Leon A. James

Center for Comparative Psycholinguistics

The University of Illinois


 Traditional psychological theories about language acquisition emphasize the role of reinforcement provided by environmental agencies and view language as a set of vocal habits that are condi–tioned to stimuli in the environment. Imitation and practice of new forms are the processes by which language behavior develops and generalization of learned forms is supposed to account for the novel uses of language. Recent developments in linguistics have influenced our conception of the structure of language, hence the nature of the knowledge that the child has to acquire. A radically new psycholinguistic theory of language acquisition has been pro–posed which emphasizes the developmental nature of the language acquisition process and attributes to the child specific innate com–petencies which guide his discovery of the rules of the natural lan–guage to which he is exposed. Imitation, practice, reinforcement, and generalization are no longer considered theoretically produc–tive conceptions in language acquisition. The implications of these new ideas for the teaching of a second language lie in the need for controlled exposure of the student to linguistic materials in a man–ner that will facilitate his discovery of the significant features of the language. „Shapingš of phonological skills, discrimination training on sound „unitsš and pattern drills are rejected in favor of „transformation exercisesš at the phonological, syntactic and semantic levels.


This paper attempts to summarize some recently developed notions about the language acquisition process and makes some preliminary suggestions about the implications of these ideas for the problem of teaching a second language. The original impetus in demonstrating the shortcomings of traditional psychological and linguistic theories in the understanding of the processes of language structure and language acquisition must be credited to Chomsky (1957; 959) who also developed new theories to cope with the prob–lem. Subsequent writers have elaborated upon this new outlook


őPaper delivered to the 1968 convention of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) in San Antonio, Texas, March 9, 1968. The two sources to which I am most indebted in the preparation of this paper are McNeill (1966) and Lenneberg (1967) whose stim–ulating ideas it is a pleasure to acknowledge.


pointing out the various specific inadequacies of the earlier notions and making concrete suggestions for new approaches (see Miller, 1965; Katz, 1966; McNeill, 1966; Lenneberg, 1967; Slobin, 1966; and several others; see also the contributions in Bellugi and Brown, 1964). To appreciate fully these new developments it is necessary to consider briefly the nature of the inadequacy of the earlier no–tions on the language acquisition process.



From Surface to Base


The traditional psychological approach to the language acquisi–tion process was to view it within the framework of learning theory. The acquisition of phonology was viewed as a process of shaping the elementary sounds produced by the infant through reinforcement of successive approximations to the adult pattern. Imitation of adult speech patterns was thought to be a source of reward to the bab–bling infant and repeated practice on these novel motor habits was thought to serve the function of „stamping inš and automatizing them.


From these elementary phonological habits the words of the language were thought to emerge through parental reinforcement. It was said that the child could better control his environment by uttering words to which the parents responded by giving the child what he wanted. The child learned the meaning of words through a conditioning process whereby the referents which the word signaled appeared in contiguity with the symbol thus establishing an association. The acquisition of grammar was conceptualized as learning the proper order of words in sentences. Generalization carried a heavy theoretical burden in attempts to explain novel uses of words and novel arrangements of sentences. Perceptual similarity of physical objects and relations, and functional equival–ence of responses was thought to serve as the basis for general–izing the meaning of previously learned words. Similarly, generali–zation of the grammatical function of words was thought to account for the understanding and production of novel sentences.


Two aspects of this approach are noteworthy. One is that the burden of language acquisition was placed on the environment: the parents were the source of input, and reinforcement was the neces–sary condition for establishing the „habits.š The child was merely a passive organism responsive to the reinforcement conditions ar–ranged by agencies in the environment. The second aspect to be noted was the relatively simplistic conception of the knowledge to be acquired: sentences were conceived as orderings of words, arranged in sequential probabilities that could be learned then gen–eralized to novel combinations. A general characterization of this overall approach would be to say that the process of acquisition was from surface to base; that is, the knowledge represented by language learning at all levelsųphonological, semantic, syntactic ųwas entirely based on the relations contained in the overt speech of the parents. The new approach to be discussed below can be characterized by saying that it reverses this order; that is, the burden of acquisition is now placed on the child with relatively minor importance attached to the environment as a reinforcing agency. Furthermore, the approach minimizes the relations con–tained in the surface of language, attributing the significant infor–mation to be acquired to the underlying structure of language, which is not contained in the surface input. However, before taking up this new approach, I shall point out the specific inadequacies of the earlier approach.


The acquisition of phonology. The notion that the child first learns the constituent elements of the adult phonemic structure and then produces speech by associating these elements appears to be contrary to fact. In the first place, it is doubtful that speech is made up of a concatenation of physically unique sound elements. A sound typewriter which would convert each physically different sound into a different orthographic type would not produce a very readable record (Lenneberg, 1967), because speech recognition is not simply a process of identifying physical differences in sounds. In fact, it requires overlooking certain acoustic differences as un–important and paying attention to certain other features in relation to the acoustic context in which the sound is imbedded. In other words, the „cracking" of the phonological code of a natural language involves a process of pattern recognition and equation, not simply learning the identity of constituent elements. The first recogniz–able words of a child are not composed of acoustically invariant speech sounds (see Lenneberg, 1967). Therefore, a description of phonological acquisition in terms of learning individual speech sounds which are then combined into words, must be false. Fur–thermore, it is not clear how a notion of shaping by successive approximation can ever account for the acquisition of sound pattern recognition and the discovery by the child of phonological structure of a hierarchical nature.


