Huebner

HUEBNER?:  I think that the, um, a--as I perceive it, the field really, um, began, um, with the universe contrastive analysis and--and, um, the, um, the arguments against cast--contrastive  analysis and why it didn’t work, um, probably the defining moment was--was, um, Larry Solenkas’ (ph) 1972 article on interlanguage that, uh, recognized that children or second language learners, um, use the second language in a way that is, um, consistent and well governed.  Um, since then there’ve been a number of--of approaches to doing second language acquisition and, um, hopefully, the moves from one approach to another are viewed as progress, um, but, uh, the issues I think that exist today for us are, um, numerous.  One is, um, what role, um, our innate language capacity has--uh, plays in language acquisition and I think that most linguists recognize the fact that we do have an innate capacity for language that is unique to, um, our species.  And--um, and that plays a significant role in first language acquisition.  Now the question is ‘What role does that play in second language acquisition?’  And the answer to that question might be quite different depending on whether we are talking about children who are learning a second language or adults who are learning a second language.  Um, so that’s one major issue that is of great theoretical importance.  Um, another issue is ‘What role do other cognitive processes play in, um, acquiring second language?’  Cognitive processes that are, um, that are common to other, uh, cognitive functions that we engage in and other learning that we do.  Um, so--so there is a kind of, um, uh, tension between these two explanations of how language is acquired internally and then there are external factors that affect second language acquisition that are also important and that need to be explored.  Um, for example, what is the role of input and interaction in second language acquisition?  It seems that input and interaction are absolutely crucial and not just any old input, you can’t learn a second language by watching Japanese television, for example, but input that is geared toward, um, the level that we are currently at so that we can understand and begin to untangle this mystery that is language.  Um, so that’s an important, um, issue.  What is the role of input?  What kind of input best facilitates second language acquisition?  And how do, um, teachers and other people involved in--um, facilitating  language acquisition, um, provide the best input? Um, another, um, important issue, I think, is the role of other, um, uh, individual factors.  Uh, what is the role of age in second language acquisition?  It seems as if--uh, and we certainly have a myth in--in the United States, at least, that the younger you begin to learn a second language, uh, uh, the better in terms of, um, proficiency.  And that’s true to some extent, but it’s not, um, i--it’s not completely true, there’s still hope for people like me.  Um, we can--adults seem to be able to learn a second language, um, faster in the beginning stages because we have more, um, uh, medicognitive, um, abilities that we can bring to bare in that whole process.  Um, but it’s true that kids seem to, given equal amounts of time, end up being a lot better off than we are, we’re--we end up being a lot slower.  We’re--we’re fast at the take-off and then we, um, we slow down, they pass us by.  So, that’s another issue, what is the role of age?  And--and personality factors and other individual differences.  What is--what does it mean--how outgoing does one have to be to maximize language acquisition?  And how, um, confident does one have to be?  Um, these factors clearly have some effect on second language acquisition, but just what effect and what, um, are the optimal, um, degrees of variation here is something that we, um, need to explore.  Um, I think another issue is, um, uh, the kind of, um, sociocultural constraints on language acquisition.  So, institutional constraints is what I’m talking about.  How do institutions,  um, maximize language acquisition or how do institutions, in fact, um, unintentionally, perhaps, but still, um, impede language acquisition through, um, various language policies or policies that affect, uh, the language learning process.  So, um, that’s a--that’s yet another issue.  And then, um, an issue that I’m particularly interested in is,  um, how does language change take place in the process of acquisition?  As a linguist one is interested in this because, um, we know that language is the kind of phenomenon that is always changing and, uh, whether we are talking about the language that you and I speak to our, um, friends and relatives, or, um, the language in--in the process of being acquired of a child or the language in the process of being acquired as a second language, um, or as language changes over--over decades and decades.  So, we know that language is in a constant state of change and to what extent does that language change in the di--individual as--as a developmental process and reflect, um, or mirror the kind of language change that takes--takes place, um, across language groups and um, across years and generations.  Um, that’s an issue that is particularly interesting to linguists like myself who are interested in variation and, um--and other, uh, broader issues in the field of language.

