Understanding Second Language Acquisition
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Understanding Second Language Acquisition

Lourdes Ortega

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Second Language Acquisition

Lourdes Ortega

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Whether we grow up with one, two, or several languages during our early years of life, many of us will learn a second, foreign, or heritage language in later years. The field of Second language acquisition (SLA, for short) investigates the human capacity to learn additional languages in late childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, after the first language --in the case of monolinguals-- or languages --in the case of bilinguals-- have already been acquired. Understanding Second Language Acquisition offers a wide-encompassing survey of this burgeoning field, its accumulated findings and proposed theories, its developed research paradigms, and its pending questions for the future. The book zooms in and out of universal, individual, and social forces, in each case evaluating the research findings that have been generated across diverse naturalistic and formal contexts for second language acquisition. It assumes no background in SLA and provides helpful chapter-by-chapter summaries and suggestions for further reading.
Ideal as a textbook for students of applied linguistics, foreign language education, TESOL, and education, it is also recommended for students of linguistics, developmental psycholinguistics, psychology, and cognitive science.Supporting resources for tutors are available free at www.routledge.com/ortega.

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Language is one of the most uniquely human capacities that our species possesses, and one that is involved in all others, including consciousness, sociality and culture. We employ the symbolic system of language to make meaning and communicate with other fellow humans. We mean and communicate about immediate realities as well as about imagined and remembered worlds, about factual events as well as about intentions and desires. Through a repertoire of language choices, we can directly or indirectly make visible (or purposefully hide) our stance, judgement and emotions both towards the messages that we communicate and towards the addressees of those messages. In characteristically human behaviour, we use language not only to communicate to specific audiences, but sometimes to address ourselves rather than others, as in self-talk, and other times to address collective, unknown audiences, as when we participate in political speeches, religious sermons, internet navigation, commercial advertisements, newspaper columns or literary works.
We take it for granted that all humans have the potential to accomplish all of these amazing feats in whatever language(s) they happen to grow up with. But many people around the globe also do many of the same things in a language other than their own. In fact, whether we grow up with one, two or several languages, in most cases we will learn additional languages later in life. Many people will learn at least a few words and phrases in a foreign language. Many others will be forced by life circumstances to learn enough of the additional language to fend for themselves in selected matters of daily survival, compulsory education or job-related communication. Others still will choose to develop entire communication repertoires and use literary or scientific discourses comfortably and with authority in their second language or languages. Indeed, many people around the globe may learn, forget and even relearn a number of languages that are not their mother tongue over the course of their late childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The details of people's L2 learning histories can vary greatly, depending on where their studies, their families, their jobs and careers, and wider economic and political world events, take them. How do humans learn languages after they learn their first? This is the fundamental question that we will explore in this book.


Second language acquisition (SLA, for short) is the scholarly field of inquiry that investigates the human capacity to learn languages other than the first, during late childhood, adolescence or adulthood, and once the first language or languages have been acquired. It studies a wide variety of complex influences and phenomena that contribute to the puzzling range of possible outcomes when learning an additional language in a variety of contexts. SLA began in the late 1960s as an emerging interdisciplinary enterprise that borrowed equally from the feeder fields of language teaching, linguistics, child language acquisition and psychology (Huebner, 1998). During the 1980s and 1990s SLA expanded considerably in scope and methodology, to the point that by the end of the twentieth century, after some 40 years of exponential growth, it had finally reached its coming of age as an autonomous discipline (Larsen-Freeman, 2000). The growth of SLA continues to be prodigious today. This book is about SLA, its findings and theories, its research paradigms and its questions for the future.
In this first chapter I have three goals. First, I situate SLA in the wider landscape of the language sciences and introduce readers to the aims and scope of this field. I then present definitions of the main terms I will use throughout the text. Finally, I explain the rationale for the rest of the book.


