“La armonización intercultural”


Universal grammar and second language acquisition



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2.1 Universal grammar and second language acquisition

After the criticism of Skinner’s behavioristic view of language acquisition by Noam Chomsky in the sixties, the academic perception of the implicit and explicit processes in L1 acquisition radically changed favoring a generative point of view of language. From a stimulus-response perception, academicians started talking about the innate nature of a linguistic device, the UG, namely universal grammar, which facilitates the process of developing competence and performance in the first language of human beings. The universal grammar is “the system of principles which characterizes the class of possible grammars by specifying how particular grammars are organized … how the different rules of these components are structured, how they interact … a set of empirical hypotheses bearing on the biologically determined language faculty” (Chomsky, 1979: 180). This perception of language pervaded all what had been said to the moment in terms of second language teaching and learning processes. The concepts of competence and performance and those related to children’s first language acquisition and adult’s second language learning have also their ways in determining views in relation to error correction.


The state of impoverishment of the theoretical literature on processes of second language acquisition under the framework of UG is an issue questioned by some authors (Ellis, 1999: 178). Those attempts are based on the assumption that L2 learning is no different from any other kind of complex skill learning and that language acquisition follows the same paths as do other complex cognitive skills (ibid.: 178). The cognitive psychologist E. Bialystok, addressing L2 learning, explicitly affirms the principle that language is processed by the human mind in the same way as other kinds of information (Ellis, 1999: 179). Language thus is not perceived as that unique human system as it was attributed to it by generative linguists in the chomskyan tradition and by those researchers who seek to explain L2 learning with reference to principles of universal grammar (Cook, 1985).
The extent to which UG can account for L2 learning depends immensely on how the issues of the language as a skill and a faculty of the human mind are approached. Lashmanan (1994: 5), for example, connects first language (L1) acquisition and L2 acquisition noting that both L1 and L2 learners ”have to determine the complex properties of the grammar of the target language on the basis of insufficiently rich and precise input”. However, this determining of language complex system of grammar cannot be easily assimilated in both L1 and L2 processes. Aljaafreh & Lantolf (1994) put as an example of the shortcomings of their research the fact that error correction may only stimulate ‘surfacy’ and language-specific properties of L2 as verb morphology and lexis, “which do not arise from the abstract principles specified by UG” (480). More research is necessary in the field of UG and ESL, since day by day the rates of immigration to the United States, especially from Latin American countries, is increasing and constitutes a growing challenge for ESL educators.
2.2 The cognitive anti-method
As a result of those views of language processes other trends in ESL were formulated as the cognitive anti-method, which was the articulation of a series of articles written by Newmark and Reibel in the sixties. Its drastic views on ESL learning made it lack of adepts and the theory was forgotten almost without being born (Ellis, 1999). The assumptions for the classroom outlined in this theory, which constitute a stepping stone for the support of the pervasiveness of error correction in ESL settings in this study, are the following, according to Ellis (1999):
2.2.1 The learner rather than the teacher controls second-language learning. The learner is the principal actor of the class. Too much consideration had been given to the teacher’s role in the classroom. The student is the one who is really passing through all the processes going on in the class. The learner selects and organizes the input, whatever this is. This view is central for the objectives of this paper, since teachers have traditionally used correction as a mechanism of control of the class, and more pervasively for assessment and testing ‘against’ the students.

      1. Human beings possess an innate capacity for learning language. UG arguments defined L1 acquisition as a successful learning model and its proponents argued that L2 learning proceeds in much the same way as long as the teacher avoids ‘interfering’ (Ellis, 1999: 36). The implication of this assumption is that the EFL adult learner is equaled to the L1 child in a qualitative, although not quantitative, manner in terms of learning capacities. Consequently, this assumption will support the idea that error correction in EFL contexts will not benefit a successful acquisition process among students. The concepts of acquisition and learning, applied more especially to L1 natural and unconscious processes and to L2 conscious and structured process, respectively, have served to benefit many authors at writing for a non-equivalent view of L1 and L2 learning processes. However, the literature against this view is overwhelming (Ellis, 1999: 41). Salmon (forthcoming), for example, suggests in a more sensitive manner that although L1 and L2 processes are different in terms of acquisition time, cognitive maturity and learning environment, it is the teacher’s responsibility to effect the balance of these variables in the EFL and ESL contexts.



