The Analogy between First- and Second- Language Learning
IRAL, 1969, VII/3
Later comparisons in The
Relationship between First and Second Language Learning 2008 and First
and second language learning
In recent years a number of the techniques that have come into language teaching have relied implicitly on their being a close analogy between the way that a child acquires his native language and the way that a student learns a foreign language. This paper does not try to test the strength of this analogy. Instead, it takes one side of the analogy, first-language acquisition, and argues that the implications for second-language teaching are rather different than generally supposed1.
of the main areas of interest to transformational generative
has been the process of language acquisition.
problem of internal justification - of explanatory
- is essentially the problem of constructing
theory of language acquisition, an account of the
abilities that make this achievement possible."2 This interest has provided
linguists and psychologists with new insights into the way that a child acquires
and develops his competence in his native language, particularly into the
development of grammatical systems3. The chief difference from
earlier studies is that the competence of the child used above all to be
compared with that of an adult: his competence was analysed in terms of what it
was eventually to become —the competence of an adult native speaker of the
language. In other words, the child's speech was treated as a simplified
telegraphic version of adults'.
work treats the problem rather differently by regarding the child's competence
at a given age as a self-contained internally consistent system not dependent on
the full adult system. It seems absurd to describe, in effect, the child as
possessing all the rules of adult competence together with a set of deletion and
reduction rules to account for his ungrammatical sentences. The aim now is to
describe the different stages through which the child progresses towards adult
competence, with each stage having a grammatical system of its own that does not
need to be explained by reference to the adult system. The child is believed to
make a series of hypotheses about the structure of the language which he tests
and abandons or preserves. Each successive hypothesis is an interim grammar
accounting more successfully for the data he is exposed to. The last hypothesis
is the final adult grammar of competence in the language.
illustration of this is provided by the work of Klima and Bellugi on negation in
English.4 They describe three stages in the child's development. At
Stage 1, the rule for negation merely states that a Sentence Nucleus can be
preceded or followed by 'no' or 'not'. The child produces sentences such as
"No singing song." "Not a teddy bear." "Wear mitten
no." In terms of the child's grammar, all these are grammatical; they bear
little relation, however, to grammatical sentences produced by an adult. To
account for Stage 2, this simple rule has to be modified to permit 'don't' and
'can't' (which are only found in the negative) and negative elements
"within the sentence but not connected to an auxiliary verb". The
child produces sentences such as "I don't sit on Cromer coffee."
"No pinch me." "That no fish school." At Stage 3, the rules
must allow for the appearance of auxiliaries in other than negative forms and
for 'some' occurring in both positive and negative sentences. The child produces
sentences such as "I don't want cover on it." "I didn't see
something." "That not turning." It is apparent that he has still
to acquire some rule to account for the relationship of negation and 'any'.
There appears to be very little connection between evidence of this kind and the conventional theory of second language learning. One can distinguish three areas of divergence: development, error, and grading.
form of development theory implicit in second-language teaching has been similar
to the older first language acquisition theory outlined above. The competence of
the second-language learner has been compared with the full native competence at
which he is aiming. The products
his successive grammars are evaluated, not by their consistency with his interim
grammars, but by their
with the rules of full native competence. Teachers usually demand that the
sentences of second-language learners should be grammatical from the very
beginning, a demand not imposed on children acquiring their
language. It is possible that an approach which heals
stages through which the learner progresses as self-contained will be as
fruitful in second-language learning as in first-language acquisition.