The acquisition of meaning. It is an indication of the simplistic character of previous behavioristic views of language that they have concerned themselves with the problem of reference to the almost total exclusion of the semantic interpretation of utterances. Ref–erence deals with the relation between words and objects or as–pects of the environment. Psychological theories of meaning (or

reference) were based on a philosophical system of conceptualiza–tion which now appears to be false; namely the notion that „words tag thingsš in the physical environment. The adoption of such a view led to elementary descriptions whereby a particular combina–tion of sounds (a word) was conditioned to an object or set of objects. When a new object having certain physical similarities to the one previously conditioned was encountered, the learned verbal response was said to have generalized to this new instance. More elaborate versions of this form of theorizing were developed to account for the obvious fact that familiar words would be used in connection with objects or situations which had no physical sim–ilarity to the originally conditioned object. However, due to the requirements imposed by viewing meaning as a conditioned re–sponse to a stimulus, these later elaborations merely pushed back the locus of the similarity from the external physical object to an internal (even though functional) representation of that object. Thus an individual‚s capacity to understand the extension of the word eye in the eye of the needle was thought of as arising from the fact that the internal conditioned responses elicited by the word eye in the above phrase are similar in some (unspecified) manner to the responses originally conditioned to the word eye in such in–stances as this is your eye, these are my eyes, this is the doggy's eye, etc. The total inadequacy of this kind of approach as an ex–planatory device is this: it leaves obscure the specific nature of the similarity of the conditioned response from the original to the extension, and it is incapable of specifying the nature of the exten–sion and cannot predict it until after it has occurred. Thus, the view of reference as a conditioning process has the same short–comings for semantics as the view of conditioning of sequential probabilities of parts of speech has for syntax. That is, the cre–ative and novel use of words which is so characteristic of language remains completely beyond its explanatory range.


The difficulties attached to these behavioristic explanations of meaning can be resolved by abandoning the notion that „words tag thingsš in favor of the view that „words tag the processes by which the species deals cognitively with its environmentš (Lenne–berg, 1967, p. 334). This view reverses the order between the object-stimulus and its conditioned response-process. That is, rather than saying that the concept-meaning involved in the use of the word eye is a conditioned process (external, internal, or corti–cal) developed as a result of tagging various objects having certain characteristics and experiences relating to them, this view says that the word eye tags a class of cognitive processes developed through a categorization and differentiation process which is inde–pendent of verbal labeling. When a child (or adult for that matter) is confronted with a new word, the new word acquires meaning only in the sense that it comes to refer to a class of cognitive processes already possessed by the individual. Novel uses of words, such as metaphoric extensions, are understandable to others by virtue of the fact that human categorization and differentiation processes are similar across the species, the word merely serving as a convenient tag whereby these processes can be labeled. The language of stimulus-response theory does not seem to offer any particular advantages when conceptualizing the problem in this fashion.


A conception of meaning such as the one just outlined, has certain implications for a theory of semantics which it might be important to state explicitly. Meaning becomes a purely cognitive concept (as linguists of a generation ago used to believe) and se–mantics represents the linguistic expression of these cognitive operations. The problem of the development of meaning becomes the problem of cognitive development, which is to say that the di–mensions of meaning-how the human species categorizes and differ–entiates the universe-antedate the dimensions of semanticsųhow cognitive categories and relations find expression in linguisitc terms. An adequate theory of meaning must be able to character–ize the nature of this relation, namely the mapping of cognitive to linguistic processes. Note that this theory includes not only lexi–cal (vocabulary) items, but also the morphophemic and inflectional system of language, since the latter contain cognitive differentia–tions such as present vs. past, animate vs. inanimate, definite vs. indefinite, mass vs. count, male vs. female, plural vs. singular, and so on. It follows that an adequate theory of semantics must concern itself not only with the vocabulary of a language and the relation between words and things (reference) but also with the manner in which the syntactic component of a language allows the expression of cognitive relations (meaning). While the first aspect may be conceptualized as a closed system such as that represented by a dictionary of a language, the second aspect is an open system that cannot be described by a taxonomy of properties or relations. In other words, while it is possible to make an inventory of all the words in a language, it is impossible to make an inventory of all the possible usages of any single word (with the exception perhaps of most function words). An adequate semantic theory must there–fore contain at least the following two things: (a) a model of hu–man cognition specifying a finite set of dimensions or features, probably in the form of a generic hierarchy of increasing inclusive–ness as we move up the tree, and (b) a set of finite rules (or transformations) specifying the possibilities of manipulations of the elements in the tree. The description of (a) must be a general psychological theory and is made up of „psychological or cognitive universalsš as defined by the biological capacity of the human species. The description of (b) must be a cultural and individual psychological theory as defined by individual differences in general intelligence and in personal experiences.


