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Behavourist Theory of Sla

By TanmayBachar Sep 16, 2013 3767 Words

The theory of Language acquisition and learning is one of the most impressive aspects of human development. It is an amazing feat, which has attracted the attention of linguists for generations. Language Acquisition (LA) and Language Learning (LL) have sometimes been treated as two distinct phenomena creating controversy due to their variability in terms of age and environment. Oxford (1990: 4) in distinguishing between LA and LL argues that the first arises from naturalistic and unconscious language use and in most cases leads to conversational fluency; whereas the latter represents the conscious knowledge of language that happens through formal instruction but does not necessarily lead to conversational fluency of language. Fillmore (1989:311) proposes that this definition seems too rigid because some elements of language use are at first conscious and then become unconscious or automatic through practice. In another point of view, Brown (1994: 48) argues that both learning and acquisition are necessary for communicative competence particularly at higher skill levels. For these reasons, it can be argued that a learning acquisition continuum is more accurate than a dichotomy in describing how language abilities are developed. Language acquisition is more efficient than language learning for attaining functional skill in a foreign language not only in childhood. Language learning is limited to a complementary role in the form of support lessons and study materials, and will be useful only for adult students that have an analytical and reflective learning style and make good use of the monitoring function.

The Behaviourist Approach
Children acquire their first language at an extraordinary speed and to a degree of proficiency beyond pure chance. While we are able to recognize the different stages, the process remains a mystery. According to Lightbown and Spada (2006, p.10) there are three main theoretical positions: the behaviourist, the innatist, and the cognitivist/developmental. The traditional procedure for this approach is; stimulus, response followed by reward. Consequently, imitation and exposure to positive reinforcement are major factors. As Brown (2007, p.26) mentions: ‘A behaviourist might consider effective language behaviour to be the production of correct responses to stimuli. If a particular response is reinforced, it then becomes habitual, or conditioned. Thus children produce linguistic responses that are reinforced.’ Essentially, traditional behaviourism is the personification of the metaphorical donkey and the carrot; the donkey is the child, the desired linguistic response is the cart and the reinforcement, is the carrot. This view however was challenged by Skinner, when he deemphasized the role of the stimulus believing it was the reinforcers Teaching approaches such as ALM and PPP have long been linked to behaviourist theory due to their dependence on habit formation and the role of practice in their classes (Shortall in Willis and Willis, 1996, p.31). Language development is viewed as the formation of habits and automated responses to pre-rehearsed dialogues hence teaching materials and teacher training emphasize mimicry and rote learning (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.34) that follow a response that increase the probability of recurrence and thus the possibility of habituation (Brown, 2007, p. 89).

Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis
In keeping with the then popular behaviourist theory, it was hypothesized that habits formed in the first language would interfere with the acquisition of the second target language (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.34). Essentially the CAH suggests that a first language can be contrasted with the target second language to predict the errors that a learner will make (Shortall in Willis and Willis, 1996, p.31). Robert Lado (1957) cited in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) ( in Willis, 1997, p.65) clarifies: ‘Those elements that are similar to the learner’s native language will be simpler for him, and those elements which are different will be difficult.’

The Innatist Approach

Universal Grammar
Although Chomsky made no direct attempt to connect his theory of UG with SLA, other linguists have argued that because learners end up knowing more about the target language than could conceivably be learned from exposure alone, that UG must be available to second language learners as well (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.35). Krashen’s Monitor Model

Influenced by Chomsky, Stephen Krashen put forward the Monitor Model for SLA defined by the following five hypotheses. The Acquisition - Learning Hypothesis
Krashen (1983) asserts that there are two language systems, one for conscious learning; where the focus is on form and rule learning and the other for unconscious and natural acquisition; in which no particular attention is given to language form. Krashen (1983) contends that the two systems are completely separated and that what is learned does not filter into the acquired system (cited in Willis, 1997, p.86). The Monitor Hypothesis

Krashen (1983) here states that all utterances are initiated by the speaker’s acquired system and that the learned system merely plays a monitoring role, allowing for alterations or corrections. However, such editing can only occur if the following three conditions are met: the speaker has enough time, is concerned about correctness and has learned the relevant rules (Jordan, 2004, p.179). The Natural Order Hypothesis

As with FLA, grammatical structures are acquired in a predictable sequence; although this does not apply to learned structures (Willis, 1997, p.87). The order of acquisition is not governed by simplicity and is independent of the order in which the grammatical structures are taught (Jordan, 2004, p.179).