In addition, the second-language learner is not expected to make interim hypotheses about the language he is learning; instead, he is assumed to learn the rules of native competence one by one. He is required to build up his grammar as one would a house, brick by brick: "Add each new element or pattern to previous ones."5 The new element is not supposed to make him have cause to modify those rules he has already learned. The child, on the other hand, constructs and destroys or modifies a series of bigger and better tents. The two processes involved appear quite distinct; we learn our first language by a series of evolving hypotheses; we are assumed to learn a second language by building it up rule by rule. It is clear that there is no analogy between the conventional theory of second-language development and what we know today about development of the first language. Only further research will show whether this conventional theory is wrong and whether the two processes do, in fact, develop in a similar manner.6
by adult competence, the child's sentences will contain errors. Similarly,
tested by native competence, the second-language learner's sentences will also
contain errors. While, in the theory of first-language acquisition outlined
above, 'errors' are an integral part of the process and show what the child's
interim grammar does not yet include, in second-language teaching it is usually
thought that errors are extremely harmful.7 Usually the teaching situation is
carefully controlled so that the possibility of error is minimised. This
limitation prevents the learner from making errors by trying to use parts of the
language he has not yet been taught. According to Newmark and Reibel, the
explanation for interference is that the learner fills in the gaps in his
experience of the second language with forms from his first language.8 If the
second-language learner is not to make constant errors, the environment in which
he is using the language must be tightly controlled so that the number of
grammatical rules and lexical items necessary is severely limited.
first-language acquisition, an error shows that adult competence has not yet
been reached and the grammar is still an interim hypothesis; in second-language
learning, an error is taken to show that an item has been wrongly learned.9 If
the second-language learner is to proceed by a series of makeshift hypotheses,
he too must be allowed great freedom to err (in terms of native competence) so
that he can test his hypotheses and abandon those that are unsuccessful. Take,
for instance, a recent book The
Teaching of English to Immigrant Children.10 The
authors suggest that immigrant children should be discouraged from
'pidgin'. Their examples of pidgin are "Black pencil no", "Me cut
paper no", and "Ghulam no give glue." It is immediately apparent
that the immigrant children are following the stages outlined by Klima and
Bellugi through which native children go; the first two sentences conform to the
negation rule for Stage 1, the third to Stage 2. If the analogy holds, then far
from deploring these errors, we should be commending the children's progress
towards native competence along the same road followed by the English child.
child hears a virtually unrestricted input of grammatical and ungrammatical
sentences; he produces more and more comprehensive systems of rules to account
for them. It is thought that, apart from certain inherent limitations in the
child's environment, the language he hears is not graded systematically. (This
disregards, of course, the effects, if any, of baby-talk.) In second-language
learning, the input has usually been highly restricted and systematically
ordered. It has also consisted solely of grammatical sentences. The way to
native competence has been assumed to be through minimal steps in carefully
us now turn to some more specific results with implications for second-language
teaching. In her article "Imitation and Structural Change in Children's
Language", S. Ervin deals among other things with past-tense formation in
English.11 She found that the forms occurred in the following order in her
Irregular past forms.
ii. Irregular extensions of regular past forms, e.g., "buyed", "corned", "doed".
Regular past forms.
she writes, "The odd, and to me astonishing thing is that these extensions
occurred in some cases before the child had produced any
regular past tense forms according to our sample". McNeill uses her data to
show that practice is by no means essential to first-language acquisition.12
children had learned the irregular past forms correctly and had practiced them a
number of times yet, when they started to produce regular past forms, the
irregular forms rapidly underwent analogous change in spite of the practice they
had received. "Apparently patterns weigh more heavily with children than
frequency of repetition does."
recently, the position in second-language teaching was almost the reverse;
practice was thought to be the most important element in learning a second
language. "The student must be engaged in practice most of the learning
time."13 Indeed supporters of the language laboratory often argue in favour
of overlearning, i.e., further practice beyond the point when an item is
learned. According to McNeill, practice is not relevant to acquiring the native
language. If it is also irrelevant to second-language learning, then the
second-language learner must be given more opportunity to perceive patterns at
the expense of time devoted to practice.
implications are that, once again, 'error' is integral to first-language
acquisition; that the child comes to no harm by using an incorrect form a large
number of times; that the grading of language courses appears to be entirely
different from the progression revealed in sentences produced by a child: in
short, that there are few similarities between the way in which a child acquires
the past tense in English and the way in which a foreign learner is usually
article of importance is by Bellugi and Brown, "Three processes in the
child's acquisition of syntax."14 The
they describe are: (i) imitation and reduction,
imitation with expansion, (iii) induction of the latent
The third has already been discussed above.