The acquisition of syntax. The failure of behavior theory to account in any significant manner for the problem of the acquisi–tion of syntax can be interpreted as stemming from a failure to recognize the complexity of the syntax of language. As long as sentences are viewed as a sequential ordering of words or cate–gories of words and the phenomenon to be explained as a problem in the learning of sequential probabilities of items or classes of items, no meaningful progress can be made. The relations among the following eight sentences taken from Lenneberg (1967, pp. 273-275) illustrate the complexities of the problem to be dealt with:

(1)  colorless green ideas sleep furiously

(2)  furiously sleep ideas green colorless

(3)  occasionally call warfare useless

(4)  useless warfare call occasionally

(5)  friendly young dogs seem harmless

(6)  the fox chases the dog

(7)  the dog chases the fox

(8)  the dog is chased by the fox

If one compares sentence (1) and (2) it is evident that (1) is gram–matical while (2) is not. The difference cannot be entirely in their meaning for, although sentence (1) is more likely to have some meaning than sentence (2), nevertheless sentence (1) will be judged more grammatical than sentence (2) even by the most prosaically inclined person. Nor can it be said that the reason sentence (1) is more grammatical than sentence (2) is that it is more familiar, since both sentences had a frequency of zero until linguists began to use them a short while ago to make the kind of point that is being made here. The ungrammatical string (4) has the same order of parts of speech as the grammatical string (1), namely (adjective + noun + verb + adverb). Similarly, the grammatical and semantically interpretable sentence (3)2 has the same order of parts of speech as the ungrammatical and semantically uninter–pretable string (2), namely (adverb + verb + noun + adjective). Consequently, the transitional probability of parts of speech in a


2Sentence (3) might occur, as Lenneberg points out, "in an instruction booklet on pac–ifistic rhetoricš (1967, p. 274).


sentence cannot account for either their grammaticality or their susceptibility to semantic interpretation. The same is true for the order of morphemes in the sentence as shown by the fact that sen–tence (5) which is both grammatical and meaningful uses the same order of bound morphemes (-ly, -s, -less) as sentence (2) which is neither grammatical nor meaningful. Sentences (6) and (7) dem–onstrate that the particular words used offer no clue to the mean–ing of the sentence. Sentence (8) can be recognized as having the same meaning as sentence (6) even though the order of subject and object is the same as that of sentence (7) showing that direc–tional associations between the ordered elements are irrelevant to the understanding of the sentence.


These various examples should suffice to convince one that the process of acquiring language must involve a much more complex analysis procedure than that offered by such surface relations of sentences as order of elements and word-associations. As if this were not enough, we are confronted with the added complication that the child is continuously exposed to both well-formed and semi-formed and semi-grammatical sentences in the ordinary speech of adult speakers. Out of this confused input, he has to be able to separate out the false clues from the correct ones, yet he demon–strates this ability and succeeds in the relatively short period of 24 months (roughly from age one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half). Let us now turn to these newer formulations of child language ac–quisition.


From Base to Surface


If we discard earlier theories of language acquisition as un–productive, it is necessary to start anew right from the beginning. The study of the acquisition of grammar usually begins when the child is at about a-year-and-a-half, the time when he begins to use two word combinations. Prior to that it is difficult to study the child‚s grammatical competence since he uses single words, and techniques have not as yet been developed to study the child‚s grammatical comprehension at that early age. Speech records of a child over successive periods offer a picture of a changing gram–mar which the psycholinguist attempts to characterize in formal terms by giving a description of its structure at each period. This approach is necessarily limited since an inference of grammatical competence must be made from the child‚s speech performance, the latter being affected by a number of variables that are not directly relevant to grammatical competence (e.g. memory span, temporal integration, inattention, etc.). Given this limitation, we can never–theless inquire as to the kind of developmental picture that emerges.

Differentiation of general classes. Children‚s earliest utter–ances of two words (or more) exhibit non-random combinations of words. Some examples from the speech of three children reported in the literature are the following (McNeill, 1966, Table 1): big boy, aligone shoe, two boot, that baby, here pretty. Distributional analysis of these two-word combinations reveals that the words the child uses at this earliest stage fall into two categories in terms of their privileges of occurrence. One of the two classes contains a small number of words each having a relatively high frequency of occurrence. Examples of this class include allgone, big, my, see in one child‚s speech, my, two, a, green, in a second child‚s speech, and in a third, this, a, here. The second class contains a larger number of words and additions of new words to this class occur at a higher rate (some examples are: beat, Mom–my, tinker-toy, come, doed). Words in this second class occur by themselves or in combination with words from the first class, whereas words in the first class never occur alone. For these reasons, the first class was named the „pivotš class (P) while the second class was named the „openš class (0). A shorthand ex–pression of these facts can be represented by the following notation.

                                              S                                    (P) + 0


This notation implies that the child‚s competence includes a rule which says that a sentence, 5, can be produced by combining any two words from class P and class 0 (in that order) or, alternately, by using any single word from class 0. The rule excludes such sentences made up of two words from the same class, or a sen–tence made up of a single word from the P class.


