What have been the most important findings in SLA research on instructed/classroom second language learning in recent years? What have been their main influences on ELT?
With the growth of our global village and with our seemingly permanent state of interconnectedness the need for a worldwide common tongue is paramount for many people; more often than not that common tongue is English. People have sought to learn such lingua franca for millennia, yet the study of how people acquire this 'second language' is relatively recent [Ellis, 1997/Gass and Selinker, 2008]. Additionally, the term 'second language acquisition' is something of a misnomer, not simply referring to the study of the second language learned additionally to a mother tongue but to any language learned which is not the mother tongue [Ellis, 1997]. In this essay I will discuss the growth of the study of SLA from Applied Linguistics, the importance of its first dominant paradigm, namely Stephen Krashen's Monitor method, various other approaches such as behaviourism and other aspects of cognitive psychology before reflecting on the influence of each and their current relevance to the world of ELT.
No discussion of SLA would be complete, however, without a mention of Chomsky's Universal Grammar. This theory was strongly influential on second language acquisition research [Mitchell and Myles p52]. Chomsky considered “.... each language [to be] the result of two factors: the initial state and the course of experience. We can think of the initial state as a 'language acquisition device' that takes experience as 'input' and gives the language as an 'output' – an 'output' that is internally represented in the mind/brain.” [Chomsky, 2000 p4 quoted in Mitchell and Myles, p52]. He sees the acquisition of language, both mother tongues and second languages to be subject to the principles of an inherent structure of predominantly functional categories and that the role of the learner the traits of the language the hope to acquire is to overlay that language's examples into the pre-existing mental compartments, dubbed as 'lexical parameterization hypothesis' [Mitchell and Myles p67]. It must be noted however that Universal Grammar is a linguistic, not a learning, theory. While it is still highly relevant and influential today it does not consider language as a social tool and the learning of it from without, unlike many more current (learning and language) theories. It is therefore more of an interesting side abstraction than of direct pertinence to our question.
Perhaps the most influential thinker directly relevant to our question then is Stephen Krashen. His ideas came to prominence during the early 1980s and seemed more useful and more applicable to the classroom than the audio-lingual (based on an antiquated behaviourist approach) and grammar-translation approaches that had held sway until that time [Krashen, 1982]. His main thrust was that language acquisition was a result of comprehensible input and that formal learning did not result in language production. This became the dominant paradigm of the time in SLA. Krashen's most important and influential ideas were:
i) the acquisition-learning hypothesis
ii) the natural order hypothesis
iii) the monitor hypothesis
iv) the input hypothesis
v) the affective filter hypothesis.
The acquisition-learning hypothesis is the idea that we need separate and distinct terms for gaining expertise and ability in a language (acquisition) and understanding and developing the more formal mechanisms of the language itself (learning). The natural order hypothesis posited that the order in which we acquire a language is predictable in terms of its grammar. The monitor hypothesis is the idea that rules which are 'learned', that is to say formally attained, can only be utilised effectively as an 'editor' [Romeo], my inference of which being that production of acquired language should be given more free...
Bibliography: Second Language Acquisition, Rob Ellis, Oxford University Press, 1997
Second Language Acquisition (Third Edition), Susan M
SLA Research in the Classroom, Patsy M. Lightbown, The Language Learning Journal, 2003
How Languages are Learned (Fourth Edition), Patsy M
Great Expectations. Second Language Acquisition. Research and Classroom Teaching, Patsy Lightbown, Applied Linguistics, 1985
The Least a Second Language Acquisition Theory Needs to Explain, M.H
Second Language Learning Theories (2nd Edition), Rosamond Mitchell and Florence Myles, Hodder Arnold, 2004
Thought and Language
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