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Second language acquisition


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Possible explanations for the failure of EFL students to achieve native-like competence in a second language.

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Second language acquisition

  1. 1. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONWhat possible explanations are there for the failure of EFL students to achievenative-like competence in a second language (L2)?NOTE:In answering this question you will need to consider the following areas: • Psycholinguistic issues such as interlanguage, the differing theories of competence held by Chomsky and Dell Hymes’, Universal Grammar (UG), L1 transfer, the Monitor Model...etc. • Discourse issues such as input and interaction, the role of instruction...etc. • Some sociolinguistic issues such as Accommodation and Acculturation Theories, social identity - if you consider them relevant to EFL situations. • Is it possible to achieve native-like competence? Is it desirable? By Mónica Madrigal Páez Universidad Autónoma del Carmen 1
  2. 2. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION Contents1. Introduction 52. Defining the native speaker and the native like competence 53. Psycholinguistic issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competence 6 3.1 Universal grammar and Age 6 3.2 Linguistic competence and Communicative competence 74. Discourse issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competence 8 4.1 Input and Formal Instruction 8 4.2 Interaction 95. Sociolinguistic issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competence 9 5.1 Acculturation and Accommodation 96. Is it possible to achieve native-like competence? Is it desirable? 107. References 11 2
  3. 3. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION 1. IntroductionLearning a second language is becoming a vital part of the basic preparation for carrying outnumerous activities around the world. It makes communication easier and gives opportunities anddifferent perspectives about life. However, apart of the benefits of learning a second language as atool of communication, a relevant issue is to know if the learner can become as competent as anative speaker. Achieving a native-like competence has been an unachievable goal for somelearners, in fact, some linguistics like Cook (2007), maintains that it is impossible for L2 users tobecome as competent as a native speaker. Cook claims that L2 users have to be credited with beingwhat they are – L2 users. They should be judged by how successful they are as L2 users, not bytheir failures compared to native speakers. Even the opinion of some linguistics, for some learners itis important to become not only effective communicators but also to have a native-like competence.This piece of work intends to explain what some of the main issues that do not allow L2 learnersachieve a native-like competence are. In order to give some possible explanations to EFL learnersfailure, it is necessary to start mentioning some concepts that linguistics have made about what anative-speaker is and what native-like competence means; consequently, it will be possible toexplain what potential issues cause learners failure. 2. Defining the Native Speaker and Native-Speaker CompetenceSome recent works in the SLA field have shown that defining a native speaker is a relevant key inorder to decide if he or she is the role model that learners should attempt to achieve. According toEllis (1997:294) when learners acquire L2, they internalize rules which are then organized into asystem that is what constitutes their competence. The term “native speaker” also includes the factthat it can be someone who has learned the target language during childhood, has a native-likecommand of language, and the intuition to distinguish correct or wrong forms in his first language.Stern (1983) puts forward the idea that a native speaker has subconscious knowledge of rules, anintuitive grasp of meaning, ability to communicate within various social settings, a range oflanguage skills and creativity of language use. Some other linguistics as Johnson and Johnson(1998) adds the ability to produce fluent discourse, and the ability to translate into L1 of which sheor he is a native speaker.There are many aspects that interfere in the success of L2; some learners can be efficientcommunicators but they cannot become competent in the target language. Some learners aresuccessful because of their determination, hard work and persistence; however, there are othercrucial factors influencing success that are beyond their control. These aspects can be divided in 3
  4. 4. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONthree categories: psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, and discourse issues, which will be analyzedbriefly in order to know what aspects of these areas might cause the failure of EFL learners inachieving native-like competence. 3. Psycholinguistic issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competenceAs regards as psycholinguistic aspects, there are some theories in L2 learning which define how theprocess of acquiring a language is developed. Those theories such as universal grammar (UG), andlinguistic and communicative competence centre on different parts of the total language learningprocess and, which are involved in the failure of EFL students to achieve a native-like competencein second language. 3.1 The role of Age and Universal grammar in the acquisition of native-like competence.Chomsky argues that the input children receive is insufficient for learning the rules of a language,and that the nature of the speaker-hearer competence in his/her native language is an innateknowledge that humans are born with, (nativism) (cited: Saville-Troike 2006:47). This means thatchildren already have a system of linguistic knowledge, a set of rules for organizing language (alsoknown as Universal Grammar) at the initial state of the learning of their first language. Bearing inmind this idea, it seems that learning a L2 might be a less complicated process for children, since itincludes three main aspects: age, representations of language stored in the human brain and the factthat all the languages have in common structural basis, called universals. On the other hand,children have a limited age during which this natural acquisition is possible, and after earlychildhood, a different process in learning a L2 is developed. With regard to the structural basiscalled universals, there has been a disagreement among some theories affirming whether adult L2learners have access to a universal grammar. Flynn’s “No-access” theoretical view supports the ideathat a person is predisposed to learn language at a certain age and that UG is totally inaccessible tothe adult L2 learners, and because of this, their learning will have to rely on general learningstrategies. This theory considers that adult learners will be able to develop communicative abilitybut they will not be able to achieve a grammar or pronunciation competence as natives.Linguistics like Johnson, Newport and Lenneberg (1989) also point out that age plays an importantrole in the acquisition of a second language; they agree that the ability to acquire a language isbiologically linked to age, and that there is an specific time to acquire language, after this time it isno longer possible, and the set of rules known as universal grammar are not longer available. So, ifthere are certain aspects of the L2 the learner has not learned, it will be almost impossible to do itlater, and this will impede achieving a native-like competence. Another factor is that not many L2 4