It is to be noted that the rule3 for constructing this earliest sentence cannot have been developed as a result of direct mimick–ing of adult sentences. Many of the two-word combinations that this rule generates are in the wrong order from the point of view of adult speech (e.g. allgone shoe vs. the likely adult model of the shoe is allgone). In addition, it permits combinations that are un–likely to occur in adult speech at all (e.g. big milk). Such novel (and non-adult) combinations and the ready substitutability of words within each category are convincing arguments that these word combinations could not be memorized limitations of adult speech.


Distributional analysis of successive speech records of the children that have been studied shows that the words in the original consciously aware of what he is doing. „Ruleš is to he understood in its formal (mathematical) sense as an expression that generates a set of operations of defined elements.


3The concept of a grammatical „ruleš as used in generative transformational linguistics in no way implies that the individual is


pivot class begin to subdivide into progressively more differenti–ated categories in a hierarchical manner that can be represented as follows (based on McNeill, 1966, Fig. 1):




                 Art                          Dem                       P2
Adj        Poss       P3


                 a                            that           big         my         other

                 the                         this            red        your       more



This representation shows that the original pivot class (P1) subdi–vided into three classes of words: Articles, Demonstrative Pro–nouns, and all the rest (P2). Subsequently, P2 subdivided into three further classes: Adjectives, Possessive Pronouns, and all the rest



The implications of this picture are extremely important. Note that there is no logical necessity for the development of grammati–cal distinctions to assume this particular form of development. The child could have made up categories of words on a trial and error basis, continually rearranging them on the basis of evidence con–tained in adult speech. He could thus isolate a category of words that correspond to adjectives, or articles, or possessives, until he gradually homes in on the full-fledged adult pattern. However, in–stead of making, as it were, a distributional analysis of adult speech, he seems to have come up with a progressive differentiation strat–egy that has the peculiar property of being made up of a generic class at each point: that is, the original pivot class must already honor in a generic form all the future distinctions at level 2; the undifferentiated pivot class at level 2 (P2) must contain in a ge–neric form all the future distinctions at level 3, and so on. In other words, the child seems to honor grammatical distinctions in advance of the time they actually develop. How is this possible?


McNeill‚s conclusion is as bold as it is inevitable: the hier–archy of progressive differentiation of grammatical categories „represents linguistic universals that are part of the child‚s innate endowment. The role of a universal hierarchy of categories would be to direct the child‚s discovery of the classes of English. It is as if he were equipped with a set of őtemplates‚ against which he can compare the speech he happens to hear from his parents. . .

We can imagine, then, that a child classifies the random speci–mens of adult speech he encounters according to universal cate–gories that the speech exemplifies. Since these distinctions are at the top of a hierarchy that has the grammatical classes of English at its bottom, the child is prepared to discover the appropriate set of distinctionsš (McNeill, 1966, pp. 35-36).


The assumption of innate language universals is sure to be unacceptable to current behaviorist theories. Someone is bound to point out that one does not explain the „whyš of a complex phe–nomenon by saying it is innate. The fact of the matter is, how–ever, that the complex behavior system of any organism is bound to be dependent upon the structural and functional properties of its nervous system. Language is a product of man‚s cognition, and, as Lenneberg (1967, p. 334) points out, „man‚s cognition functions within biologically given limits.š Granting the innateness of lan–guage universals, we are still left with the task of explaining the „howš of language acquisition. The scientific investigation of lan–guage, both from the linguist‚s and the psycholinguist‚ s point of view, is to give an adequate characterization of the structure of the child‚s innately endowed „language acquisition device,š the na–ture of its universal categories and their interrelations.


The development of transformations. The ability to manipulate transformations constitutes an essential part of linguistic compe–tence according to the linguistic theory developed by Chomsky, and Lenneberg (1967) argues convincingly that transformations are an essential aspect of categorization processes of all biological or–ganisms. An insight into the nature of linguistic transformations can be gained by considering the manner by which the following two sentences are understood by an adult speaker (based on Lenne–berg, 1967, pp. 286-292):

(1)  they are boring students

(2)  the shooting of the hunters was terrible

Both sentences are semantically ambiguous. The ambiguity in sentence (1) can be resolved by a process of „bracketingš which reveals that its constituent elements can be broken up into two different „phrase markers,š4 as follows:


                       S                                             S


      NP                  VP                         NP                  VP


      Pr              V          NP                  Pr              V         NP

                                                                                Adj         N
  {(They) [(are boring) (students)]}       {(They)       {(are) [(boring) (students)]}}


4A phrase marker is simply a graphic representation of the constituents of a sentence.


„Bracketingš shown at the bottom of this figure is an alternative method of accomplishing the same thing.



