Analysing the ease, rapidity and uniformity of a complex, rule governed native language acquisition on the basis of sometimes, a rather slender database, by mere infants led Dan Slobin to hypothesize language or specifically natural language is an inherent human trait and can be grouped with other tasks like walking, grasping objects and recognising faces. He further elaborated his theory, pinpointing to similarities in native language acquisition by children growing up in varied speech communities. Underpinning this proposal are four assumptions.
Firstly, that the basis of acquiring an initial rule dominant sound system is embedded in human specie along with a variety of simple cognitive abilities. Secondly, that this ability encompasses children acquiring any natural human language. Thirdly, infants will successfully acquire their speech community’s sound utterances irrespective of the socio-cultural composition. Fourthly, this learning will automatically occur irrespective of varying cognitive abilities and individual preferred styles of interaction with surrounding stimuli.
Unfortunately, these characteristics of ease and rapidity of first language acquisition (FLA) does not automatically transfer to second language learning (SLL). Learning a second language still resides in the cognitive domain but evolves into a complex cognitive skill, as several factors like subject’s existing developed cognitive organisational structures, socio- cultural constituents, psychological and affective composition and diversity in individual learning styles mingle and interplay with an altered input.
This paper will examine four assumptions supporting the FLA hypothesis propagated by Slobin, followed by a critical analysis of each one’s availability or the lack of it, to the learners of second language, referring to relevant linguistic theories. Arguing against the innatist linguistic theory, proposed by Noam Chomsky (1965), which conceives of a Language Acquisition Device, existing prior to a baby’s interaction with the surrounding world, and as a psycholinguistic answer to his challenge that “knowledge of grammatical structures cannot arise by application of step by step inductive operations…. f any sorts that has been developed within linguistics, psychology, or philosophy” (1965, p. 58), Dan Slobin proposed cognition based “Operating Principle”(OP). O P denotes the “procedures” or “strategies” employed by Language Making Capacity (Slobin, 1971, 1973, 1982) of a child and is rooted in the cognitive domain. OPs are crucial prerequisite, internal structures employed to recognise the physical and social events programmed in incoming speech utterances. They are also a necessary ingredient for the perception, analysis and manipulation of language in a manner which will lead to an efficient acquisition of surrounding language.
This acquisition process assimilates and accommodates the input to the existing structures. Endowed with an intrinsic definition of the general structure and function of language, the child actively attempts to comprehend the linguistic input. Research point to both cognitive and linguistic development to be interdependent as Bloom (1976, p. 36) argued “an explanation of language development depends upon an explanation of the cognitive underpinnings of language. Functional linguist like Kuno (1986) and linguists searching for distributional regularities across linguistic systems such as Greenberg (1978) and Hawkins (1983) have supported Slobin’s OP approach. However, as Bowerman (1988, pg. 1281) pointed out that “What is missing from the OP approach is a theory of grammar: a conception of how surface variability is constrained by deeper syntactic principles, and the account of how children’s obedience to these principles guides their construction of a grammar for a particular language. ”
Linguist have almost unanimously consented that the skill of learning a language whether it is first or second resides in the cognitive domain, however from a simple cognitive ability operating in first language acquisition, it graduates into a complex cognitive skill, when functioning in the realms of SLL. When expected to learn a second system of speech “Young children, then, certainly seem to understand that learning a second language is a cognitively challenging and time-consuming activity” (Tabors, 1997, pg. 81). SLL as complex cognitive skill is propounded by psychologists and psycholinguists.
Some of the sub-skills involved in the language learning process are applying grammatical rules, choosing the appropriate vocabulary; following the pragmatic conventions governing the use of a specific language (McLaughlin, 1987:134), needs to be repeatedly practiced to progress to achieve a status of a fluent speaker. These sub-skills become automatic with practice (Posner & Snyder, 1975). During this process of automatisation, the learner organizes and restructures incoming information and new input is connected to the existing one, leading to increasing degree of expertise in the second language (McLaughlin, 1987).