How can language as a human faculty be explained? This fundamental question guides a number of language fields that pursue three kinds of understanding about language: descriptive, evolutionary and developmental.
A number of disciplines within the language sciences aim to provide an accurate and complete description of language at all its levels, such as sounds (phonetics and phonology), minimal grammatical signs (morphology), sentences (syntax), meanings (semantics), texts (discourse analysis) and language in use (sociolinguistics, pragmatics). The overarching question guiding these subfields of linguistics is: What is language made of, and how does it work? Human language manifests itself in spoken, signed and written systems across more than 6,500 languages documented to date (they are catalogued in Ethnologue; see Gordon, 2005). Despite this daunting linguistic variety, however, all languages, no matter how different from each other they may seem (Arabic from American Sign Language from Chinese from English from Spanish from Swahili), share fundamental commonalities, a universal core of very abstract properties. Thus, linguistics and its various subfields aim at generating satisfactory descriptions of each manifestation of human language and they also seek to describe the universal common denominators that all human languages share.
A different approach to explaining language as a human faculty is to ask not what or how, but whence and why questions: Whence in the evolution of the human species did language originate and why? This is the line of inquiry pursued in the study of language evolution, which focuses on the phylogenesis or origins of language. A fundamental area of research for cognitive scientists who study language evolution (and a source of disagreement among them) is whether human language evolved out of animal communication in an evolutionary continuum or whether the two are fundamentally different biological capacities (Bickerton, 2007; Tallerman, 2005). It is well known that other animal species are capable of using elaborate systems of communication to go about collective matters of survival, nutrition and reproduction. The cases of species as different as bees, dolphins and prairie dogs are well researched. However, none of these species has created a symbolic system of communication that even minimally approaches the complexity and versatility of human language. Chimpanzees, however, possess a genetic structure that overlaps 99 per cent with that of Homo Sapiens. Although they do not have a larynx that is fit for human language or hands that could be physically modulated for signing, some of these animals have been taught how to communicate with humans through a rudimentary gesture-based language and through computer keyboards. Bonobos, if reared by humans, as was the case of bonobo celebrity Kanzi, can achieve the comprehension levels of a two-and-a-half-year-old human and develop human-like lexical knowledge (Lyn and Savage-Rumbaugh, 2000). The conclusion that apes can develop true syntactic knowledge remains considerably more controversial, however. As you can guess, language evolution is a fascinating area that has the potential to illuminate the most fundamental questions about language.
For a full understanding of the human language faculty, we also need to engage in a third line of inquiry, namely the study of the ontogenesis of language: How does the human capacity to make meaning through language emerge and deploy in each individual of our species? This is the realm of three fields that focus on language acquisition of different kinds.


In some parts of our world, most children grow up speaking one language only. It should be underscored that this case is truly the minority in the large picture of humanity, although it is the norm in many Western middle-class contexts. Perhaps because many researchers also come from these same contexts, this is the type of language acquisition that has been studied the best (for a good review, see Karmiloff-Smith and Karmiloff-Smith, 2001). The field that investigates these cases of monolingual language acquisition is known by the generic name of child language acquisition or first language acquisition. A robust empirical research base tells us that, for children who grow up monolingually, the bulk of language is acquired between 18 months and three to four years of age. Child language acquisition happens in a predictable pattern, broadly speaking. First, between the womb and the few first months of life, infants attune themselves to the prosodic and phonological makeup of the language to which they are exposed and they also learn the dynamics of turn taking. During their first year of life they learn to handle one-word utterances. During the second year, two-word utterances and exponential vocabulary growth occur. The third year of life is characterized by syntactic and morphological deployment. Some more pragmatically or syntactically subtle phenomena are learned by five or six years of age. After that point, many more aspects of mature language use are tackled when children are taught how to read and write in school. And as children grow older and their life circumstances diversify, different adolescents and adults will embark on very different kinds of literacy practice and use language for widely differing needs, to the point that neat landmarks of acquisition cannot be demarcated any more. Instead, variability and choice are the most interesting and challenging linguistic phenomena to be explained at those later ages. But the process of acquiring language is essentially completed by all healthy children by age four of life, in terms of most abstract syntax, and by age five or six for most other ‘basics’ of language.
In many parts of the globe, most children grow up speaking two or more languages simultaneously. These cases are in fact the majority in our species. We use the term ‘bilingual acquisition’ or ‘multilingual acquisition’ to refer to the process of learning two or more languages relatively simultaneously during early childhood – that is, before the age of four. The field that studies these developmental phenomena is bilingualism (or multilingualism, if several rather than two languages are learned during childhood). Two key questions of interest are how the two (or more) languages are represented in the brain and how bilingual speakers switch and alternate between their two (or more) languages, depending on a range of communicative needs and desires. The study of dual first language acquisition is only one area of this wide-encompassing field, which also includes the study of adult and child bilingual processing and use from psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic and educational perspectives (good introductions to bilingualism are Romaine, 1995; Wei, 2000).
The third field devoted to the study of the acquisition and development of the language faculty is second language acquisition, the subject of this book. SLA as a field investigates the human capacity to learn languages once the first language – in the case of monolingual children – or the first languages – in the case of bilingual or multilingual children – have been learned and are established. Naturally, this happens later in life, whether in late childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Sometimes, however, the individuals learning an additional language are still young children when they start acquiring the L2, maybe as young as three or four years old (remember by this early age most of the essential pieces of their mother tongue may be all in place). Thus, bilingualism and SLA can overlap in the early years, making it at times difficult to draw the boundaries between the two fields. Nevertheless, they are clearly two distinct disciplines with their own journals, conferences and affiliations in academia. There are also some key differences between the two fields. SLA often favours the study of late-starting acquirers, whereas bilingualism favours the study of people who had a very early start with their languages. Additionally, one can say that bilingualism researchers tend to focus on the products of bilingualism as deployed in already mature bilingual capabilities of children or adults, whereas SLA researchers tend to focus on the pathways towards becoming competent in more languages than one. This in turn means that in SLA the emphasis often is on the incipient stages rather than on ultimate, mature competence. A third difference is that bilingual research typically maintains a focus on all the languages of an individual, whereas SLA traditionally orients strongly towards the second language, to the point that the first language may be abstracted out of the research picture. In this sense, SLA may be construed as the pure opposite of monolingual (first) child language acquisition. Indeed, in both fields monolingual competence is often taken as the default benchmark of language development. We will return to this issue in the next section.


