PSYCHOLINGUISTIC THEORIES OF LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND THE
SAUDI LEARNER OF ENGLISH
Jasser Abdulrahman Al-Jasser, Ph.D
This study seeks to determine the relevance of the behavioristic and cognitive approaches for Saudi learners‟ acquisition of English as a foreign
language (EFL). A special attention is given to learners in EFL programs at the University level. It also assesses the effectiveness of these approaches on student in translation program as well. One contention is that while behaviorist-inspired structuralist methodologies are best applicable at the beginning levels, transformationalist/cognitivist approach contributes tried methodologies to enhance the learners‟ written and spoken skills in advanced stages. Advances in translation can be achieved through a study of the process of translation with an emphasis on a deductive rather than an inductive approach.
Foreign language teachers have long been perplexed by a continuum of abundant psycho-linguistic theories. One approach is the traditional method to second/foreign language teaching and learning. This embodied the grammar translation method which developed at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany and spread throughout Europe (Howat, 1984). The second approach is the direct method that developed in the late nineteenth century as a reaction against the grammar-translation method (R.Carter, 1993).
Prior to the time of Chomsky, “little was known about the process of second language acquisition, and thus (traditional approaches) were grounded in the linguistic, psychological, and pedagogical theories of their day.”(1)
The author has conducted literature search through Educational Resources Index (Eric) was well as Languages Association (MLA) and Psychological Abstracts (Psyclit). It has been noticed that some work, mostly dissertation, have dealt with the Saudi acquisition of specific linguistic features of L2, such as Morpheme acquisition Order (Al-Afaleg, 1991), Temporal Conjunctions (Noor, 1991), English Derivational Morphology (Al-Qadi 1992) Tense and Aspect (Farraj, 1995) and Second Language Relative Clauses (Maghrabi, 1997), and Studies on the psycho-linguistic theories of language acquisition, specifically in relation to the Saudi learner of English do not seem to exist.
There are four major theories of language acquisition and language learning which many psycholinguists and applied linguistics are familiar with:Behaviorism, neo-behaviorism, cognitivism, and humanism.
The purpose of this article is to examine two of these theories: Behaviorism (which is related to structuralism) and cognitivism (which is related to transformationalism) and then show the extent to which these two theories relate to language learning and particularly to Saudi learners enrolled in EFL and translation programs in King Saud University.
STRUCTURAL (BEHAVIORISTIC) VIEW:
The psychological theory behind behaviorist linguistics was founded by J.B. Watson (1942).(2) The extreme behavioristic stand-point is characterized by B.F. Skinner‟s well-known study, Verbal Behavior (1957)
which presents a theory of language learning even more firmly planted in the court of Pavlovian animal behavior than the language theories of the Russian behaviorist school which was itself greatly influenced by the work of Pavlov. The work that could be regarded as the basic doctrine of the
structural school of linguistic theory was Leonard Bloomfield‟s Language
(1933). In this work, Bloomfield argued that the study of language could be pursued without reference to psychological doctrines and he took a firmly behavioristic line aimed at scientific objectivity. Bloomfield did not deny the role of meaning in language, but he objected to its importance in the study of language at a time when human knowledge of the vast range of semantic association attached to every linguistic form was so very little. Moreover, he viewed semantics as a subordinate element to the primary stimulus response relationship of verbal behavior.
To Bloomfieldians… “language is nothing but a habit that the child
comes to learn by imitation. In their account of language acquisition, the child is exposed to linguistic data which he/she internalizes and then reproduces at a later stage. Language is thus learned from outside, we learn it in the same way that we learn other habits. Learning a language is not very much different from the laboratory mouse learning to expect to be fed each time someone rings a bell.”(3) They believe that, “a scientific theory must reject all data that are not directly observable or physically measurable.”(4).
To the behaviorists, habit formation is brought about through repetition, mimicry, and memorization. Thus no clear distinction seems to be made between learning the first language and the target language. To them linguistic habits, generalization and associations have to be repeated using different data.
Skinner (1957) based his whole theory of language acquisition and speech realization on the recognizable external forms of what Chomsky terms “input and “output” and makes no allowance for any internal process of the organism. Stimulus and reinforcement (or reward) from the input and the “verbal operant” (or response) forms the output.
