Second Language Acquisition


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In most European countries, students begin learning second languages early on in school and most individuals, child or adult, are able to effectively communicate in their second language if not also in a third and fourth. In Canada, almost all of the provinces have total immersion programs set-up. Most people realize at this point that learning a second language is crucial, but for some reason, the United States has yet to significantly increase language programs.

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Second Language Acquisition

  1. 1. Second language acquisition 1 NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY Second Language Acquisition and theEffectiveness of Different Methods of Studying Languages A Thesis Submitted to the University Honors Program In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of the Baccalaureate Degree With Upper Division Honors Department of Psychology By Gina M. Martino DeKalb, Illinois May 09, 2009
  2. 2. Second language acquisition 2 The United States is far behind most countries when it comes to second languageacquisition. In the US, students are not typically required to learn a second language until theHigh School grade level. Even after completing the required language programs though,students are unable to apply what they have learned. In most European countries, studentsbegin learning second languages early on in school and most individuals, child or adult, areable to effectively communicate in their second language if not also in a third and fourth. InCanada, almost all of the provinces have total immersion programs set-up (Cohen & Swain,1976). In the past, knowing a second language, at least from the American perspective, maynot have been as important. The United States is a large country, where practically everyonespoke English, and there was little demand for individuals to learn additional languages. Intodays society however, things are a little different. First of all, the minority population isgrowing larger by the day. It is helpful to know an additional language just to have theability to communicate with these individuals. Secondly, and probably more pressing reasonfor individuals to learn another language, is that businesses need to communicate with theminorities in the US as well as conduct trade with other countries. The job market isbecoming more and more competitive and companies are looking for people who are able todo more. With this, they are looking to hire individuals who are fluent in both English and atleast one additional language. Many times, if a person does not know a second language,they will be considered under qualified for a position and be passed over for a bilingualindividual who might be less qualified in every other way. Most people realize at this point that learning a second language is crucial, but forsome reason, the United States has yet to significantly increase language programs. In turn,people who wish to learn a language after or outside of the public school system are forced to
  3. 3. Second language acquisition 3find ulterier methods. There are so many different options for language acquisition though,and not all are effective. One of the most available methods to learning a second language comes in the form ofbooks. A trip to a local bookstore will present an individual with dozens of different bookson almost any language. There are books that specialize in learning verbs, books onvocabulary, and books that take the reader through a general overview. Books may beeffective for some people, and are great supplemental materials for students studying throughother methods or just brushing up on a language they have not used in a while, but for theindividual who needs a more interactive method, books are very dry and can be difficult todecipher. A step up from books is audio programs. Audio programs could refer to cassettetapes, CD’s, and the newly popular mp3 programs that can be downloaded onto iPods andother MP3 players. There are many audio programs that advertise that a person can learn alanguage in their car, or on the flight to another country, but the programs are rarely, if ever,that effective. First of all, audio programs are commonly not entirely audio based but rathercome with a book that the student should follow along with or consult for vocabulary wordsand such. Also, languages are much too complex to learn in the few hours that these audioprograms often advertise. Like books, audio programs are a great supplement to otherlanguage instruction, but alone they are only minimally effective. With the more recent popularity of the iPod and podcasts, there are many podcastswhich are concerned with language acquisition. Some of these are very basic and give thelistener a few vocabulary words with each episode, while others go more in depth and evengive the listener bits of cultural information. These still however fall into the audio category. With technology at the forefront of todays society, probably the most popular way forindividuals to learn a foreign language is with computer programs. Computer assisted
  4. 4. Second language acquisition 4language learning is now very commonly used in language instruction to providesupplemental practice in various skills, but computer programs are also very popular withindividuals who are unable or unwilling to enroll in a classroom language course. The mostprevalent ones on the market now-a-days are Instant Immersion (by Topics Entertainment),Learn Now! (by Transparent Language), and of course Rosetta Stone (by Fairfield LanguageTechnologies). Each of these programs utilizes various teaching methods and varying levelsof immersion. The most popular of the three, Rosetta Stone, is surprisingly also the mostsimplistic, using matching exercises as the focus of the program. These matching exercisesuse pictures only, which many people see as a problem, with the preference being forprograms that use various multimedia methods. Another large oversight on the part of most,if not all computer programs, is a lack of exercises requiring users to work with materiallonger than a sentence in length (Traphagan). While computer programs offer a consistency that instructors often like, this is only ifevery student uses the program in the same way. Beyond the control of the programdesigners, is how the student uses the exercises and tools made available by a given program.In programs that give the user control of which exercises they do or do not complete, astudent may skip an exercise they need simply because they do not enjoy it. One tool that islikely to be ignored is the option of the user recording their voice to compare it with that of anative speaker’s voice. Often times computers do not have microphones already installed andindividuals either cannot afford, or do not take the effort to go purchase a separatemicrophone. Even once a separate microphone is acquired, they can be complicated to installand make work and people will just give up. Other included features are often overlooked aswell. If a program has a help option, or a spell-check option, certain students may takeadvantage of this while others choose not to (Chapelle, 1990).
