Chapter 3: Interlanguage and the “natural” route of development for Exam

Summarized: Saeed Mojarradi Ph.D Candidate

Chomsky stressed the active contribution of the child and minimized the importance of imitation and reinforcement. He claimed that the child’s knowledge of his mother tongue was derived from a Universal Grammar which specified the essential form that any natural language could take.

The concept of a sentence is the main guiding principle in a child’s attempt to organize and interpret the linguistic evidence that fluent speakers make available to him, The Universal Grammar, then, existed as a set of innate linguistic principles which comprised the ‘initial state and which controlled the form which the sentences of any given language could take. Also part of the Universal Grammar was a set of discovery procedures for relating the universal principles to the data provided by exposure to a natural language.

Lenneberg’s work provided empirical and theoretical support for the concept of a built-in capacity for language as part of every human being’s biological endowment. One further feature of mentalist accounts of SLA needs mentioning. The child built up his knowledge of his mother tongue by means of hypothesis testing. The child’s task was that of connecting his innate knowledge of basic grammatical relations to the surface structure of sentences in the language he was learning.

According to McNeill (1966), he did this by forming a series of hypotheses about the ‘transformations’ that were necessary to convert innate knowledge into the surface forms of his mother tongue. These hypotheses were then tested out against primary linguistic data and modified accordingly. The result was that the child appeared to build up his competence by ‘successive approximations, passing through several steps that are not yet English. .’ (McNeill 1966: 61).

In summary, therefore, mentalist views of L1 acquisition posited the following: 1 Language is a human-specific faculty. 2 Language exists as an independent faculty in the human mind i.e. although it is part of the [earner’s total cognitive apparatus, it is separate from the general cognitive mechanisms responsible for intellectual development. 3 The primary determinant of L1 acquisition is the child’s ‘acquisition device’, which is genetically endowed and provides the child with a set of principles about grammar. 4 The ‘acquisition device’ atrophies with age.

If the child’s linguistic output does not match the input, the explanation must lie in the internal processing that has taken place. The incremental nature of L1 acquisition is evident in two ways. First, the length of children’s utterances gradually increases. Initially the utterances consist of one word. Later two word, then three- and four-word utterances follow. Second, knowledge of the grammatical system is built up in steps. Inflections such as the ing’ of the Present Continuous Tense or the auxiliary ‘do’ are not acquired at the same time, but in sequence. The term interlanguage was first used by Selinker (1972). Various s alternative terms have been used by different researchers to refer to the e same phenomenon; Nernser (1971) refers to approximate systems, and Corder (1971) to idiosyncratic dialects and transitional competence. These terms reflect two related but different concepts. First, inter language refers to the structured system which the learner constructs at any given stage in his development (i.e. an interlanguage). Second, the term refers to the series of interlocking systems which form what Corder (1967) called the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’ (i.e. the interlanguage continuum).

The concept of ‘hypothesis-testing’ was used to explain how the L2 learner progressed along the interlanguage continuum, in much the same way as it was used to explain L1 acquisition. Corder (1967) made this comparison explicit by proposing that at least some of the strategies used by the L2 learner were the same as those by which 1.1 acquisition takes place. In particular, Corder suggested that both LI and 12 learners make errors in order to test out certain hypotheses about the nature of the language they are learning. Corder saw the making of errors as a strategy, evidence of learner-internal processing.

Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis: ‘Hypothesis-testing’ was a mentalist notion and had no place in behaviorist accounts of learning. However, the notion of L1 interference was not rejected entirely. As discussed in the previous chapter, it was reconstituted as one factor among many of the cognitive processes responsible for SLA.

Selinker (1972) suggested that five principal processes operated in interlanguage. These were (I) language transfer (this was listed first, perhaps in deference to the contemporary importance attached to LI interference); (2) overgeneralization of target language rules; (3) transfer of training (i.e. a rule enters the learner’s system as a result of instruction); (4) strategies of L2 learning (i.e. ‘an identifiable approach by the learner to the material to be learned’ (1972:37); and (5) strategies of I.2 communication (Le. ‘an identifiable approach by the learner to communication with native speakers’ (1972: 37), Interference, then, was seen as one of several processes responsible for interlanguage.