and reduction is the process at work in the
Wait a minute. Wait a minute
Fraser will be unhappy. Fraser unhappy
It’s not the same dog as Pepper. Dog Pepper.
child omits in his imitations is usually the grammatical items; what he
preserves is the content words. Indeed his ability to repeat grammatical items
is little in advance of his ability to produce them.15 Brown and Bellugi have two
explanations for this 'telegraphic' language. One it that "Perhaps the
children are able to make a communication analysis of adult speech and so
adapt it in an optimal way to their limitation of span". The other that it
is due to 'differential stress'; "the heavier stresses fall, for the most
part, on the words that the child retains." In English the stresses would
tend to fall on content words and so the child retains content words.
It is true that most second-language teaching today makes extensive use of repetition of one type or another. Yet this is always, as far as I am aware, complete repetition; a learner who repeats only part of a sentence is corrected and encouraged to repeat it in its entirety. He is not expected by his repetition to show evidence that he has abstracted the grammatical rule or content words he is being taught. That is to say, he is required to repeat "The cat sat on the mat" neither as "cat sat mat" nor as "the on the".
teaching also seems to attach much less importance to content words. While they
are usually carefully selected and graded, the chief aim has been to give the
learner grammatical rules he can use rather than lexical items he can use in
them. The primary grading has then been grammatical. Yet in the child's
imitations the grammatical items appear the least important part.
with expansion is the process involved in the following examples;
Baby highchair. Baby is in the highchair.
Mommy eggnog Mommy had her eggnog
Sat wall He sat on the wall
Throw Daddy Throw it to Daddy
may be considered almost the opposite to the preceding process; instead of the
child repeating a sentence in a reduced form, the mother expands a sentence
produced by the child. She supplies the grammatical items absent from the
child's sentence (in terms of adult competence) while preserving the content
words in the same order. Unlike the child reducing his mother's sentences, the
mother has to choose one out of a number of alternatives when she is expanding
his sentences. "Baby highchair" might be expanded into "Yes,
that's baby's highchair, not yours" or "Where is baby's
highchair?"; the mother's actual expansion "Baby is in the
highchair" is due to the nonlinguistic situation at the time it was spoken.
The mother's expansions encode "additional meanings at a moment when he is
most likely to be attending to the cues that can teach that meaning".
As the demand in second-language teaching is usually for the learner to produce grammatically flawless sentences, no use has been made of this process. The learner is not allowed to produce what appear to be reduced sentences en route to full native competence; it is not then possible to expand his sentence as a teaching technique. Instead his sentences are corrected rather than expanded. The mother appears to treat her child's sentence as sacrosanct in order and in content words; the foreign-language learner will have both frequently corrected. His sentence is treated as 'wrong' rather than as deserving sympathetic situational interpretation.
This process lends little support for the value usually given to correction in foreign-language teaching. Nor does it provide a justification for the concept of reinforcement as used in structure drills; the child is rarely rewarded by automatically hearing one correct response, as the second language learner is. Instead his reinforcement consists of hearing an expansion of his sentence into a situationally appropriate form that is grammatical in terms of adult competence. As the evidence suggests that about thirty per cent of the child's sentences are expanded in this way, the process of imitation and reduction seems likely to prove one of the most important ways in which children learn to speak and one of the most neglected ways in which people are taught a second language.
further process should be mentioned - that of verbal play. This is described by
Ruth Weir in her account of her son's bedtime monologues Language
in the Crib.16 The
following is a typical example; "Stop. Have to stop. Stop. Stop it. Stop
the ball. Stop it. Stop the ball please. Take it. Stop it. You take it. Please
this activity is very similar to second-language teaching by means of structure
drills.17 Where it differs from a structure drill is in the lack of external
'inputs'. The child supplies the item to substitute out of his own head rather
than having it supplied to him by an outside source. He appears to be playing
with language divorced from situation; his 'drills' seem to have the function of
exploring his interim grammar to see what sentences it will produce. In
second-language teaching, drills are commonly used for intensive practice rather
than for testing of hypotheses.
