How Languages Are Learnt

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Lecture 1
How languages are learned?

1. Popular views about language learning.
2. How children learn their first language:
a) the behaviorist position;
b) the annalist position;
c) the “critical” period hypothesis;
d) the interactionist position.

Every few years new foreign language teaching methods arrive on the scene. New textbooks appear far more frequently. New methods and textbooks may reflect current developments in linguistic/applied linguistic theory or recent pedagogical trends. Sometimes they are said to be based on recent developments in language learning theory and research. For example, one approach to teaching may emphasize the value of having students to imitate and practice a set of correct sentences while another emphasizes the importance of encouraging “natural” communication between learners. How is a teacher to evaluate the potential effectiveness of new methods? One important basis for evaluating is the teacher’s own experience with previous successes and disappointments. Take a moment to reflect on the views about how languages are learned and what the implications are for how they should be taught. There are twelve popular views about language learning. Think about whether you agree or disagree with some of these views. (put: “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” )

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation.
2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors. 3. People with high intellectual qualities are good language learners. 4. The most important factor in second language acquisition success is motivation. 5. The earlier a second language is introduced at school programmes, the greater the likelihood of success in learning. 6. Most of the mistakes which second language learners make are due to interference from their first language. 7. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time and learners should practice example of each one before going on to another. 8. Teachers should teach simple languages structures before complex ones. 9. Learner’s errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits. 10. Teachers should use materials that expose students only to those language structures which they have already been taught. 11. When learners are allowed to interact freely (for example in group pair activities), they learn each others’ mistakes. 12. Students learn what they are taught.

How do children learn their first language?
Both second language research and second language teaching have been influenced by theories of how children acquire their first language. It is considered that there are important similarities between first and second language acquisition. One of the most fascinating aspects of human development is the ability to learn language. How do children accomplish it? What is it that enables a child not only to learn words, but to put them together in meaningful sentences? What pushes children to go on developing complex grammatical language? We shall consider several theories which have been offered as explanations of how language is learned. We shall discuss in turn three central theoretical positions: the behaviorist, the annalist and the interactionist views of language acquisition. 1. Behaviourism: a psychological theory that all learning, whether verbal or non-verbal, takes place through the establishment of habits. According to their view, when learners imitate and repeat the language they hear in their surrounding environment and are positively reinforced for doing so, habit formation (or learning) occurs. Traditional behaviorists believed that language learning is simply a matter of imitation and habit formation. Children imitate the sounds and patterns which they hear around them and receive positive reinforcement (which could take the form of praise or just successful...
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