Contrastive analysis is a way of, um, looking at languages in an attempt to, um, predict, actually, the kinds of problems that language learners will have.  It comes from--uh, to, um, theoretical basis.  First of all it comes from, uh, structural linguistics of the kind that was very popular, uh, in the ‘40’s and 50’s in the United States and also from behaviorist psychology.  So, structuralist,  uh,  linguistics assumed that language consisted of, um, patterns of various, um, kinds at various levels of organization from phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and, um, that languages were infinitely variable in terms of the ways that they could put various elements of language together.  Um, behaviorist, um, learning theories suggested that learning was primarily a matter of habit formation and so the way that you acquire a habit is to practice it over and over and over again until such time as you don’t have to think about it anymore and it becomes automatic.  And, um, associated with that aspect of behaviorist learning theory is the idea that, um, as you acquire a new habit, old habits can get in the way and interfere.  And so, um, given these two theoretical basis, um, the idea was that learning language was a matter of acquiring new habits and that your old habits would interfere with the acquisition of new habits.  So that if one wanted to facilitate language learning all one needed to do would be to compare the structures in the target language, um, with the structures in your first language and where they are the same, it was assumed that these things would be easy to learn, where they are different these things would be assumed to be difficult to learn.  And this was a theory, contrastive analysis, which was meant to be predictive.  Um, the problem was that this fell apart at both--at the theoretical level and at the practical level.  At the theoretical level, um, the work by, um, Norm Tounsky (ph) in particular, and by people who followed him, suggested that language was more than simply a matter of patterns.  Um, on--one of his favorite examples, one of his most famous examples is, um, the following pattern in English:  Jan is easy to please, uh, or Jan is eager to please, or, in this case, both sentences have exactly the same pattern of a subject and a verb to be and an adjective and an infinitive phrase to please that in one case, uh, Jan is the subject of eager and the object of easy and so, um, at some other level of language organization the two sentences are very different from each other and so, um, the problem is we can’t just look at surface patterns in order to, um, s--find out how language works.  Um, also Tounsky pointed out that language learning couldn’t possibly be a matter of habit formation because children learn language without hearing all of the various sentences that they produce and, in fact, they produce sentences that are ungrammatical and, um, reflect their ongoing language development and language rule formation processes.  So, it was arguments that--like these that really, um, uh, kind of wiped out--eradicated the--the linguistic base for contrastive analysis.  Um, and then, of course, um, behaviorist learning theory, um, gave way to more cognitive kinds of explanations of how we go about learning things and, um, that a lot of what we had assumed or that psychologist behavior--psychologists had assumed were learned through habit formation, turned out to be not at all that, um, and that learners are much more active participants in their learning than behaviorism would suggest.  So, at the--so, at the theoretical level both the linguistic foundations and the psychological foundations of contrastive analysis eroded.  Um, at the practical level, because this was meant to be, um, a, uh, an explanatory theory, uh, of  a theory that would predict learners’ errors and mistakes in areas of difficulty it was very easy to test.  And while those tests sometimes, um, supported the predictions of the contrastive analysis hypothesis, um, in many, many cases they didn’t.  And so, um, contrastive analysis then as an approach to looking at language learning and ways of facilitating language learning, um, gave way to more cognitive, um, approaches and more interactive approaches to language learning.

