Review of Research on Second Language Learning
by Melissa Smith, M.A.
Approaches to second language education
In 1987, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported
“only three percent of American high school graduates and only five percent of our
college graduates reach a meaningful proficiency in a second language—and many of
these students come from bilingual homes” (Crawford, 1995, p. 117). Anyone who has
tried to learn a second language knows that it is not easy, nor is it a rapid process.
Approaches to the instruction of second languages have endured many changes through
the years in search of effective methodologies.
One of the earliest theoretical foundations of language acquisition was behaviorist
in nature. “B.F. Skinner, in his book Verbal Bahavior (1957), argued that all learning is a
process of habit formation in which a stimulus creates a response and is reinforced to
become a habit…good results could be achieved by intensive drills and repetition” (qtd.
in Baker, 2001, p. 117). This theory gave rise to the audiolingual approach to language
learning, which relied heavily on repetition and grammar drills, as well as memorization
and mimicry of scripted dialogues serving as the basis of instruction and providing the
majority of opportunity for “practice” using the target language. According to Crawford
(1995), “Evaluations have shown that audiolingual students…seldom reach more than a
novice level of proficiency” in the second language (p. 120). Met (1988) claimed,
“instead of fluent speakers, the audio-lingual method was producing „parrots‟ who could mimic phrases in a foreign language but who had neither receptive nor productive foreign
language skills” (Thompson, et al., p. 27). ? Melissa Smith, 2002
In 1965, Chomsky hypothesized that all people are born with a cognitive
readiness to acquire language. As infants take in language, they naturally create rules
that conform with the syntax of the language being modeled. This mentalist theory of
language acquisition led to a shift in the approach to second language instruction. A
teacher‟s role became viewed primarily as one that would activate an inborn “language
acquisition device” by providing input appropriate to the learner‟s level of second
language development. Under this philosophy, teachers, language tapes, or computer-
based instruction provide models of correct language use. The cognitive approach to
language learning led some educators to teach grammar explicitly and provide exercises
for practice that invoke the use of targeted grammatical rules. According to Crawford
(1995), the audiolingual and the cognitive approaches to language learning were not only
boring but “have produced roughly equivalent, mediocre results” (p. 122).
In the 1970‟s, another paradigm shift began to emerge. Since language is used for
specific purposes, the ability to use language pragmatically became the primary focus of
second language instruction. “Effective language does not mean grammatical accuracy
nor articulate fluency, but the competence to communicate meaning” (Baker, 2001, p.
119). The communicative approach to language learning is currently the most common
classroom practice, particularly in English as a second language (ESL) programs
Language acquisition and comprehensible input
Krashen (1981) and other researchers have differentiated language learning from
acquisition of a language. Acquisition refers to the “subconscious process of „picking up‟
a language through exposure and [learning] to the conscious process of studying [a
language]” (Ellis, p. 14). The term “acquisition” is not used consistently in writings on second language. According to Ellis (1994), “some researchers (for example, Bickerton
1981) consider a feature has been acquired when it appears for the first time, while others (for example, Dulay and Burt 1980) require the learner to use it to some predetermined
criterion level of accuracy—usually 90 per cent” (p. 14).
Krashen (1982, 1985a, 1985b) hypothesized that language acquisition is nearly
inevitable when messages are comprehensible. He proposed that providing background
knowledge is one way of making input comprehensible to the second language learner.
“We acquire language not when we memorize vocabulary lists or do grammar exercises,
but when we understand what people say to us or what we read. The best language
lessons are therefore interesting conversations, good books, fine films, etc., situations in which we are absorbed in the meaning of what is said to us or what we read” (Krashen
and Biber, 1988, p. 19).
Terrell and Krashen (1983) developed the Natural Approach to language instruction. The Natural Approach calls for multiple opportunities for authentic
communication and conversations in the classroom. “A good teacher is someone who
continuously delivers at a level understandable by the second language speaker but also
just very slightly beyond a learner‟s current competence… always pushing the language
competence frontiers forward” (Baker, p. 121). How can a language teacher ensure that
comprehension is taking place?
Many researchers have discussed the importance of activating prior knowledge in
order to facilitate effective student learning of multiple subjects. Bayer (1990) states,
“learners are actively attempting to make sense out of their world, using their background
knowledge as a frame of reference from which to generate hypotheses” (p. 20). New
learning is most efficiently achieved when students are able to make connections to their
prior knowledge and experience.
The provision of context is absolutely essential in second language classrooms.
Adams gives the following example from her 1982 study:
“Favorable conditions are necessary to do this activity. That is, you usually have to have
enough rouche. If there is too much rouche, the object might break. But if conditions are too calm, you will have problems because the rouche makes the object go up. If there is an obstacle, a serious problem can result because you cannot control the rouche. Usually,
the rouche is most favorable during the spring”.