The successful adult L2 learner is able to transform the universal grammar into the structure of the grammar of the target language. This takes place by reactivating the `latent language structure’. However, as Selinker noted, relatively few adult L2 learners reach native-speaker competence.

Language-learner language is dynamk. The L.2 learner’s interlanguage is constantly changing. However, he does not jump from one stage to the next, but rather slowly revises the interim systems to accommodate new hypotheses about the target language system. This takes place by the introduction of a new rule, first in one context and then in another, and so on a new rule spreads in the sense that its coverage gradually extends over a range of linguistic contexts.

Despite the variability of interlanguage, it is possible to detect the rule-1 based nature of the learner’s use of the L2. He does not select haphazardly from his store of interlanguage rules, but in predictable 11 ways. He bases his performance plans on his existing rule system in much the same way as the native speaker bases his plans on his internalized knowledge of the LI system.

Language-learner language is systematic: Interlanguage theory was based on ‘behavioral events’. As Selinker s acknowledged, the behavioral events that have aroused the greatest interest in discussions of SLA have been ‘errors’. However, whereas the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis was devised to justify procedures for predicting errors, interlanguage theory constitutes an attempt to explain errors. Early interlanguage theory, then, was closely associated with Error Analysis. As this served as one of the main devices for examining the processes of interlanguage, the principles and methodology of Error Analysis will be considered briefly.

Error Analysis consisted of little more than impressionistic collections of ‘common’ errors and their linguistic classification (e.g. French 1949). The goals of traditional Error Analysis were pedagogic—errors provided information which could be used to sequence items for teaching or to devise remedial lessons.

Also as the enthusiasm for Contrastive Analysis grew, so the interest in Error Analysis declined. In accordance with Behaviorist learning theory, the prevention of errors (the goal of Contrastive Analysis) was more important than the identification of errors. It was not until the late 1960s that there was a resurgence of interest in Error Analysis.

(2) The errors in the corpus are identified. Corder (1971) points out the need to distinguish ‘lapses (i.e. deviant sentences that are the result of processing limitations rather than lack of competence) from ‘errors’ (i.e. deviant sentences that are the result of lack of competence).

(3) The errors are classified. This involves assigning a grammatical description to each error. (4) The errors are explained. In this stage of the procedure an attempt is made to identify the psycholinguistic cause of the errors. For example, an attempt could be made to establish which of the five processes described by Selinker (1972) (as discussed earlier in this chapter) is responsible for each error. (5) The errors arc evaluated. This stage involves assessing the serious-ness of each error in order to take principled teaching decisions.

Error evaluation is necessary only if the purpose of the Error Analysis is pedagogic. It is redundant if the Error Analysis is carried out in order to research SLA. The context for the new interest in errors was the recognition that they provided information about the process of acquisition. This term has two meanings. Two questions can be asked, therefore. What light can the study of learner errors throw on the sequence of development—the interlanguage continuum—through which learners pass? What light can errors shed on the strategies that the learner uses to assimilate the rules of L2?

Both of these questions are of central importance to the main theme of this chapter—the ‘natural’ order of development. Error Analysis provides two kinds of information about interlanguage. The first—which is relevant to the first of the two questions posed above—concerns the linguistic type of errors produced by L2 learners. Richards (1974), for instance, provides a list of the different types of errors involving verbs (e.g. be + verb stem instead of verb stem alone—`They are speak French’}. However, this type of information is not very helpful when it comes to understanding the learner’s developmental sequence.

Error Analysis provides a synchronic description of learner errors, but this can be misleading. A sentence may appear to be non-idiosyncratic (even in context), but may have been derived by means of an ‘interim’ rule in the interlanguage. An example might be a sentence like what’s be doing?’ which is well formed but may have been learnt as A ready-made chunk. Later, the learner might start producing sentences of the kind `what he is doing?’ which is overtly idiosyncratic but may represent a step along the interlanguage continuum. As a result of interlanguage theory and the evidence accumulated from Error Analysis, errors were no longer seen as ‘unwanted forms’ (George 1972), but as evidence of the learner’s active contribution to SLA.. This contribution appeared to be broadly the same irrespective of differences in learners’ backgrounds, suggesting that the human faculty for language may structure and define the learning task in such a way that SLA, like L1 acquisition, was universal in nature.

