How do people learn (language)? How we teach language should be based on how people learn language. Do we learn language the way we learn everything? Or is there some special way our brains learn language? Today we will talk about some of the hypotheses which have been suggested for how people learn (in general) and learn language (in particular). This child has learned sign-language from his parents – but how? NATURE vs. NURTURE People who argue for language learning by NATURE believe that humans are born with a built-in ability to learn language – that it is part of the structure of our brains.
People who support NURTURE side of the argument believe that we learn language the same way we learn everything else, e. g. how to ride a bicycle, how to walk, how to fit into our society. BEHAVIORISM Based on experiments performed in the early part of the 20th century, many people believed that animals AND PEOPLE learned through a process of conditioning. For example, there were laboratory studies where rats were trained to push a button when a light came on. Each time the rat did this, it was given a piece of food. After a while, the rat would push the button every time the light came on.
The rat had learned to associate pushing the button with getting food. This theory became known as behaviorism. STIMULUS > RESPONSE > REINFORCEMENT In Behaviorist learning theory, conditioning is the result of a three-stage process: Stimulus > Response > Reinforcement. In the rat experiment, the light coming on would be the stimulus, the rat pushing the button would be the response and the food would be the reinforcement. Researchers spoke of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. For example, if you pet your dog and say “Good boy! when it does a trick correctly, this would be positive reinforcement. If you say hit our dog on its nose and yell “Bad dog! ” when it does something bad, this would be negative reinforcement. In 1957, psychologist Bernard Skinner wrote a book called Verbal Behavior in which he argued that children learn (their first) language the same way. In the early 1960’s this theory of language learning became popular among people interested in language teaching. The result was the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) which stressed repetition and pattern practice: • He has a dog. cat • He has a cat. • She • She has a cat. • pencil • She has a pencil. TYPICAL CLASSROOM FEEDBACK Today most educators reject this strict form of Behaviorist learning theory (and ALM is rarely used). Nevertheless, we can see examples of this way of thinking in almost every language classroom around the world. Let’s look at a typical bit of “teacher-learner” interaction: • 01 T: What time is it? • 02 S: Half past ten. • 03> T: Very good, Yumi-chan! (“yoku dekimashita” “sonotori”)) In the real world this bit of talk would probably go more like this: • 01 T: What time is it? • 02 S: Half past ten. • 03> T: Oh, my God! I’m late for class! (or just “Thanks. ”) Providing more natural feedback Learners, like everyone else, like to feel that people are listening to what they say – not how they say it. This is the purpose of feedback. But some kinds of feedback are better than others. Compare the following two conversational fragments: T: What did you do yesterday?
S: I played basketball. T: That’s correct. This responds to the grammar. T: What did you do yesterday? S: I played basketball. T: I’m not very good at basketball. This responds to the meaning. NATIVISM (INNATE LANGUAGE ABILITY) Shortly after Skinner wrote his book, a young linguist named Noam Chomsky (1959) wrote a strong critique of the Behaviorist theory for language learning. Chomsky’s main argument against Behaviorism was this: IF CHILDREN LEARN LANGUAGE BY CONDITIONING AND IMITATION, WHY DO THEY SAY THINGS THEY HAVE NEVER HEARD BEFORE?
WHY CAN ADULTS MAKE COMPLETELY NOVEL SENTENCES? • Fish feet • My brother only eats the blue monkeys. Chomsky also argued that the language children are exposed to is “deficient” for language learning. Chomsky claimed that the language children hear is full of “performance errors” such as grammatical mistakes, false starts, slips of the tongue, etc. CHOMSKY’S LAD Therefore, Chomsky argued, children must be born with some special built-in ability to learn language. He called this special built-in ability, the Language Acquisition Device (LAD).
This device supposedly contained the main rules for all possible human languages. Chomsky called this set of common rules Universal Grammar (UG). All the child needed was a small sample from some specific language (e. g. English or Japanese) to be able to add a few language-specific rules. For example, English is said to be a “head first” language because it builds structures like: The man -> who is wearing -> a hat Japanese, on the other hand, is called a “head last” language because it builds structures like: Booshi o