In this book, I will use the acronym SLA to refer to the field and discipline and I will reserve the term L2 acquisition to mean the process of learning additional languages, that is, the object of disciplinary inquiry itself. This terminological distinction is not always kept by all SLA researchers, but it has the advantage of giving us added accuracy of expression. By the same token, acquisition and learning will be used interchangeably as synonyms in this book. This is because, as you will see in Chapter 6 (section 6.14), although in the early 1980s there was an attempt at distinguishing between the two terms, in contemporary SLA terminology no such distinction is typically upheld.
The various terms used in SLA discourse to refer to the so-called ‘mother tongue’ and to the ‘additional’ language being learned or acquired need some clarification. As a useful shorthand, SLA researchers use the terms mother tongue, first language or L1 generically to refer to the language (in the case of monolingual acquisition) or languages (in the case of bilingual or multilingual acquisition) that a child learns from parents, siblings and caretakers during the critical years of development, from the womb up to about four years of age. Conversely, the terms additional language, second language and L2 are used in SLA to refer to any language learned after the L1 (or L1s). Of course, things are a lot more complicated in real life. For one, in the case of very young children who are exposed to several languages, it may be impossible to determine whether the two or more languages in question are being learned simultaneously (that is, bilingually or multilingually) or sequentially (that is, as an L2). In addition, the term ‘L2’ or ‘second/additional language’ may mean the third, fourth, tenth and so on language learned later in life. Thus, these labels should be taken to reflect more of an analytical abstraction made within a disciplinary tradition and less of a black-and-white reality.
There is some danger in using these dichotomous labels and, as you embark on reading this book about SLA, I would like you to be aware of it. When we oppose L1 acquisition to L2 acquisition, a subtle but dangerous monolingual bias seeps into our imagination. Namely, with the L1–L2 dichotomy as a foundation, the phenomenon under investigation can be easily construed as efforts by monolingual adults to add on a monolingual-like command of an additional language. This bias has been the reason for criticism and self-examination among SLA researchers in the last decade or so, starting with Vivian Cook, who was one of the earliest voices in the field to raise these concerns (see Cook, 1991, 2008). This bias is in part reminiscent of the same monolingual orientation in first language acquisition research, a strong influence on SLA during its formative years as a field. It is slowly receding, as new research emerges in SLA that is strongly influenced by studies in bilingualism and by research that addresses social dimensions of L2 learning. Throughout this book, I will do my best not to perpetuate a monolingual bias in my portrayals of SLA...

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