Essay: Second Language Acquisition

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Second Language

Lightbown and Spada Chapter 1 and 2: Language Learning in Early Childhood

This chapter was a bit surprising because it did not address learning a second language but instead focused on how children learn their first language. It was also surprising to read about children since those reading this textbook are obviously no longer children. However, perhaps the main benefit of the approach taken by chapter 1 and 2 is that it really exposes just how difficult it is to learn even one language, let alone two. I was particularly surprised by the fact that word acquisition (during the early school years) occurs at a rate of several hundred to 1000 words per year. Still, I am curious as to how exactly such information could be determined or verified; to this end, it would have been interesting to learn the methodology used to determine such statistics.

The other benefit to focusing on initial language acquisition in the first chapter of the book is that it is universal and applicable to everyone, regardless of their cultural background; I was particularly interested in the fact that early vocalization is the same for everyone, regardless of their ethnicity. This caused me to take not of the fact that there are different levels of languages -- instinctual/nonverbal language and verbal/written language. Learning that initial language learning is the same for everyone impressed upon me the fact everyone is born with the same language capacity and that culture and other external stimuli are what make it difficult to learn verbal languages.

Chapter 1 was also useful in that it delineated the central theories that describe language acquisition, be it initial or secondary acquisition. The author situates the Behaviorist theory in a binary with the Innatist theory, and positions the Interactionist explanation as a sort of synthesis between the former two models. Ultimately, I feel that the Interactionist model most effectively captures how people learn language. I do believe that the majority of language acquisition occurs through imitation and empirical exercises and in this regard, I feel that the Behaviorist approach is valid. However, people must be born with a neurological profile that is conducive to successfully conducting the exercises associated with the Behaviorist approach. The Interactionist theory best captures the interplay between internal makeup and external stimuli that is necessary to acquire a language. The theory of connectionism also made sense from an intellectual standpoint, although I didn't particularly understand the difference between it and the Interactionist model, as the former seemed to be largely a subset of the latter. It was also ambiguous whether or not the book intended for connectionism to be a subcategory of the Interactionist theory, and because so much material was discussed in chapter 1, I felt that the chapter would have benefited from more clearly-defined organization.

In a sense, chapter 2 was similar to what I had expected to find in the opening chapter. It contained an overview of the difficulties of second language acquisition, and the myriad contexts in which second language learning occurs. With the pervasiveness of foreign language courses, it is easy to forget that foreign languages can also be learned in isolation or through immersion in a foreign culture. Moreover, there are many differences between the different contexts; for example, a classroom may be large or small, it might meet once a week or on a daily basis, and it may have people from the same grade or from a variety of age groups. While it would have been helpful for the chapter to have discussed the most effective context, the chapter elucidated central aspects of the language acquisition process that I had overlooked.

Chapter 3: Individual differences in second language learning

The most salient topic discussed in chapter 3 was the impact that the personality and characteristics of the individual have on language learning. While it is perhaps self-evident that the intelligence of the individual plays a crucial impact on whether or not they will be successful in learning a second learning, this was a bit surprising to read in the context of a textbook that is geared toward providing strategies for learning a second language.

In addition to learning about the impactful role of the student's intelligence, it was also interesting to learn about other factors that can influence whether or not someone effectively absorbs the material, or the rate in which they are able to progress. Certainly, I could have foreseen that different learning styles affect how fast and efficiently people are able to learn the language, and that the teaching style should be tailored to the learning style of the student. However, it was surprising to read that the age of the student can play a significant role in learning a second language. Specifically, the older someone is, the more difficulty they will encounter in absorbing the material. One of the primary explanations that the book provided for this tendency was that younger people have more time to devote to acquiring a new language; this did not make sense to me because young individuals do not typically possess the ability to teach themselves a new language -- they require the assistance of an adult, and their parents typically oversee their schedule. It seems to me that the difference in language acquisition rate between age groups is more attributable to the fact that younger people are less attached to their primary language and perhaps inherently more inquisitive as well.

The chapter also stressed the fact that learning a second language is more difficult than learning one's primary language. This point was made more complicated than necessary by the fact that the book attributed learning an initial language with immersion in one's native culture; it would have been helpful to more clearly explain the relationship between language learning and culture. At any rate, it is clearly understandable that learning a second language is difficult because in most cases, it entails familiarizing oneself with the language of a foreign culture. However, I am curious whether learning a third or fourth language is easier to accomplish than learning a first language. From my experience, there are polyglots who are able to learn languages very quickly, reaching native speaking ability after a brief period of time and with seemingly little effort. While I understand that the textbook is written for those learning a second language, a significant proportion of readers of the textbook likely endeavor to learn multiple languages and so it would have been helpful for the book to describe the rates of language acquisition for people learning their third or fourth language.

The impact of the learner's age is perhaps overlooked due to the fact that people are typically in a setting with similar individuals; for example, high school or college foreign language courses typically feature people from identical or similar age groups. I would be curious to learn whether certain classroom settings produce more productive language acquisition than others. Obviously, a classroom filled with eager students is preferable to a classroom with individuals who are indifferent, but I wonder whether a mix between different age groups, cultural backgrounds, or socioeconomic classifications would be more beneficial than the characteristically homogeneous classrooms found in school classroom settings. I am also curious to know whether languages are more easily learned in isolation. Overall, however, I appreciated the contextual overview of language learning and it exposed the varied factors that contribute to language acquisition.

Chapter 4 (Learner language) and Chapter 5 (Observing learning and teaching in the second language classroom)

One of the salient themes of chapter 4 was its emphasis on the unavoidability of mistakes and the explanations for why certain mistakes occur with regularity. In particular, the fact that learning a second language invariably means making mistakes resonated with me and was surprising to learn in the context of a classroom. I think that classrooms often create a competitive and discriminating environment whereby mistakes are frowned upon and this makes people feel as though they will be shunned for taking risks and making errors. Therefore, it was liberating to read that making grammatical errors is actually beneficial to the language learning process. I agree, and feel that a classroom that accepts errors by students will endow them with the confidence to take risks, resulting in a heightened degree of enthusiasm that will actually make them more effective in absorbing the material.

Additionally, the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, in which errors that occur in throughout the second language acquisition process can be attributed to the contrast between the second language and the speaker's native language. This makes intellectual sense to me, not only based on my personal experience but also based on my interactions with other people who are attempting to learn English as a second language. However, I also wonder whether the errors that are attributed to the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis would occur even if someone were learning their first language. Are there certain words or grammatical situations that lend themselves more to errors,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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