Sunday, June 15, 2008

Learner-internal factors

The study of learner-internal factors in SLA is primarily concerned with the question: How do learners gain competence in the target language? In other words, given effective input and instruction, with what internal resources do learners process this input to produce a rule-governed interlanguage?

The critical period research to date
Main article: Critical Period Hypothesis
How children acquire native language (L1) and the relevance of this to foreign language (L2) learning has long been debated. Although evidence for L2 learning ability declining with age is controversial, a common notion is that children learn L2s easily and older learners rarely achieve fluency. This assumption stems from ‘critical period’ (CP) ideas. A CP was popularised by Eric Lenneberg in 1967 for L1 acquisition, but considerable interest now surrounds age effects on second language acquisition (SLA). SLA theories explain learning processes and suggest causal factors for a possible CP for SLA, mainly attempting to explain apparent differences in language aptitudes of children and adults by distinct learning routes, and clarifying them through psychological mechanisms. Research explores these ideas and hypotheses, but results are varied: some demonstrate pre-pubescent children acquire language easily, and some that older learners have the advantage, and yet others focus on existence of a CP for SLA. Recent studies (e.g. Mayberry and Lock, 2003) have recognised that certain aspects of SLA may be affected by age, though others remain intact. The objective of this study is to investigate whether capacity for vocabulary acquisition decreases with age.
A review of SLA theories and their explanations for age-related differences is necessary before considering empirical studies. The most reductionist theories are those of Penfield and Roberts (1959) and Lenneberg (1967), which stem from L1 and brain damage studies; children who suffer impairment before puberty typically recover and (re-)develop normal language, whereas adults rarely recover fully, and often do not regain verbal abilities beyond the point reached five months after impairment. Both theories agree that children have a neurological advantage in learning languages, and that puberty correlates with a turning point in ability. They assert that language acquisition occurs primarily, possibly exclusively, during childhood as the brain loses plasticity after a certain age. It then becomes rigid and fixed, and loses the ability for adaptation and reorganisation, rendering language (re-)learning difficult.
Cases of deaf and feral children provide evidence for a biologically determined CP for L1. Feral children are those not exposed to language in infancy/childhood due to being brought up in the wild, in isolation and/or confinement. A classic example is 'Genie', who was deprived of social interaction from birth until discovered aged thirteen (post-pubescent).
Such studies are however problematic; isolation can result in general retardation and emotional disturbances, which may confound conclusions drawn about language abilities. Studies of deaf children learning American Sign Language (ASL) have fewer methodological weaknesses. Newport and Supalla (1987) studied ASL acquisition in deaf children differing in age of exposure; few were exposed to ASL from birth, most of them first learned it at school.
Results showed a linear decline in performance with increasing age of exposure; those exposed to ASL from birth performed best, and ‘late learners’ worst, on all production and comprehension tests. Their study thus provides direct evidence for language learning ability decreasing with age, but it does not add to Lennerberg’s CP hypothesis as even the oldest children, the ‘late learners’, were exposed to ASL by age four, and had therefore not reached puberty, the proposed end of the CP.
Other work has challenged the biological approach; Krashen (1975) reanalysed clinical data used as evidence and concluded cerebral specialisation occurs much earlier than Lenneberg calculated. Therefore, if a CP exists, it does not coincide with lateralisation.
Although it does not describe an optimal age for SLA, the theory implies that younger children can learn languages more easily than older learners, as adults must reactivate principles developed during L1 learning and forge an SLA path: children can learn several languages simultaneously as long as the principles are still active and they are exposed to sufficient language samples (Pinker, 1995).
There are, however, problems with the extrapolation of the UG theory to SLA: L2 learners go through several phases of types of utterance that are not similar to their L1 or the L2 they hear. Other factors include the cognitive maturity of most L2 learners, that they have different motivation for learning the language, and already speak one language fluently.

