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Intro & Thunk 1

Date: Wed, 22 Sep 1999

Timothy Mason To: Foreign Language Teaching Forum FLTEACH@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU

It may be thought of something like this ...

The present discussion takes as its background a particular view of language and of language acquisition grounded in the work of Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky, the human mind is inhabited by a specific module which handles language. This is the Universal Grammar, which is at the base of all human languages, and which consists in a series of parameters which are set differently for different languages. Seen from the point of view of language acquisition, the UG is linked to the LAD - the Language Acquisition Device - which can be thought of as a program which enables the child to set the parameters of the UG on the basis of what she hears speakers say around her.

This is an unconscious process - the child does not usually hypothesize about language out loud, but simply goes about its daily business, incidentally acquiring the language. This vision of language acquisition is often linked to the idea of there being a 'critical period' - that is to say that anyone who has not learned a language before a certain age will never be able to do so. Steven Pinker cites the case of Chelsea ; doctors had diagnosed her as being mentally subnormal, and it was only when she was over thirty years old that a neurologist discovered that she was, in fact, deaf. She was fitted with hearing aids, and now hears very well. But this meant that she discovered spoken language when she was already an adult ; as a result, says Pinker, she is unable to sequence her utterances correctly, and produces such sentences as 'I Wanda be drive come,' or 'Orange Tim car in'.

So that leaves us with a number of queries :

  1. First, are Chomsky's UG, and the conception of the human mind that underlies it, a good working model of language? Does the LAD have any reality outside schools of linguistics? A lot of linguists and psychologists are skeptical - it's very difficult to find a Chomskian in France. (And see the work of Elizabeth Bates)

  2. Second, if UG and LAD do cut the mustard, is there really a critical period? Once again, opinions remain divided - as Lenneberg remarked of Genie, the individuals whose cases have been advanced as demonstrating this effect have such unusual histories as to make it difficult to accurately isolate the causes of their linguistic incapacities.

  3. Third, if First Language Acquisition (FLA) is governed by the LAD, is the same thing true of Second Language Acquisition (SLA)? And if this *is* the case, can adolescents and adults ever hope to learn a foreign language successfully, given that they are past the critical period? Or is it perhaps the case that, once the LAD has been put to work in infancy, it remains available for later use?

It is against this background that the debate between Ron Sheen and Stephen Krashen has been taking place. As we have seen, Ron Sheen believes that adults and adolescents do not acquire language in the same way as children, whereas Stephen Krashen thinks that there is a good chance that they do. Krashen's conception of how we acquire a second language will be found in a number of books and articles. These are readable and make immediate sense to most practicing teachers. He advances a set of five 'hypotheses' which account for how readily any learner will or will not acquire an FL. I'm rather reticent about the use of the word 'hypothesis', as I feel that this should be reserved for statements that are rather more formal and, in particular, testable. As we'll see, not everyone agrees that the five hypotheses are testable. So I call them 'thunks'. This isn't a put-down ; my own understanding of scientific method is closer to Paul Feyerabend's than to Popper's. I see the thunk as a valuable and valid mode of procedure, particularly in the social sciences, so-called. Let's have a look at Thunk 1.


Stephen Krashen makes a distinction between Acquisition and Learning. We have seen this surface in the current debate. Krashen's claim here is that there are two ways of getting knowledge about language : on the one hand, we have the approach to knowledge-getting that typifies the classroom of yesteryear - the learner cons rules of grammar, lists of vocabulary, and so on. This is what is referred to as Learning. It is a conscious process, demanding effort and attention to the task in hand. This can be contrasted with the way in which the child absorbs the mother tongue : it is only rarely that the infant shows any conscious effort in his increasing mastery of language - most of the time, he progresses while attending to other business. This is acquisition.

Acquisition, Krashen believes, is the royal road to FL mastery. Learning has some utility, for it allows the student to construct a Monitor - we'll come to that later - which checks on the output to ensure that it is correct. But acquisition is your main man. Learning the rules of how to construct a passive sentence will not place the construction in your usable, unconscious grammar, where it would be available to generate discourse. There is no interface between learning and language acquisition.

There are numerous objections to be made to this position, but I'll stick with one here. It can be argued that the distinction is simplistic ; human learning is a multi-faceted skill, that calls on a number of different processes that work together. Some of these are unconscious, others are conscious, and yet others are sometimes one and sometimes the other. Anderson, for example, argues that all knowledge is, at one stage, explicitly stated or explicitly modeled - it is Declarative. We often forget this, believing that such and such a skill is semi-natural - think of riding a bicycle - and suppressing the hours of instruction that actually were necessary. By this time, the formal rules or demonstrations have gone under cover, and our knowledge has become Procedural.

There is no warranty, in this view, for the claim that 'learning' cannot aid in the acquisition of any kind of knowledge - and no reason to believe that language is different in this regard. This is, I suspect, one of the fundamental points at issue between Ron Sheen and Stephen Krashen in their recent posts. Whether Ron Sheen believes in a LAD or not, I do not know. But he certainly rejects the idea that learning cannot help the learner towards fluency.


Timothy Mason

IUFM de Versailles


Go to Next Thunk

Timothy Mason (cv)

Université de Paris 8

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This is a slightly edited version of a message to FLTeach. The occasion was an argument between Steven Krashen and Ron Sheen, the latter offering an often virulent critique of Monitor Theory. As some members of the list did not know the background to the argument, I sent a series of posts in which I attempted to give a quick sketch of Krashen's hypotheses. A link to the next post in the series will be found at the end of the piece.

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