Unlike First Language Acquisition, Second Language Learners vary extremely in levels of proficiency. But what is so different about second language learning? The question of this term paper is not why some people are better than others, it rather deals with the best of the best and the maximum levels of second language learning that have ever been achieved. Are second language learners able to become native-like speakers? And if not what is restricting us from doing so? Since learning a language is very complex, no study fully describes how second language learning really takes place. So far, researchers have approached the topic from three different angles: linguistic, psychological and social. Most studies tend to consider these separately and due to this do not achieve a complete understanding of the issue. Linguists analyse the output of a speaker (linguistic performance) and their underlying knowledge (linguistic competence) at different proficiency levels. Also, they compare languages identifying similarities and differences. Psychologists ascertain how the brain processes the language and how information is stored. The focus lies on internal representations. The social approach is concerned with the impact society has on the speaker (Saville 2012: 3). The purpose of language is communication and enabling the speaker to interact with other members of a social group. Socializing and communication via a language have a reciprocal effect. Moreover, speaking a certain language, dialect or sociolect reflects the speaker’s identity.
Following Saville (2012) as an example, this paper will analyse the question whether second language learners can become native-like speakers from three different angles: linguistic, neuro-scientific and socio-psychological. The Critical Age Hypothesis and Access to UG Hypothesis are explained as well as challenged. Moreover, differences between first language acquisition and second language learning are displayed considering a linguistic as well as a neurological background. Not only UG as a rather abstract concept but also the organization and processing of language in the human brain are examined. Furthermore, the major role of culture and identity being reflected in language is highlighted. All three approaches are assembled in a final discussion.
2. Theory about second language learning
The ability to acquire a language is birth given and thus comes with genetics. When acquiring a first language (L1), little input and effort is needed for the child to master its native tongue. Linguists developed a hypothesis, which states that every human has a Universal Grammar implemented in their brain. This Universal Grammar (UG) consists of principles and parameters confirming with every language. For clarification, Chomsky (2000) compares the principles to a network and the parameters to a switchbox being connected to each other (8). Depending on the properties of the language, parameters are switched on or off. Chomsky refers to UG as the “language organ” which represents the initial state of the speaker’s mind. As the brain matures certain principles and parameters will be set according to (a) specific language/s being acquired when being a child. However, after the brain has reached a certain level of maturation, the setting of these principles and parameters cannot be altered as freely as at a young age.
2.1 The critical age hypothesis and the initial state
Many studies have shown that children can easily acquire any language before the age of puberty supporting the critical age hypothesis (Myers-Scotton 2006: 37). As an adult it is much harder to learn a foreign language. There are different theories about what age this critical age or the critical period is. Some theorists claim the critical age to be at six or seven others claim puberty to be the turning point. The hypothesis does not say that the ability to learn a second or a third language after the...
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