  5. 5. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONlearners have lived or spent their childhood in the country where the target language is spoken, andthat many learners start learning a second language after their childhood, so based on the pointsabove mentioned, for most learners it will be impossible to attain a native-like competence. 3.2 Linguistic competence and Communicative competenceIn order to become communicative competent in a L2, Saville-Troike (2006:100) is certainlycorrect in saying that it is necessary for students to know, not only phonological and lexico-grammatical aspects of language, but also when to speak or not, what to say and to whom, and howto say it appropriately in any situation. The Linguistic Competence theory developed by Chomskyin 1965, and the Communicative Competence theory developed by Hymes in 1966, claim that inorder to acquire language competence, it is essential to have a system of linguistic knowledge whichmake possible to produce and understand a vast number of correct sentences (LC), as well as tohave social knowledge about how and when to use utterances properly (CC). Summarising theseideas, Canal and Swain (1980) defined communicative competence in term of four components:grammatical, sociolinguistic, strategic, and discourse competence.To this point, the grammatical competence has been partly analyzed, taking into consideration theUG. This grammatical competence is the knowledge of the grammar, vocabulary, phonology andsemantics of language, related to the fact that it can be acquired since the person was born, orbecause of the input they received, or the formal instruction taken. All these issues are also relatedto the sociolinguistic, strategic and discourse competences, since they imply to know how tomanage all these aspects of language in a context or in a speech community. It is also important toknow when to begin and end conversations, to express in a way that listener or readers canunderstand, to use different speech acts and communication strategies to compensate weakness incommunication. All these actions and knowledge called competences are used in daily life althoughnot all of them are carried out properly. Some other reasons why learners cannot achieve native-likecompetence are that in order to be a competent communicator many abilities are required, and notall learners possess these abilities. We have seen that the older the learner is, more difficult will beto acquire all the grammatical and phonological aspects of language in order to communicatecorrectly. If the learner does not use the language very often in a context where the target languageis spoken, he/she will not have input and will not be able to use strategies to negotiate meaning, thelearner will be putting forward messages and communication might not succeed. This reflects thesituation of many L2 learners where the language is used now and then, only in a classroom and not 5
  6. 6. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONin a real context. In sum, if the learner lacks of one of these competences, he/she mightcommunicate but he will not be as competent as a native-speaker. 4. Discourse issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competenceRegarding to discourse issues, input, interaction and formal instruction are also important in theprocess of acquiring a second language. These three issues are somehow related and their correctdevelopment might help L2 learners to achieve a native-like competence. 4.1 Input and formal instructionInput is the language that learners receive when they are in contact with the target language andfrom the one they can learn. It is the outcome of exchanges between learners and their interlocutors.When learners analyze and process this language is then called intake. Krashen’s Input hypothesisstates that human acquires language by receiving comprehensible and meaningful input and also byunderstanding messages. (Cited: Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 165). Input can be any contact learnershave with the language itself, the language taking place in real contexts like conversations or media,and also the language obtained in formal instruction. According to Ellis (1999), it is believed thatlearners who receive formal instruction generally outperform those who do not, and studies inthis field suggested that the kind of instruction that focuses on meaning and also focus on form in ameaningful context work best”Some of the aspects of the input that will not allow the development of the native-like competenceare that the language provided by teachers is usually modified in order to help learners tounderstand mainly lessons and not frequently for communicative purposes. This language iscontrolled and adjusted to the learners needs; this is called “care talk”, modifications made inlanguage used for children or also “foreign talk” modifications when natives talking to non-nativespeakers. These modifications in language will help them to understand each other, but they alsocause a problem because there will not be negotiation of meaning and teachers instead of promotingreal communication in the target language, will be facilitating the creation of a “Pidgin”, a languagewith limited vocabulary and simple grammatical structures used in order to communicate in aspecific environment.The situations learners face in real contexts will probably make them feel frustrated andunmotivated because native speakers will not adjust repeatedly their language in aspects likevocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, speech rate etc., and learners might think that what they havelearned is not useful at all, since they will not be able to produce real language in a conversationwith natives and will not be able to understand real language from TV programs, advertisements, 6
