Chapter 2 ›The role of the first language Book Name: Understanding Second Language Acquisition Writer: Rod Ellis Thursday, October 4, 2018 Summarized: Saeed Mojarradi Ph.D. Candidate T.3
It is a popular belief that second language acquisition (SLA) is strongly influenced by the learner’s first language (L1). The clearest support for this belief comes from ‘foreign’ accents in the second language (L2) speech of learners.
When a Frenchman speaks English, his English sounds French. The learner’s L1 also affects the other language levels —vocabulary and grammar. This is perhaps less immediately evident.
It is also a popular belief that the role of the L1 in SLA is a negative one.
Corder (1978a) has referred to this view of SLA as a ‘restructuring process’. It is a view that is based on a theory of general learning, if in popular opinion the L1 interferes with the acquisition of the new language system, how does SLA research characterize the role of the mother tongue?
The research literature reveals considerable disagreement about how pervasive the L1 is in SLA. On the one hand the popular belief is given support: Taking a psychological point of view, we can say that there is never peaceful co-existence between two language systems in the learner, but rather constant warfare, and that warfare is not limited to the moment of cognition, but continues during the period of staring newly Learnt ideas in memory.
(Marton 1981: 150) On the other hand, the popular belief is rejected and the role of the L1, if not denied totally, is at least minimized: our data on L2 acquisition of syntactic structures in a natural environment suggest that interference does not constitute a major strategy in this area . . . it seems necessary to me to abandon the notion of interference as a natural and inevitable phenomenon in L2 acquisition.
Behaviorist learning theory
In order to understand the early importance that was attached to the role of the first language, it is necessary to understand the main tenets of behaviorist learning theory.
Up to the end of the 1960s, views of language learning were derived from a theory of learning in general. There were few studies of SLA based on the actual language that learners produced, and few attempts to examine the process of SLA empirically before this. The dominant school in psychology, which informed most discussions of language learning, was behaviorism.
Two key notions can be identified in these discussions: ‘habits’ and `errors’.