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      How Languages are learned?

Everyday, people wonder at the easiness and speed with which children acquire their first language. These facility and rapidity usually contrast with the long way adults need to cover when they are learning a second language. Therefore, we can assume that there are several differences between first language and second language acquisition. In this essay, I intend to focus on how languages are learned by focusing on statements from Lightbown and Spada (2006).

First of all, we are going to consider the following statement ‘Languages are learned mainly through imitation‘. In order to comment this statement we need to differenciate between first and second language acquisition. While it is true that the exposure to language receive is crucial, Chomsky (1959,1981, 1988, 1994) refered to what is known as the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ or ‘the logical problem of language acquisition’ which means that there is a gap between the input children receive and their output. While the input is often fragmented, incomplete and finate, their output normally is structured, complete and finate. If we consider another statement: ‘Parents usually correct young children when they make a grammatical mistake‘, this is often not true, parents tend not to correct      their children’s grammar and when they do, children often ignore the correction. Chomsky explains this gap between the poor input children receive and their richer output whith the Universal Grammar which is an innate capacity to acquire language. Children are born with this language facility. If we concentrate now on adult language acquisition, it works differently because this innate capacity to learn languages finishes with the beginning of puberty. This is known as the Critical Period and it has been proved by studies as Johnson and Newport (1989). How do adults learn a second language? Imitation is important but crucially for second language acquisition is interaction Hatch (1992), Pica (1994) or Long (1983) to name a few.

We are now going to consider now individual differences and how they affect the learning process, specifically we are going to focus on ‘people with high IQ’s are good language learners’ and ‘the most important factor in SLA success is motivation’. First of all, we need to mention that although second language learning often follows the same stages, learners learn at a different rate and moreover, not all of them are going to reach the same level of proficiency. Learners are different because they have individual differences. Although research in this area of individual differences is problematic, it is now widely accepted that intelligence is not an important role on communication and interpretation in the classroom but it is important when it comes to rule learning. On the other hand, motivation is a much complex difference to consider and according to Lightbown and Spada (2006), ‘research cannot indicate precicesely how motivation is related to learning’ (56).

Turning now to ‘the earlier a second language is introduced (…) the greater (…)’ as we have said before it is true, because there are more chances to obtain full proficiency in one language if it is introduced before puberty (Critical Period Hypothesis). However, there are more variables to consider, if nativeness is not the main goal of instruction, it does not need to start as soon as possible.

It has been mentioned above that SLA follows the same developmental stages even if the learners have different language backgrounds. Therefore the following statement is true ‘teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time (…)’. The developmental sequences of the SLA makes me reflect on how and what we teach our students. It is not reasonable to expect that not very advanced learners know them and yet it is one of the first things that we teach and test. This also answers the following statement ‘teacher should only teach simple language structures before complex ones’. However, it is important to mention that learners may not acquire certain structures if they are not ready, but that does not mean that they cannot be exposed to them.

Turnig now to the error and mistakes, we are going to consider two statements, ‘most mistakes (…) are due to interference’ and ‘Learner’s errors should be corrected as soon as they are made (…)’. It is consider that errors are part of the learning process and can be made because of different reasons such as transfer or overgeneraliations. Therefore, transfer is a source of errors in SLA but not the main or most important one. On the other hand, studies have shown that correction of errors do not mean that the learner is going to learn the correction. We have consider the developmental stages of language acquisition so we know that there are structures the learners are not ready for and therefore, we should not expect that they are going to correct it. Considering speaking exercises the correction of errors is more problematic. Studies have shown that sometimes correction can discourage the students. On the other hand, in content based classrooms recasts are a good way to correct students as long as they are aware that they are being corrected. Finally, I do not agree with the following statement ‘When learners are allowed to interact freely (…), they learn each other mistakes’, Lightbown and Spada (2006) explain that studies have proved that this is not the case. On the contrary, interaction and group work can be very valauble to cause SLA. However, it is important to plan the tasks and activities very well. It is not so much to let them talk freely but let them do so with a goal, for example, discover more about the second language.

Finally, we are going to comment: ‘Students learn only what they are taught’. Whereas it is true that learners can only learn what they are exposed to, it is also true that incidental learning happens. I think every language learner has learnt something from a book, reading or movie and research has proved that. In this sense second language learners are similar to first language learners in the sense that they can learn more than they are taught.


Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. M. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gass, S. M., & Selinker, L. (2000). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

This article comes from an exercise from Lightbown &  Spada (2006)

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