How People Learn a Second Language
Excerpted from my dissertation: Rogers, S. A. (2017). A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game with language learning strategic activities to improve English grammar, listening, reading, and vocabulary (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 10265484).)
Learning a second language is an arduous task. Most scholars would agree that it requires a lot of practice (Krashen, 1982; Nation, 2014), language activities that are embedded in realistic tasks (i.e., communicative approach) (Hymes, 1972; McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, & Heald, 2002), plasticity of the brain (Pinker & Bloom, 1990; Ward, 2010), and high levels of motivation (Crystal, 2010; Gardner, 1985). Here are the five stages of second language (L2) learning: preproduction, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). Progress through these L2 stages depends on level of formal education, family background, time spent in an English-speaking country, and many other variables (Hill & Bjork, 2008).
For young children, oral language and literacy development should include support in their native language, sufficient time and support, developmentally and culturally appropriate material, a balanced and meaningful literacy program, and reliable, ongoing, and valid assessments (TESOL, 2010a). For adults, more specialized vocabulary and education on the sociocultural dimensions for the workplace or academic setting are required (TESOL, 2010b). Otherwise, adult L2 instruction is like that of young children, as noted in the vision and action agenda of the National Literacy Summit (2000). For example, they propose that adult learners also have access to native language or bilingual texts and instruction that is based on meaningful contexts.
There’s some disagreement as to the developmental stages of SLA, but most agree that the initial stage includes a silent period in which you understand some of the L2 but may not be able to produce it (Granger, 2004). Scholars disagree as to whether there is a critical period (cut-off time) for learning a second language with native-like fluency (Crystal, 2010). For instance, cognitive neuroscientists prefer the term sensitive period to refer to the limited window of time to learn due to evidence supporting the possibility of extended learning (Ward, 2010).
I agree with Pinker and Bloom’s (1990) idea that the critical period varies with maturation and plasticity of the brain due to natural selection. Hurford (1991), in his evolutionary model, referred to language learning past the critical age as the natural selection pressures activating the trait. These pressures affect adults who come from around the world with the hope of learning English in order to attend an American university. One way to affect the plasticity of the brain is to play video games. Current research on the brain and its behavior indicate that playing highly arousing, reward-based video games activates brain plasticity (Kilgard & Merzenich, 1998).
Numerous factors affect learning ESL. For one, learning English takes a long time. For beginners, basic interpersonal communication skills can take two years to learn, while cognitive academic language proficiency can take five to seven years (Cummins, 2008). Influential factors include, but are not limited to, native language (L1) writing system, age exposed to English, cognitive ability, and exposure to other languages (National Literacy Summit, 2000). Another important factor is gender (i.e., female, male, other), which is influenced by the gender of the teacher, strategy use (Kiram, Sulaiman, Swanto, & Din, 2014), and conventional norms (Oxford & Nyikos, 1989). There’s no conclusive evidence that one gender is better at learning a L2. Oxford and Nyikos (1989) posit that it has more to do with strategy preferences and conventional norms.
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Hill, J. D., & Bjork, C. L. (2008). Classroom instruction that works with English language learners facilitator’s guide. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Hurford, J. R. (1991). The evolution of critical period for language acquisition. Cognition, 40, 159–201. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(91)90024-X
Hymes, D. (1972). Models on the interaction of language and social life. In J. J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.) Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp. 35-71). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
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Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.
Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. London, England: Prentice Hall Europe.
McFarlane, A., Sparrowhawk, A., & Heald, Y. (2002). Report on the educational use of games. Cambridge, England: TEEM.
Nation, P. (2014). What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies. Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/foreign-language_1125.pdf
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Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2010a). Position paper on language and literacy development for young English language learners. Washington, DC: TESOL International Association. Retrieved from https://www.tesol.org/advance-the-field/position-statements
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2010b). Position statement on adult English as a second or additional language program. Washington, DC: TESOL International Association. Retrieved from https://www.tesol.org/advance-the-field/position-statements
Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychological Press.