Um, because I did want to make also a point about, uh, that, you know, even though, um, ev--even though, uh, contrastive analysis as a--as a basic way of looking at second language acquisition, uh, has been discredited, it’s clear that the native language still plays an important role in second language acquisition and we can’t ignore that.  And so, um, sometimes it’s very useful to do a contrastive analysis of a student’s target language and their first language, in fact, the whole ebonics controversy that happened in the Bay area here a few years ago was based on this.  Um, what people were proposing was that, um, was that, um, African-American English be looked at and studied by students who speak it so that they could see the ways in which it differed from standard English, not that they should learn it, they already knew it, but the idea was that by becoming more cognitively aware of the, um, the structure of the language as opposed to the structure of the language they were learning, um, they would be able better to learn the second language or the second dialect, in this case.  And so I think contrastive analysis for--for, um, learning a second language or learning a foreign language is still, uh, equally valuable.  You want to be able to look at your own language to be able to analyze it, to pick it apart, see how it works and see how that differs from the language that you are in the process of learning.  And--and so for that reason, contrastive analysis is still a very valuable tool.  It’s not an explanatory tool, um, in--in the sense that it explains how language takes place, but it is, um, it is a--a tool that is valuable just the same.

Um,  obviously, uh, learners make errors, right?  And, um, uh, the distinction has been made in the literature between what’s an error and what’s a mistake.  And, um, we all make these kinds of mistakes when we’re speaking.  We can’t think of a word, we start a sentence and we decide we want to reformulate it in a different way, um, and we--uh, so we don’t always speak in perfectly grammatical sentences.  Sometimes a--a morphing escapes us or we--we mess up our subject verb agreement if the subject is too far away from the verb.  Native speakers do this.  Um, and these are--these are mistakes that are the result of things like memory limitations and short-term memory limitations or um, uh, physical things like the urge to sneeze, but, um, when we talk about errors in second language acquisition we’re talking about things that are not target-like and, uh, productions that are not target-like whether they are spoken, um, language or whether it involves written language too.  That was a mistake.  Um, and, uh, these errors really reflect, um, more systematic, um, uses of language than we had originally believed.  Um, they really are reflections of hypothesis that students are, um, formulating about how the language works and testing out so that, um...

Let me give you an example of how learners, um, test forms in the development  of their, um, the second language acquisition.  Um, one example might be from my own work with a, um, learner of English, uh, an adult learner of English who’s first language was Mong, a hill tribe language of Southeast Asia.  And he was learning English without any formal instruction.  Well, when, uh, if you were to listen to him speak in the early stages of second language acquisition, one of the things that would strike you about his speech was that in addition to not having any, um, grammatical morphology like penses (ph), um, and, uh, aspect and all of these other technicalities of English that, uh, that we take for granted as native speakers, um, he was--his speech was also marked with lots and lots of occasions of  ‘iss’ or ‘issa,’ um, so that within an hour’s conversation he might use, um, 150 of these, one that’s every 30 seconds or 20 seconds he would be using this form ‘iss’ or ‘issa’ in a way that was very peculiar.  For example, when I would ask him a question like, uh, as he was describing his life in the refugee camps in Thailand, I said ‘Well, how many--’ and he was describing how he had to cook food for everybody in the camp and I said, ‘Well, how many people were eating?’  And he would answer something like, ‘People were eating issa 5000.’  And, um, now this is clearly not an English utterance and it is also, um, an utterance which derives all of its lexicon from English, however, but it’s strange.  We wouldn’t say that, we would say ‘Five thousand people were eating,’ not ‘People were eating issa 5000.’  But what he was doing was organizing his, um, his--his utterance in terms of what was given information and then what was new information and he was separating the given information from the new information with this form ‘issa.’  So that ‘issa’ became what in linguistics is sometimes called a ‘focus marker.’  We have lots of them, uh, in languages of the world and we can find them even in English.  I was just reading an article this morning where, um, like was analyzed as a focus marker in like he says, then like, you know the way that valley girls use like a lot.  So, um, he was using this in a very systematic way, a very rule-governed way and once you learn the system, in a very predictable way.  It was not English-like, he was--it was what would be called a mistake or an error, but, um, it was the reflection of a hypothesis about how English worked.  So, that’s one example of--of, um, learners forming hypothesis about how lang--how language is acquired. 