      1. It is not necessary to attend to linguistic form in order to acquire a L2. The implication of this assumption is that the EFL learner needs not to be corrected for language forms since this is not a necessary condition for a successful L1 learning (Newmark, 1963). The structures of the second language can be learned by means of the use of contextualized language and cognitive methods, which emphasis is on meaning and not on forms. Although, there has been no attempt to develop a specific cognitive theory of instructed L2 learning (Ellis, 1999), the general cognitive theory and the Bialystok’s bidimensional model39 have been largely applied to the classroom. The gradients of the two dimensions go across from the non-analyzed (L2 learners at early stages) to the analyzed (L2 formal learners), and down from the non-automatic (children learning L1) to the automatic (fluent speakers). Considerable training is thus needed before the automatic processing takes place. Errors occur because the learner does not have an automatized performance and does not have the time for controlled processing (Ellis: 180). Errors can also occur as a result of obliterative assumption40. A way to prevent errors is practice, since it helps to “activate mental nodes, strengthen connections and increase speed of access (Ibid, 181). Another way of correcting errors -in this case mistakes, as the author prefers to call them (Ibid)- is corrective feedback, whenever a number of criteria are met (Johnson, 1988):



  • The learner must have the desire or the need to eradicate the mistake

  • She must be able to form an internal representation of what the correct behaviour looks like

  • She must realize that her performance is flawed

  • She must have the opportunity to perform in real conditions.

This condition is important since it constitutes a fundamental difference between the cognitive and the behaviorist view of practice.


