Insights about SLA …..

I’ve long been studying Second Language Acquisition and its relationship to teaching and learning a language. One article that I read several years ago has always stood out for me. What do we know about learning and teaching second language – Implications for teaching. Written by Francis Mangubhai, it is somewhat technical but still can be read by teachers and gleamed for its intelligence. He sets out some things that he can be pretty sure of, after 25 or more years in the field.

1. Adults and adolescents can “acquire” a second language

This suggests the most valuable of all knowledge for teachers – that we don’t “learn” a language but rather “acquire” a language. It is through exposure, an environment of meaningful communication that we “get” language – not by memorization or conscious, ABC building.

Take the learning to drive metaphor. Yes, you can learn to drive in the sense that you can read a book about it, attend a lecture, memorize all the parts of the car and the rules of the road, pass a test. But can you just with that alone drive a car? Not a chance. You must observe (we call this input – and see Stephen Kraschen’s work for more elaboration) for many hours, drivers in action. Further, you then must actually drive a car (see Swain’s notion of Comprehensible Output). You can’t actually drive a car through just conscious learning. It has to come in the backdoor through productive practice. Same with language – language learning always comes in the back door and not the front door.

Why do students in foreign countries take so much longer to acquire English, despite all their hours of English classes? Mostly because unlike in an ESL setting, these EFL students don’t get the necessary amount of input. They don’t encounter English enough in the public realm, in the real, non-artificial , non-classroom world. They don’t have the opportunity to “acquire” English through unconscious learning. Of course they learn something, but never enough to actually say they can “drive a car” / “speak “X” language.

But with a proper environment, both adults and adolescents can acquire a second language, especially if give sufficient input (and children do actually need less exposure to language to acquire it). Extensive reading has been shown as one method to foster language input, social media (videos, radio, TV) is another. We as teachers have to learn to “speak” to the student’s need to learn language “implicitly” and realize our “subject” is not like so many others but one which involves “tacit” and personal knowledge and knowing — not facts, blocks and unmovable knowledge.

We might also think about how this might challenge the more “nativistic” views of language acquisition in L1 – such as Chomsky’s own notion of a “language acquisition device”. This LAD according to Chomsky, is hard wired in our brain and with input, we can sort it out and “acquire” language. But do we really need a part of our brain geared to language? Isn’t our brain already powerful enough? (and new “connectivist” theorists would say it is). Chomsky says that the “poverty of input” that a child gets suggests that we do have an LAD. I’m not so sure. We can’t just define language as words or what is spoken, but it is also very non verbal and most children don’t need a lot of verbal input to still start to create connections and organize language in their heads. I’m not so convinced that in our evolutionarily short span of time as “language makers” , we would have developed this “LAD”. So I’m going to sit on the fence.

But what I suggest this “insight” really says to every day teachers is that we should teach language through implicit and “in use” means. There should be an effort to “hide” the instruction and for students to be unaware they are really learning or “knowing” English. I”m still a big cheerleader of the “keep them communicating” notion. The best teachers can step away and be the guide at the side, not the sage on a stage!


Insights into Language acquisition and learning.

1. Adults and adolescents can “acquire” a second language

2. Learners need to focus on form also in order to develop a more complete grammatical repertoire in the second langauge.

3. The learner’s developing grammatical system, the interlanguage, is often characterized by the same systematic errors as made by a child learning that language as a first language.

4. There is a predictable sequence in second lang. acquisition; learners have to acquire certain structures first before they can acquire aothers as their interlanguage develops.

5. To become fluent in a language – one must practice it! (and get extensive input)

6. Knowing a language rule and being able to use it in communication or writing are two different things.

7. Isolated, explicit error correction is usually ineffective in SL learning.

8. In meaningful contexts, learners are able to comprehend much more than can be judged by their ability to produce accurately language of comparable complexity.

9. The different rate of learning observed in our students arises out of individual differences.

10. The “pour” into a vessel view of knowledge doesn’t work.

11. Teachers’ practical theories guide their behaviour in classrooms.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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3 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    2. Learners need to focus on form also in order to develop a more complete grammatical repertoire in the second langauge.

    I always find explicit tables drawn with the rules or little flow charts helpful in my language learning. You said that the instruction should be hidden and an inductive approach is best. As a teacher teaching grammar, how can I help those who want to focus on form who like explicit diagrams to get the message across? I know I probably seem like a teacher who wants to “pour” into a “vessel” but after some bad exam results, I’ve been regretting not being more explicit and getting them to copy more notes and draw more diagrams.

  2. Very good article. I think that when you learn English you have to focus on the basic things, the most frequent, core, fundamental, important parts of the language.Main focus of your learning must be the fundamentals, the high frequency words, the most common grammar structures, and the basic pronunciation of the language. You should never stop practicing those, and never stop improving them. Repetition is the key to success in English learning.

  3. ddeubel says:


    Good and difficult question you pose!

    I think it comes down to your objectives. If test results are the primary objective (and acquisition of language secondary), you might just “teach to the test” as many do. And I know you have to meet expectations of your school and students and unfortunately this is measured by “a number” or result.

    However, I think you can still try to do both. You can teach to the test but still do it “sneakily” and inductively – without saying that you are studying, “the present continuous” and giving students exact test questions to practice.

    It entails a lot of planning and embedding of the test content into a lesson which is communicative and not “reactive”. Form can also still be practiced but through controlled practice. I often use blank/substitution dialogues with choice (and the choice could be from the test requirements).

    About diagrams/grammar. I think you SHOULD be explicit about this but it should have a strict time and place and limit. Or conference with students that need this more explicit understanding and give it to them in small groups?

    I know you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. But I still think you can find a way to wiggle away….

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