  5. 5. Second language acquisition 5 Despite what companies have produced thus far in language acquisition, theclassroom environment is still generally more effective. Unlike books, audio programs, orcomputer programs, a classroom environment allows for feedback from an instructor andinteraction with other students who are typically at an equal level. However the effectivenessof a language program depends upon factors that determine the effectiveness of anyclassroom. The most important element to determine the effectiveness of a class is theinstructor. While it is hoped that all instructors are effective, there are still teachers out therewho give very little instruction, or give instruction in only one manner (i.e. lecture). Manystudents need more interactive methods to learn material, therefore the most effectiveinstructors use lectures, visual aids, computer programs, reading, and pretty much any otherway they can think of to expose the student to their target foreign language. The other largedrawback to classroom language acquisition is that, as stated previously, the United Statesstill puts little emphasize on language programs. Most high schools have language programs,but not many junior highs or elementary schools have any language programs in place. Inaddition, once a student reaches the high school level, there are not always a lot of options forwhich language they can choose. The most popular languages taught in United Statesschools are Spanish and French, but students may desire a chance to learn a differentlanguage, such as Italian, Japanese, German, and other languages. Even if a school hasprograms in various languages, it is often difficult to sign up for a course. For example, Northern Illinois University has programs in 18 different languagesincluding: Arabic, Burmese, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese,Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Southeast Asian, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, and Thai.However, for Spanish, there are usually at least two to three sections available for every level,every semester. For most of the languages however, there is one section for each level, andcertain classes are only offered certain semesters. The Italian program for instance, might
  6. 6. Second language acquisition 6have three sections of Italian 101 available, but the 101 and 201 levels are only offered in thefall while the 102 and 202 levels are only offered in the spring. Then, the classes narrowsignificantly as the student advances in the language. In the 2006-2007 academic year, therewere three sections of Italian in the 100-level, but the following fall there was only onesection of Italian 201. If the average class has 30 students in it, this meant that 60 studentswere unable to continue into a second year with the Italian language. For the 300 and 400-level classes, there is only one section available as well, but now this one section is onlyoffered every couple years. It might be argued that there is not enough interest in thelanguage to provide more sections, but from an insider’s perspective, there are alwaysstudents who are wishing to continue with the language and are unable to. In the fall of 2008,three students were forced to take a 300 or 400 level course as an independent study becausethe courses they needed to complete their chosen minor in the Italian language would not beoffered again before they graduated. Even when a student makes use of every option to take a language class, one can onlylearn so much in a one hour class offered two to three days a week. Another alternative toclassroom language acquisition is partial immersion. Partial immersion is when schoolsstructure classes in and through the second language. Many researchers believe that languageis better developed when the language itself is not the primary focus of the classroom or thecontent the student is being graded on (Short, 1993, as cited in Christian, 1996; Snow, Met, &Genesee, 1989). This is likely because it takes the pressure off of the individual to perfect thelanguage and turns it into a tool to communicate. An example of this is the Elgin program inOntario. This school program uses the second language, French for the first two and a halfhours of the day (including the subjects Mathematics, Music, French Language Arts, Reading,and Composition), and English for the last two and a half hours of the day (including EnglishLanguage Arts, Physical Education, Science, Social Studies, Art, and Health). When the
  7. 7. Second language acquisition 7Barik and Swain (1976) compared the Elgin programs effectiveness in learning a secondlanguage with the normal language classroom, the results were not very promising in the firstfew years, but the higher grade levels showed better results, suggesting that while partialimmersion was difficult at first, as students adjusted it was more effective. Generally the languages are kept separate from each other by either subjects (Mathand Science in one language while Reading and Composition are in the other), time of day(one language in the morning, the other language in the afternoon), or by specific teachers(one teacher teaches everything in one language while another teaches in the other language)(Christian, 1996). Also, while there may be use of both languages during the classroomenvironment, children do not tend to switch to the second language on the playground whenthey are free to use either language (Lee, Hill-Bonnet, & Gillispie, 2008). In this studentsoften continue to keep friends of the same native language and are less likely to interact withnative speakers of the second language which removes the opportunity to interact socially intheir second language entirely. Another important factor that contributes to the effectivenessof these programs is that the instruction methods that are effective in normal schools(activities vs. lecture) are also effective with partial immersion schools (Christian, 1996). One very important distinction to make here is that these are immersion programs, notsubmersion. Submersion is what many students encounter when they first move to theUnited States. ESL programs are generally taught entirely in English and contain studentsfrom all different language backgrounds. Then, ESL students are thrown into the schoolsnormal curriculum and surrounded by native English speakers who they fear will tease themand ridicule them for their imperfect knowledge of the language. The more insecure thestudent feels in using the language, the less likely they are to do so which will inhibit theirdevelopment.
