Second Language Acquisition. Suitability of SLA Theories for the English Language Classroom
Table of Contents
1. Time of the ’global village‘
2. Linguistic theories of second language acquisition
2.1 Goals of SLA researcher
2.2 Behaviorist learning theory
2.3 Innatist learning theory
3. Suitability of SLA theories for the English language classroom
1. Time of the ‘global village’
In times of globalization and the World Wide Web, communication between people has expanded way beyond their once local speech communities. As never before, humans depend on learning a second language as a means of obtaining an education or securing employment (cf. Ellis 1997: 3). One could state that being able to speak another language or even some languages is a requirement for a well-paid job, particularly in sectors like international business and economics. Therefore, especially teaching English, the official world language, has become indispensable to students’ education in many schools in many countries. According to this, the study of how people acquire a second language attaches great importance to linguists and foreign language teachers.
Of course, there are multiple perspectives in second language acquisition (SLA), which all encompass different hypotheses of how learners acquire a second language. Thus, in this paper two distinct influential linguistic theories of SLA will be introduced und their main statements will be clarified. The first one will be the dominant psychological theory of the 1950s and 1960s, named behaviorist learning theory with the focus on habit formation. Some years later, in the 1960s and 1970s, a new mentalist paradigm emerged and in regard to this, Krashen’s monitor model will be outlined. Subsequently, these theories will be discussed in relation to their suitability for the English language classroom and probably supplemented. Following, direct conclusions of how to improve language teaching can be drawn. language can be acquired in the classroom through instruction or naturally as a result of living in a place where it is spoken.
2.Linguistic theories of second language acquisition
2.1 Goals of SLA researcher
Before outlining the different theories of how learners acquire a second language, research on SLA itself will be considered. A second language thereby refers to languages that are learned after the mother tongue. Furthermore, a second
To find out how learners acquire a second language, researchers must observe what learners actually do when trying to learn another language. Hence, samples of the learner language, meaning language that learners produce when they speak or write in a second language, have to be analyzed carefully to find out what learners know about the language they are trying to adapt (cf. Ellis 1997: 4). In doing so, samples are collected at different points in time to find out how the learner’s language develops. Thereby, linguists usually focus on the formal features of language, e.g. how learners build up vocabulary, how their accents change over time or how learners’ ability to produce grammatical structures develops (cf. Ellis 1997: 4). As a result of this, the changes of the learner’s language over time can be described.
At the same time, linguists seek after identifying the internal and external factors that cause the learner’s ability to acquire another language in order to be able to explain SLA (cf. Ellis 1997: 4). Rod Ellis (1997: 4f.) mentions the social milieu in which learning takes place and the input that learners receive as important external factors. On the other hand, Ellis (1997: 5) refers to internal factors like cognitive mechanisms that people posses and enable them to extract information about the second language from the input. Furthermore, he alludes to people’s knowledge of how language in general works and that this helps them to learn the target language. Moreover, the suggestion that learners vary in their natural disposition for learning a second language is stated (cf. Ellis 1997: 6). It is already apparent to the reader that SLA is a highly complex topic with various external and internal factors that possibly affect the learner’s acquisition of another language. In addition, the term suggestion indicates that there must be diverse opinions on how a second language is acquired. Therefore, in the following, two different theories of SLA will be outlined.
2.2 Behaviorist learning theory
As already mentioned above, the behaviorist learning theory was the dominant psychological theory of the 1950s and 1960s (cf. Ellis 1997: 31). At that time, the most popular and significant proponent of language acquisition was B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist, who established an appropriate cognitive model of language learning in 1957 (cf. Saville- Troike 2012: 26). His theory “stressed the notion of habit formation resulting from S-R-R: stimuli from the environment (such as linguistic input), responses to those stimuli, and reinforcement if the responses result in some desired outcome” (Saville- Troike 2012: 26). Thus, habit formation includes adequate behavior to the learner. Habits are formed when learners imitate models of correct language and receive positive reinforcement if they are correct. On the other hand, errors have to be corrected immediately in order to avoid incorrect habits (cf. Tarone Swierzbin 2009: 14).
In addition to the definition of the behaviorist learning theory as a process of habit formation, behaviorists supposed that a second language learner transfers habits which are appropriate to his first language to the target language (cf. Lightbown Spada 2006: 34). For a second language learner, this means that he has to exchange and to enlarge his usual habits, which are already formed in his mother tongue. Thus, the process of SLA is attributed to a process in which old habits are being extended or replaced by new habits (cf. Tarone Swierzbin 2009: 14). According to this, some linguists expected that habits formed in the first language would interfere with the new ones needed for the second language (cf. Lightbown Spada 2006: 34). To prove this assumption, behaviorism was often linked to the Contrastive Analysis Hypotheses (CAH)  to find out structural similarities and differences within the mother tongue and the target language: “According to the CAH, where the first language and the target language are similar, learners should acquire target language structures with ease; where there are differences, learners should have difficulty” (Lightbown Spada 2006: 34). However, it is rarely the case that learners make errors predicted by the CAH, in
 Linguistic theories of second language acquisition 2.1 Goals of SLA researcher Before outlining the different theories of how learners acquire a second language, research on SLA itself will be considered. A second language thereby refers to languages that are learned after the mother tongue. Furthermore, a second
 This can only be outlined briefly because a detailed analyze of external and internal factors would exceed the scope of this paper. For further details see Ellis (1997: 4-14).
 In this paper, both males and females are only denoted by the masculine form for reasons of simplicity.
 Ellis (1997: 138) defines contrastive analyze as “a set of procedures for comparing and contrasting the linguistic systems of two languages in order to identify their structural similarities and differences.”