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Brief history of language learning theorise . Dr Gabriela Meier. Overview. Reading – discussion Presentations Brief history. Objectives for today. Critically evaluate and discuss research articles in our field. Critically engage with and reflect on different learning contexts

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Brief history of language learning theorise

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  • Reading – discussion
  • Presentations
  • Brief history
objectives for today
Objectives for today
  • Critically evaluate and discuss research articles in our field.
  • Critically engage with and reflect on different learning contexts
  • Gain an overview of developments in understanding second language learning at an elementary level.
reading from last week
Reading from last week
  • Peacock, M. (2009) Attribution and learning English as a foreign language. In ELT Journal 64/2 (pp.184-193)
  • Available from ELE


  • How does the author define learner attributions?
  • What are the main findings?
  • Why are learner attributions important?
  • How does this resonate with your context?
2 key concepts for today
2 key concepts for today


  • Learning is the result of conditioning and habit formation


  • Learning is an internalised mental process
  • Theory of learning
  • Very influential between the 1940s and 1970s
  • Nurture  Environment has great importance

Key figure: BurrhusFrederic "B. F." Skinner

The process of learning a language is the same as for any

other skill. Learning entails a process of exposure, imitation,

practice, reinforcement and habit formation.

Learning is dependent on the stimulus provided by the

environment and is a response to this external stimulus.

Question: Is this true?

seeking evidence
Seeking evidence
  • Look at transcripts

Find examples of

  • Imitations (of other speakers)
  • Practice (manipulation of form)
  • Applying patterns to language
  • Practising unfamiliar formulas
  • Lightbown and Spada p. 10-13
l1 vs l2 learning
L1 vs L2 learning

In learning the first language (L1) imitation and habit

formation are certainly important.

Children engage in language play (a form of creative drilling)

and pick up and imitate chunks of language (formulaic

expressions and routines).

BUT imitation and repetition is only part of what we do and is

not consistently applied – can be very context dependent.

Learning the L2 is complex as we already have a set of L1

habits and from a behaviourist perspective these need to be

replaced with L2 habits.

  • Sometimes children do not imitate:

Child: My teacher holded the baby rabbits and we patted them.

Adult: Did you say your teacher held the baby rabbits?

Child: Yes.

Adult: What did you say she did?

Child: She holded the baby rabbits and we patted them.

Adult: Did you say she held them tightly?

Chlid: No, she holded them loosely.

Conclusion: Child has learned the English regular past tense rule. But her grammar does not admit exceptions to this rule.

Source: CHILDES (Child language data exchange system)

challenges to behaviourism
Challenges to behaviourism
  • Behaviourism sees the individual as a passive recipient of external stimuli. Towards the end of the 1950s in linguistics (Chomsky) and in psychology (Piaget) this was challenged.
  • Piaget: Learning involves internal developmental stages. Learners are actively involved in learning
  • Chomsky: Learners do not just repeat what they hear they are creative generators of new utterances they have never heard. Children’s mastery of their L1 is too quick to be merely a result of what they are exposed to. Almost everyone is successful in learning their first language irrespective of environmental differences
three main cognitive perspectives
Three main ‘cognitive’ perspectives
  • Innatism
  • Constructivism
  • Information processing
review of verbal behavior
Review of ‘verbal behavior’

Chomsky’s formal response:

“One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior.”

(Chomsky, 1959)


Key figure: Chomsky

  • Humans are genetically predisposed to acquire language
  • Humans draw upon innate knowledge when learning language
  • Such innate knowledge is known as Universal Grammar
  • Creativity, speed of acquisition and universal success
  • Point to an innate capacity/ mechanism which enables children to achieve this.
  • Put forward the idea of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) now typically referred to as Universal Grammar (UG)
  • Chomsky as a linguist primarily interested to describe what the LAD/UG is like. He suggested that this innate capacity can be described in terms of principles and parameters.
evidence for the existence of ug
Evidence for the existence of UG?
  • Research into the existence of a universal natural order of acquisition suggests that children all over the world go through similar stages in acquiring language structure.
    • Crying Birth
    • Cooing 6 wks
    • Babbling 6 months
    • Intonation patterns 8 months
    • One word utterances 1 year
    • Two word utterances 18 months
    • Word inflections 2 years
    • Questions, negatives 2 years 3 months
    • Complex constructions 5 years
    • Mature speech 10 years
morpheme acquisition order
Morpheme acquisition order
  • (Morpheme = smallest structural unit of a language)
  • Morpheme acquisition stages very similar for children within and across languages in L1 acquisition.

