Second language acquisition

Author: Antonella Sorace


Since the original formulation of the 'Interlanguage Hypothesis' in the late '60s, the field of Second Language Acquisition has witnessed a remarkable expansion and diversification. It is now a research area that interfaces with several disciplines and encompasses a range of applied, theoretical and experimental approaches. As a consequence, Second Language Acquisition can be taught in different ways depending on the purpose of the course and the students' background and aims.

Table of contents


Until the '60s, studies of second language (L2) learning were exclusively motivated by pedagogical or practical concerns, such as the need to improve language teaching methods and classroom materials. The "Interlanguage Hypothesis", originally proposed by S. Pit Corder in series of seminal papers in the late '60' and early 70s (reprinted in Corder 1981), can be regarded as the starting point of L2 acquisition as an autonomous field of inquiry. The hypothesis stated that adult L2 learners have an "in-built syllabus": they construct a mental grammar, different from both the native language (L1) and the L2, that can be studied in its own right, and not only in comparison with the target L2 grammar. Errors, in this new perspective, became a window on the learner's hypotheses about the L2 and not just a measure of what had not yet been learned.

Yet, L2 acquisition research remained solidly tied to the applied perspective, and particularly with language teaching, for at least a decade. Models of L2 acquisition, such as the 'Monitor Model' formulated by Krashen (1975, 1981), were influential among L2 researchers and at the same time inspired language teachers to pursue methods based on 'comprehensible input' rather than on a focus on grammar. This trend went hand-in-hand with the success of the 'communicative teaching method' in the UK. Until the early '80s, L2 research still simultaneously served the interests of researchers and those of language teachers, addressing theoretical and applied aims at the same time. L2 acquisition courses in the UK were mainly taught within taught Master's programmes in Applied Linguistics, such as the pioneering one in Edinburgh, attended mostly by professional language teachers, many of whom became themselves prominent contributors to the field. The predominant focus of L2 acquisition courses on 'grammar' (including syntax and morphology) reflected that of the descriptive research conducted at that time.

From the mid '80s, the field expanded and started to diversify. On the one hand, L2 research within a generative framework got under way (see White 1989 for an overview of this first period). The aim of this kind of research was to investigate the cognitive mechanisms available to the L2 learner in order to gain a better understanding of human cognition. A division began to appear between formal and functionalist approaches to the study of L2 acquisition, the latter becoming particularly strong in European countries such as Italy, France, and Switzerland. An important manifestation of the functionalist approach was the project on "Second language acquisition in adult immigrants' (1982-1988), funded by the European Science Foundation, which produced a large database of longitudinal data ( On the other hand, new branches of L2 acquisition research emerged, such as L2 phonology, L2 pragmatics, L2 processing. The journal Second Language Research (previously called The Interlanguage Bulletin, a local Utrecht University publication), stated its aims as explicitly divorced from language teaching. Although many L2 researchers still came from a language teaching background, more and more were trained as linguists and had no links with the teaching profession. Conferences on theoretical L2 research, such as the Language Acquisition Research Symposium (LARS) in Holland, the Second Language Research Forum (SLRF) in the US, became centres of debate for theoretically-minded researchers. Meanwhile, the number of papers on L2 acquisition given at conferences on language development (the Boston University Conference on Language Development, and the triennial conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition), or at general linguistics conferences increased. Similarly, L2 papers started to appear not only in journals traditionally devoted to non-pedagogical SLA research (Language Learning, Studies in Second Language Acquisition) but also in general linguistics journals. The European Second Language Association (EUROSLA), founded in 1989, began organising a series of annual conferences with a broad non-pedagogical orientation that encompasses the richness of research approaches in the field.

The field has grown enormously in the past 15 years. As a consequence, L2 acquisition courses are currently taught in different ways. While in the United States (less so in Canada) they are still predominantly taught as part of Applied Linguistics programmes, the UK scene is more diversified. A number of universities (for example Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Essex) teach theoretical L2 acquisition courses alongside the applied ones, usually as modules for new Master's degrees on Language Acquisition or Developmental Linguistics. Some universities, including Edinburgh, have developed L2 acquisition courses at the undergraduate level as well.

It is no longer possible to teach an 'all-purpose' course that covers both theoretical and pedagogical aspects and introduces students to all the existing sub-fields. Ideally the subject matter can be divided into two levels: a basic one, covering general aspects such as input, L1 transfer, and "focus on form", and a more specialized one focusing on developmental linguistic issues and placing L2 acquisition within a broader framework, comparing it with L1 acquisition, bilingualism, diachronic change. The basic level is useful both to professionals who are doing a vocational course and to students without a background who are interested in doing original theoretical research for a PhD. The more advanced level is research-oriented and caters for the needs of students who want to specialize in the subject. Students in L2 acquisition courses, whether basic or advanced, benefit from some background in psychological learning theories: at Edinburgh, for example, students are introduced to concepts such as a modular vs. unitary theories of cognition, critical periods, hypothesis-testing and concept learning, in a foundation course on the psychology of language learning which is a prerequisite for attendance of L2 acquisition.

L2 acquisition remains a strongly data-based discipline. Students often gain a deeper appreciation of particular models and concepts when they apply them to the analysis of real learner data. For this reason, many textbooks include a set of data-based exercises, or are accompanied by exercise workbooks. In addition, L2 acquisition courses often provide students with the opportunity to design a small-scale piece of research in which they collect and analyse their own data. This 'hands-on' experience is essential in understanding the processes involved in learning a second language.

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