Bill Van Patten says that if you want to teach for proficiency, you must understand the nature of SLA, and that research results are not making their way down to publishers and teachers. If you'd like to learn more about what Van Patten has to say, watch his presentation "What Everyone Should Know about Second Language Acquisition" (delivered at the Michigan World Language Association annual meeting), which you can watch for free here: http://learninglanguages.celta.msu.edu/sla-vanpatten/
Linguist Noam Chomsky is the Language Acquisition Device guy, or better known as LAD, which posits that every child has an innate ability to learn languages. Although he did not study SLA, his theory served to birth others, such as Krashen's monitor hypothesis. Which leads us to....
Stephen Krashen is best known for his hypotheses: acquisition-learning, natural order, monitor, input, and affective filter. Krashen acknowledges that the classroom is never going to replicate the "outside world" but the goal for teachers should be to prepare their students for that world (p. 59). A summary of his hypotheses follows:
- Krashen first posits that there is a difference between acquiring a language and learning it. Language acquisition is subconscious, meaning learners may not be aware of the processes going on with language, whereas learning is the awareness of grammar rules or "knowing about" the language (Krashen, p.10). Language acquisition and language learning both have a place in our classrooms; we must ask ourselves the question: Are my students only learning about the language, or are they learning to use the language?
- The natural order hypothesis deals with research that has shown that grammar acquisition happens in a "predictable" order (p. 11), meaning that some rules come sooner than others, regardless of the language being learned. I think many teachers use the textbook as if the publishers are the experts about how language is to be acquired. They continue to teach grammar rules in the order of the textbook, never really stopping to think how students naturally acquire language. Ask yourself if grammatical sequencing really makes sense if we are trying to teach in a proficiency-oriented classroom.
- The monitor hypothesis is about our "editor" - acquisition is what causes learners to try out language (utter something) and the learning is what happens afterward. If corrections are to be made, the monitor helps with this and can come before output. Monitor is about focusing on the form, being actively aware as a learner. We want to encourage our students to monitor appropriately - but like with chocolate, too much of a good thing can be bad. Over-monitoring can prevent fluency and language risk-taking.
- The input hypothesis deals with making input comprehensible - the famous i+1. Think in these terms: we acquire language when it contains a little bit more than what we understand (Krashen, p. 21). In this equation, i represents current competence and +1 is the little bit more. When we talk about i+1 we are talking about acquisition, not learning.
- Finally, the affective filter deals with why input, even comprehensible input, doesn't always reach the students' brains in order to be acquired. To read his online book for free, visit his website: http://www.sdkrashen.com/ .
SLA theorist Tracey Terrell (1986) advocates for “binding” when learning languages, a term used to describe the brain’s process of linking meaning to forms (ie. vocabulary). This occurs when learners connect a new word with its meaning, not a translation. Binding is something that is influential in our learning of our L1; for beginning (novice) learners, nothing is more important for communication than building a vocabulary base (Terrell, 1986). Second language learners use a variety of strategies when acquiring their new language and cognitive strategies such as binding, help link new information to existing schema. This can be important when teaching new vocabulary, where novice learners use compensation strategies, such as guessing, to overcome gaps in language knowledge (Oxford, 1990).
Vygotsky is another well-known theorist to whom we attribute sociocultural theory and Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Sociocultural theory explores the relationship between language and mind (Antón, 2003). In the field of education, Vygotsky argued that “educators needed to rethink how to connect teaching with development in a systematic and meaningful way” (Poehner & Lantolf, 2005, p. 235-236). A major element of this theory deals with external mediation, external activities in which a learner participates (interpsychological) which are transformed to mental activities (intrapsychological). One of the foundational concepts of sociocultural theory is that the mind is mediated, primarily by language (i.e. collaborative discourse), and relies on “tools and labor activities” (Antón, 2003). Learners may use tools from a variety of sources: texts, experts, peers, etc. When students work together in meaningful activities, learning and development emerge. Effective mediation occurs in the learners' ZPD where there are two levels: what learners can do on their own and what they can do with assistance (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2014). The connection between actual and potential performance in ZPD is that independent performance on a task demonstrates a learner’s actual level of performance, while mediation allows examiners to see a learner’s future (potential) for development (Poehner & Lantolf, 2005). Scaffolding is the giving of assistance; In a scaffolding situation, the "expert" is constantly assessing the novice to determine if help is needed and providing that assistance, withdrawing it once it is determined that the novice can function on his or her own accord. Assistance does not necessarily focus completely on communication breakdown, but instead, draws the learners’ attention to the L2 lexical, syntactical, or morphological nuances (Foster & Ohta, 2005). This can have a profound impact on the way in which we assess our students as dynamic interactions are more reflective of real life discourse learners may have with native speakers when they leave the classroom bubble.
To return to the initial questions posed at the beginning of this entry, what does SLA look like in practice? I think it is safe to say that SLA in practice probably looks eclectic and messy, with students actively trying out their language and teachers choosing when to focus on form and when to focus on meaning. Carefully placed error correction also has to occur for acquisition to take place. How can teachers weave theoretical ideas into practical methodology? Well, understanding the historical value of the theories and reflection of your own teaching practice is a good start! And do teachers have to choose just one? What do YOU think?
Anton, Marta. "The Discourse Of A Learner-Centered Classroom: Sociocultural Perspectives On Teacher-Learner
Interaction In The Second-Language Classroom." The Modern Language Journal (1999): 303-18. Print.
Curtain, Helena Anderson, and Carol Ann Dahlberg. Languages and Learners, Making the Match: World Language
Instruction in K-8 Classrooms and beyond. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
Foster, P., & Ohta, A.S. "Negotiation For Meaning And Peer Assistance In Second Language Classrooms." Applied
Linguistics: 2005. 402-430. Print.
Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon, 1982. Print.
Oxford, R. (1990). “Language learning strategies: A synthesis of studies with implications for strategy training.
“System,” 12(2), pp. 235-47.
Poehner, M.E., & Lantolf, J.P. Dynamic assessment in the classroom. Language Teaching Research 9(3), 2005,