Language acquisition refers to the process of learning a native or a second language. The learning of native languages is studied primarily by developmental psychologists and psycholinguists whereas the learning of second or foreign languages is studied primarily by applied linguists. Most traditional methods for learning a second language involve “some systematic approach to the analysis and comprehension of grammar as well as to the memorization of vocabulary” (CE, 2004). The cognitive approach, which is becoming increasingly popular in the realm of language acquisition, emphasizes “extemporaneous conversation, immersion, and other techniques intended to simulate the environment in which most people acquire their native language as children” (CE, 2004).
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The fields of linguistics and cognitive psychology each contain separate paradigms for describing second language acquisition. According to the paradigm based on cognitive psychology, second language acquisition is based in part on information processing and in part on studies and theory that have evolved over the years on the role of cognitive processes in learning (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990). The role of learning strategies in the acquisition of information generally can be understood by reference to the information processing framework for learning. In the cognitive psychology paradigm, new information is acquired through a four-stage encoding process involving selection, acquisition, construction and integration (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990). Through selection, learners focus on specific information of interest in the environment, and transfer that information into working memory. In acquisition, learners actively transfer information from working memory into long term memory. In the third state, construction, learners actively build internal connections between ideas contained in working memory using information from long-term memory (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990). In the final process, integration, the learner actively searches for prior knowledge in long term memory and transfers this knowledge to working memory. Selection and acquisition determine how much is learned, whereas construction and integration determine what is learned and how it is organized (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990). Thus, according to the cognitive approach we find that strategies that most actively engage the person’s mental processes would be more effective in supporting learning. Strategies for learning second language can be described within the framework provided by cognitive theory. The primary focus of the student should be to acquire the meaning of the text and not on the grammatical structure. “….people of all ages learn languages best, inside or outside the classroom, not by treating the languages as an object of study, but by experiencing them as a medium of communication”. (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 18)
Ming, a sixth grade student, finds it difficult to read information in English. He listens quietly to Raquel, his classmate and comprehends and then processes it. He has difficulty in selection and acquisition. Ming is using the passive learning strategy of listening through Raquel. To make his learning strategy more effective, it should be made more active and engage his mental abilities (McLaughlin, 1984). Maria can suggest Raquel to make Ming’s listening more active by asking questions to Ming, and making him summarize what Raquel had read. Maria can also ask Raquel to read and ask Ming to read it after that. This makes use of imitation as a learning strategy. In reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984) teachers instruct students in four distinct reading strategies: questioning, predicting, clarifying, and summarizing (Crandall et al, 2002). Maria can instruct Raquel and Ming to work as a team and discuss the material in hand and make use of all these four strategies. Next, Maria can give teacher-designed tasks to Raquel and Ming. These may include reading logs, in which students copy quotes from the text and then responds with a drawing or symbol that corresponds to the quote (Crandall et al, 1984). Maria can allow Ming to engage in voluntary reading (Coady, 1997). Maria can ask Ming “under-the-surface” questions that begin with why, how, what and when (Crandall et al, 2002). At the end of a lesson, Maria can plan tasks that help Ming to reexamine the main ideas in the text. Such activity makes the student reflect on its meaning, clarify and question, and reread with a different purpose in mind.
Coady, J. (1997). L2 vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition (pp. 225-37). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Columbia Encyclopedia (2004). Language Acquisition. Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press. New York. 2004.
Crandall et al (2002). Using Cognitive Strategies to Develop English Language and Literacy. Center for Applied Linguistics, 2002. EDO-FL-02-05
Long, M. H., & Robinson, P. (1998). “Focus on form: Theory, research and practice”. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1998
McLaughlin, Barry (1984). Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood: Preschool Children. Volume: 1. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Hillsdale, NJ. 1984.
O’Malley, M. J. and Chamot A. U. (1990). Learning strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press. 1990
Palinscar, A. S., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-25.