Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Acquisition and Learning

Well, the original purpose of this journal was to help with my studies and my work. Here's an essay I've just completed: see what you think.

Compare the concepts of language acquisition and language learning with reference to your reading and experience. Explain their relevance to three different learning situations in which you have had a direct teaching role.

Since the nineteenth century and the rise of various theories of how languages are learned, one consistent area of research has been how children learn their mother languages, and how best that can be replicated in the language classroom in order to facilitate the simplest and easiest way of learning a target language. Since the 1970s, further research has been undertaken into understanding the differences between the seemingly unconscious way in which young children learn and the way in which adult learners learn languages, what processes are involved and how these might affect how we learn, and teach, languages. Arguably the currently most dominant theories are those of Stephen Krashen regarding language acquisition and language learning, as laid out in Second language acquisition and second language learning (1981), and how they relate to his and Tracy Terrell's Natural Approach theory (1983). While the Natural Approach, according to Krashen himself, falls under the umbrella of the Communicative Approach, nevertheless his own theories on Acquisition, learning and the differences therein has had a significant impact on language teaching, methodology, materials and texts since the 1980s. In this essay, I will compare the concepts of acquisition and learning, first exploring in brief some of the historical background behind the rise of Krashen's theory of second language acquisition. Next, I will compare the concepts in relation to classroom practice, based upon current materials and my own classroom practice, and explain three teaching situations which illustrate the concepts, and finally I will explain my own attitude towards acquisition and learning based upon my own experience.

The historical background behind acquisition and learning theories
It may be said that, broadly speaking, earlier approaches to language teaching and learning focused either on grammatical accuracy or on seeking to create conditions in which language is learned in a way closest to how a child acquires language, the two prime examples being the Grammar Translation Method and the the Natural, or Direct, Method, of ca.1900. The latter involved in its initial stages the instructor reading a text and then asking questions in the target language, often involving 'a great deal of pantomime' until the learner could comprehend phrases and sentences in the language being studied. It would only be after this initial phase that he or she would be expected to produce, and only later that grammar would be studied. While the Natural Method should not be confused with the much later Natural Approach, it did have something in common with the later idea. It is only later that there was consistent research into and analysis of what learners actually do. It was long held, for example, that (adult) learners of language would learn grammatical structures with greater or lesser speed depending on how close or distant their L1 was from the target language. This 'Contrastive Hypothesis' maintained that the learner's L1 could exert a positive or a negative interference depending on whether the language being studied contained the same grammatical feature as L1. However, when language learners were actually subjected to research during the late 1960s and 1970s, this hypothesis was found to actually have very little bearing on how L2 is learned. These 'Morpheme Order' studies sought to discover whether there is a natural sequence in which the structures of any given language are learned. While the initial studies have now come in for criticism, an outcome was that there does indeed seem to be a universal order of acquisition, and that we have an innate capability to acquire a language system from birth. Moreover, adult language learners appear to acquire language in much the same order as a child acquires his or her L1. However, there are still differences in these two processes: acquisition and learning.
What is Acquisition?
Acquisition, according to Krashen (1981), is the process best described as the 'natural' way in which first language development occurs in children. It is an unconscious process, involving the development of language proficiency by understanding a language and using it to communicate effectively and meaningfully. Krashen and Terrell (1983) state that the primary use of language is to communicate, and as such, language is naturally acquired in morphological 'chunks' – either word by word, utterance by utterance, or phrase by phrase, and that grammar has little to do with the natural way in which languages are acquired. Research does bear this out: Children acquire words according to their needs, and only later develop the 'framework' to create longer, more complex structures, the better to convey more complex meanings and information. Moreover, this framework takes time to become fully realised, and in the intervening time, children use an interlanguage – a form of the child's L1 in which he or she can experiment with language and where the rules and conventions are seemingly arbitrary and flexible. I can attest to this from my own experience of bringing up two children in a bilingual household. In the case of my first child, he initially acquired one language in preference to the other (in this case Turkish over English). However, due to a change of country just prior to his second birthday, he was plunged into a new language environment, and began to learn solely English, and his linguistic development subsequently proceeded in that language. By contrast, his younger brother (currently two years old) is exposed to both languages simultaneously at home, and also to Arabic via his childminder. When he speaks, he freely produces words in all three languages, but is at the point of clearly showing preference of lexical item depending on who he is communicating with. Nevertheless, his emergent interlanguage is still a mixture of vocabulary items from the languages he is acquiring. What is very clear is that there is very little discernible 'grammar' as such.