Other directions of research
Empirical research has attempted to account for variables detailed by SLA theories and provide an insight into L2 learning processes, which can be applied in educational environments. Recent SLA investigations have followed two main directions: one focuses on pairings of L1 and L2 that render L2 acquisition particularly difficult, and the other investigates certain aspects of language that may be maturationally constrained. Flege, Mackay and Piske (2002) looked at bilingual dominance to evaluate two explanations of L2 performance differences between bilinguals and monolingual-L2 speakers, i.e. a maturationally defined CP or interlingual interference.
Flege, Mackay and Piske investigated whether the age at which participants learned English affected dominance in Italian-English bilinguals, and found the early bilinguals were English (L2) dominant and the late bilinguals Italian (L1) dominant. Further analysis showed that dominant Italian bilinguals had detectable foreign accents when speaking English, but early bilinguals (English dominant) had no accents in either language. This suggests that, though interlingual interference effects are not inevitable, their emergence, and bilingual dominance, may be related to a CP.
Sebastián-Gallés, Echeverría and Bosch (2005) also studied bilinguals and highlight the importance of early language exposure. They looked at vocabulary processing and representation in Spanish-Catalan bilinguals exposed to both languages simultaneously from birth in comparison to those who had learned L2 later and were either Spanish- or Catalan-dominant. Findings showed ‘from birth bilinguals’ had significantly more difficulty distinguishing Catalan words from non-words differing in specific vowels than Catalan-dominants did (measured by reaction time).
These difficulties are attributed to a phase around age eight months where bilingual infants are insensitive to vowel contrasts, despite the language they hear most. This affects how words are later represented in their lexicons, highlighting this as a decisive period in language acquisition and showing that initial language exposure shapes linguistic processing for life. Sebastián-Gallés et al (2005) also indicate the significance of phonology for L2 learning; they believe learning an L2 once the L1 phonology is already internalised can reduce individuals’ abilities to distinguish new sounds that appear in the L2.
Most studies into age effects on specific aspects of SLA have focused on grammar, with the common conclusion that it is highly constrained by age, more so than semantic functioning. B. Harley (1986) compared attainment of French learners in early and late immersion programs. She reports that after 1000 exposure hours, late learners had better control of French verb systems and syntax. However, comparing early immersion students (average age 6.917 years) with age-matched native speakers identified common problem areas, including third person plurals and polite ‘vous’ forms. This suggests grammar (in L1 or L2) is generally acquired later, possibly because it requires abstract cognition and reasoning (B. Harley, 1986).
B. Harley also measured eventual attainment and found the two age groups made similar mistakes in syntax and lexical selection, often confusing French with the L1. The general conclusion from these investigations is that different aged learners acquire the various aspects of language with varying difficulty. Some variation in grammatical performance is attributed to maturation (discussed in B. Harley, 1986), however, all participants began immersion programs before puberty and so were too young for a strong critical period hypothesis to be directly tested.
Mayberry and Lock (2003) questioned whether age restrains both L1 and L2 acquisition. They examined grammatical abilities of deaf and hearing adults who had their initial linguistic exposure either in early childhood or later. They found that, on L2 grammatical tasks, those who had acquired the verbal or signed L1 early in life showed near-native performance and those who had no early L1 experience (i.e. born deaf and parents did not know sign-language) performed weakly. Mayberry and Lock concluded early L1 exposure is vital for forming life-long learning abilities, regardless of the nature of the exposure (verbal or signed language). This corresponds to Noam Chomsky’s UG theory, which states that while language acquisition principles are still active, it is easy to learn a language, and the principles developed through L1 acquisition are vital for learning an L2.
Scherag, Demuth, Rösler, Neville and Röder (2004) also suggest learning some syntactic processing functions and lexical access may be limited by maturation, whereas semantic functions are relatively unaffected by age. They studied the effect of late SLA on speech comprehension by German immigrants to the U.S.A. and American immigrants to Germany. They found that native-English speakers who learned German as adults were disadvantaged on certain grammatical tasks but performed at near-native levels on lexical tasks. These findings are consistent with work by Hahne (2001, cited in Scherag et al, 2004).
One study that specifically mentions semantic functions acquisition is that of Weber-Fox and Neville (1996). Their results showed that Chinese-English bilinguals who had been exposed to English after puberty, learned vocabulary to a higher competence level than syntactic aspects of language. They do, however, report that the judgment accuracies in detecting semantic anomalies were altered in subjects who were exposed to English after sixteen years of age, but were affected to a lesser degree than were grammatical aspects of language. It has been speculated (Neville and Bavelier, 2001, and Scherag et al, 2004) that semantic aspects of language are founded on associative learning mechanisms, which allow life-long learning, whereas syntactical aspects are based on computational mechanisms, which can only be constructed during certain age periods. Consequently, it is reasoned, semantic functions are easier to access during comprehension of an L2 and therefore dominate the process: if these are ambiguous, understanding of syntactic information is not facilitated. These suppositions would help explain the results of Scherag et al’s (2004) study.
Some researchers have focused exclusively on practical applications of SLA research. Asher (1972) insists teenagers and adults rarely successfully learn an L2, and attributes this to teaching strategies. He presents an L2 teaching strategy based on infants’ L1 acquisition, which promotes listening as central in language learning: listening precedes, and generates a ‘readiness’ for, speaking, assumptions supported by Carroll (1960). Asher shows that in L2 acquisition, in this case German, listening fluency is achieved in around half the usual time if the teaching is based on L1 acquisition, and that learners taught in this way still develop reading and writing proficiency comparable with those whose training emphasises literacy skills.
Similarly Horwitz (1986) summarises findings of SLA research, and applies to L2 teaching some principles of L2 acquisition honed from a vast body of relevant literature. Like Asher, Horwitz highlights the importance of naturalistic experience in L2, promoting listening and reading practice and stressing involvement in life-like conversations. She explicitly suggests teaching practices based on these principles; ‘[m]uch class time should be devoted to the development of listening and reading abilities’, and ‘[t]eachers should assess student interests and supply appropriate…materials’ (Horwitz, 1986, p.685-686). The ‘audio-lingual’ teaching practices used in the present study are based on principles explicated by Asher and Horwitz; listening featured heavily, closely followed by reading and speaking practice. The vocabulary items taught were deemed relevant for all learners, regardless of age, and, according to Pfeffer (1964), they are among the most commonly used nouns in everyday German language.

Cognitive approaches
A great deal of research and speculation has taken place on the cognitive processes underlying SLA. Ellen Bialystok has modelled the process of acquisition in terms of gaining increasing attentional control over language use. In other words, as the processes of word selection and utterance construction become increasingly automatic, learners' language ability also improves.

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