Second Language Acquisition:
Sociocultural or Cognitive or both?
by Shane Tholen
How do people best learn, acquire and make use of a second language? Researchers and theorists in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) have had a relatively short history of grappling with this question. Indeed, the answer to the above question has led to considerable classroom and field research as theorists have sought to support behavioral, humanistic, cognitive linguistic and, more recently, sociocultural linguistic perspectives. If not for a perceived lack in particular theories or questions left unanswered in research, an understanding of how SLA works would not progress and students of language would not gain opportunities to improve the efficiency of acquisition. It is the purpose of this literature review to describe how certain theories have tried to supersede older hypotheses and to describe two main, contemporary linguistic outlooks, namely sociocultural and cognitive theories that currently seem to be at odds in the field of SLA. Furthermore, it will look at areas of SLA such as a first language's (L1) effect on a second (L2), Universal Grammar and the role of Input, Output and Interaction suggesting further research such as longitudinal studies that take account of synchronous processes in situational language events.
A brief history
In a Western context, SLA research can probably be traced back to Humbolt (1767-1835) who began investigating languages as rule-governed, heterogeneous systems. This stance was later referred to by Chomsky in the 1950s when linguistics studies were in full swing after Whorf's (1956) 1930s investigation of Hopi led to his "linguistic relativity hypothesis" where particular languages are believed to influence specific ways of thinking, understanding and belief. Lado's(1957) work on contrastive analysis was also influential at that time. His theory states that L1 has a direct influence on L2 acquisition and thereby needs to be contrasted to find inhibiting discrepancies. Chomsky, however, searched for similarities in language structure among all humans and with his theory of the existence of an innate Universal Grammar (UG) he became one of the world's most influential writers on linguistics. UG theory goes beyond the 'mimicry' of behaviorism to account for the infinite number of phrases humans can create after limited input (poverty of stimulus). Later, the idea of innate grammar, which is hard to prove or disprove, helped shape the form of contemporary SLA theory. For example, Selinker's (1972) notion of the existence of an 'interlanguage' (IL) is also based on learners forming rule-based systems. Furthermore, Krashen( 1985), basing his hypothesis on Chomsky's Language acquisition Device (LAD) which is said to reside in the brain, postulated that learners automatically acquire language if the input is at a comprehensible level (i+1 model). Arguments over the role of input and output have since been at the fore of SLA debates with questions as to what best triggers UG. Swain (1985), for instance, believes an output focused language practice would lead to improved processing of syntax. More recently, however, innate grammar has been questioned by cognitive and computational linguists such as N. Ellis, Langacker and Goldberg who propose language use can be explained in terms of activated neurological networks (connectionism). Still, cognitive linguistics (CL) has not been without criticism, especially from sociocultural linguists (SCL) and theorists such as Lantolf and Preston(1989). These writers argue that language does not exist in a 'black box' within a learner but is socially, communally and culturally co-created. R. Ellis(2003), on the other hand, is interested in the insights that both perspectives can offer on SLA.
A more detailed view
Influence of a learner's first language (L1) on second language (L2)
References: Achard, M. (2008) Teaching Construal Cognitive Pedagogical Grammar (Ch 17). in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Bybee, J. (2008) Usage Based Grammar and Second Language Acquisition (Ch 10) in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Ellis, N (2008) Usage-Based and Form-Focused Language Acquisition. in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Ellis, R. (2003) Task Based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Ellis(1985) FLOTE CD.
Gass, S and Selinker, L (2008). Second Language Acquisition: AN Introductory Course. Routledge, New York.(G&S)
Gordon, T (2007). Teaching Young Children a Second Language.Westport, Conn. : Praeger Publishers, in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Haden, Ernest Faber, (1962) A resonance theory for linguistics Mouton,
Langacker, R.W. (2008) Cognitive Grammar as a basis for language instruction in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Odlin, T. (2008) Conceptual Transfer and Meaningful Extensions (Chapter 13) in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Plantolf, J,P.(ed.) (2000) “Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning” Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Preston, (1989) “Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition” Blackwell,Oxford, UK.
Tyler, A. (2008) “Cognitive Linguistics and L2 Instruction” (CH 18) in Robinson, P. and Ellis, N. (eds) (2008)(Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
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