  8. 8. Second language acquisition 8 As the need for a globalized workforce increases, the demand for students to studyabroad has become a growing trend in higher education, showing a 250 percent increase inthe number of United States students completing study abroad programs from 1995 up untilnow (Krisantas, 2005 as cited in Lowe, Dozier, Hunt-Hurst, & Smith, 2008). While theopportunity to study abroad is an invaluable experience that can be exciting and life altering,it is also very frightening and overwhelming. Individuals who submerse themselves in aforeign culture frequently experience some degree of emotional disturbance (Mumford, 1998).The exact degree of the disturbance depends on several different factors, including howdifferent the society and culture is from their own and how the individual handles stress andchange in general. A student studying in a foreign country is typically isolated almostentirely from their closest friends and family. Even today with technology as advanced as itis, telephone calls between distant countries are still very expensive and conversation via theinternet can be unsatisfying and slow when you really need to talk with someone. There isalso the issue of adapting to societal norms and customs that are entirely unlike those ofsomeones home. Most people fall into certain routines, especially with the less thought ofactivities. There may be a brand of shampoo a person always uses, a cereal they eat everymorning, or just a certain daily routine that is impossible to follow while abroad. This canfrustrate people, and in the case of food habits, can disrupt a person’s diet and cause them tofall ill. Individuals who have traveled abroad often for short vacations are often believed tobe more immune to these issues, however research has shown that having spent timevacationing in a foreign country, even if done frequently, does not reduce the chance ofexperiencing difficulty adjusting to a foreign culture (Furnham, 2004), or as it is morecommonly referred to, "culture shock." "Culture shock" was first used in 1960 by theanthropologist Oberg in a short descriptive article based on personal observations, to refer to
  9. 9. Second language acquisition 9the difficulty people experience when first immersing themselves in a culture that is unliketheir own. Though it started as simply a colloquial term and has never been assigned actualpsychiatric diagnostic criteria, the idea of culture shock has been the inspiration and focalpoint of much research and literature. However, any research done regarding culture shockstill must include the fact that the concept is still theoretical and there may be severaldiffering opinions on how to measure the causes and experience of culture shock (Mumford,1998). Sandhu and Asrabadi (1994, as cited in Furnham, 2004) believe there are two maincontributing factors that determine whether an individual will experience culture shock or not.The first is Intrapersonal factors, which includes any internal feelings and fears that arecaused by spending an extended time in a foreign environment (feeling inferior or uncertainabout the future). The second is Interpersonal factors, which refers to the fears or feelings ofawkwardness or isolation that are directly related to the environment and society (makingfriends, school experience, loss of regular social support, etc.). As for the actual experience of culture shock, Taft (1977, as cited in Mumford, 1998)developed a set of six aspects: 1. Strain due to the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptions 2. A sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regard to friends, status, profession and possessions 3. Being rejected by and/or rejecting members of the new culture 4. Confusion in role, role expectations, values, feelings and self-identity 5. Surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences 6. Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment
  10. 10. Second language acquisition 10 Another problem individuals might experience when studying in a foreign country, isforgetting bits of their native language the more they immerse themselves in the foreignlanguage, known as first-language attrition. This can be due to the fact that they are usingtheir native language more infrequently, or to the fact that in learning a second language, aperson learns new words for everything they know which is a large memory learning task thatcould interfere with their previous memories (Levy, McVeigh, Marful, & Anderson, 2007).Most of the first-language attrition effects vocabulary, but general language usage may alsobe effective. Many languages use different sentence structures, and after even a few hours offorming foreign sentences in one order can confuse speech patterns in the native language. Often times it is assumed that age plays a large factor into how easily one acquires alanguage, but what is often overlooked is the frequency of how much particular age groupsuse the new language (Hammerly, 1987). A child learning a second language is still at a lowlevel with their first language, so mistakes are more acceptable for them and they are nottrying to form sentences beyond their level. If an adult tries to convey a thought in a secondlanguage, they may encounter difficulty expressing their thoughts which originate in theiradvanced native language vocabulary, into their limited second language vocabulary. Also,when a family moves to a new country, the children are forced to acquire the new language tointeract in school and society. Parents and grandparents however, tend to close off and relyon their children to act as interpreters for them. There is some truth to age influencing language however. Three principle factorsinfluence older individuals in their attempt to learn another language: decreases in processingspeed, deficits in working memory, and the ability to focus attention on relevant material(Park, 2000, as cited in Birdsong, 2006). Research has shown that the declines in thesefactors begins in early adulthood and decreases gradually more throughout the life span(Birdsong, 2006).