Well, a sociolinguistic approach to second language learning, um, can take many forms, I think, and I’d rather, um, think of it in terms of sociolinguistic approaches to second language acquisition.  Dennis Preston from, um, Michigan State University has a wonderful, uh, book on sociolinguistics and second language acquisition that I`d recommend to anybody who’s interested, but, um, the sociolinguistics is the study of language as it relates to the social context in which language is used and so there are many, many different ways to do that in--in sociolinguistics and certain, um, names are often associated with different kinds of approaches. For example, Dale Hines, um, is a--uh, I think he would not mind being called a sociolinguist, although he would probably be pre--would prefer to be called a--an ethnographer, but I think of him as a sociolinguist and he does a kind of ethnography of language in which he looks at the larger, um, the larger social structure and what language is used for, what kinds of genres are used in different kinds of situations and what we need to know about those situations and about language.  Um, another approach to sociolinguistics is one developed by Bill Labave (ph), um, who often calls himself a quantitative sociolinguist and so he looks at very minute details of language and sees how they vary in different context and--and, um, the ki--and how they change over time.  Um, so--so a lot of his work has been done with, um, dialects of English.  Um, and then a third kind of approach to sociolinguistics, um, might be the  kind of work that Joshua Fishman does and I don’t think Joshua Fishman would like to be called a sociolinguist, but I will do that anyway.  Um, and, uh, he does what he calls, um, the sociology of language and, um, in this kind of approach, uh, he is concerned with the relationship betw--uh, between language on the one hand, language maintenance, language shift, uh, phenomenon like these, and, um, and the demographics of a given, uh, society on the other.  And so one can look at--one can look at second language acquisition from any of these perspectives, um, and there’re probably other perspectives that I’m not mentioning.  I--one that comes to mind, um, is, um, another, uh, area that is developed--that was developed by, um, sociologists, um, who call themselves ethnomethodologists and look at the, um, the minutia of  turn-taking behavior in conversations and certainly, um, one can, uh, approach second language acquisition from that perspective and I think that would also be called sociolinguistic--a sociolinguistic approach to second language acquisition.  Um, so there--there are a number of different approaches to second language acquisition that can be called sociolinguistic.  Um, I think the important thing is that, um, in a sociolinguistic approach to second language acquisition you are looking not just at the acquisition of particular morphings or phonings or, uh, syntactic structures, but you’re looking at how those forms are used in a particular society and the importance of--of them for second language learning.

Let me give you an example of a, uh--of an insight in second language acquisition that has come from, um, the kind of work that Bill Labave has done in sociolinguistics, namely the study of variation in, um--in language use.  Um, it’s often been observed by teachers that they can sit in front of a classroom or preferably stand in front of a classroom and teach pronunciation for an hour at a time until students have it absolutely native-like, but then as soon as the bell rings and the kids go out onto the playground, of course, um, the lesson is gone.  And, um, this is, uh, this might be an example of the kind of, um, variation that was first, um, pioneered by, um, Bill Labave and other quantitative sociolinguists.  Um, what’s happening here is that when children are paying particular attention to the forms that they’re producing, they can do what you want them to do and when their attention shifts from the form and the production of that form to a message that they want to get across, then, um, they lose it.  And, uh,  so, uh, what we’ve found in second language acquisition that it is that attention to task becomes important in terms of how “native like” or target-like a--a learner is going  to sound.  If they’re focusing on the form, then the likelihood of their producing it in a way that they perceive to be target-like will be much greater than if they are per--focusing on the message.  So, I think an implication for teachers is that one can expect with their focusing on form that students will be more target-like and if you’re focusing on a message, students will not be quite as target-like and you might want to keep those two things separate and keep that in mind.

