

3.2. SLL Theories based on Neurolinguistic and Cognitive approaches

3.2.1. Neurolinguistic theories and Critical Period Hypothesis.

Lenenberg and other neurologists studied the function of the brain in the process of language acquisition. There is evidence that as the human brain matures certain functions are assigned to the left hemisphere, one of them is language. He suggests that lateralization of the brain starts at the age of 2 and is completed around puberty. They suggests that this is the reason why children seem to be more able to acquire not only an L1, but also an L2 more easily than adults. Therefore, neurofunctional theories have accounted for SLA in the following aspects:

ñ Age differences: older acquirers are faster in the early states of SLA because they are better at obtaining comprehensible input as they have good conversational management. They have superior knowledge of the world, which helps to make input comprehensible. And finally, they can particpate in conversation earlier, via use of the first language syntax. On the contrary, younger acquires tend to attain higher levels of proficiency in second languages than adults in the long run due to a lower affective filter.

ñ Formulaic Speech denotes the use of a fixed form of words to serve a convntional purpose. It does not demonstrate creativity in form, human beings make full use of them to communicate creatively, in other words, formulaic speech is the step that puts the learner in a position to perform the analysis which is prerequiste to acquisition.

ñ Fossilisation occurs in most language learners and cannot be remedied by further instruction. Fossilised structures can be realised into two ways: correct structures and errors.

ñ Pattern Practice in the SLA classroom.

Although it has also been criticized, since many adults are able to acquire native-like competence in a FL as well as children.

3.2.2. Krashen’s Monitor Model

Krashen proposes five different hypothesis about SLA:

a) The Acquisition-Learning hypothesis. Acquisition is not a conscious process, the learner is unaware of the grammar rules he uses. It can be compared with a child acquiring the L1. Learning, on the other hand occurs consciously, we need to study the rules which govern a given language. This hypothesis has been criticized since learning may become acquisition (like in other activities, e.g. driving).

b) The Natural Order Hypothesis states that grammatical structures are acquired in a fairly predictable order in the L1 and in the L2, e.g. prepositions, plural endings and the progressive forms are learned way before third person singular –s in the present or irregular forms. This hypothesis has also been challenged since it is not so clear that rules are acquired always in a predictable order

c) The Monitor Hypothesis. We seem to have a kind of device, what is called the “monitor”, which functions as an “editor” of our linguistic performance, it enables us to make corrections and change output before speaking or writing. In order to use this monitor, we need to have enough time to produce utterances, we need to focus on form and we need to have knowledge of the correct rules.

d) The Input hypothesis explains how learners progress from one stage to the next. It works in the following way: first, the learner must have access to comprehensible input, second, if the level of language competence of the learner is “i”, the input should be “i”+1 in order to be integrated. Third, children acquire their L1 because they are provided with “i”+1 input by adults, and fourth second language learning is only possible if learners are exposed to comprehensible input (“i”+1).

e) Affective filter hypothesis. In sustains that acquisition can take place when variables like anxiety, motivation and self-confidence are taken into consideration. Therefore, error correction should not be constant since it raises the affective filter.

3.2.3. The Universal Hypothesis.

There are linguistic universals that determine the course of SLA as follows:

ñ Linguistic universals impose constraints on the form that interlanguage can take.

ñ Learners find it easier to acquire patterns that conform to linguistic universals than those that do not.

ñ Where the L1 manifests linguistic universals, it is likely to assist interlanguage through transfer.

Therefore, there is a Universal Grammar (UG) whose linguistic universals are to study a large number of languages to discover typological universals, including pragmatic explanations. In both L1 and L2 acquisition the effect of linguistic universals has been investigated primarily in terms of markedness theory, it states that some rules are unmarked or weakly marked and others marked or more strongly marked. An unmarked rule requires no or minimal triggering, unmarked forms are learnt before marked ones.

3.2.4 The Variable Competence Model.

The model is based on two distinctions:

1. The Process of Language Use in which a distinction should be drawn between rules or lingusitic knowledge or competence and procedures or the ability to use this knowledge or capacity. The language user possesses procedures by realising the meaning potential of rules in context, he makes his knowledge of linguistic rules work by exploiting them in relationship to both the situational and linguistic context. He actualises his abstract knowledge of sentences to create utterances in discourse.

2. The Product of Language Use is the result of either or both of the following: a Variable Competence, analytic vs. Unalalytic language, automatic vs. non-automatic planned vs. Unplanned language. And secondly, a Variable Application of Procedures that we will distinguish between Primary processes responsible for unplanned discourse, and Secondary is responsible for planned discourse. The product of language use comprises a continuum of discourse types ranged from entirely planned to entirely unplanned, hence, secondary processes draw knowledge on the analysed end of the continuum.