The structuralists, whose views are related to behavioral psychology, see language as a finite list of ordered elements to which one can attach labels. They undertake a systematic analysis of structure. The teacher depends on such structural description as the distribution and combination of elements into a chain of speech. It is based on the process of substitution, the replacement of one unit by another unit of the same grammatical class. They follow a taxonomic approach in teaching. Their view is characterized by the insistence that language is learnt by the strength of habitual association and by the context generalization (i.e. general association). It is more of an inductive rather than a deductive system.
The Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who is an associationist, believes that “all language items are essentially
interlinked.”(5) He argues that “language was like a game of chess, a
system in which each item is defined by its relationship to all the others…language is a carefully built structure of interwoven elements.”(6)
TRANSFORMATIONAL (COGNITIVE) VIEW:
The transformational (cognitive) theories, represented by Noam Chomsky have been acknowledged by linguists as a revolutionary contribution to linguistics, though Chomsky himself related his views to those of Hambolt and to rationalist philosophers of the Seventeenth Century such as Descartes. The school of thinking, which has developed around Chomsky‟s ideas, has been variously termed “Cognitive”, “mentalist”, “generative” and “transformationalist.” His Transformational
Analysis (1955), Syntactic Structures (1957), Aspects of the Theory of
Syntax (1965), and Language and Mind (1968) are regarded as particular
pioneer works of the new approach.
The cognitivists reject the views of the behaviorists. They believe that “everybody learns a language, not because they are subjected to a similar
conditioning process, but because they possess an inborn capacity which permits them to acquire a language as a normal maturational process. This capacity is by definition universal…the nature of language is such that it is
impossible to explain it without postulating an innate mechanism of a fairly well-defined kind.”(7)
They look for a universal grammar that contains universals relating to the deep-seated regularities characterizing all languages. For instance, subject and predicate, negative and adjectival forms are present in all languages because they are a universal feature, whereas the structuring and arrangement of these features belong to individual languages. The deep structure rules are limited by the grammar of each particular language. Universal grammar, according to Chomsky is “…a theory of the “initial state” of the language faculty, prior to any linguistic experience.”(8)
To the cognitivist, children are born with an innate capacity for language development. The human brain is “ready” for language, in the sense that when children are exposed to speech, certain general principles for discovering or structuring language automatically begin to operate. These principles constitute, what Chomsky terms, a child language acquisition device (LAD). “A child uses its LAD to make sense of utterances heard around it, derived from his “primary linguistic data” hypotheses about the grammar of the language-what the sentences are, and how they are constructed. This knowledge is then used to produce sentences that, after a process of trial and error, correspond to those in adult speech: the child has learned a set of generalizations of rules, governing the way in which sentences are formed.”(9)
Chomsky emphasizes the linguistic „creativity‟, that is “..the ability of human beings to produce and comprehend an infinite number of novel sentences.”(10)
Basic to this reason, Comsky believes that “Bloomfieldian linguistics was too ambitious in that it was unrealistic to expect to be able to lay down foolproof rules for extracting a perfect description of a language from a mass of data. It was too limited because it concentrated on describing sets of utterances which happened to have been spoken.”(11)
Whilst the structuralist lays emphasis on the surface structure (patterns…etc.), the transformationalist lays emphasis on the processes of the deep structure; the stress is on learning to learn the development of a strategy of learning rather than the accumulation of information and rules. The structuralist tends to overemphasize the surface forms and the development of rules and to neglect the meaning.
Unlike the behaviorists who believe that if there is a response there must be stimulus, the transformationalists (cognitivists) argue that language acquisition is autogenic and that the environment serves merely to trigger off a maturation process. Language comes primarily though the maturation that the environment triggers off and not through the environment itself.
Erric Lenneberg, who is a cognitivist, also suggests that training is not necessary and that maturation is enough. His critical period hypothesis (1967) holds that “language acquisition must occur before the onset of puberty in order for language to develop fully.”(12)
Based on the contradictory views of the two schools, a brief discussion of how these views may relate to second language learning and teaching will be presented. This will be followed by a presentation (explanation) of the extent to which these views can apply to the case of the Saudi learner of English at the university level.