This phrase marker shows that the ambiguity of the sentence lies in the fact that the word boring functions in one case as an in–flected verb-form, and in the other case, as an adjective modifying the word students. Now consider sentence (2): it is ambiguous in at least two ways (one could say that either the hunters need more practice or they need a funeral!). Only one phrase marker descrip–tion is possible for this sentence, so we need some other process to explain its ambiguity. One interpretation is related to the sen–tence hunters shoot inaccurately, the other, to the sentence hunters are shot. The reason we understand the ambiguity of sentence (2) may thus be attributed to the fact that we are able to recognize the relation between it and two other sentences each of which has its own distinct phrase marker. This type of relationship is the essence of transformations: they are laws that control the rela–tions between sentences that have „grammatical affinity.š

The early stages of child language competence does not ap–parently include the ability to perform transformations, according to McNeill (1966) who relates the impetus for acquiring transfor–mations to the cumbersomeness of having to manipulate the ele–mentary forms of sentences in the underlying structure of language („base stringsš). (More extensive discussion on the development of transformations is not possible here. The reader is referred to McNeill, 1966, pp. 53-65.)


Implications for Second Language Teaching


The view on language acquisition that has been outlined may at first appear frustrating to those whose inclination and business it is to teach language. The claim that a child has achieved lin–guistic competence by age three-and-a-hail is likely to be scoffed at by the elementary school teacher in composition. At the claim that grammatical rules are discovered by the child through lin–guistic universals, the foreign language teacher is likely to wonder what happened to this marvelous capacity in the foreign language laboratory. In this section, I would like to examine the implica–tions for language teaching of the views outlined earlier on the language acquisition process. I shall discuss a number of topics including the role of practice and imitation, the distinction between competence and performance, and the nature of skills involved in foreign language acquisition.


The role of practice and imitation. The assumption that prac–tice plays a crucial role in language acquisition has been central to earlier speculations. To Behaviorists it is almost an axiom not to be questioned. This view rests on the basic assertion that there

exists a fundamental continuity between language acquisition and the forms of learning studied in the psychological laboratory. Chomsky (1959), Miller (1965), Lenneberg (1967), and others have questioned this view on general grounds and McNeill (1966) ques–tions it on more specific and reduced grounds. If we grant that the language acquisition process is guided by the child‚s innate knowledge of language universals, does practice theory explain how children go about finding out the locally appropriate expression of the linguistic universals?


Practice theory leads to two possible hypotheses about language acquisition: one is that when the child is exposed to a novel gram–matical form, he imitates it; the other is that by practicing this novel form, he „stamps it in.š The evidence available indicates that both hypotheses are false. A direct test of children‚s tend–ency (or ability) to imitate adult forms of speech shows that chil–dren almost never repeat the adult sentence as it is presented. A child does not readily „mimicš a grammatical form that is not already in his repertoire as evidenced by his own spontaneous utter–ances. Direct attempts by the child at imitation of adult sentences end up as recordings, as the following examples taken from Lenne–berg (1967, p. 316) illustrate:


     Model Sentence                                         Child‚s Repetition

Johnny is a good boy.                               Johnny is good boy.
He takes them for a walk.                          He take them to the walk.
Lassie does not like the water.                   He no like the water.
Does Johnny want a cat?                           Johnny wants a cat?



It has been estimated that only about ten percent of a child‚s „imi–tationsš of adult speech are „grammatically progressive,š that is, embody a form novel to the child.


Whatever the means by which novel forms enter the child‚s speech, does practice strengthen these responses? The evolution of the child‚s command of the past tense of verbs provides nega–tive evidence to this question. In the child‚s early language, the past tense of the irregular strong verbs in English (came, went, sat) appears with high frequency relative to the regularized /d/ and /t/ forms of the weak verbs. Thus, we would expect that these much practiced irregular forms would be highly stable, more so than the regular forms. Yet evidence shows that they are in fact less stable than the less practiced regular form, because at a cer–tain point in the child‚s development he suddenly abandons the ir–regular form in favor of the regularized form and produces comed, goed, sitted. This kind of discontinuity shows that the practice model is not applicable here; rules that the child discovers are more important and carry greater weight than practice. Concept attainment and hypothesis testing are more likely paradigms in language development than response strength through rote memory and repetition.


This realization ought not to lead us to pessimism about the potential usefulness of language teaching. There is strong evidence that the attainment of grammatical rules can be facilitated by proper presentation of speech materials. Observation of children‚s speech during play interaction with an adult (usually the mother) shows that up to half of their imitations of adult „expansionsš of chil–dren‚s speech are grammatically progressive (McNeill, citing data by Slobin, 1966, p. 75). An expansion is an adult‚s „correctionš of the child‚s utterance. The advantage expansions seem to hold over other samples of adult speech may be attributable to the fact that expansions exemplify a locally appropriate expression of a linguistic universal at a time when the child is most ready to notice such a distinction. For example, if the child says Adam cry, and the mother expands this by saying Yes, Adam cried (or Yes, Adam is cryingųdepending on her understanding of what the child intends), the child is thereby given the opportunity to discover the specific manner in which the past tense form (or progressive form) is ex–pressed in English at a time when this distinction is maximally salient to him. The faster development of language in children of middle-class educated parents may be attributable to a tendency on the part of these mothers to expand to a greater extent than other parents. However, this hypothesis needs further investigation.