The Input Hypothesis
According to Krashen (1983), understanding comprehensible input leads to SLA (Brown, 2007, p.295). He states that we acquire language by understanding input which is a little beyond our current level of acquired competence (Willis, 1997, p.87). This is represented by the equation [i + 1], i symbolizing the level of acquired language up to now and + 1 corresponding to language that is just one step beyond that level (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.37). The Affective Filter Hypothesis

In order to explain individual variation in SLA and why some learners never acquire full competence despite being exposed to large quantities of comprehensible input; Krashen (1983) proposed the affective filter, a type of internal processing system that subconsciously screens input based on the learner’s motivation, attitude, needs and emotional state (Jordan, 2004, p.180). Negative factors such as lack of motivation, anxiety or dislike of the L2 culture prevent the learner from making use of available input, thereby affecting the learner’s progress with regard to acquisition though not necessarily to learning (Willis, 1997, p.87). The Critical Period Hypothesis

Research supporting a CP in FLA seems absolute, as for SLA, the existence or non-existence of a cut-off point such as in FLA is still a topic of debate (Singleton in McGroarty, 2001, p.82). Regardless of their lack of success, adult learners are not total failures. Two speculations have been advanced to explain this: Firstly, that there is a sensitive period rather than an all or nothing critical period and secondly that this sensitive period affects different linguistic domains differentially (Han, 2003, p.47). As defined by Patkowski (1980) (cited in Han, 2003, p.48): ‘The sensitive period notion holds only that absolute, native like proficiency in all aspects of language (including vocabulary and syntax) is impossible to attain for the adult learner; it does not hold that extremely high, quasi-native levels cannot be attained in one or moreareas. Furthermore, it must be insisted that what is referred to as the eventual level of proficiency attained after a sufficient period of exposure to and immersion in the target language under optimal sociolinguistic and affective conditions.’ Developmental Approach

Given that SLA often falls short of full success, cognitivists and developmentalists see SLA as the building up of knowledge that will eventually become automatic. As with any other skill, at first even simple tasks (like a greeting) require a lot of attention and concentration, but over time these processes become automated requiring almost no thought at all and allowing several tasks to occur simultaneously and seem spontaneous (Brown, 2007, p.300).

The Interaction Hypothesis
According to this theory, language is acquired as learners interact and attempt to communicate in the target language; in effect ‘learning by doing’ (Nunan, 1999, p.51). Michael Long (1983) (cited in Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.43) describes the relationship: ‘Interactional modification makes input comprehensible, comprehensible input promotes acquisition therefore, interactional modification promotes acquisition’. As pointed out by Lightbown and Spada, (2006, p.44) modification can include elaboration, slower speech, gesture or even the addition of other contextual cues. The Output Hypothesis

While observing students in an immersion program in Canada, Merrill Swain (1985) found that despite receiving massive amounts of comprehensible input, their second language development was not supporting the input hypothesis. She concluded that output was at least as significant as input, if not more so, suggesting that opportunities to produce language were important for acquisition (Nunan, 1999, p.45). Connectionism

As introduced above as an explanation for FLA, connectionists believe that learners of a second language gradually accumulate knowledge solely through exposure without ever needing to learn the rules. Learner Beliefs

Beliefs about the nature of language and learning are built up over time by the learner and include all that they understand about themselves as learners and thinkers, including their goals and needs. Hence, they can be viewed as a component of metacognitive knowledge (Bernat and Gvozdenko, 2005, p.1). With regard to teacher beliefs, Bailey et al explained in Freeman and Richards (1996, p.11) “…we teach as we have been taught…” assuming that this is also true of the learner; the way a learner has studied will undoubtedly affect how they perceive the process of language acquisition. Perception of success and expectancy can also play major roles in the creation of learner beliefs, realistically high levels can help to build confidence whereas unrealistically high levels tend to promote incompetence (Bernat and Gvozdenko, 2005, p.4).