What is learning?
Language learning is a very different process from acquisition. It involves a process where the learner develops conscious rules about a language. It could be said that he or she learns about the language before learning the language itself. The outcome of this process is that the learner has clear, understood, knowledge of a language and can then verbalize this. In many respects, this means that a learned language is information learned much like any other subject, rather than the means or vehicle by which information is learned and disseminated, as is the case with L1. In contrast to acquisition, learning occurs in a formal taught environment. The development of the rules governing the target language may be helped by formal teaching techniques, such as error correction and testing. According to Krashen's theory, Learning cannot lead to acquisition, mainly because of how learning occurs, but also because of two other factors: the learner's internal 'monitor' and his or her 'affective filter'.

Acquisition, learning, the monitor hypothesis and the affective filter hypothesis
I have described above how acquisition is the process by which children acquire L1, and also how there seems to be a universal order of acquisition by which certain structures begin to appear in the learner's production. Research indicates that this order of acquisition also occurs in the way in which adult learners, whether in an informal or formal learning environment, acquire a target language. For example, the manner in which the negative is formed in English is typically initially expressed by putting 'no' before a verb ('I no go'), then by using an auxiliary correctly in one way, but incorrectly in another ('I don't go', but 'he don't go' or 'he don't can go'), before finally mastering the structure. This research into adult learners puts into question the entire notion of a grammatical syllabus. Surely we should teach English in a manner which most closely resembles the way in which we naturally learn our mother tongues?
This is in fact what Krashen and Terrel propose in the Natural Approach (1983). Some of the key features of this, according to Richards and Rodgers (2001) are that, firstly, the approach is designed to help students develop from beginners to intermediates in the target language; That specific objectives depend on learner needs; And that content selection should be interesting and foster a friendly, relaxed class atmosphere. The feature most relevant to our discussion is the role that the learner is expected to take. In the initial phases of a Natural Approach-based course, the student is not expected to contribute or produce until he or she feels ready to do so – in other words, once he or she feels a need to do so, imitating the need to communicate that is believed to drive language acquisition in children.
However, Krashen goes on in his SLA theory to describe other factors that distinguish Learning from Acquisition. First of these is the 'Monitor Hypothesis'. In short, this states that conscious learning functions only as a monitor,or editor, of what is uttered (as initiated by an acquired linguistic system), and provides a way of correcting language when we communicate. The efficiency of the monitor is affected by three conditions: Time, where there must be enough time for a learned rule to be chosen and applied; Focus on form, where the speaker is focused on accuracy or the form of what is produced; and knowledge of the rules, where the speaker, or performer, has to know the rules. As we have pointed out earlier, in second language learning, the rules of a language are generally learned along with the language.
Another factor that has been described is the Affective Filter Hypothesis. This states that the adult learner will be more or less successful in learning a language depending on the strength of their affective filter, that is, the emotional state, attitudes, motivation, self-confidence and anxiety he or she brings into the language learning environment. Krashen states that the lower the affective filter, the more successful the student will be in learning.
In other words, an acquired linguistic system is one learnt free of anxiety, or prior assumption. On the other hand, adult language learners have a set of assumptions and attitudes towards the target language and its culture that may or may not impede the process of learning.
One more important point to raise before we move on is this: Learning does not occur within acquisition, yet acquisition may, and does, occur within the learning process.

