language acquisition

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature was just awarded to Doris Lessing. From the New York Times:

Ms. Lessing, who turns 88 this month, never finished high school and largely educated herself through voracious reading. She has written dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, nonfiction and two volumes of autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

She never finished high school but won the Nobel Prize. The key to her success was reading, "voracious reading." What slows down students, especially ESL students, is a lack of reading. Without a strong reading background, students lack the vocabulary and the sensitivity to understanding and intuiting how reading and writing works, from such simple mechanical items as spacing, punctuation, and spelling to the critical issues of comprehension; questioning authors and assumptions; analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information; and more

Reading is crucial to all academic endeavors. A few years back, the principal of a charter school in Texas that had a majority of at-risk students, told me,

These students can do the math and science. Their difficulty is they can't read: They can't understand what a problem is asking them to do. But once you explain it to them, they can do it.

Reading is also important for acquiring a second language, especially at the academic level. Although I consider Stephen Krashen's distinction between acquisition and learning to be a specific application of the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge (and thus there is an interface between the two), he is right on the importance of reading. That is, massive reading is important for spelling, vocabulary, literacy development, and language acquisition. Thus, for teachers, a major, probably the major, key to helping their students to learn another language remains creating environments that engage and motivate students to read.

Related posts:
Language Learning vs. Language Acquistion
Engagement and Flow

What do you think? Does one "learn" a language much like any other cognitive endeavor? Or is it "acquired" due to some innate language-specific biological mechanism?

There's quite a bit of controversy on this issue, on whether some universal grammar (UG) is responsible for language acquisition, deriving from an innate process specific for language. For those taking the UG approach, acquisition results from the UG module while "learning" is due to normal learning processes. Not all agree. For example, consider Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain". Here's the abstract:

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to be rooted in a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but arbitrary, principles of language structure (a universal grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes. The resulting puzzle concerning the origin of UG we call the logical problem of language evolution. Because the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a “moving target” both over time and across different human populations, and hence cannot provide a stable environment to which UG genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG--the mesh between learners and languages--arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent “organism,” which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages are themselves undergoing severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases, independent of language. We illustrate how this framework can integrate evidence from different literatures and methodologies to explain core linguistic phenomena, including binding constraints, word order universals, and diachronic language change.

In brief, learning a language is like learning any other skill.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health released news on a six-year study on brain development in healthy children. The study followed the brain development of about 500 children, ages 6-18, each child being tracked over a four-year period. One finding (accompanied by caveats) undermines the notion of language being innate:

Children appear to approach adult levels of performance on many basic cognitive and motor skills by age 11 or 12, according to a new study coordinated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ...

Regardless of income or sex, children appeared to improve rapidly on many tasks between ages 6 and 10, with much less dramatic cognitive growth in adolescence. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills.

In other words, there is a "critical period" for learning general cognitive tasks that corresponds to the critical period for "acquiring" a language, usually considered to be up until the age of 12, after which individuals will not develop a complete command of a language. In Error Feedback: Theory, I mentioned the 10-year rule, which states that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of intense practice, a period of time similar to achieving nativelike fluency in a second langauge.

If language learning has a similar critical period time frame as other endeavors and takes similar amounts of time to become an "expert," then it would seem to be governed by general cognitive learning processes rather than by a language-specific learning process.

These findings do not contradict Krashen's assertion of the need for massive comprehensible input for learning a language. After all, the crucial element for achieving mastery of any activity is, as Anderson and Schunn (pdf) state,

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

As teachers, then, one of our primary tasks is to motivate students to spend the necessary time in learning a language (see Error Feedback: Motivation, The Inverse Power of Praise, and Engagement and Flow).

As noted in the previous post on theory in error feedback, the research on expertise and ACT-R Theory suggest that learning a language is similar to learning other activities like chess, music, and math. In this post, we'll look at Skill Acquisition Theory (SAT), which is based upon the work in ACT-R.

Robert DeKeyser (2007) has a good overview of Skill Acquisition Theory. (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) As he notes, development has three stages: declarative, procedural, and automatic (from ACT-R Theory). Declarative knowledge refers to explicit knowledge about a topic, as in "knowing" and talking about grammar rules. Procedural knowledge is implicit knowledge that refers to behavior, such as speaking or writing a language. Of course, there are different levels of proficiency in using a language, and thus automaticity is not an "all-or-nothing affair". Automaticity occurs toward the endpoint of extensive practice, toward the point at which one has become completely fluent in a language. From the perspective of SAT, the sequence of these stages is crucial, as is the appropriate "combination of abstract rules and concrete examples" at the declarative stage.