Areas of Agreement on SLA Beliefs
The following discussion will look at some of the main areas where the adult students and the children’s parents agreed and try to account for this concurrence (see appendices 4 and 5). To learn successfully all you need is enough exposure to the target language Both groups showed significant support for the connectionism idea that exposure to language is the key mechanism in acquisition. Many of the parents explained their desire for their children to be taught by a native English speaker on the basis that they would ‘absorb’ the language. A possible rationale for this is the parents’ own experience studying English in the Japanese school system where the emphasis was on grammar translation rather than communication, with very little exposure to the target language. However, as pointed out by Singleton, (in Mayo, 2003, p.17) time spent in the company of native speakers only seems to help with the quality of L2 pronunciation. While it is true that performance will improve with exposure, chances to produce meaningful language should not be overlooked and neither should the possibility that a lack of formal instruction could lead to fossilization (Willis, 1997, p.51). Ellis, (referred to in Nunan, 1999, p.45) also concluded that it was quality rather than quantity of the exposure that mattered. Practice makes perfect

This age old adage fits almost any situation where a new skill is being learned, be it learning how to write the alphabet or remembering a speech, the importance of practice cannot be denied. That being said, this behavourist assumption that by we can improve simply by practicing is very attractive and misleading. With regard to more mechanical skills the merits of practice can easily be observed and evaluated. However, it has been suggested by Lightbown in Willis (1997, p.44) with regard to language learning and in particular the production of spontaneous language that controlled practice will not make production automatic and that even successful production under controlled conditions may not guarantee spontaneous production. In order to see the benefits of practice on language learning we need to expand the traditional parameters of practice to include, exposure to and comprehension of a language feature and not only rely on repetitive drills such as those found in ALM (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.39). People don’t learn languages in the same way

Taking into account different language backgrounds, learning experiences and the fact that people are told throughout their lives that they are unique, the statement above appears logical. This deep belief in individuality may be the reason why this notion is popular among the adult students and the children’s parents. Nevertheless, testament agreeing with Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis has been discovered in the developing interlanguage of learners from different language backgrounds. These developmental sequences were found to be similar to those observed in the first language acquisition of the same language, which shows that, just as in FLA, there are also predictable developmental sequences in SLA (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.82, 92). A plausible explanation is that the adult students and the children’s parents view success as a means of determining learning, consequently someone who has a mastery of a language would be perceived to be a better learner than someone who is still struggling. This variation could be explained by language learning aptitude, styles or preferences. It is important to emphasize that developmental stages are not closed and that learners can utilize sentences typical of several stages at the same time and that progress to a higher stage does not always mean the learners produce fewer errors (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.92-93).

Motivation is an important factor in language learning

Motivation can be defined in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation depending on the learner’s goals and needs. Van Lier (in Candlin and Mercer, 2001, p.97) adds that extrinsic rewards can have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation and diminish a learner’s motivation and desire to learn. A student’s motivation cannot be controlled by the teacher, but creating a supportive environment where students can experience success can help (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.85). The idea that a learner’s motivational state might affect their success is in keeping with Krashen’s Affective filter hypothesis illustrated above and as expected, all of the participants agreed with this statement. It is reasonable to presume that all of them have at some stage in their lives experienced the benefits of motivation. The earlier a second language in introduced in school programmes, the greater the likelihood of success in learning The concept that younger is better is generally accepted by SLA researchers and lends itself to the critical period hypothesis. This is corroborated by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson’s (2000) claim (cited by Singleton in Mayo, 2003, p.10) that: ‘Younger learners acquire second languages automatically from mere exposure, while older learners have to make conscious and labored efforts’, This inferred difficulty for post-puberty learners is the likely reason why both the children’s parents and the adult students agreed with this idea. The children’s parents might view early English education as a chance to give their children an opportunity that they perceive they never had. By learning from a younger age they hope their children will succeed where they had failed. As for the adult students they probably see their late introduction as a potential reason for their fossilization and lack of improvement. Ellis (1985), on the other hand asserts, that it may not be as simple as that: ‘…while age does not alter the route of acquisition, it does have a marked effect on rate and ultimate success…For example, in terms of rate, adults appear to do better than children (6 to10 years), while teenagers (12-15 years) appear to outperform both adults and children’ (cited in Nunan, 1999, p.41) Furthermore the decision of when to introduce a second language into a school should be based on the student’s needs and the school’s language objectives, and not age related generalizations. Lightbown and Spada (2006, p.186) explains:

