Understanding Foreign Language Learning

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Understanding Foreign Language Learning

Warm-up
Questions for discussion

1. Behaviorism vs. Mentalism

Behavioristic theories base themselves exclusively on observable behavior in the description and explanation of learning behavior, while mentalistic theories base themselves on the structure and mechanisms of the mind for such descriptions and explanations.

Behavioritic ideas about language learning are based mainly on a theory of learning, in which the focus is mainly on the role of the environment, both verbal and non-verbal. Mentalistic ideas about language learning are based mainly on theoretical linguistic assumptions, in which the focus in on the innate capacity of any child to learn any language.

1.1. Bahaviorism

Bahavioristic theory is also called connectionist theory. It describes and explains behavior using an SR-model. A connection is established between a stimulus or stimulus situation (s) and the organism’s response (R) to this stimulus. Bahaviorism sees learning in terms of habit formation. The habits are formed by imitation and reinforced by repetition.

The main representative of this approach to the study of learning behavior is Skinner. On the basis of his experiment with animal behavior, Skinner defined the notion of reinforcement. If a certain action repeatedly leads to a positive or negative result, the odds of occurrence or non-occurrence of this action will increase. Skinner speaks of positive reinforcement, if the action recurs more frequently, and of negative reinforcement if the action is not repeated.

According to Skinner, language behavior can only be studied through observation of external factors, one of which is the frequency with which a certain utterance is used in the child’s environment. Children imitate the language of their environment to a considerable degree, and imitation is a strong contribution factor in the language learning process. Consequently, the frequency with which words and structures occur in the language of the environment will influence the language development of the child. In addition, reinforcement is needed to arrive at a higher level of language proficiency. Parental approval is an important type of reinforcement in the language learning process: when a child produces a grammatically correct utterance which is understood by its environment, approval from the parents may serve as reinforcement for such an utterance. In this way, the environment encourages the child to produce grammatical utterances, while not encouraging ungrammatical utterances. Language development is described as the acquisition of a set of habits. It is assumed that a person learning a second language starts off with the habits associated with the first language. These habits interfere with those needed for second language speech, and new habits must be formed.

1.2. Mentalism

Also called rationalism, mentalism holds that a human being possesses a mind which has consciousness, ideas, etc. and the mind can influence the behavior of the body. These properties are in the mind at birth, rather than from the environment. Human knowledge develops from structures, processes, and “ideas”. These are responsible for the basic structure of language and how it is learned. This has been used to explain how children are able to learn language, and it contrasts with the belief that all human knowledge comes from experience.

Norm Chomsky claims that children are biologically programmed for language and that language develops in the child in just the same way that other biological functions develop. For Chomsky, language acquisition is very similar to the development of walking. The environment makes a basic contribution --- in this case, the availability of people who speak to the child. The child, or rather, the child’s biological endowment, will do the rest. This is known as the innatist position. Chomsky developed his theory in reaction to the behaviorist theory of...
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