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Second Language Acquisition Theory

Second language acquisition theory seeks to quantify how and by what processes individuals acquire a second language. The predominant theory of second language acquisition was developed by the University of Southern California's Steven Krashen. Krashen is a specialist in language development and acquisition, and his influential theory is widely accepted in the language learning community.

Five Components of Second Language Acquisition Theory

There are five main components of Krashen's theory. Each of the components relates to a different aspect of the language learning process. The five components are as follows:

  1. The Acquisition Learning Hypothesis

  2. The Monitor Hypothesis

  3. The Natural Order Hypothesis

  4. The Input Hypothesis

  5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

This hypothesis actually fuses two fundamental theories of how individuals learn languages. Krashen has concluded that there are two systems of language acquisition that are independent but related: the acquired system and the learned system.

  • The acquired system relates to the unconscious aspect of language acquisition. When people learn their first language by speaking the language naturally in daily interaction with others who speak their native language, this acquired system is at work. In this system, speakers are less concerned with the structure of their utterances than with the act of communicating meaning. Krashen privileges the acquired system over the learned system.

  • The learned system relates to formal instruction where students engage in formal study to acquire knowledge about the target language. For example, studying the rules of syntax is part of the learned system.

The Monitor Hypothesis

The monitor hypothesis seeks to elucidate how the acquired system is affected by the learned system. When second language learners monitor their speech, they are applying their understanding of learned grammar to edit, plan, and initiate their communication. This action can only occur when speakers have ample time to think about the form and structure of their sentences.

The amount of monitoring occurs on a continuum. Some language learners over-monitor and some use very little of their learned knowledge and are said to under-monitor. Ideally, speakers strike a balance and monitor at a level where they use their knowledge but are not overly inhibited by it.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

This hypothesis argues that there is a natural order to the way second language learners acquire their target language. Research suggests that this natural order seems to transcend age, the learner's native language, the target language, and the conditions under which the second language is being learned. The order that the learners follow has four steps:

  1. They produce single words.

  2. They string words together based on meaning and not syntax.

  3. They begin to identify elements that begin and end sentences.

  4. They begin to identify different elements within sentences and can rearrange them to produce questions.

The Input Hypothesis

This hypothesis seeks to explain how second languages are acquired. In its most basic form, the input hypothesis argues that learners progress along the natural order only when they encounter second language input that is one step beyond where they are in the natural order. Therefore, if a learner is at step one from the above list, they will only proceed along the natural order when they encounter input that is at the second step.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

This hypothesis describes external factors that can act as a filter that impedes acquisition. These factors include motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety. For example, if a learner has very low motivation, very low self-confidence, and a high level of anxiety, the affective filter comes into place and inhibits the learner from acquiring the new language. Students who are motivated, confident, and relaxed about learning the target language have much more success acquiring a second language than those who are trying to learn with the affective filter in place.

A Final Point on Grammar

According to second language acquisition theory, the role of grammar in language acquisition is useful only when the learner is interested in learning grammar. Otherwise, Krashen argues that studying grammar equates to language appreciation and does not positively influence language acquisition.

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