‘When the objective is native-like performance in the second language, then it may be desirable to begin exposure to the language as early as possible,…when the goal of the educational programme is basic communicative skill for all students,…it can be more efficient to begin second language teaching later.’ The learner should try and use L2 as much as possible inside the classroom No one can deny that using a language being learned is a good thing. Two theories that share this observation; the interaction hypothesis and the output hypothesis, agree that “learners need to speak in order to learn.” Nunan, (1999, p.51) suggests that: ‘…language is acquired as learners actively engage in attempting to communicate in that target language…’ and that ‘…acquisition will be maximized when learners engage in tasks that “push” them to the limits of their current competence.’ This is expanded on by Swain (2005, 1995) (cited in Brown, 2007, p.298-299) with her definition of the three major functions of output in SLA: For learners to notice their own linguistic shortcomings, to try out and test various language hypotheses and to reflect on language through interaction with peers. As implied earlier, the parent’s memories of studying English may not be pleasant. It is possible that they associate more communicative classes with being fun and interesting, unlike the grammar translation of their youth. While they stated that they believe speaking in class is important, many of the adult students are reluctant speakers (Nunan, 1999, p.231). However, the fact that they acknowledged its importance leaves this researcher with a sense of hope of someday seeing them gain the confidence to speak. Although, according to Nunan (1999, p.45), Ellis (1984) found that those learners who interacted least in class appeared to improve the most, inferring, maybe that they are just fine the way they are. Areas of Disagreement on SLA Beliefs

The following discussion will look at some of the main areas where the adult students and the children’s parents disagreed and try to shed light on the source of the difference of opinion (see appendix 6). Learning a second language is the same as learning your first language What is interesting here is the disparity between the two groups. The children’s parents are clearly of the opinion that the above view is true whereas the adult students completely reject it. Without further investigation it is only possible to speculate as to the origin of these results. In the case of young learners, differences in learner characteristics and the environments in which first and second language acquisition occur are major determining factors (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.29). Given that all children achieve perfect mastery of their first language; the notion that their child can effortlessly acquire a second language could be intoxicating for the parents. If so, they fail to allow for the amount of exposure to language, communication opportunities and error correction their children face on a daily basis in their L1. Also, assuming that language acquisition is facilitated in the interactionist or connectionist manner, one hour of second language instruction a week cannot be compared to 7 days of mother tongue exposure. By asserting that SLA is the same as FLA, the parents may in fact be declaring that they believe there is no need for them to actively participate in their children’s second language education. Concerning adult learning, Willis (1997, p.86) points out that a major difference between FLA and SLA is that a second language learner already has knowledge of one language system and is likely to view the second language in light of this. Taking this into consideration, as well as the time spent studying and the obvious lack of success felt by the adult students it is easy to see why they regarded the idea of SLA being the same as FLA to be false. Learning about pragmatics is important

Communicating effectively in a language involves more than knowing a few words and phrases. Even learners with a substantial vocabulary and a good grasp of syntax and morphology can encounter difficulty. Gaining the knowledge to understand and be able to interpret requests, respond to polite compliments or apologies, recognize humour and manage conversations is equally if not more important for the learner in order to survive outside the classroom (Lightbown and Spada, 2006, p.101). With a 77 percent majority in agreement it is obvious that the adult students understand this and see the potential from its study. Most have probably at some point been in a situation where they could understand the words, but had no idea of their implied meaning. From the opposing results it is apparent the children’s parents do not share this belief. Perhaps they feel that pragmatics is better suited to more mature learners who already have a strong background in grammar and syntax. English language education in Japan is for the most part focused towards high school and university entrance examinations, both of which require very little use of pragmatics. Conclusion

What can be seen from the results of this study is an eclectic nature towards theories, with both groups accepting truths from each of the three defined perspectives. There is a definite lean towards innatism with a hint of behaviourism and cognitivism /developmentalism; in that both groups believe that learning a language is as natural as breathing but also accept that exposure and practice are important factors. Before any final conclusions can be made further study is necessary. However, trying to pinpoint the learner’s position on various beliefs may be a futile pursuit, due to the dynamic nature of learner beliefs, what they believe today may be different from what they believe tomorrow. Research (Cotterall, 1995) suggests that attitudes towards learning, and the perceptions and beliefs that determine them may have an effect on learning behaviour and conceivably success (Bernat and Gvozdenko, 2005, p.4). By being aware of the nature of these beliefs and their underlying philosophies it is possible to predict potential areas of resistance and enhance the process of language learning. These beliefs will shape overall lesson planning, the selection of content and the form of interaction decided on by the teacher (Burns in Freeman and Richards, 1996, p.158). In addition, through identification of these beliefs and reflection on their likely impact on language learning and teaching; areas where there is a positive effect can help with future syllabus design and teaching practices (Bernat and Gvozdenko, 2005, p.2). In short the valuable insights provided will result in better classes and parental encounters that encourage and facilitate learner development and growth through awareness and understanding.

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