On the distinction between competence and performance. This distinction has been recognized by all psychological theories, in–cluding behavioristic ones (see Hull‚s, 1943, distinction between SER and SER). A confusion that may arise in language behavior comes from the fact that understanding is usually (if not always) superior to speaking and one might want to equate understanding with competence and speaking with performance. However, this cannot be the case. Both understanding and speaking must be viewed as instances of performance since the non-linguistic factors that affect speaking (e.g. memory span, temporal integration, inatten–tion, etc.) are equally likely to affect understanding. We are thus confronted with the fact that one type of performance, understand–ing, appears to develop before another type of performance, speak–ing. What may be responsible for this?


McNeill (1966) examines the specific claim that every gram–matical feature appears first in understanding and second in speak–ing and is led to the conclusion that the overall parameters of conversion from competence to performance are simpler, easier, and less complex in the case of understanding. In order to ac–count for this fact, he postulates three kinds of memory span of different size or length, in the following order of decreasing magnitude: phonological production, grammatical comprehension, and grammatical production. He postulates these kinds to ac–count for some data by Fraser, Bellugi, and Brown (1963) show–ing that a child can repeat a longer sentence than it can either understand or produce spontaneously, and also that it can under–stand a longer sentence than it can produce spontaneously. The difficulty with McNeill‚s hypothesis is that it equates sentence length with sentence complexity. It would seem that it is easier to understand a long but simple sentence than a short but involved one. It would also appear that one can understand a sentence too long to be repeated. Children show evidence of having understood sentences they cannot (or will not) repeat (see Lenneberg, 1967, p. 316). The problem may be conceptualized in a different way, as illustrated by the following diagram:


Surface Understand-                                                                    

  Surface     Understand-                                                               Surface

    input            ing             Underlying   Cognitive        Speaking      output

   speech     conversion       structure       process       conversion     speech




The asymmetry between the capacity to perform the understanding conversion as opposed to the speaking conversion may be related to the fact that the former requires an analytic approach while the latter demands a synthetic capability. It may be that for humans, analytic processes are easier than synthetic ones. One might say that it is easier to learn the art critic‚s job than the artist‚s.


The acquisition of foreign language skills. Let us raise the question of the specific relevance of our discussion on first lan–guage acquisition for an understanding of second language learning and teaching. What are the parallels to be considered? First, let us look at the argument for the differences. Assuming second language acquisition which takes place after the age of four, one may point out the following: (i) the individual‚s cognitive development is at later and more advanced stage; (ii) he is already in possession of the grammatical structure of a language which may serve to facilitate the acquisition of a second one through transfer; (iii) he already possesses concepts and meanings, the problem now being one of expressing them through a new vocabulary.


The importance of the first argument would seem to depend on the relevance of cognitive development for the acquisition of language. The view outlined in this paper is that the necessary knowledge for language acquisition cannot be gained from experi–ence with the outside world and that language acquisition is de–pendent on an innate endowment which constitutes the knowledge of language universals. Hence, the imputed advantage of advanced age and cognitive development is a dubious proposition. The two other arguments are based on the assumption of the operation of trans–fer in grammatical structure and in reference (vocabulary). What is the evidence in support of this assumption? It is necessary to distinguish between two claims about transfer theory. One refers to the general expectation that new forms of learning do not go on independently of what the organism has learned before. The truth of this statement would seem fairly obvious and need not concern us further. The second and specific claim expresses the expecta–tion that the learning of certain specific and identifiable elements in Task B is facilitated (or hindered) by the previous learning of certain specific and identifiable elements in Task A. The status of this strong claim for any type of complex learning outside the laboratory is unknown. A serious test of it in second language ac–quisition would require the prior analysis of the two languages in a form which would identify the specific elements to be transferred at the grammatical and lexical levels. On a priori grounds we would expect negative transfer as much as positive transfer, as–suming that transfer is relevant to the problem. Carroll (1966b) claims that the Modern Language Aptitude Test designed for Eng–lish speakers predicts success in a foreign language equally well regardless of the particular language involved. This fact is diffi–cult to explain if transfer has any overall relevance to the language acquisition process. Nevertheless, some phonological studies on contrastive analysis reviewed by Carroll (1966a) would seem to indicate the operation of negative transfer effects. He cites Suppes et al. (1962) who „claim to be able to predict quite precisely from mathematical learning theory what [phoneme] discrimination prob–lems will ariseš (Carroll, 1966a, p. 16).


The problem is complicated still further by the possibility that transfer effects might affect performance and competence factors in different ways. Or, the various performance factors themselves (understanding, speaking, reading, writing) may be affected to dif–ferent degrees. The same comment might be made for different levels of performance, that is phonology, vocabulary, and syntax. A further aspect to this problem is the consideration of whether transfer effects are necessary processes or whether the extent of their operation is dependent on the strategy with which the learner attacks the new task. An individual who tries to „fit inš the di–mensions of the new task into the old structure may encounter different problems from the individual who inhibits the interaction of the two tasks, if we assume that the latter strategy is possible. Finally, the fact that it is possible to predict errors of confusion, as in contrastive analysis of phonology, is not necessarily an indi–cation that transfer effects will operate in the acquisition of the new task. Thus, the fact that the [1] and [r] sounds are predict–able areas of confusion for a Japanese learning English says noth–ing about the way in which he will eventually learn the distinction. It is unlikely that this distinction is learned in isolation. Instead, it is more likely that the confusion will disappear when the overall structure of English phonology is internalized.


