Applied Linguistics

Key issues in second language acquisition/learning/teaching

Language learning and teaching

Learning A second language is a long and complex undertaking. Your whole person is affected as you struggle to reach beyond the confines of your first language and into a new language, a new culture, a new way of thinking, feeling, and acting. Total commitment, total involvement, a total physical, intellectual, and emotional responses are necessary to successfully send and receive messages in a second language. Many variables are involved in the acquisition process. Language learning is not a set of easy steps that can be programmed in a quick do-it-yourself kit. So much is at stake that courses in foreign languages are often inadequate training grounds, in and of themselves, for the successful learning of a second lan­guage. Few if any people achieve fluency in a foreign language solely within the confines of the classroom. Key issues in second language acquisition

It may appear contradictory, then, that this book is about both learning and teaching. But some of the contradiction is removed if you look at the teaching process as the facilitation of learning, in which you can teach a for­eign language successfully if, among other things, you know something about that intricate web of variables that are spun together to affect how and why one learns or fails to learn a second language. Where does a teacher begin the quest for an understanding of the principles of language learning and teaching? By first considering some of the issues.

KEY ISSUES IN SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION Key issues in second language acquisition

Current issues in second language acquisition (SLA) may be initially approached as a multitude of questions that are being asked about this complex process. Let’s look at some of those questions.


Who does the learning and teaching? Obviously, learners and teachers. But who are these learners? Where do they come from? What are their native languages? levels of education? socioeconomic levels? Who are their par­ents? What are their intellectual capacities? What sorts of personalities do they have? These questions focus attention on some of the crucial variables affecting both learners’ successes in acquiring a foreign language and teachers’ capacities to enable learners to achieve that acquisition. The chapters that follow will help to tease out those variables.

In the case of the teacher, another set of questions emerges. What is the teacher’s native language? experience and/or training? knowledge of the second language and its culture? philosophy of education? personality char­acteristics? Most importantly, how do the teacher and the student interact with each other?

What? Key issues in second language acquisition

No simpler question is one that probes the nature of the subject matter itself. What is it that the learner must learn and the teacher teach? What is communication? What is language? What does it mean when we say someone knows how to use a language? How can both the first and the second language be described adequately? What are the linguistic differ­ences between the first and the second language? These profound questions are of course central to the discipline of linguistics. The language teacher needs to understand the system and functioning of the second language and the differences between the first and second language of the learner. It is one thing for a teacher to speak and understand a language and yet another matter to attain the technical knowledge required to understand and explain the system of that language—its phonemes and morphemes and words and sentences and discourse structures.


How does learning take place? How can a person ensure success in lan­guage learning? What cognitive processes are utilized in second language learning? What kinds of strategies does the learner use? What is the optimal interrelationship of cognitive, affective, and physical domains for successful language learning? Key issues in second language acquisition

When? Key issues in second language acquisition

When does second language learning take place? One of the key issues in second language research and teaching is the differential success of chil­dren and adults in learning a second language. Common observation tells us that children are “better” language learners than adults. Is this true? If so, why does the age of learning make a difference? How do the cognitive and emotional developmental changes of childhood and young adulthood affect language acquisition? Other “when” questions center around the amount of time spent in the activity of learning the second language. Is the learner exposed to three or five or ten hours a week in the classroom? Or a seven-hour day in an immersion program? Or twenty-four hours a day totally submerged in the culture?


Are the learners attempting to acquire the second language within the cul­tural and linguistic milieu of the second language, that is, in a “second” lan­guage situation in the technical sense of the term? Or are they focusing on a “foreign” language context in which the second language is heard and spoken only in an artificial environment, such as the modern language class­room in an American university or high school? How might the sociopolit­ical conditions of a particular country affect the outcome of a learner’s mastery of the language? How do general intercultural contrasts and simi­larities affect the learning process? Key issues in second language acquisition

Why? Key issues in second language acquisition

Finally, the most encompassing of all questions: Why are learners attempting to acquire the second language? What are their purposes? Are they motivated by the achievement of a successful career? by passing a for­eign language requirement? or by wishing to identify closely with the cul­ture and people of the target language? Beyond these categories, what other affective, emotional, personal, or intellectual reasons do learners have for pursuing this gigantic task of learning another language?

These questions have been posed, in very global terms, to give you an inkling of the diversity of issues involved in the quest for understanding the principles of language learning and teaching. And while you cannot hope to find final answers to all the questions, you can begin to achieve a sur­prising number of answers as you move through the chapters of this book.

And you can hone the global questions into finer, subtler questions, which in itself is an important task, for often being able to ask the right questions is more valuable than possessing storehouses of knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn (1970) referred to “normal science” as a process of puzzle-solving in which part of the task of the scientist, in this case, the teacher, is to discover the pieces and then to fit the pieces together. Some of the pieces of the language learning puzzle have become well estab­lished. Others are not yet discovered, and the careful defining of questions will lead to finding those pieces. We can then undertake the task of fitting the pieces together into a “paradigm”—an interlocking design, a theory of second language acquisition.

That theory, like a jigsaw puzzle, needs to be coherent and unified. If only one point of view is taken—if you look at only one facet of second lan­guage learning and teaching—you will derive an incomplete, partial theory. The second language teacher, with eyes wide open to the total picture, needs to form an integrated understanding of the many aspects of the process of second language learning.

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