Noisy Acquisition: is Second Language Teaching a Lost Cause? | Humanities & Social Sciences

Noisy Acquisition: is Second Language Teaching a Lost Cause?

Tuesday Seminar
Paroma Sanyal
Date and Time: 
Tue, 02/02/2016 - 12:00am
02:57 PM to 04:27 PM
HSS Committee Room (MS 610)


Second Language Acquisition is a debatable term. While most linguists focus on understanding language acquisition or the mental mechanism that enables every human child to acquire language, it is mostly language teachers who bother with the adults attempting the feat. Nomenclature aside, do both contexts utilize the same mental mechanism? If so, they do generate widely differing results.

In contrast to child language acquisition, that results in native command and grammaticality judgments, adult language acquisition is a labored attempt at approximation. For almost half a century this difference has been attributed to the CPH (Critical Period Hypothesis) that etches out the age beyond which language acquisition becomes a struggle. Over the years opinions have varied about the reasons for this difference. Vygotsky (1978) analyzes this phenomenon by observing that adults tend to be analytical with a new language, while children tend to be holistic. Unlike him, Erham (1996) attributes the differences to the developmental changes in the human brain that result in a loss of plasticity. According to him the innate biological structures contributing to first language acquisition, circa Chomsky (1981), are no longer active post puberty.

A third model of language acquisition, popular among theoretical linguists is called the Subset Principle. Originally proposed by Berwick (1985), it has been extensively used by Cambridge linguist Ian Roberts and his associates. It simply says that during acquisition, the learner computes the most restricted set of possibilities compatible with the observed patterns of the input language. The catch is, when an adult observes a language, it is invariably through the frame of her existing language(s). Thus, without analyzing this frame no language teacher would have a clue about the properties of the new language that would lie outside the radar of her adult learner students.

My paper is an attempt at thinking through the English language teaching and learning process in India through these lenses.


Paroma Sanyal is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.