The above considerations lead to a number of implications for the teaching of a second language which I shall now take up.


1. Teaching the knowledge of structure: since it is clear that knowledge of language at all levels consists of knowing patterns of relations rather than constituent elements, the usefulness of efforts to teach the latter is in doubt. Examples of such efforts include teaching specific sound discriminations, „shapingš phonological production, increasing vocabulary through association of translation equivalents, and practicing specific morphological and inflectional examples. Pointing to individuals who successfully acquired a for–eign language in a course using these methods has no force of argument, for it is quite possible that their success occurred de–spite these methods rather than because of them.


2. Teaching successful strategies of acquisition: Carroll (1962) has isolated a number of factors which are predictive of success in a foreign language. These factors may offer clues about the strategies that a successful learner uses with the possibility that such strategies may be taught to those who normally make no use of them. One of the abilities Carroll has identified deals with verbalization of grammatical relations in sentences. The success–ful foreign language learner is apparently capable of the following task: given a word italicized in one sentence (e.g. „The man went into the house.š) he can identify that word in another sentence which has the same grammatical function (e.g. picking one of the italicized words of the following sentence: „The church next to the bowling alley will be built in a new location next year.š). We know of course that the individual is capable of recognizing the grammatical relations in the second sentence (otherwise he could not give it a semantic interpretation), so the ability must be one of explicit verbalization of implicitly known rules and relations.


5Verbalizing a grammatical relation can take two forms; one refers to the type of state–ment that can he found in a grammar book that includes technical terms (relative clause, head noun, modifier, predicate phrase, etc); the second refers to a statement of equivalence or relation expressed in any convenient way using whatever terms are available to the individual, whether technically correct or not..


The teaching of such verbalizations therefore ought to facilitate foreign language acquisition.


Another variable identified by Carroll „is the ability to őcode‚ auditory phonetic material in such a way that this material can be recognized, identified and remembered over something longer than a few secondsš (1962, p. 128). We do not know at present the specific strategy that may be employed in facilitating this kind of coding. Whatever the strategy may be, it seems unlikely that the superior person in this task derives his advantage from a special innate capacity. In the first place, the strategy is not related to the ability to perceive phonetic distinctions, and second, given the biological foundations of language capacity (see Lenneberg, 1967), we would not expect innate differences in the general capacity of coding phonological material.


Contrastive analysis of grammatical structure would not seem to offer particular advantages beyond those provided by verbaliza–tion of grammatical relations and by attention to a grammatical distinction at a time of saliency (see the effects of expansion, dis–cussed above). The expectation that the advantage of contrastive analysis lies in making the contrast per se is based on an assump–tion of transfer for which evidence is lacking. At any rate, the pointing up of the contrast may just as well lead to negative trans–fer by facilitating the assimilation (or „fitting inš) strategy. I know of no evidence that emphasizing distinctions of incompatible responses, especially those that are automatized, leads to a de–crease in incompatibility.


3. Teaching habit integration and automaticity: temporal inte–gration of phonological skills, both of understanding and production, is a problem independent of the knowledge of the phonological struc–ture and transformations of a language. It would seem likely that sensory and motor integrations of this type can be automatized through practice and repetition. The more interesting problem would relate to the time at which automaticity practice is likely to be valuable and to the form it is to take. Reading represents a different aspect of phonological production skill than speaking, as is well known, and practice in reading does not represent a suffi–cient or necessary condition for achieving automaticity of phono–logical production in speaking.


The factors that enter into the problem of automatizing gram–matical habits are not very clear. Tests of speech comprehension under conditions of noise (see for example Spolsky et al., 1966) seem to be quite sensitive to the level of automaticity and degree

of integration achieved by a foreign language speaker. They show that the problem of integration goes deeper than high proficiency in understanding and speaking demonstrated under ordinary condi–tions. At the moment we do not have available a psychological theory of sentence understanding or production. The relevance to this problem of recent experiments on latency of various gram–matical manipulations still remains to be shown. Many language teachers seem to be convinced that pattern drills serve to automatize grammatical habits. However, it is difficult to justify this expectation on theoretical grounds. I have already argued that the semantic interpretation of a sentence cannot be viewed as a process of sequential analysis of categories of words. Thus, pattern drills, at best, can serve only to automatize phonological production skills, and for this latter purpose, other methods may prove equally, if not more, effective. At any rate, if the pattern drill argument is taken literally, namely that the structure is automatized through practice of the specific pattern that is being repeated, then the learner could never achieve automatized speech. This consequence must follow since in ordinary speech we use an infinite variety of patterns, and, therefore, since the second language learner could not possibly be drilled on an infinite variety of patterns, he could never develop automatized speech. Hence pattern drill cannot pos–sibly do what it is supposed to do.