aspects of first-language acquisition are not yet sufficiently well defined to
make any analogy with second-language learning possible. In particular, one
might mention the controversial issue of what the child brings to language
acquisition; is he tabula
does he contribute a set of innate ideas that enable him to construct a grammar
of competence out of the language input he receives? While transformational
generative grammarians agree at present about the existence of innate ideas,
they differ as to their nature. Some think they are chiefly "the basic
grammatical relations and the general idea of a transformation"18; others
that they are the semantic features underlying grammatical categories.19 Whatever
they may be, their very existence poses two problems for second-language
teaching: first, that there are far more similarities at a deep level between
human languages than hitherto supposed, thus shedding a new light on the
question of interference; secondly, that the capacity for language acquisition
and the innate ideas possessed by the child may not be so readily available to
the second-language learner, suggesting that teaching may be more effective if
it makes use of faculties other than that of language in the learner.
seems to be little similarity, then, between the process of first-language
acquisition as it is understood today and the process of second-language
learning as implicit in present-day teaching. A method for teaching foreign
languages that could justifiably claim to be based on first-language acquisition
would have to meet at least the following requirements:
it would allow the learner to progress by forming a series of increasingly
complete hypotheses about the language.
consequently, it would permit, and indeed encourage, the learner to produce
sentences that are ungrammatical in terms of full native competence, in order to
test these hypotheses.
it would emphasize the perception of patterns rather than the intensity of
its teaching techniques would include partial repetition of sentences, verbal
play, and situationally appropriate expansions of the learner's sentences.
method can at present claim to fulfil these requirements.
remains to be seen whether they can in principle
be fulfilled, whether, in fact, the analogy between first-
second-language learning is sound.
For further discussion of this analogy see: L. Newmark and D. A. Reibel,
"Necessity and Sufficiency in Language Learning," IRAL,
(1968). Wilga M. Rivers: The
Psychologist and the Foreign-language Teacher (Chicago
and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 99-104.
Noam Chomsky: Aspects
of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1965), p. 27.
For a summary of this approach see:
David McNeill: "Developmental Psycholinguistics," in: The Genesis of Language: A Psycholinguistic Approach, ed. Frank Smith and George A. Miller (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The M.I.T. Pr (1966).
E. S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi: "Syntactic regularities in the speech
Papers: The Proceedings of the 1966 Edinburgh
J. Lyons and R. J. Wales (The Edinburgh University
Robert Lado: Language
Teaching: A Scientific Approach (New
York 1964), p. 53.
For some indications of what such experiments might consists of see A. S.
Reber: "Implicit Learning of Artificial Grammars," Journal
of Verbal Learning
and Verbal Behavior, VI,
Sol Saporta, Arthur L. Blumenthal, Peter Laekowski, and Donald G. Reiff "Grammatical Models and Language Learning," in: Directions In Psycholinguistics, ed. Sheldon Rosenberg (New York and London, 1965)
For a fuller discussion on
similar lines see: S. P. Corder, "The Significance
Learner's Errors," IRAL,
Newmark and Reibel: pp.
9. Cf. Rivers p. 102. "... in the audio-lingual method, the student . . . must
10 John Stoddart & Francis Stoddart (1968), The Teaching of English to Immigrant Children, London
11 S.M. Ervin, 'Imitation and structural change in children's language, in New Directions in the Study of Language, ed. E.H. Lenneberg, MIT Press
12 McNeill Developmental Psycholinguistics, p.71
13 Lado, p.55
R. Brown and U,
in the Child's Acquisition
Syntax,'' in New
in the Study of Language, ed.
Eric H. Lenneberg. Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, I (MM).
16. R.H. Weir (1962) Language in the Crib, Mouton
17 V. Cook (1968), 'Some types of oral structure drill', Language Learning, XVIII, 3/4
18. D.I. Slobin (1966), 'Comments on "Developmental Psycholinguistics",' in The Genesis of Language, ed. F. Smith and G. Miller, MIT