The two areas in a speech system which stem from conceptual base are vocabulary and meaning (Felix, 1981). Bialystok (1978, 1982, and 1983) also developed an information processing theory of SLA, popularly termed Analysis/control model which overcame the limitations of McLaughlin’s hypothesis. This theory implies that a learner commences with unanalyzed knowledge and progresses toward greater degree of analysis in the learning process (as cited in Study book, LIN8001, 2009). Interactivist hypothesis of second language learning (Clahsen, 1987) also acknowledge cognition as a major player in this process.
This theory presupposes ‘an autonomous linguistic level of processing’, a general problem mechanism that facilitates “direct mappings between underlying structure and surface forms, thus short-circuiting the grammatical processor” (Clahsen, 1987:105). The inability of cognitive based proposals of SLL to provide details of the number of exposure necessary for an item to become automatic in comprehension and production, absence of specific definition of the process of restructuring and examples of instances when fluency was attained in lexical items in one encounter (Ann Dashwood, 2009) is the shortcomings of this approach.
Moreover, different linguistic theories based on cognition, lack a unified approach to second language acquisition. As Schimdt (1992, pg. 377) added “there is little theoretical support from psychology on the common belief that the development of fluency in a second language is almost exclusively a matter of the increasingly skillful application of rules”
The second assumption, underpinning Slobin’s statement, that the simple cognitive capacity to acquire the speech sound of surrounding community incorporates all natural languages refers to its structure and is directly linked to Chomsky’s proposal of Universal Grammar (1970). The effortless acquisition of first language whether it is English, French, Japanese or Hindi, by a mere human baby has directed the attention of the linguist towards the compositions of the native languages which facilitates the rocess of acquisition. A peripheral glimpse at different language point to glaring diversity, but Chomsky noticed their similarities (Newmeyer). ‘Children are looking for some deep principles. They follow those principles’ (Gleitman) The basis for every language is a highly evolved structure, which enables the recipient to decipher the sound utterances of the speaker with meaning, provided both share a speech system.
All languages must define the structural relationship between all these signs in a system of grammar which coevolves subconsciously with the acquisition of a language. A native speaker will be inherently aware of English being a VO language and his linguistic compositions from a very early age will be formed in accordance with this rule. This innate property of all natural languages trigger Universal Grammar embedded in the cognitive faculty of the brain assisting the language acquisition process.
Chomsky’s proposal of Universal Grammar consists of a system that also explains conclusively the shared rules of all natural languages. Rules that are widely considered part of Universal Grammar include ‘structure dependency, coordinate structure constraint or general rules for sentence formation such as the fact that heads of categories can take complements’( Fromkin, Rodman &Hyams, 2007, p. 321). The subject’s linguistic environment facilitates acquisition of language specific grammar, such as word order and movement rule.
In Dan Slobin’s proposal of “thinking for speaking”, the child’s Language Making Capacity constructs a preliminary Basic Child Grammar that helps in formulating meaningful initial utterances. As the child progresses in his linguistic achievement in a particular language new OPs are generated paving way for divergent grammar of the targeted language. The structure of a natural language persists irrespective of FLA or SLL, the debate, whether the genetically – determined, Universal Grammar faculty operates in the process of SLL is still open, with strong supporters on both sides.
Felix (1985), Bley-Vroman (1989), Clahsen and Muysken (1986), concluded that Universal Grammar has no involvement in the process of second language learning. As Roger Hawkins (2001; pg. 348) pointed out “If UG is subject to a critical period…then native grammars must be distinct from mechanisms of language use. ” He further elaborated on this point by arguing that language mechanisms have lifelong availability therefore second language learners can access this knowledge but it is now accessed from cognitive abilities, aking SLL fundamentally different from first. Cook(1996, pg. 33) pointed out that Universal Grammar does not function in the similar fashion as it does in case of FLA, though second language learners are equipped with the grammatical explanations and are familiar with the principle of structure –dependency. Skehan(1998) suggested evidence from more research needs to conclude this debate.
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