Current research in second language acquisition and its implication for language teaching

Mr Shigenori Wakabayashi (PhD student, English and Applied Linguistics, Clare Hall)

Saturday, 15 March, 1997; 7:00-10:00 pm

Riverside 1, University Centre (first floor), Mill Lane

Language is an interesting property owned by human beings. We know that all human beings become fluent speakers of their first language (L1: = mother tongue), and that somehow 'practice makes perfect' does not work when we learn a second language (L2: = foreign language) (although practice probably makes 'better'). In this talk, I will discuss what we know about language acquisition and its implication for language teaching. Learning how to tell /r/ from /l/ seems to involve different factors from learning how to use English to get discounts at the market. However, when we talk about language learning/teaching, people often make little distinction between these kinds of items and put them into a big bag: "language learning/teaching". In the first part of the talk, I will illustrate the (associated) properties of language, such as sounds, words, sentences, texts, and contexts. This illustration will give a brief description of what language is, how it works, and what learning/acquiring a language is.
In the second part, focusing on the acquisition of grammar, I will discuss the development of second language acquisition (SLA) studies in the past 20 years and what is known at the moment. In the 1960's, it was commonly accepted that second language (L2) learners should find it difficult to acquire the properties which are different from those in their L1. Research in the 1970's and 1980's proved that this is not entirely true and some (e.g., Krashen, 1977) claimed that SLA is the same as L1 acquisition (L1A). Recent research suggests that this is not entirely true, either: Only some of the properties which are different from those in the learner's L1 seem to cause severe problems in SLA, while others do not. At the end of this part of the talk, I will illustrate the difference between Japanese learners of English and Spanish learners of English.
In the third part of the talk, I will point out two problems with some (hidden) assumptions which seem to be commonly accepted by Japanese teachers of English: Grammarians (or even worse, ordinary native speakers) can describe certain aspects of the target language at least when the aspects are important; and one method of teaching English is more effective than others (such as, communicative approach is better than grammar-translation method, or the other way round) with no regard to other factors, such as the learner's L1, age, aptitude, class size.
In the last part of the talk, I will suggest that there are several important points to be made clear when Japanese people learn English (or when we teach English to Japanese students), including the method of learning (teaching), the model of English, the goal of learning, how to measure the progress and how to provide motivation from time to time.