2.2.4 Classroom language learning is not an additive process. This means that ESL learners need not to be exposed incrementally to organized and sequential strands of language forms, but rather be exposed to “whole chunks” at a go (Ellis, 1999: 36). This assumption contrasts with views of interlanguage theory which assume that the competence in ESL is transitional and that the L2 learner does not necessarily utilize the same language devices as the child (Ibid.: 52). “Eventually, the attention of those working on learners errors has moved away from the analysis of errors in their own right as indications of hypothesis testing and interlanguage development to concern with questions relating to the potential effects of corrective procedures on language learning” (Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994: 465). Nevertheless, the teacher here must be aware of the processes of transfer, generalization and simplification, proper of this interlanguage continuum. In doing so, teachers will be able to explain many of the deviant forms the students produce and therefore let them happen naturally and intervene only when necessary, since they are normal stages in the process of learning a second or foreign language.
2.2.5 Errors are a concomitant of the learning process and are, therefore, inevitable. The studies on the production of utterances (performance) and the development of language competence in children show that the child develops an internally consistent grammar, which not necessarily corresponds to the language he or she is being exposed. When deviant utterances are produced, it is just that the child is testing hypothesis about the rule system of the language (Ibid.: 36). The production of deviant forms in L1 does not prevent the child from producing correct forms at later stages, by applying a changing and complex system of rules and set of strategies for which he or she is well equipped. The implication for the correction of error in L2 classroom, here, is significant. Corder (1967) suggested that it was much more important that L2 learners be allowed to discover their own errors rather than be corrected by the teacher. The aim is to provide the less guidance to the student to make her more self-reliant and independent. I consider that errors are to be allowed, as natural outcomes in the process of acquiring a language, in order for the students to develop fluency in the L2, replicating the process of L1, and be given the opportunity of self-correcting and being totally responsible for their process of learning/acquisition of the second/foreign language.
2.3 The fluency perspective
The language constructs of fluency and accuracy are also important dimensions by which I could approach the issue of error correction for the purposes of this paper. Fluency and accuracy are directly associated with the under and over use of error correction (Rifkin and Roberts, 1995). The issue of promoting fluency instead of accuracy from the very first ESL class (and therefore avoiding as possible overt error correction, or accuracy instead of fluency -associated with abuse of EC- or, both at the same time) is something that we have to consider right now. Let us start by a definition. According to the Longman’s dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics, second language fluency is "the ability to produce written and/or spoken language with ease … speak with a good but necessarily perfect command of intonation, vocabulary and grammar … communicate ideas effectively, and produce continuous speech without causing comprehension difficulties or a breakdown in communication" (Einsenstein, 2000: 2). Expectedly, fluency has always been contrasted to accuracy since they are the two sides of the same coin, which is language competence. For many ESL teachers, the only consideration of fluency as the basis for their methodology is unthinkable. It implies a great effort for them to shift the attention towards a more student-centered approach, attend directly to the student needs for proficiency in the language and, mainly, update in the new theoretical schemes of ESL research. In order to be successful under this perspective, teachers must be creative, dynamic and hardworking professionals.
In this regard, there is a trend in the American whole language approach known as the Fluency-first movement. This school was born in the United States and so far it has been working on the development of ESL writing skills. It was teachers at the City college of New York (CCNY) who designed and implemented a whole-language approach they called fluency-first which is a systematic set of activities for developing mainly fluency and at later stages focus on clarity and correctness (Iancu, 2000). This approach emphasizes task-driven, meaning based learning, creating a relaxed atmosphere to reduce students' anxiety and promoting motivation to acquire ESL writing skill through gratification instead of fear.
The success of this research lies on the fact that the natural processes of first language acquisition were closely duplicated in the initial and principal stage of the process of second language acquisition. The grammatical competence was developed at a secondary stage, in a fluency-plus accuracy view, giving the students the possibility of inducing the second language grammatical system based on the previous knowledge of the students' first language acquisition process. Whenever the differences of both systems were distant enough for the students to understand a specific element of the grammar of the second language, teachers then encouraged the students first to self-correct, or if necessary, would give the feedback on an individual basis. The study proved to be refreshing and fulfilling since the students could broadly develop the ESL writing skill, and remarkable gains in reading performance as well, through the continous and free-like writing tasks they were engaged in under this first-fluency approach (Iancu, 2000).
The article already mentioned by Truscott (1996) makes a clear point against grammatical error correction. The author makes an extensive review of the research done in the area to that moment and concludes that error correction, in writing classes, should be abandoned as a practice. The most important cases supporting this thesis are perhaps Semke’s (1984), Sheppard’s (1992) and Keppner’s (1991) (All in Truscott, 1996).
H. D. Semke investigated four groups of learners who received four different types of feedback: first one on content, only; second on errors; third one on both content and errors; and, fourth had errors pointed out but not corrected. No significant difference was found in terms of accuracy. However, group one who received only content feedback did significantly better on fluency and was the only group that improved at the end of the study.
K. Sheppard in her “Two feedback types: do they make a difference?” (RELC Journal 23 (1992): 103-10) conducted a study with two groups, one receiving both written and oral grammar correction, the other receiving feedback only on content. There was no difference in accuracy, but the group receiving feedback on content did much better at sentence boundaries and complex structures, a result attributed to the fear of the first group to make errors and so make use of only simple structures.
Finally, C. G. Keppner in her study “An experiment in the relationship of types of written feedback to the development of second-language writing skills” (Modern languages journal 75 (1991): 305-13) found no important differences in the accurate use of structures between groups receiving feedback on grammar and content.
Truscott also cites in his paper studies which not only conclude against grammatical error correction, but also analyzed practical problems in the area: teacher’s bias, teacher’s feedback inconsistencies, types of students, teacher’s incapability to detect errors, teacher’s ignorance on ways to treat error.
However, even though the goal of this paper is to demonstrate the pervasive aspect of error correction in the ESL acquisition process, it is necessary to clarify the fact that too much focus on fluency, with no consideration of accuracy at any stage of the process and by any form of feedback or error correction, can eventually result on fossilized language highly resistant to improvement in the students (Einsenstein, 2000). This goes without saying that the latter does not represent a weakness in the point that I want to make against error correction in this paper. It is just a word of caution for all of us who could embrace such an alternative -the anti-corrective one- as a cure for many types of illnesses we perceive everyday in our classroom. We need to develop a sense of balance in our changing practice as ESL teachers. It is a matter of knowing what, when and how the correction should be made.




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