There is only one new vocabulary item presented in the previous text, and there
are several helpful contextual clues provided. Yet without an understanding that the
passage relates to flying a kite, many readers may not immediately figure out that rouche
means wind. If we consider additional factors such as anxiety about grades or concern
about one‟s own comprehension or performance in a second language as compared to
classmates, and if we remember that a spoken or signed utterance is not available for
review, the task of learning even a single new vocabulary word can be formidable.
Intake and output in a second language classroom
Regardless of input, each student will take in different information based on his or
her own background knowledge, affective filter, and a host of other factors. Baker
suggests that “intake is more important than output” (p. 121). Ellis (1994) points out that
very few studies have investigated language acquisition resulting from just exposure to
comprehensible input. The ability to understand a message does not in and of itself
appear to be an adequate representation of linguistic competence in a second language
(L2). Baker cautions, “the danger of the classroom is that students may learn to
understand a second language, but not to produce” (p. 131).
Swain (1985) has put forward the comprehensible output hypothesis, which states
that learners need opportunities for „pushed output‟ (i.e. speech or writing that
makes demands on them for correct and appropriate use of the L2) in order to
develop certain grammatical features that do not appear to be acquired purely on
the basis of comprehending input. Swain‟s case rests on the different
psycholinguistic requirements of comprehension and production; whereas
successful comprehension is possible without a full linguistic analysis of the input,
correct production requires learners to construct sentence plans for their messages
(Ellis, p. 27).
To teach or not to teach grammar, that is the question
Although Krashen (1985) argued that direct instruction of grammatical features
should not initially be used in the second language classroom, Terrell (1991) and other
teacher-researchers endorse explicit grammar instruction (EGI) with adult second
language learners in order “to draw students‟ attention to or focus on form and/or
structure” (p. 53). According to Haley and Rentz (2002), “Lightbown (1998) has
challenged Krashen's viewpoint on not targeting a particular form to teach, citing recent
classroom-based research as providing evidence that learners not only benefit from, but
may sometimes require, focus on form to overcome incorrect or incomplete knowledge of
specific structures (e.g. Lightbown & Pienemann, 1993; Lyster, 1994; Swain, 1991;
L.White, Spada, Lightbown & Ranta, 1991)” (p. 4).
Focus on form is not to be confused with a return to drill-based exercises and
direct instruction of grammatical features that are removed from context and/or
communicative activities. Long and Robinson (1998) “state that a “focus on form often
consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features—by the teacher and/or one or more students—triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or
production” (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 23).
Levels of language proficiency
In his early work, Cummins (1981; 1984) defined two levels, or categories,
of language proficiency: conversational aspects of a second language, called basic
interpersonal communication skills (BICS), and cognitive-academic language proficiency
(CALP). After receiving much criticism for an overly simplified model which seemed to
impose an artificial dichotomy, he elaborated on the original distinction and proposed
that communication takes place along two intersecting continuums—one which moves from context embedded to context reduced communication, and the other ranging from
cognitively undemanding to cognitively demanding communication. Baker explains that
context embedded communication “exists when there is a good deal of support in communication, particularly via body language. For example, by pointing to objects,
using the eyes, head nods, hand gestures and intonation, people give and receive plenty of
clues and cues to help” the second language learner make sense of the message (p. 173). In context reduced communication, none of these clues or cues are provided, and the
learner is left with only words to determine the meaning of the message.
Cognitively undemanding communication occurs when “a person has the mastery
of language skills sufficient to enable easy communication. An example would be having
a conversation in the street, shop, or stadium, where the processing of information is
relatively simple and straightforward” (Baker, p 173). In cognitively demanding
communication, a significant amount of more challenging information needs to be
processed quickly, such as is often the case in classroom settings.
Although this model has also come under criticism for its ambiguity (where does
one quadrant end and another begin?), it is useful for discussing rates of second language
Length of time necessary to develop L2 proficiency
Researchers have found that it takes from two to seven years to develop fluency in
a second language, depending on the level of proficiency. Cummins (1988) reports “less
than two years is usually required for immigrant students to attain peer-appropriate levels
of proficiency in conversational (context-embedded, cognitively undemanding) aspects of
their second language (e.g. González, 1986; Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle, 1978)” (p. 62). “Hakuta, et al. (2000) found that social English takes three to five years to develop, while
academic English can take four to seven years” (Baker, 2001, p. 174).