Cross-sectional research: A number of studies, commonly referred to as the morpheme studies, were carried out to investigate the order of acquisition of a range of grammatical functions in the speech of L2 learners. They were motivated by the hypothesis that there was an invariant order in SLA which was the result of universal processing strategies similar to those observed in L1 acquisition. These studies were conducted according to a more or less fixed procedure.

Longitudinal studies: Although longitudinal studies have examined the acquisition of grammatical morphemes, in general they have also focused on other aspects of development. They have tried to account for the gradual growth of competence in terms of the strategies used by a Learner at different developmental points. Two types of interrogatives—yes/no questions and Wh-questions —have been considered. There appears to be an early ‘non-communicative’ stage during which the learner is not able to produce any spontaneous interrogatives, but just repeats a question someone has asked him. This is more common with children than with adults. The first productive questions are intonation questions, i.e. utterances with declarative word order but spoken with a rising intonation.

Relative clauses: Interest in the SLA of relative clauses is more recent. Apart from a number of early experimental studies (e.g. Cook 1973), some of the major studies to date are Schumann (1980) and Gass (1980). Only Schumann’s study, however, is truly longitudinal. Schumann examined the development of relative clauses in five Spanish-speaking learners of English. They were of different ages. He found that relative clauses used to modify the object of a sentence were acquired first. A composite longitudinal picture In addition to the study of how specific grammatical sub-systems evolve, there have been attempts to paint a composite picture of the interlanguage continuum based on longitudinal research.

In conclusion, then, the evidence from the comparisons of the L 1 and L2 acquisition routes is mixed. There is some evidence 1 to suggest that SLA proceeds in more or less the same way as L1 acquisition, but there is also evidence that points to differences. It is not clear whether these differences are the result of L1 transfer or of other factors to do with the learner’s more advanced cognitive development. Most likely they are the result of both. When it comes to examining the kinds of strategies used in the two types of acquisition, the similarity is more evident. The mentalist view of the language learner’s knowledge of language as an internal system which is gradually revised in the direction of the target language system underlies both the notions of `Acquisition Device’ and ‘interlanguage’. SLA and L1 acquisition both involve transitional competence and, as might be expected, this is reflected in similarities, which are not total but nevertheless are strong, between both the acquisition routes and the strategies that are responsible for them. It is this aspect of language learning which the notion of creative construction has been used to describe.

The focus on grammar

It was pointed out in Chapter 1 that probably the major limiting factor in the empirical research in SLA to date has been its preoccupation with grammar. This can be seen as a direct result of the close links between mentalist accounts of language acquisition and the theories of syntax associated with Chomsky. Acquiring a language was understood as the construction of linguistic competence. 4owever, whereas research into first language acquisition rapidly broadened the scope of its enquiry to consider how the child’s ability to communicate developed, SLA research has continued to neglect the study of how communicative competence is acquired and how it contributes to grammatical development.

Summary and conclusion: As a result of theoretical attacks on the behaviorist view of language acquisition as habit-formation, it was hypothesized that L1 acquisition was the product of an ‘acquisition device’ by which means the child related a set of universal grammatical rules to the surface structure of the language he was learning. The counterpart of the ‘acquisition device’ in SLA was ‘creative construction’. That is, SLA was seen as a series of evoking systems which comprised the interlanguage continuum. Each system was considered to be internally consistent, in the sense that it was rule-governed. It was, however, also permeable to new rules, and, therefore, dynamic.

SLA is characterized by a natural sequence of development {i.e. there are certain broad stages that they pass through), but the order of development varies in details (i.e. some steps are left out, or specific morphological features are learnt in a different order). It may well be that the sequence of development is common to both LI acquisition and SLA, whereas the order of development is different. Certainly the L2 = LI acquisition hypothesis has not been proven in its strong form, although similar processes appear to operate in both types of acquisition.

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Published by S Mojarradi

Studying Ph.D. in ELT | Listening To Lyric Music | Studying Novels | Retired | Loving Nature | People | Especially Paintings |

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