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adventures in second language acquisition – an intro to the usage-based hypothesis of language learning

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don't you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

don’t you just hate it when slide presentations on grammar contain grammar errors

So now I’m going to describe and reflect on a rather more interesting video by two academics and teachers, Marjo Mitsutomi, a specialist in SLA, and Minna Kirjavainen, who researches first language acquisition. They’re working in the teaching of English in Osaka, and they’re describing the uni course they’ve just set up there. Kirjavainen, the first speaker, describes her research as being on ‘the acquisition of syntax and morphology in monolingual, typically developing children, from about the ages two to six’. So now for some definitions. How does syntax differ from grammar, and what is morphology? A rough answer is that a grammar involves everything about how a language works, which includes syntax, which is essentially about how words are ordered in sentences. Morphology is often described as the corollary of syntax. Grammar can be divided into syntax, the external economy of words (i.e. in sentences), and morphology, the internal economy of words (i.e. from morphemes). For example, ‘robbed’ contains the verb ‘rob’ plus the unit of meaning ‘-ed’, or ‘-bed’, which means ‘in the past’. But presumably ‘went’ is made up of two morphemes, ‘go’ and ‘in the past’, both of which are in a sense hidden in the word?

Kirjavainen describes herself as coming from the ‘usage-based, constructivist view-point’, and says

‘this means that I don’t assume there’s innate syntactic components in the child’s mind like many first language and second language acquisition researchers do. Instead, the usage-based viewpoint assumes that language exposure and general cognitive processes result in language acquisition in children.’

A slide accompanying this anouncement indicated that Michael Tomasello is one of the major developers of this approach. So I’ll need to familiarise myself with Tomasello’s work, especially as I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s The language instinct, which appears to be an attempt to popularise Chomsky’s universal grammar theories. Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is something innate about grammar, though just what it is is hard to capture.

Kirjavainen is of the view that a child’s general cognitive processes (e.g. pattern finding, analogy-making and categorisation) together with exposure to language, lead to competent language acquisition. She argues that these processes are effective for non-linguistic tasks, so the same mechanisms are sufficient for decoding the language they hear and want to use. She divides her inquiry into first language acquisition into three questions:

  1. how do children learn to speak their native language?
  2. what kind of things do children pay attention to when they learn their native language?
  3. how do caregivers talk to children? What effect does it have on children’s language development?

Firstly, children pay a lot of attention to language input, and apparently research is starting to show that it’s not just lexical items but grammatical structures that children mirror from caregivers. The most frequently used grammatical structures of caregivers are the ones used earliest by children, and they then become the most used by children. So the ambient language heavily influences the child’s language development. The constructivists also argue that syntactic constructions are built on the language that children already know. So they chunk things together and try them out for effective communication with those around them, they absorb responses and corrections and adjust their language accordingly. Examples are ‘Mummy’, ‘I want mummy’, ‘Mummy do it’ ‘I want mummy do it’, ‘I want mummy to do it’.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me prima facie. Mitsotomi, who next takes up the talk, is of Finnish background like Kirjavainen, but with a more pronounced accent, having learned English later in life. She begins by mentioning the critical period hypothesis for SLA, which might be the subject of a future post. Her concern is in how SLA is affected not only by the towering presence of the learner’s L1, but by many other life experiences. So given these influences and possible constraints how do we create a space and an atmosphere conducive to SLA? Also, what does SLA mean to the identity of learners, and how is it that some acquire an L2 more quickly and effectively than others?

Kirjavainen then continues by introducing what might be seen as the obstacles to a collaboration between first and second language theorists. First, some linguists argue that there are inherent differences between first and second language learning. She lists three (out of many) common assumptions about these differences:

  1. all (typically developing) children learn to speak their L1 natively, whereas most people (with normal cognitive skills) don’t learn their L2 to a native-like standard
  2. children learn their L1 very quickly whereas it takes L2 learners years to master their target language
  3. L1 learners make few errors in comparison to L2 learners, i.e. children find it easier to learn the grammatical rules of their language, whereas L2 learners find it difficult to learn these rules

Kirjavainen questions the first assumption, first on the basis of vocabulary – a child’s L1 vocab will depend on her socio-economic background, the level of education, experience and language competence of those she’s learning from and other such factors. These factors also affect syntax, and she described a study of native speakers’ knowledge of and proficiency in the passive construction. The study compared the proficiency of university teaching staff (academics) with non-teaching staff. They were tested on their understanding of active and passive sentences based on pictures, a fairly easy test, and it was found that while both teaching and non-teaching staff had full understanding of the active constructions, only the academics had full understanding of the passive construction. The non-teaching staff were significantly below full understanding. The general point here is that not all native speakers know all the grammatical rules of their L1, and that it depends more on regular usage than is sometimes admitted.

Next Kirjavainen gets stuck into the claim that children learn their native language quickly. She points out that an average 5 year old is quite a competent L1 user, but far from having adult proficiency. She then does a breakdown of how many hours a day children have spent, up to the age of five, exposed to and using the L1. That’s 5 years@6-14 hours a day of exposure, and about 3.5 years@8-14 hours a day in using the language. Conclusion: it takes children years to reach a relatively high level of L1 proficiency.

All of this strikes me as really thought-provoking stuff, and some of the thoughts provoked in me are memories of my callow youth – for example an occasion when as a 15 year-old or so I found myself at a party full of uni students types, all a few years my senior, and was awed by their vocabulary and language proficiency, and fearful that I’d get roped into conversation and be mocked for my verbal incompetence. So, again, I’m finding Kirjavainen’s arguments persuasive here at first blush.

The third assumption is more or less demolished by Kirjavainen as she cites research by herself and others to show that children make lots of errors, especially between the ages of 18 months and 4 years – these include pronoun errors, omission of infinitival to, agreement errors, subject omissions and verb inflection errors. Even at five and upwards there are mistakes with past tense, relative clauses and complement clause constructions. A complement clause? I’ve only just heard of them, but let me explain.

Here are two examples of complement clauses, taken from Kidd et al, 2007.

(1)  That Rufus was late angered his boss.

(2)  Rufus could see that he had angered his boss.

The complement clauses are underlined. The first here functions as the subject of an ‘argument’ sentence, the second as the object. The second sentence is described as an unmarked case, in which the complementiser that is optional and generally not used in naturalistic speech. There are many other forms of complement clause construction, so I won’t get bogged down by exploring them here.

So this has been an enlightening post for me, and an enlightening view of a new (to me) usage-based constructivist view of language acquisition. Next time I’ll report on the latter part of this talk, which will focus more on the implications for SLA.

just a thought to end with

just a thought to end with

Written by stewart henderson

January 30, 2017 at 3:25 pm

Did Freud ever pass his orals?

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Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn't strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn’t strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.

These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.

So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?

It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.

Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.

Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.

In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:

What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.

However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.

Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for.  This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.

I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.

I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.

It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm