Almost all human beings acquire a language (and sometimes more than one), to the level of native competency, before age 5. How do children accomplish this remarkable feat in such a short amount of time? Which aspects of language acquisition are biologically programmed into the human brain and which are based on experience? Do adults learn language differently from children? Researchers have long debated the answers to these questions, but there is one thing they agree on: language acquisition is a complex process.
The Monitor hypothesis explains the relationship between acquisition and learning and defines the influence of the latter on the former. The monitoring function is the practical result of the learned grammar. According to Krashen, the acquisition system is the utterance initiator, while the learning system performs the role of the 'monitor' or the 'editor'. The 'monitor' acts in a planning, editing and correcting function when three specific conditions are met: that is, the second language learner has sufficient time at his/her disposal, he/she focuses on form or thinks about correctness, and he/she knows the rule.
While this debate clearly has considerable implications for teachers of young children, it has little or no direct impact on mainstream teachers at upper school level, the intended audience of this web page. Nevertheless, teachers of older students (and parents) may wish to have a little knowledge of such a contentious pedagogical issue.
Whole language is the term for a conglomeration of holistic theories of learning, not only of reading. The principle is that proficiency is acquired by engaging in whatever is to be learned (complex though it may be), rather than separating out the component subskills for discrete practice before putting them together again.
Myles, F., Hooper, J., & Mitchell, R. (1998). Rote or rule? Exploring the role of formulaic language in classroom foreign language learning. Language Learning, 48(3), 323-363.
Krashen is a strong advocate of the whole language approach to the teaching of reading, and has written many articles in support of it. In essence, whole language proponents claim that children learn to read most enjoyably and efficiently by exposure to interesting stories that are made comprehensible to them through pictures and discussions. This is in contrast to structured decoding programmes (usually designated ) in which children learn to read by sounding out the various parts of words.
As we saw above, Krashen states that anxiety is a filter of comprehensible input. ESL students who know that they will be allowed or encouraged to use their mother tongue are likely to be less anxious than those who know that its use is prohibited. They will thus be generally more receptive to the English they hear. A typical example of judicious use of the mother tongue would be for a more proficient Japanese learner of English to explain quickly in Japanese to a less proficient peer what the teacher has told the class to do.
Cummins (2001) is the researcher most closely associated with the theory that use of the mother tongue can support second language acquisition and the learning of subject content. Cummins postulates the existence of a common underlying proficiency (CUP), so that knowledge, understanding and skills acquired in language 1 are available for use in language 2. As Cummins states: "Conceptual knowledge developed in one language helps to make input in the other language comprehensible." For example, if a child learns the concepts of "justice" or "honesty" in her own language, all she has to do is acquire the label for these terms in English. She has a far more difficult task, however, if she has to acquire both the label and the concept in her second language.
Concluding observations To conclude, SLA research is an extremely buoyant field of study which has attracted much theoretical and empirical work in the last two or three decades. Much progress has been made in gaining a better understanding of the processes involved in learning second languages, as well as the different external factors which affect this process. Although these complementary agendas remain less integrated than one might wish, bridges are being built which connect them. Similarly, the implications of SLA research for teaching are now receiving more attention, as is the specificity of the classroom context for understanding learning, but much more work remains to be done in these areas. There is still a huge gap - not unsurprisingly, given the limits of our knowledge - between the complementary agendas of understanding the psycholinguistic processes involved in the construction of L2 linguistic systems, and understanding what makes for effective classroom teaching.
The dispute about optimal programme support for ESL students does not have a direct impact on mainstream teachers. However, research in the fields of second language acquisition and bilingual education has taught us that the first language is a very important tool both in acquiring the second language and in learning content/skills in that second language. The major reason for this is that judicious use of the mother-tongue serves to make English input comprehensible.
Nursery staff can work with children to structure their play and give it more educational value by including activities such as jigsaw puzzles, color and pattern matching games, and materials like water, sand, and clay that children can manipulate and by enhancing sociodramatic play.10 Such play tutoring involves providing suitable props (play house, clothes for role play, hospital equipment, etc.), taking children on visits to stimulate their imagination (to a hospital, zoo, etc.), and suggesting play themes and helping children to develop them. Play training can be one enjoyable and effective way of improving skills in language development, cognitive development, creativity, and role-taking.23
Form-focused instruction Many researchers have used current understanding of the relationship between cognition and SLA in order to investigate what kind of instruction is most helpful (; ; ; ). In an extensive review of the empirical literature on the effectiveness of instruction, , ) conclude that explicit form-focused instruction is effective in promoting learning. The object of most of these studies is to test what kind of instruction is most effective, such as 'input enhancement' (that is ways of making the input more noticeable for learners, such as e.g. having all object pronouns in bold in a text if the focus of the class is object pronouns, or 'input flood' in which learners are exposed to vast quantities of a given structure). Different ways of presenting structural input have also been explored, with explicit form-focused instruction being contrasted with implicit form-focused instruction (with learners having to work out the rule for themselves, or having the rule made explicit to them). Although the results of this increasingly rich and sophisticated new body of research are tentative at present, it has identified key themes/agendas for further research, such as the role of explicit vs. implicit instruction, the role of negative evidence or the role of noticing. This research is crucial for gaining a better understanding of the relationship between learning and teaching ().