Eg in English the order is as follows:

  • Present progressive the boy is singing
  • Prepositions teddy in car
  • Plurals sweets
  • Past irregular broke
  • Possessive baby’s biscuit
  • Articles a car
  • Past regular wanted
  • Third person singular eats
  • Auxillary be he is coming
ug and a critical period for l1 learning
UG and a critical period for L1 learning?
  • Evidence suggests that older children who have not had exposure to human language fail to successfully acquire their L1.
  • Lenneburg suggested that this might suggest there is a critical period when L1 acquisition has the maximum chance to be successful (before the onset of puberty). He suggested that after this the LAD/UG may not be accessible.
evidence for innateness
Evidence for innateness

Critical Period

Eric Lenneberg (1960s)

  • There is a critical period of time (from birth until about puberty) when language must be acquired; after this period, normal language acquisition cannot take place

EH Lenneberg(1921 — 1975 )

support for critical period
Support for Critical period
  • • People who had brain damage through accidents or disease before puberty had irreversible damage to their language functions, and were unable to pick up those functions when intensive speech therapy was given after puberty.
  • • Children with Down's syndrome, whose general body development was slower than any other normal children, had their language development slower too. To be noted, their language development halted at puberty.
  • • Isolated children who have not been spoken to during the crucial period of childhood; referred to as "wild children".
some unresolved questions about ug
Some unresolved questions about UG
  • Is UG active in SLA?
  • Do L2 learners have access to UG?
  • If L2 learners do have access to UG, what is the nature of the access?
  • Is UG dead in adult L2 learners?
  • If UG is no longer active in L2 learners, do they have to use other cognitive capacities instead?
different views on access to ug by l2 learners
Different views on access to UG by L2 learners
  • Complete access: i.e. adults have the same access to the language faculty as child FLA learners (cf. Flynn’s Parameter-setting model, 1987)
  • No access: i.e. the fundamental difference hypothesis. FLA and SLA are fundamentaly different. Supporters of this position argue for a cognitive theory of SLA. (cf. Clahsen & Muysken 1986, and Meisel l1991)
  • Partial access: Linguistically impossible (‘wild’) grammars will not occur, because learners have access to UG principles (but not the full range of parameters) (cfSchacter 1988, Clahsen & Muysken 1986, White 1990)
  • Dual access: Adults have access to UG, but they also use other cognitive strategies to solve problems. Child FLA users have unrestrained use of UG, but adult SLA learners have only restricted access. (cf. Felix 1985)
  • Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press (pp.453-456)
  • Learners as actively engaged in constructing personal meaning out of their experiences.
  • Piaget disagreed with Chomsky: The only thing that is innate is the human capacity to learn. There is no special ‘device’ for language learning.
  • Piaget interested to identify developmental stages children go through as we develop cognitive maturity.

Key figure: Piaget

the theory universal stages of intellectual development
The theory: Universal stages of intellectual development
  • Sensori-motor stage (age 0-2): The child is concerned with masteringhis/her own physical reflexes.
  • Preoperational stage (age 2-7): The child engages in intuitive thought. He/she learns to manipulate his/her environment symbolically & to represent objects by words.
  • Concrete operational stage (age 7-11): The child begins to classify objects (concrete referents) on the basis of their similarities and differences. Also, the child grasps notions of time and number.
  • Formal operational stage(age 11-16): The child learns to manipulate abstract ideas, make hypotheses, engage in orderly thinking, master logical thought.
key stages in uk school system
Key stages in UK school system

A Key Stage is a stage of the state education system in the UK. It sets the educational knowledge expected of students at various ages. The stages are as follows:

Key Stage 0: Nursery/reception (3-5 years old) (Foundation Stage)Key Stage 1: Years 1 to 2 (5-7 years old)Key Stage 2: Years 3 to 6 (7-11 years old) Key Stage 3: Years 7 to 9 (11-14 years old) Key Stage 4: Years 10 to 11 (14-16 years old). GCSElevel

  • The National Curriculum sets out targets to be achieved in various subject areas at each of the Key Stages.

Piaget also introduced two key concepts to describe the way a child learns from experience.