Examples from teaching situations
All my own teaching experience has been with young adult and adult learners, so I see students who are very much in the process of learning rather than acquiring English, albeit with some individual exceptions. One example was a student who had acquired highly fluent spoken English. Prior to entering the classroom, he had never formally studied the language: Instead, he had acquired what he knew of the language from his job as a waiter and bartender in a holiday resort, even to the extent that he spoke with a distinct London accent, despite never having been to the UK. Given his level of spoken English, it was anticipated before his initial assessment that his reading and writing would also be of the same standard. Instead, he tested out at ALTE level C2. He was disappointed by this, and once on the course with people with far lower levels of spoken fluency than him, he rapidly became frustrated and disillusioned, to the point that he stopped trying to learn any further.
The difficulty lay in that he needed to learn rather than acquire, even though he had acquired listening and spoken skills necessary for him to function, and function at a high level. Looking at his case through Krashen and Terrell's Natural Approach Theory, he had succeeded in acquiring a language in the most naturalistic way possible. However, in order to further his own career, he also required reading and writing skills, and this required a much more formal learning environment. In order to facilitate this, I had to first encourage him to continue learning. This I did by making him think about what it was he wanted and needed to learn, why this was, and how he could do it. This developed first through conversations, then through writing down his targets, then by breaking these targets down and showing him what he needed to learn. By involving him in the actual process of learning, and making him learn about language learning he managed to progress swiftly and far more happily.
I encounter similar issues with ESOL groups. Quite often, there is a disparity between spoken language, where long-term residents in the UK have acquired functional spoken capability, albeit one that is often limited to a specific set of social and work-based contexts, yet have highly limited reading and writing skills. Also, ESOL groups are frequently unfamiliar with the metalanguage and terminology frequently used when teaching a language, further evidence that they have not experienced a formal learning environment. Only through individual appraisals is it possible to devise an effective way of approaching how they need to learn further and what techniques are most likley to be effective.
By contrast, I have also dealt with groups (in the case I am thinking of, monolingual groups of Chinese students) who in had a technically high degree of knowledge of English, yet were incapable of functioning in the language environment simply because they could neither understand nor react to spoken English, nor were sufficiently capable of producing it to the degree that their grammatical knowledge suggested they should. In their case, they had achieved a great deal of learning but had experienced next to no acquisition. In their case, their frustrations with the language, while ostensibly similar to the first two examples, were in fact caused by the incapability to express the knowledge they believed they possessed, and this was compounded by the fact that they had to express themselves since they were studying in the UK. Many of them had aimed to go on to study at a British university after a year of studying English: with the realisation that they could not understand spoken interaction even at a relatively basic level, they became further discouraged. In the case of these students, exposing them to spoken interaction in class, encouraging them to listen to as much English as possible in their free time, and ensuring they reassessed their expectations all helped.
There is little doubt in my mind that Krashen's theories about acquisition and learning are, by and large, true. However, it may seem that some of his ideas are too simplistic, too much of the obvious being stated: one critic (Gregg, 1984) even goes so far as to suggest that he has no theory of language at all. I would take issue with the affective filter theory, and with some of the other features that he describes as distinguishing learning from acquisition, as I believe there is may be another way of explaining the difference. However, that falls outside the remit of this essay.
What we cannot do is invoke acquisition in our students in the classroom environment. Nor can we teach in a way that perfectly mimics acquisition. All we can do, within the class, is try to create a synthesis between how languages are picked up and an analysis of how the language works. What we can also do is encourage students to explore the language outside the classroom: we can direct them to discover for themselves as much as possible, to expose themselves to the target language as much as possible, to immerse themselves within it. And most importantly perhaps, we should encourage them not to be afraid, to play with language, to be flexible and arbitrary, to seek to be creative, to turn off their critical, affective filters and experiment with what is possible – in other words, let each student be comfortable in their own interlanguage as they learn.

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