  7. 7. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONbooks or magazines. So, learners that are not involved in a target language environment will haveless opportunity to achieve a native-like competence because the occasions for communicating andinteracting in different social contexts will be reduced. 4.2 InteractionRelating to Interaction, Long’s Interaction hypothesis proposes that language acquisition isfacilitated by the use of the target language in interaction, and claims that it is more effective whenit is modified through the negotiation of meaning (cited Ellis:1997:47). When speakers producelanguage in a conversation, they not only produce individual words, they exchange information andnegotiation of meaning can be carried out when facing difficulty in communicating.Input and Interaction work very well together. For example, if a learner is in party addressing to anative, introducing him/her self and the other person, introduces too, the learner will be interacting,participating in a real context and the input that the learner will get, will be a great impact in hislearning; motivation and confidence will be stronger.On the other hand, this is only possibly when the learners develop in an environment where thetarget language is spoken or at least used for different purposes, but most learners attend to schoolswhere in class, the students are all speakers of the same first language and the use of their mothertongue interferes in their learning. An artificial language is created because of the modificationsteachers make in order to communicate with learners and there is not much opportunity to speak thelanguage in real situations, like asking for information, or shopping. Teaching language in contextor teaching functions can be helpful and more productive for students than teaching grammar andvocabulary isolated. 5. Sociolinguistic issues that affect the acquisition of native-like competenceSpolsky (1998:43) has suggested that variations in language are significant, and they make possiblefor language to reflect an individual’s religious, sociological, educational, geographic anddemographic background, which helps the speaker to constitute his/her identity. Two theories thatexplain the variations and changes in language in order to become part of a group are TheAccommodation theory and The Acculturation theory. 5.1 Accommodation and AcculturationAs already mentioned, interaction plays an important role in the learning of a L2, since at the end ofthe road, the main goal is to be able to communicate with different kind of people, whether they arenatives of the target language or not. The Accommodation theory supports the idea that when wewant to speak to another person, there are some changes in the way we address to him/her, it is like 7
  8. 8. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONif we tried to “imitate” the way the other person speaks, and this can be done by adjusting speechrate, using similar vocabulary and length of utterances. Spolsky (1998) states that “accommodation”takes place when a person who moves to a new part of the country modifies his or her speech indirection of the new norm. The Acculturation theory not only tries to imitate the language but takeson the beliefs and values of the new group the individual interacts with and in this way become apart of it. As social context play an important role in the acquisition of language and many L2learners are learning the language based on a formal instruction, their attitude, motivation andopportunities to develop “real language” will be almost null. Based on the idea that travelling tocountries where the target language is spoken, where learners can modify or live the cultural andsociological differences, many learners will continue using the same structures of grammar,vocabulary and intonation learned in class, to continue using them in class, and as a result, thatlanguage will fossilize. The opportunities to use the language are denied the most times denied forthese students, and the fact of not having this experience will affect their ability to develop a native-like competence. 6. Is it possible to achieve native-like competence? Is it desirable?Linguistics have not reached an agreement whether native-like competence is the final attainmentgoal for L2 users or if L2 learners can achieve it. Cook (1999) states that many SLA researcheshas dealt with this just by accepting that the object of L2 learning is to attempt a similardevelopment of adult native speakers competence. If a learner achieves this competence, it meansthat there are not many differences between his/her performance and the one of the native speaker.According to (Saville-Troike: 2000,180) researches in this field have focused on three aspects: the“what” is learned, (Linguistics and Discourse issues), the “how” is the language acquired(Psychological issues) and the “why” are some learners more successful that others (Sociologicalissues). All these issues integrated can determine the success of learners in acquiring L2 native-likecompetence. It is not just that the learner is interested in learning a L2, it also implies his/hermotivation, ability for learning, the age, the environment surrounded by, the input and the kind ofinstruction received, and the development of many abilities in order to be successful. Another bigquestion is to know if this native-like competence is desirable. Considering the communicationpurposes that many users of a language have around the world, it will be important to make learnersconscious about the kind of varieties of a language exist out there. The people learners will have toaddress will not be only “natives” of the language but also people from other countries who had to 8
  9. 9. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONlearn the language and that might had to face the same situations that they did in their process oflearning. 9
  10. 10. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONReferences 1. Ellis, Rod. 1985.Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2. Ellis, Rod. 1997. Second Language Acquisition. Oxford Introductions to Language Study. Series Editor H.G. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3. Lightbown, Patsy, Spada, Nina. 2006. How Languages are learned. Third Edition. Oxford. Handbooks for language teachers. Oxford University Press. 4. Mitchell, Rosamond and Myles, Florence.2004.Second Language Learning Theories. Second Edition. Hodder Education. Uk. 5. Ortega, Lourdes.2009. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. UK 6. Richards, J and Schmidt, R.2002. Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Third Edition. Longman. Pearson Education Limited. UK. 7. Saville-Troike, Muriel.2006. Introducing Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. UK 8. Williams, J., VanPatten, B. 2007. Theories in Second Language Acquisition. An Introduction. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. USA. 9. Scovel, Thomas. 1998.Psycholinguistics. Oxford Introductions to Language Study. Series Editor H.G Widdowson. Oxford. Oxford University Press. Web References 1. 2. 3. acquisition/Waeber&Czendlik.pdf 4. 5. query=PSYCHOLINGUISTIC+ISSUES&book_id=ALL 10