Research Paper Second Language Acquisition

This article presents some of the theories and research dominant in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA). SLA is a diverse field that seeks to answer three main questions. These are 1) what happens during the acquisition of a second language; 2) how do learners learn second languages; and 3) what factors improve second language acquisition. Contributions to SLA come from many disciplines including linguistics, applied linguistics, cognitive science, psychology and education. Although there are multiple theories of SLA, no single theory exists to incorporate all the research.

Keywords Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science; Communicative Competence; Generative Linguistics; Language Acquisition; Second Language Acquisition; Socio- Cultural Theory


Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a discipline that is both young and diverse. Established as a field distinct from linguistics only since the 1960s, SLA research attempts to understand the processes that occur as individuals learn a second language (L2). Specifically, researchers seek to 1) document what happens during the acquisition of a second language; 2) explain how these languages are acquired; and 3) understand the factors that improve L2 acquisition (Long, 2007).

SLA research is conducted in a number of academic arenas including psychology, linguistics, applied linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience and education. Due to this diversity and to the fact that academic research is often separated in a way that experts in one field may not follow or build upon the research in another, many theories have been proposed to describe particular aspects of SLA, but no general agreed upon umbrella theory exits (Long, 2007). Additionally, newcomers to the field will find a plethora of terminology originating in different fields that describes the same or similar SLA processes.

Further Insights

One of the most basic tasks of SLA research is to document what happens as individuals acquire an L2. This is important because in order for researchers to develop a theory about how language acquisition works, they need to know what processes, stages, and behaviors are common to all L2 learners. A key finding of this research focus is that all language learners exhibit similar stages of development and some stages occur in the same order. This is strong evidence that language acquisition is a developmental process. VanPatten & Williams (2007) in a discussion of SLA theories, list ten observations that researchers have widely reported. These include:

• Exposure to substantial amounts of input - the target language - is important.

• Learners learn language incidentally as they focus on the meaning of utterances.

• Learners eventually produce more language than that which they are exposed to as input.

• A learner's speech production develops in a predictable order.

• Learners can develop at different rates even when learning under the same conditions.

• Learners can be more competent in one area of language use than another (e.g., strong speaking skills but weak writing skills).

• Learners may or may not learn language even when the language is used frequently.

• A learner's first language may, but does not necessarily, have a major impact on the acquisition of the second language.

• Instructional effects are limited in such a way that even if a particular aspect of language is taught and practiced, it may not be what a student learns.

• Although producing language is important, the production of language has limits in terms of acquisition.

• From making observations, researchers move to the second basic task of SLA research which is to explain how learners acquire language. In answering this question, researchers have examined internal cognitive processes as well as external socio-cultural factors.

A frequently posed question in SLA research is related to the relationship of first (L1) and L2 acquisition. Since many of the developmental stages that L2 learners exhibit - such as having a "silent period" (Williams) in which the learner can comprehend language but not produce it - are similar to the stages children demonstrate as they learn their first language, researchers have theorized that the mechanisms employed in both processes must be the same or similar.

Generative Linguistics

Initially, SLA researchers turned to the field of generative linguistics where experts in the 1960s and 1970s were trying to solve a theoretical problem. In particular, they sought to understand why children could produce language with linguistic structures that were different and more advanced than the inputs they received. The prevailing answer at the time was developed by Chomsky (1986), who said there must be an innate language acquisition device that all people have that allows children to understand grammar. This universal organizing principle was dubbed "Universal Grammar" (as cited in White, 2007). It became a guiding principle in linguistics and SLA research as theorists sought to discover how individuals accessed this principle to create new utterances (White, 2007).

In the field of SLA, researchers attempted (and continue to attempt) to understand how L2 learners can access Universal Grammar. However, there are problems with the theory in that observational data indicates that many L2 learners never reach a state of native-like proficiency (Long, 2007; Munoz, 2006; VanPatten & Williams, 2007). To account for this, researchers have argued that there must be a specific period of time, a Critical Period, in which learners can acquire language to native-like proficiency. Much research has been done in an attempt to prove whether the Critical Period Hypothesis is valid and if it is, to identify when the period ends (Krashen, Scarcella & Long, 1982; Munoz, 2006). Some researchers have placed the critical period in the first few years of life; others extend the period up to puberty (Birdsong, 2006).

Although the concept of a Universal Grammar continues to be controversial, brain-based research has determined that L1 and L2 language processes typically occur in the same areas of the brain. This suggests that acquisition of L1 and L2 share the same processes, yet there are differences in the amount of activation between L1 and L2. Generally, the use of a second language activates more neurons in the brain. This is an indicator, neuroscientists say, and that L2 processing is not as efficient as L1 processing (Stowe, 2006). The degree of difference in the amount of neuronal activity between L1 and L2 use varies depending on the learner's age of acquisition. Learners who began acquiring an L2 at a younger age have levels of activation that are more similar to their L1 activations than learners who were older at the time of acquisition. This provides researchers with one possible biological explanation of why adults or late-learning L2 learners rarely use a second language with first-language proficiency (Birdsong, 2006).

While identifying the areas of the brain where L2 use takes place provides some insight into acquisition, it does not explain exactly how language is learned. Today's neurocognitive scientists provide a more specific model of acquisition based on the idea that learning occurs through the development of neural networks in the brain that form in response to external stimuli (Lamb, 1999). To clarify this process, consider your knowledge of a simple object like a rock. Before you had ever seen a rock, your brain did not have a picture to attach to the concept of rock. Once you saw a rock, and you were told, "This is a rock," your brain created an association between the image of the rock and the word rock. The association was created in your brain by the connection of two neurons representing the image and the word. Along with these associations, your brain also created other associations such as size and rock, shape and rock, texture and rock, etc. As you learned more about this thing called rock, more and more neural pathways were created forming a complex, web-like network of associations for everything you know about rock. Now that these pathways are built, each time you encounter the concept of rock, the pathways are activated so that you may hear the word rock and an image of rock appears in your mind, along with specific information about different types of rocks, what you can do with rocks, etc. The speed at which you process information about rocks increases with the frequency with which you encounter the concept. If you become a geologist and deal with rocks every day, your brain will more quickly activate its neural networks related to rocks than if you become a computer scientists, work in an office, and never deal with rocks again.

Associative - Cognitive CREED Theory

The Associative-Cognitive CREED Theory, where CREED stands for construction-based, rational, exemplar-driving, emergent and dialectic, is based on this cognitive model of learning. In this theory, language knowledge is gained through communication and is represented in a series of "constructions" or associations between linguistic forms (e.g., words, parts of words) and their meanings,...


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Theses/Dissertations from 2013


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Yang, Li (2013), A web-based approach to learning expressions of gratitude in Chinese as a foreign language

Theses/Dissertations from 2006


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Ma, Lixia (2006), Acquisition of the perfective aspect marker Le of Mandarin Chinese in discourse by American college learners


Mikulski, Ariana Maria (2006), Native intuitions, foreign struggles? knowledge of the subjunctive in volitional constructions among heritage and traditional FL learners of Spanish


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