Element 14 – The Complexity of Language Acquisition


Element 13 – The Complexity of Language Acquisition

Many excellent researchers study second language acquisition (SLA). They want to answer this question: “How do people acquire a second language?” But these researchers face complex and hard problems. Each learner and learning situation is uniquely complex. Acquisition is a complex physical, psychological, and social process. And language is one of the most complex wonders of the natural world.

Therefore, when we look at SLA, we see a complicated situation. Different researchers will look at the same problem. But they will use different theories about language and learning. And they will produce different — even conflicting results. Because of this, Ellis (2015, pg. 48) says that we should look for “insights” instead of “answers.” Insights can guide us and provide wisdom for teaching and learning. But we will also be wise to understand the complexity of SLA.

The Complexity of Language and SLA

For a simple example of complexity, let’s look at English. In English, sounds and spelling have a strange relationship. “Heard” sounds like “bird” and “word,” which sounds like “absurd.” But we spell these similar sounding words in different ways. “Heard” looks like “beard,” but  “beard,” sounds like “weird.” And “dead” looks like “lead.” But “lead” sounds like “deed,” which also sounds like “skied” and “Swede.”

This shows the complexity of sounds and spelling in English. But size also relates to complexity. Look at the size of vocabulary. Native speakers of English take about 8 years to learn their first 10,000 words. Adult native speakers of English know about 20,000 to 35,000 words. All these words have a complex word grammar called morphology. Then phrases and sentences express an even more complex grammar with syntax.

Syntax gives us rules for the ordering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions. Syntax also gives us rules for combining phrases with phrases, and putting phrases inside phrases. Grammar tells us to put the “s” at the end of “tell” after a singular subject. And grammar tells us to use the word “these” when we talk about “these sentences.” Grammar gives us the ability to talk about the present, the future, the past, and much more. And this is a simple explanation of complexity. There is more.

Second language learners face many complex factors. First, there are psychological factors. L2 learners are partly influenced by their first language. Japanese speakers may find learning English more difficult than Dutch speakers. Why? English is more similar to Dutch than Japanese. And a learner’s first language sometimes affects second language acquisition.

Moreover, some learners get more input than others.  Some L2 learners start young. Other start when they are older. This starting age affects the amount of input that enters a learner’s mind. Besides this, learners have different levels of natural learning ability. They have different levels of psychological motivation. They have different emotions about themselves and their abilities to learn.

Learners also face social factors. Teachers, friends, and classmates socially influence language acquisition. Each social situation is different. Some teachers teach better than others. Some learners are shy, and they socialize less in the second language. Some socialize more. Some learners love the culture of the target language. Some dislike the culture of the target language. Thus, learners judge the target language and culture differently, and this makes acquisition more complex.

Learners also face economic and physical factors. Some learners study at wealthy schools with computers, big libraries, and highly educated teachers. Other learners study in school houses with no electricity, no library, and with dedicated, but inexperienced teachers. Some classrooms are comfortable. Other classrooms are uncomfortable. Some parents are supportive; others are less supportive.

All these factors increase the complexity of acquisition and the study of SLA. Nevertheless, researchers have given us many helpful theories and insights. As language teachers, we need to know about these insights, and we need to keep learning as researchers produce more knowledge.

Applying Insights from SLA

Before we apply insights from SLA, we need to remember a few things. These insights are not perfect, but they are likely to help. Because our insights are probabilistic, we need to use them carefully. And we may need to change them in the future because researchers will produce new insights.

Some SLA researchers contradict each other. For example, Krashen (1981) says we only need comprehensible input, and we don’t need to worry about output. Swain (1985) says we need output, too. But teachers can use both of these insights. For example, we can emphasize input and give students chances to produce output.

We have a word for mixing and blending insights. We call it “eclecticism.” However, we can’t just combine anything. We don’t want to mix good insights with bad ideas. We don’t want to have a teaching approach full of contradictions. Therefore, we need to use insights carefully. Larsen-Freeman and Anderson (2011) call this “principled eclecticism.”

With principled eclecticism, we can combine insights and create a careful, wise, and up-to-date approach to teaching. To do this, we need to know about the big picture of SLA research. We need to look at the different viewpoints with fairness. And because these insights are probabilistic, we can have an informed, but also gentle opinion. That is, we can understand others if they disagree with us.

In the Chapter on Unified Theories, we can see an attempt at principled eclecticism. Ten different theories are blended into one grand theory. That is, “We acquire language by understanding and interacting with compelling and meaningful messages, as we notice big linguistic data and receptively and productively retrieve it through spaced repetition and interleaving.”

To understand this theory, we need to look at each of the 10 parts. But remember. This theory is still  probabilistic and incomplete. It will always need to be changed and rewritten. But in the meantime, we can use it. We can use it to apply the insights from SLA research. We can use it to guide our teaching. We can use it to help our students acquire language in the best ways that we know.

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.