Over the past few years it has become, uh, more apparent to many, um, in the field of linguistics and applied linguistics and second language acquisition that, um, language is more than what we, um, traditionally, um, thought it was, namely phonetics phonology, morphology and syntax, and that, um, there is--there are other layers of organization to this onion that we can peel back, uh, and take a look at and that, um, can contribute to our understanding of how languages are acquired and for, um, second language learners to their understanding of how language is used and, um, these are usually thought of in terms of semantics, pragmatics, and discourse.  So, um, at a semantic level, for example, we can, by studying, um, semantics and how language is organized and--or how the meaning of language is organized we can understand a little bit better, um, how language is acquired.  I’m thinking in particular of work by people like, um, Bardovi Howlig (ph) at Indiana who, um, looks at, um, the acquisition of tense and aspect in English.  Now, tense and aspect in English are two very, very central, um, uh, features of English, they’re distinctive features of English, they’re--they’re features of English that are used in ways that, um, not other languages do and at the same time they’re not particularly transparent features of language, they’re very opaque so that it’s one of the most difficult things for, um, lang--for language learners to do is to unpat how the verb system of English works.  And yet, if you’re going to be, um, a successful communicator and, um, use English, um, in a professional sense then you, um--then you  have to be able to do that.  And, um, her work has shown us that language learners, um, acquire, um, means for marking tense and aspect, um, on verbs in, um in different ways, um, depending on the nature of the verb, um, whether it’s a stated verb or an active verb, uh, nonstated verb, for example.  Um, so, uh, this--by looking at the semantics of second language acquisition, um, we can understand a little bit more, um, the challenges that, uh, second language learners are faced with and the ways that they go about meeting those challenges.  Um, the same thing can be true, um--said for, um, the pragmatics and the discourse aspects of language and, um, uh, at the discourse level, for example, how one puts, um, a narrative together, um, just, um, to take one genre, um, differs from culture to culture, um, but, throughout all cultures, narratives are a really important, um, genre and, uh--and they do have, uh, some commonalities.  So, um, by looking at, um, narratives and narrative structure and particularly narrative structures in, uh, the target language, in this case English I assume, we, um, know a little bit more about what students need to acquire, um, and there is a--there’s a--there’s a real close relationship between, um, things like, um, discourse structures and the forms that we use within them.  Um, that unless we look at discourse structures we’re not aware of, I’m thinking in particular about an article, um, written many years ago by Chuck Fillmore, uh, on dychses (ph) and, um, when I first read that article it was a real eye-opener to me because, um, we all know that, you know, this means something close to us and that means something far away and, um, if you studied language a little bit--other languages, languages other than English then you know that other languages have different ways of doing that, some as in English have just a--a--a--a distant and a proximal form, but some languages have three forms and some languages, uh, that have three forms have one form for right here close to the speaker and another form for some middle distance away from the speaker and the third form for very far away or out of sight.  Whereas other languages that have three forms might have one that’s as close to the speaker and another one for very far away, but that middle form is not a middle distance away, but close to the hearer.   And so, um, different languages use these forms in different way.  And what I learned about, um, English from this article by Fillmore when I read it was, uh, something I guess I’d known all along, but never really, um, thought much about and that is how these forms are used in discourse and in a--in a continuing text.  So, that we use this to refer to something that is coming up, a kind of like cataphoric reference, you know, and this is what I mean and you can expect that I’m going to explain what I mean, uh, whereas we use that to refer back to something we’ve already talked about and that’s what I meant so--and that refers back and we do this quite consistently which, um, unless you look at discourse and discourse structures, you miss out on a generalization about how these tactic forms are used.  So, that’s--that’s my example of how dychses can help us understand, um, uh--or excuse me, how--how discoursing can help us understand how, um, forms of language are used.

I think there’re two things that, um, I would like to see, um, language teachers know more about, there are lots of things that I think language teachers need to know about and I think, um, there’s--that for the most part, um, they’re doing a pretty good job of learning them, but there’re a couple of things that I think are sometimes overlooked.  And one is a really good understanding of how language works, how English works.  And in order to really understand how English works, um, this requires looking at semantics and pragmatics and discourse levels as well.  And another is,  um, to have a really clear understanding about the role of English and English teaching in the larger context of society. And, um, uh--and especially in relationship to the role of the language that a child brings with him or her to school and the value of that language that a child brings with him or her to school and the importance of the development of that language and its place in society so that, um, we are not, um--we are not teaching English at the expense of other languages, but we are teaching English as a supplement to other languages and as a way for, um, increasing, um, our students’, um, linguistic knowledge all the way around.