3.2.5. Discourse Theory.

Communication is the matrix of linguistic knowledge. Language developement should be considered in terms of how language discovers the meaning potential of language by participating in communication. Halliday shows that the development of the formal linguistic devises for realising basic language grows out of the interpersonal uses to which language is put. A parallel can be drawn in SLA where language SLA follows a natural route in syyntactical development. Native speakers adjust their speech in order to negotiate meaning with non-native speakers. And the conversational strategies used to negotiate meaning and the resulting adjusted input influence SLA in that the L2learner lerans the L2 grammar in the same order as the frequency of the various features in the input. The learner acquires commonly occurring formulae and then later analyses these into their components parts. The natural route is the result of learning how to hold conversations.

3.3. SLA theories based on sociolinguistic analysis

3.3.1. Schumman’s Acculturation Model and Giles’s Accomodation Theory

According to Schumann, SLA involves a modification of attitudes, knowledge and behavior as well as learning another language system, that is, we need to acquire sociocultural aspects of the target language group as well), and perhaps the degree to which one can accultuarate to that group will determine SLA success.

Social variables and social distance will determine whether the language learning situation is positive or negative. A positive learning situation will be when the TL and the 1st language groups are considered equal, eager to communicate and there are not too many sociocultural differences. There are also affective factors playing a role in learning, for example language/culture shock, motivation and ego boundaries.

Giles called the process of SLA an “accommodation process”, since the SL learner needs to accommodate to a new social reality.

Schumman also posed that SLA was a process similar to pidginization: the learner constructs an interim system between the L1 and the L2 which will be reshaped as acquisition takes place (similar to interlanguage theory).

Schumman’s model does not actually explain how SLA takes place, he just pays attention to the factors that favor/oppose learning.

AS WE CAN SEE each theory of SLA pays attention to different aspects of the process, but actually, none of them explains completely how competence, especially in the L2 is achieved. At this point, we must pay some attention of what are the differences between 1st LA, and SLA. First all, language learning is not a linear, but a global process, and in this process, there are many differences, according to Gass (1994) the most important are:

1) The age factor. Related to the Critical Period Hypothesis: the LAD atrophies.

2) Fossitization: Retention of non-native interlanguage forms and transfer of problems from the L1 to the L2

3) Transference, which could be positive or negative.

We also need to add environmental factors, such as the difficulty of the input in L2 learning in the case of adults or teenagers (we expect them to acquire massive amounts of vocabulary and structures in formal tree-hours a week sessions, whereas children are acquiring much less input over an extended period of time).


L1 has been considered a mayor cause of learner’s problems in acquiring an L2, mainly in the form of interference.

This phenomenon was widely studied through contrastive analysis (very popular around the 60), which posed that there is positive and negative transfer of linguistic structures between the L1 and the L2. This was a behaviourist approach to language learning.

On the other hand, cognitivist approaches proposed that mistakes are not always provoked by the L1. Littlewood (1984) suggested that since learners are constructing their own systems, not all mistakes can be the result of transfer. Some of them are interlingual (tansference of L1), while others are developemental (similar to those made by children when acquiring their L1).

This concept brings us to another development in this field which is Interlanguage theory, a concept first proposed by Selinker in 1972, defined as a new system which is neither the L1 nor the L2, it is permeable and dynamic, in constant evolution. Interlanguage depends on five processes: language transfer, overgenalization of L2 rules, transfer of training, strategies of L2 learning (simplification) and communication strategies.

This concept allows us to view acquisition as a continuous process, in which the learner is “building” his/her own system, and which, naturally provokes lots of errors. It is useful to analyse these errors in a systematic way, since this will help teachers to focus on certain recurrent problems that learners may have. For example, Spanish learners will surely have problems in learning the vowels in English, some difficult consonant sounds, patterns of rhythm and intonation, and some grammatical points for which there is no referent Spanish (e.g. auxiliary verbs, -s ending, word order, etc).


None of the above presented theories is able to give a complete account on either L1 or L2 acquisition. In the case of L1, we can probably conclude that human beings are endowed with some kind of neurological network which facilitates acquisition, however, we must not forget that input, positive feedback and repletion surely helps a swift development of the L1 in children, and as teachers, it is easy to detect that children who grow in culturally impoverished environments do not show the same mastery of language than others.

However, L2 acquisition does not take place in the same situation. First of all, we already have a previous structure, which provokes problems of transfer as we try to accommodate a new system. Second, there is age and social circumstances playing a role, personal and psychological factors. Theories on L2 acquisition focus more on what facilitates/hinders learning, than on “how” it actually takes place, and what is the “natural” order of acquisition, and what circumstances facilitate the acquisition of communicative competence.

Even though these are just theoretical models, they do have an influence on teaching practice, since materials are designed based on the belief that learners will acquire content better in one way or another (e.g. audio-lingual materials). We may not be able to say, at his point “how” we must teach, but we can pay attention to how our learners seem to be acquiring competence, what contents seem too difficult for them, what are the mistakes they systematically produce and what kind of activities help them to develop their communicative competence more effectively.


Brown, H.D. (1987) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. NJ: Prentice Hall

Ellis, R. (1986) Understanding Second Language Acquisition. NY: OUP.

McLaughlin. B (1987) Theories of Second Language Learning. Baltimore: Arnold.

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