Second Language Acquisition Theories
November 10, 2014
Second Language Acquisition Theories
According to the United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2014), there are approximately 4.4 million English language learners (ELL) in American public schools. This is a little over nine percent of the student population. In some states, such as California and Texas, this percentage is much higher. California currently has an ELL population of 23.3% of all students enrolled in public schools, and Texas currently has an ELL population of more than 15% of the total student population (US Department of Education, 2014). These numbers may be slightly skewed as research indicates that 19% of all students are children of immigrants, and are not classified as ELL (Center for Public Education, 2007). While 79% of ELLs speak Spanish as their primary language, the other 21% of students speak over 400 different languages (Center for Public Education, 2007; US Department of Education, 2014).
As a whole, ELL students lag significantly behind their native English-speaking peers in math and English language arts. This is because it is estimated that it takes four to seven years for an ELL student to reach English proficiency (Collier, 1995). Collier (1995) also argues that first language proficiency is related to achievement in English, as research supports that language skills and conceptual knowledge in the student’s first language transfers to English. However, if students lack primary language skills, it takes much longer for these students to reach proficiency in second language acquisition and academics. Schools with a high ELL population need to have support for students in order to begin to close the achievement gap between students. Additionally, these schools must have well-prepared teachers who are knowledgeable about second language acquisition and how to effectively support these students in both language and academics. Language Acquisition Theories
Krashen’s (1988) theory of second language acquisition is comprised of five main hypotheses: 1) the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, 2) the Monitor hypothesis, 3) the Input hypothesis, 4) the Natural Order hypothesis, and 5) the Affective Filter hypothesis. Each of these hypotheses has made a huge impact in how educators approach the instruction for English language learners (ELL). The Acquisition-Learning hypothesis is argued to be the most critical of all (Thomas & Collier, 1995). Krashen (1988) argued that second language performance is comprised of two independent systems: the acquired system and the learned system. The acquired system, referred to as acquisition, is the creation of a subconscious process much like the development children go through when learning a primary language (Hernandez-Chavez, 1984). This development relies on meaningful interactions in order to develop. The learned system, known as learning, is the creation of formal instruction which comes from a more conscious method resulting in knowledge about the language (Krashen, 1988). For example, children will obtain knowledge about the rules of grammar. In Krashen’s (1988) opinion, learning is less important than the acquisition process itself. The Monitor hypothesis examines the connections between acquisition and learning, in addition to the influence each has on one another. The purpose of monitoring comes from a direct result of learned grammar. The acquisition method is the language initiator, while the learning system performs the role of the editor or monitor. The monitor then acts as a planner, editor, and corrector function when the ELL has efficient time, focuses on application, and knows the grammatical rule (Jean & Geva, 2009). Krashen (1988) argues that the role of monitor should only be implemented to correct deviations of normal speech patterns. The Input hypothesis is an effort to describe how the ELL acquires a second language. This hypothesis only focuses on the acquisition process and not learning. This component of Krashen’s theory suggests that the ELL only enhances his or her language acquisition when the comprehensible input is one step higher than the student’s current ability range. For example, if the student has performed knowledge at a level one language development stage, then input from level two will help the student progress. The Natural Order hypothesis suggests that the acquisition of grammatical structures is predictable, hence following a natural order (Krashen, 1988). This natural order is determined by the ELL’s age, exposure to language, background knowledge, and understanding of the primary language. The final hypothesis, Affective Filter, is quite the opposite of the Natural Order hypothesis in that learning is not the focus, but rather self-image. Krashen (1988) asserts that motivation, self-confidence, low anxiety, and safety play a large role in second language acquisition competence. This is why teachers are encouraged to lower the affective filter in a classroom comprised of ELL students; it helps students become comfortable in their current learning environment and let go of any roadblocks preventing them to learn effectively. The most important concept to grasp from Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition is that students should not learn language and academics simultaneously, but once the language is mastered, then academics can be tackled (Chiocca, 1998). Jim Cummins
Cummins (1991) has a very different view on how a second language is best acquired. Cummins’ (1991) theory of second language acquisition has two main components: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). BICS refers to the two basic skills of communication: listening and speaking. CALP refers to the two more challenging components of communication: reading and writing. Additionally, BICS is associated with conversational English, while CALP is associated with academic language and vocabulary (Jean & Geva, 2009). According to Cummins (1991), it takes an ELL two to three years to develop BICS and five to seven years to develop CALP and perform at the same level as his or her peers.
The underlying principle behind Cummins’ theory, also known as common underlying proficiency (CUP), states that a person’s knowledge of his or her primary language will transfer over to the acquisition of a second language (Cummins, 1991). CUP also helps further develop the first language in addition to enhancing the process of the second language acquisition process. While Cummins has many important contributing factors to the community of second language learners, the most important thing for teachers to take into consideration is that he asserts that children can learn both language and academics simultaneously. Social Interaction and Sociocultural Theories
Chomsky (1965), and later Vygotsky (1978), both believed that social interactions and society has a huge impact on how one learns language and academics. Their theories stress the importance that social interaction between child development and the culture in which they live rely upon one another in order for the development of the whole child to be successful. Chomsky (1965) argued that children have the innate ability to learn a language. He called this ability to learn and use a language as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Chomsky (1965) also asserted that the stages children go through to develop cognitive abilities has little to nothing to do with language development. Chomsky was not concerned with the actual production and pronunciation of language, but rather with understanding the rules. Although Chomsky did not study second language acquisition, he inspired many other theorists, such as Cummins and Krashen, to apply his theories to the second language acquisition process.
Vygotsky (1978) also argued that children learn through social interactions and experiences. However, he asserts that meaningful communication and comprehensible input is how children not only acquire their first language, but any additional languages as well. Swain (1985) took Vygotsky’s theory one step further and noted that comprehensible output, which is the understanding of meaningful conversations, is also needed to successfully develop a second language. Vygotsky’s theory differed from Chomsky’s theory in that he believed that cognitive and linguistic development comes from how children use and manipulate their language environment. Conclusion
There are many theories and developmental stages that a child must go through in order to successfully acquire a second language. Many theorists believe that a child’s primary language can be used to enhance the development of a second language; however, each theorist’s perspectives differ on exactly how the first language is used. Some theorists argue that phonics and grammar are critical; others argue that vocabulary is instrumental, and others believe that the understanding of the language process itself is the most important element in effectively acquiring a second language. While discussing several theories about language acquisition is just the foundation of understanding a second language acquisition process, it helps provide a framework to build upon.
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