Many studies (Collier,1987 & 1989, Collier & Thomas, 2002; Cummins, 1981;
and Klesmer, 1994) indicate that it takes three to seven and sometimes as much as ten
years for immigrant children to “attain grade norms on academic (context-reduced, cognitively demanding) aspects of English proficiency” (p. 61). Baker (2001) reports that Hakuta found that the development of academic English could take from four to
seven years, while “Shohamy (1999) found that seven to nine years are needed for
heterogeneous immigrant students in Israel to catch-up with native speakers in Hebrew
literacy. Such native-speakers are not standing still in language development. The
immigrants are chasing a moving target” (p. 175).
Introduction to American Sign Language
1American Sign Language (ASL) is the preferred language used by Deaf people in
the United States and much of Canada. It has been proven to be a true language, with its
own grammatical rules and syntax (Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Valli & Lucas, 1992). It is
not to be confused with English-based signing systems—developed by people attempting
to improve Deaf children‟s‟ English literacy skills. American Sign Language is not based
on English, and in fact has morphological components and grammatical structures that
are quite distinct from English.
American Sign Language as a second language
American Sign Language (ASL) is becoming an increasingly popular choice
among students learning a second language. In 1990, Stauffer and Brandwein reported
that 63 ASL/English interpreter training programs (ITP‟s) existed in the United States. Only five years later, Waubonsee Community College (1995) documented 107
interpreting programs in the United States. Currently, there are 123 ITP‟s on the Registry
of Interpreters for the Deaf web site. These numbers reflect only ASL/English interpreter
training programs. Many other colleges and universities offer ASL classes, but do not
offer an associate‟s degree or certificate program for training ASL/English interpreters.
According to the National Association of the Deaf, at least thirty-five (35) States
have recognized ASL as a modern language for public schools. Cokely (1986) found that
over 750 colleges and universities in the United States had ASL course offerings. At
Palomar College in Southern California, the ASL/interpreting program is one of the
fastest growing programs on campus. In a survey regarding the academic status of sign
1 Capitalized to denote cultural affiliation with a group of people who share the same language (ASL) and
cultural values rather than an audiological designation of hearing loss. (Padden & Humphries, 1988;
9 language programs in higher education, Cooper (1997) found that in the “three years
prior to the survey, enrollment in 64.8% of the programs had increased” (p. 122). Figure
two lists enrollment and growth rates for 43 programs responding to a survey conducted
in 1991 (Wilcox and Wilcox, p. 51).
Program type 1986 1991 % of Growth
colleges and 1,098 1,529 139%
universities 935 2,111 226%
Total number of all
programs 2,263 4,094 181%
Figure one: Comparison of 1986 and 1991 enrollment in ASL courses
There is currently an explosion of ASL classes being offered in K-12 settings.
Wilcox & Wilcox (1997) express concern at the rapid growth of ASL programs across
the U.S. They point out that the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) “is watching
with alarm as an increasing number of ASL classes are being set up haphazardly across
the nation” (p. 80). Peterson (2000) raises another concern about the state of ASL
Listening skills, reading comprehension, critical thinking skills—all
staples of second language instruction in other areas—are largely
absent from sign language curricula. This presents a crucial issue in
teaching literacy skills to ASL students. Is this an indication that we
do not know how to teach comprehension, or that we assume it occurs
as a natural byproduct of observation or of being taught to sign?
Comprehension-based approaches to second language learning have
shown remarkable potential, but these techniques are largely untried in
sign language instruction.
In spite of these challenges, the field of ASL instruction has
undoubtedly come a long way within a very short period of time. In the
seventies, most “sign language” classes were “basically vocabulary classes.
In addition, most Sign Language teachers are not teachers by training and very
few…have had any formal training in second language teaching techniques…or [ASL grammar]” (Cokely & Baker-Shenk, 1980, p. 23).
Based on data collected by Newell (1995), by the mid-nineties,
teachers of ASL appeared to have attained advanced degrees. Almost 80% of
the respondents had earned a Bachelor‟s degree or higher. Yet, it still seems
to be the case that very few teachers of ASL have extensive specialized
training in education, ASL linguistics, and second language acquisition and
Teaching in the target language
With all of the language teaching methodologies currently being used, it is
important to investigate which approaches are most likely to increase student potential for
success in learning ASL. There have been many articles published about amount of
instruction that should be conducted in the target language. In the National Curriculum
for Modern Foreign Languages (Department of Education and Science, 1991), “the
expectation was laid out in print for the first time that language teachers would conduct
all, or nearly all, of their lessons in the target language” (Satchwell, p.88).
Cooper (1997) writes, “Newell suggested that…the foreign/modern language
teacher generally uses the target language as the language of instruction. Therefore,
instructors must know not only their subject matter and how to teach it, but they must
have the unique ability to impart such subject matter” in a language that is not well-
known by the student (p. 56).