From a theoretical point of view, the development of gram–matical competence should be facilitated by getting the learner to perform a set of transformations on families of sentences (e.g. I cannot pay my rent because I am broke; If I weren‚t broke I could pay my rent; Given the fact that I have no money, I cannot pay my rent; How do you think I could possibly pay my rent if I am broke; Since I am broke, the rent cannot be paid; To pay the rent is im–possible given fact that I have no money; etc.).G The distinc–tion between this exercise, which we may refer to as perhaps a „transformation exercise,š and „pattern drillš is that the first deals with the competence involved in deep structure while the second focuses on surface structure. As Rutherford7 has shown in his paper read earlier at this Convention, surface structure similarities are completely unenlightening as to the semantic in–terpretation of sentences.


6One of the films shown at the TESOL Convention had a demonstration of just this idea. It was made by the Ontario Citizenship Branch. The instructor, Ray Santon, referred to this technique as „structure drillš (in opposition to „pattern drillš).


7"Deep and Surface Structure and the Language Drill,š a paper delivered at the TESOL Convention by William Rutherford of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The notion of transformation exercises is equally applicable to phonology and vocabulary. DeCamp has given us some examples of practice exercises in phonological transformations in his paper read earlier at this Convention. Exercises in vocabulary trans–formations are more difficult to specify at this stage of our knowl–edge, but from our earlier discussion of meaning we can perhaps anticipate giving the student a task of this kind: „Change the fol–lowing list of words using the sex transformation: boy, father, bull, sunšųwhich might yield: „girl, mother, cow, moon.š Other examples might include asking the student to give opposites, simi–lars, subordinates, super ordinates, and so on, in a restricted word-association task. Semantic relations of this kind may be responsi–ble for the well-known psychological fact that in memory words are organized in clusters (see, for example, Deese, 1965).


4. On semi-grammatical sentences: the fluent speech of most native speakers does not consist totally (or even in the majority of instances) of well-formed sentences. One would imagine that the imposition of a requirement to utter exclusively well-formed sentences would seriously hinder the fluency of most native speak–ers. The logical implication of this observation would be that no language teacher should ever force his pupils to use only well-formed sentences in practice conversation whether it be in the classroom, laboratory or outside. This conclusion is not as odd as it might seem at first sight. After all, children seem to ac–quire the competence to produce well-formed sentences despite the semi-grammaticality of the adult speech to which they are contin–ually exposed. It is important to note that semi-grammaticality does not mean randomness. The reason that in most instances we are able to give a semantic interpretation to semi-grammatical sentences lies in the fact that we have the capacity to relate these semi-sentences to their well-formed equivalents. There must therefore exist lawful transformations between semi-sentences and well-formed ones. We are able to understand the speech of chil–dren for the same reason: the grammar of their utterances is generic of the later grammar of well-formed sentences. If it were not so, we would not be able to expand (hence, understand) their utterances.


An important question poses itself at this juncture: should second language teaching take specific account of the developmental stages that are likely to mark the acquisition of a language? By „specific accountš we mean at least the following two propositions:


      8The Current Discrepancy between Theoretical and Applied Linguisticsš a paper deliv–ered at the TESOL Convention by David DeCamp of the University of Texas.


First, to recognize and allow the production of semi-sentences on the part of the learner; and second, to expose the learner of utter–ances which are grammatically progressive at each stage but which fall short of having the full complexity of well-formed sentences. The first proposition may already be the policy in some modern and intensive audio-lingual methods which encourage active speech production „at any costš (sic). The second proposition is sure to be resisted by most teachers; yet the fact of the matter is that all „naturalš language acquisition situations expose the learner to semi grammatical sentences more often than not. We do not know whether these are facilitative or retarding situations. Some par–ents tend to talk to their children by attempting to imitate their speech and it is sometimes said that this kind of „baby talkš re–tards acquisition. The evidence on this point is simply lacking. It may be, of course, that the fastest method of acquiring a second language need not be one that replicates the conditions existing under „naturalš language acquisition. In fact various claims for highly intensive language courses followed by individuals with high foreign language aptitude put the time requirement for the acquisi–tion of a foreign language at between 250 and 500 hours of study (Carroll, 1966a, b). Compare this figure with a minimum estimate of 3,000 hours for first language acquisition.9 Of course, the two situations are not directly comparable and the level of competence achieved may be different (especially by measures of automaticity and background noise, see Spolsky, et al., 1966); nevertheless, the comparison highlights the fact that the „naturalš rate of language acquisition process can be greatly accelerated. It is important to note that although the language acquisition capacity per se must be viewed as an innate capability shared by all members of the spe–cies, the rate at which language is acquired, especially a second language, and the effectiveness with which language is used as a communicative process are performance factors that are affected by individual differences within the species (variations in general intelligence, in experiences, in physical health, in motivation, etc.). It is here that the concept of teaching may assume its full im–portance.




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Miller, G. A. „Some Preliminaries to Psycholinguistics,,, American Psy–chologist, 20 (1965), 15ų20.


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