  • Assimilation = the process by which incoming information is changed or modified in our minds so it can fit with what we already know.
  • Accommodation = the process by which we change or modify what we already know to take account of the new information
  • (a process of hypothesis-formation and testing)
some problems with the theory
Some problems with the theory
  • Piaget doesn’t tell the whole story:
  • Piaget neglects the role of the child’s interaction with the social environment.
  • Learning is not all logic; much of it is cultural.
  • Children don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’: they can get someone else (a parent, sibling, other adults) to show them how it’s done (cf. Vygotsky).
constructivism and sla today
Constructivism and SLA today

Focus on

  • Learner strategies
  • Learner beliefs
  • Teacher thinking
  • Individual and personal contributions
information processing
Information processing
  • Since 1990 central role in second language acquisition
  • Computer as metaphor for mind
    • Capacities for storage, integration and retrieval
  • No specific module in brain for acquisition/learning
  • UG as explanation for first language acquisition, but…

 Less successful for second language acquisition

information processing1
Information processing

Study of

  • processes by which meanings are identified and understood in communication
  • processes by which information and meaning are stored, organised and retrieved from memory
  • different kinds of decodingwhich takes place during reading and listening
  • study of memory, decoding and hypothesis testing, and the study of processes and strategies which learners use in working out meanings in the target language.
information processing2
Controlled processing

Automatic processing

Information processing
  • Slow access
  • Under control of attention
  • Limited in capacity
  • Quick access
  • Requires little attention
  • Needs little capacity to perform
information processing3
Declarative knowledge

Procedural knowledge

Information processing
  • Involves acquisition of isolated facts and rules

 knowing that

  • e.g. knowing that a car can be driven
  • Requires practice
  • Involves processing of longer units and increasing automization

knowing how

  • e.g. knowing how to drive a car
information processing4
Information processing
  • Robert DeKeyser:
    • Second language acquisition as “skill learning”
    • Learning starts with declarative knowledge
    • Becomes procedural knowledge through practice
    • Processes become proceduralized/automized like other skills
    • Parallel to development from controlled to automatic processing
information processing5
Information processing
  • Example: car driving
    • Begin learning to drive a car
      • Close attention to every action/decision
      • Aware that performances can easily be disturbed (e.g. talking)
    • Practice  skill improves
      • Automization
    • Experienced driver
      • Able to pay attention to previously disturbing events
information processing theory
Information processing theory

Many important figures:

  • McLaughlin on automaticity(from short to long term memory),
  • Anderson on procedural knowledge (from knowing that to knowing how)
  • Schmidt on connectionism (information processing and thought processes).
  • Some of these theorists see information processing as complementary to UG. Others see this as an extension of constructivist theories.
the role of error in sl learning
The role of error in SL learning
  • Behaviourism and the treatment of errors.
    • L1 interference. In order to learn the habits of a second language we can’t allow L1 in class as habits of L1 will interfere.
    • Contrastive analysis if we can identify the sorts of errors that are likely to interfere then we can adjust our teaching to accommodate these. But not all of these are made by all learners.
  • Cognitivismand the treatment of errors.
    • Errors are evidence of a developing dynamic language system. They are evidence of the internal processes at work.
    • The terms Interlanguage(Selinker) and Error analysis (Pitt Corder) used to describe this process and its systematic analysis.
limitations of a cognitivist view
Limitations of a cognitivist view
  • Under-emphasise the environmentand the impact of this on learning. Fails to theorise how external factors link to second language learning.
  • Over-emphasises the role of competencein language learning over performance (in terms of interaction and output).
  • Fails to account for the role of individual emotions and feelingsin language learning. Humanistic perspectives show that cognition and affect (emotions and feelings) are closely interrelated (see Arnold, 1999)
key contributions of a cognitive perspective to understanding sl learning
Key contributions of a cognitive perspective to understanding SL learning
  • Individuals are active in processing input.
  • They engage in hypothesis testing
  • They engage in information processing
  • Krashen: emphasis on input  Input-Interaction-Output approach (regarded by some as the major school of mainstream SLA studies, e.g. Block 2003).

Next week’s topic

recap questions
Recap Questions
  • What are the steps with which Behaviorism explains language? Name them and give an example.
  • What are the two different theories about the nature of Universal Grammar?
  • Who has challenged UG? And what was proposed in the way of an alternative explanation of language learning?
  • What is the main difference between information processing and the above models?
implications for your own learning teaching
Implications for your own learning + teaching
  • Think of your own language learning experiences.
  • Did you use behaviourist or cognitive approaches of learning a language?
  • What are the implications for language teaching?
objectives for today1
Objectives for today
  • Critically evaluate and discuss research articles in our field.
  • Critically engage with and reflect on different learning contexts
  • Gain an overview of developments in understanding second language learning at an elementary level.
  •  task for next time
cognitive benefits of being bilingual
Cognitive benefits of being bilingual

Discussion between

  • Ellen Bialystok (psychologist)
  • Laura-Ann Petitto (psychologist)
  • Peter Gazzellone (teacher)

(28 mins)



  • What main arguments do they put forward?

According to the discussants,

  • which of these arguments are supported by research evidence?
  • which of these arguments are supported by practical experience?