  11. 11. Second language acquisition 11 Beyond all of the previously mentioned difficulties that exist in the environment for aperson learning a second language, there is also the internal foreign language anxiety, asituation-specific anxiety disorder that arises from the foreign language learning. Thisanxiety revolves around three interrelated performance anxieties: communicationapprehension, test anxiety, and fear of negative evaluation. Rodriguez and Abreu (2003) setout to discover if there is any correlation between foreign language anxiety and whichlanguage is being studied by an individual compared to the native language of the speaker.They found no significant difference, implying that foreign language anxiety can occur acrossseveral, if not all native language/foreign language combinations. Another internal attribute to learning a foreign language lies in simply the strategiesused to learn. Vann and Abraham (1990) categorized these strategies into four groups:engagement, risk taking, knowledge, and control. Engagement is the general attention aperson gives to learning. Risk taking refers to a person’s willingness to make mistakes andhave them corrected. Knowledge involves the ability to fit information learned in a foreignlanguage into set schemas and being able to discern when usage is correct or incorrect.Control is simply a person’s ability to monitor their learning and coordinate new informationlearned with old information learned. These four categories can also intersect with each other,if a person feels they do not have sufficient knowledge of the language, they are less likely totake risk. Overall, the methods used in second language acquisition needs some re-inventing.Hammerly (1987) suggested a four step process for language acquisition. First, studentsreceive an introductory or exploratory course in the second language. After this exploratorycourse, students receive a semi-intensive systematic instruction in the second language. Thisprogram would not be like the typical American language class which meets for about 50minutes a day 2-3 days a week, but would instead meet about two hours a day 4-5 days a
  12. 12. Second language acquisition 12week. The third step of this process is a partial immersion program such as the Elginprogram. Then, the final step would be to fully immerse the student in the second language. The problem with these steps is that there is not currently enough of a demand forsuch a focused and in-depth language program within the United States. What demand thereis, is given very little attention and funding. Until the benefits of knowing additionallanguages is given some importance by English speaking parents and within the educationalsystem, a program of this depth is practically impossible (Cohen & Swain, 1976).
  13. 13. Second language acquisition 13 References:Barik, H. C., & Swain, M. (1976). English-French bilingual education in the early grades: The Elgin study through grade four. The Modern Language Journal, 58, 392-403.Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning, 56(1), 9-49.Chapelle, C. (1990). The discourse of computer-assisted language learning: Toward a context for descriptive research. TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 199-225.Christian, D. (1996). Two-way immersion education: Students learning through two languages. The Modern Language Journal, 80(1), 66-76.Cohen, A. D. & Swain, M. (1976). Bilingual education: The “immersion” model in the north American context. TESOL Quarterly, 10(1), 45-53.Furnham, A. (2004). Foreign students: Education and culture shock. The Psychologist, 17(1), 16-19.Hammerly, H. (1987). The immersion approach: Litmus test of second language acquisition through classroom communication. The Modern Language Journal, 71(4), 395-401.Lee, J. S., Hill-Bonnet, L., & Gillispie, J. (2008). Learning in two languages: Interactional spaces for becoming bilingual speakers. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11(1), 75-94.Levy, B. J., McVeigh, N. D., Marful, A., & Anderson, M. C. (2007). Inhibiting your native language: The role of retrieval-induced forgetting during second language acquisition. Association for Psychological Science, 18(1), 29-34.Lowe, T., Dozier, C., Hunt-Hurst, P., & Smith, B. (2008). Study abroad in west Africa: An interdisciplinary program of international education. College Student Journal, 42(3), 738-747.Mumford, D. B. (1998). The measurement of culture shock. Social Psychiatry Psychiatr
  14. 14. Second language acquisition 14 Epidemiol, 33, 149-154.Rodriguez, M., & Abreu, O. (2003). The stability of general foreign language classroom anxiety across English and French. The Modern Language Journal, 87(3), 365-374.Snow, M. A., Met, M., & Genesee, F. (1989). A conceptual framework for the integration of language and content in second/foreign language instruction. TESOL Quarterly, 23(2), 201-217.Traphagan, T. W. Language learning software: What can it do? University of Texas - Austin.Vann, R. J., & Abraham, R. G. (1990). Strategies of unsuccessful language learners. TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 177-198.