According to DeKeyser, Skill Acquisition Theory does not explain all of language learning and apparently is most effective at beginner levels. He states that SAT works best with

  1. high-aptitutde adult learners engaged in
  2. the learning of simple structures at
  3. fairly early stages of learning
  4. in instructional contexts

It seems obvious that young children will not respond as well as adults to the use of declarative knowledge as their ability to understand rules and explanations is more limited. Conversely, as rules become more complex, they may become too difficult to understand in the form of declarative knowledge. Thus, it's possible that learning (or acquiriing) complex rules may rely more upon implicit processes. Anderson and Schunn (pdf) say something similar:

As knowledge domains become more advanced, their underlying cognitive structure tends to become more obscure. Thus, while it may remain easy to provide feedback on what the final answer is, it becomes difficult to provide feedback on the individual mental steps that lead to the final answer. Teachers often are unaware, at an explicit level, of what this knowledge is and do not know how to teach it to children.

Anderson and Schunn are pointing to the need to diagnose a task and break it down into its components in order to provide effective feedback. When we can't componentialize a task, then feedback becomes considerably less effective. Basically, we can only say then, "No, that's not right" or "Yes, that's it."

Thus, with respect to error correction, we need

  • rules that are not obscure,
  • examples of the rules, and
  • understandable explanations of those rules.

The ability to use declarative knowledge in the learning process does not accelerate acquisition. Rather, it eliminates wasted time and effort.

Before turning to practical suggestions for error correction, I'll look at motivation in my next post.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

When the evidence for error feedback is "scant", mostly what we have to go on is theory. Those who oppose error correction would likely assume a nativist framework that includes:

  1. Language acquisition (whether first or second language) differs from general learning processes.
  2. Language acquisition and general learning processes do not interact.
  3. The process of language acquisition cannot be accelerated.

Without reviewing the research, let me say that there are those, even in L1 studies, that assert that language acquistion results from general learning processes (e.g., Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain"). And alternative theories also exist in second language acqusition, such as Skill Acquistion Theory and Associate-Cognitive CREED (Construction-based, Rational, Exemplar-driven, Emergent, and Dialectic). (See Theories in Second Language Acquistion.) So, why would anyone want to take a nativist position? There are more than a few reasons. The main one seems to be the poverty of the stimulus, but in part, one reason seems to be that language acquisition is seen as inexplicably complex while other learning endeavors seem simple in comparison. I would like to suggest that the comparisons being made are simple, but not the objects, or processes, being compared.

I've mentioned Philip Ross's article "The Expert Mind" (in Scientific American, see also my post) on more than one occasion, but it's worthwhile to return to it often. It states,

The preponderance of evidence is that experts are made, not born.

Although not innate, expertise takes time to develop. In general, it takes "takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field." Thus, although it doesn't take much to learn how to move the pieces in chess, becoming a grandmaster of strategy, however, takes at least a decade of intense practice. Similarly, although it doesn't take much to learn a few basic grammar rules and a small vocabulary, becoming fluent in another language--that is, acquiring the "grandmaster status" of a native speaker--takes at least 10 years of intense practice, too.

If the amount of time to acquire expertise is similar between chess, music, art, math, and language, that suggests for learning a language,

  1. the crucial element is practice rather than some language module
  2. the process cannot be accelerated.

Because the process cannot be accelerated, it may matter little whether one takes an nativist or general learning process approach to language acquistion. Note, however, that all practice is not equal. From the article,

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

The case of enthusiasts practicing without advancing is reminiscent of fossilization, and the "effortful study" reminds me of Krashen's i+1 principle for input. One difference is "point[ing] up weakenesses for future study," a "monitor" approach that Krashen would say does not contribute to language acquisition.

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) make similar assertions:

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

However, they qualify that to mean "effective time on task." Once again, not all practice is equal. In the case of ACT-R Theory, "effective time on task" is promoted through

  • the use of examples accompanied by explanation and understanding,
  • accurate diagnosis of the learning task and performance, and
  • feedback

It seems that research on expertise and ACT-R Theory would support some form of error correction. Because Skill Acquistion Theory, which draws upon ACT-R and similar theories, focuses on SLA, in my next post, I'll look at it in a little more detail.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

From Science Blog (via samzenpus of Slashdot):

Cornell University and Tel Aviv University researchers have developed a method for enabling a computer program to scan text in any of a number of languages, including English and Chinese, and autonomously and without previous information infer the underlying rules of grammar. The rules can then be used to generate new and meaningful sentences. The method also works for such data as sheet music or protein sequences.

It also has been used successfully with "parent-directed speech at 2- or 3-year olds." What this suggests is that there may be no UG (or LAD) specific to language. Rather, learning a language may occur from general cognitive processes. Just as a stem cell can develop into different cell types depending upon its environment, so, too, do general cognitive processes develop into language specific processes.