From the preceding background, structuralism (behaviorism) seems to attribute the function of language to instruction and experience. A process of habit formation is brought about through repetition, mimicry, and memorization. There is a little difference between learning a first language and a target language. Linguistic habits, generalizations, and associations have to be repeated using different data.
Cognitivism, on the other hand proposes that the processes of second language acquisition are not identical to those of the first language acquisition although there are similarities. One of the similarities could be that L2 may need to be learned at the same time as L1. Nevertheless, considering the question of universal and maturation, since acquisition of
an L2 requires conscious control of learning and this cannot be handled at an early stage, transformationlists (cognitivists) hold that consciously controlled learning should be left to a much later stage, though there is no conclusive evidence to support this view.
At this stage of analysis, it can be argued that, first, innate factors are less important for L2 learning than social factors of environment, motivation, and reinforcement.
Second, a transformational system can perhaps operate with native speakers of a language, but although it is too complicated and may be confusing to be applied in second language/foreign language teaching, certain aspects may be useful. For instance, identification of kernel sentences which are similar in different languages, could be economical. Transformation could work from the comparison of these kernel sentences.
Third, due to abstract characteristics of some of the cognitive views, the structural acquisition technique is probably more practical for formal learning in the first stages of the second language, and the cognitive technique may assume greater importance in the more advanced stages.
Fourth, while some credence should be given to Chomsky‟s language
acquisition device (LAD), which explains why children invent new terms that mean nothing to adults, its limitations become real when dealing with adults learning a second language. That is when linguistic interference causes serious obstacles to second/foreign language learners. In such situation LAD will not be useful.
Fifth, a structuralist method closely linked to Skinners‟ stimulus-
response-reinforcement theory of verbal behavior is the audiolingual approach which advocates the formation of the speech habits. Its feasible use can be realized through J.B. Carrol‟s (1966) following basic terms such as:
(a) Speech is primary, writing secondary, so the
habits that are formed in language must be speech
(b) Automatic response is best achieved by constant
(c) Automatic response is best achieved by constant
repetition. Offshoots of this theory are the
language laboratory, structural drill, imitation,
and memorization techniques.(13)
Finally, cognitive theory advocates the development in the student of a conscious control of the psychological, grammatical, and lexical patterns of a given second language. This can be achieved through study and analysis of these patterns so that facility in using language stems from the teacher‟s understanding of its structure.
The structural approach (as it employs behavioristic means) has remained useful in the teaching of English as a foreign language, most importantly to help the learner acquire good language basis.
For Saudi EFL learners, the use of drills at the phonetic level is of great help especially when dealing with segmental items that cause either interlingual or intralingual errors. A Saudi learner not only fail to produce the voiceless stop /p/ and the voiced fricative /v/ but tends to replace them with his L1 segments /b/ and /f/ respectively. Similarly, the velar nasal / / as a phoneme occurring at the final position of a word like “sing”, “long” which causes some difficulties for the Saudi EFL learner where he replaces it with the sequence of the two phonetic segments /n/ and /g/, and the alveo-palatal affricate /č/, occurring in words like “children” and “speech” where, instead, he transfers his Arabic alveo-palatal fricative /š/.
Emphasis on drills will also enable the learner to reduce a possible interference of the Arabic syllable structure CVCV into the English structure. Since some Saudis tend to pronounce English words like “against” as *againist”, and “first” as *firist”. Structural (behavioristic) teacher can help in solving other problematic linguistic features such as agreement and word order which Saudi EFL learner encounter. Thus, patterns and exercises are needed to reduce erroneous forms such as *”He play, they buyed, talls buildings, and hypercorrections such as: * “He cans,
and She musts”.
The transformational cognitive orientation can be effective in the advanced stages of a foreign language acquisition. Thus, for Saudi students at the university higher levels, where advanced courses on linguistics and translation are offered, it is logical to assume that structural drills, repetitions, and memorization techniques will no longer be essential.
At this level of advancement in the intimate knowledge of language and culture we may conceive a minimal level of interference from the native tongue (Arabic) of the learners. Yet, such aspects of the target language as deep structure and transformational rules will enable the Saudi learner to understand some of the idiosyncratic forms and ambiguous sentences. Transformational rules will reinforce the learner‟s awareness of
the syntactic and the semantic relations between various English linguistic patterns. Through these linguistic relations, learners can make inferences and develop some generalizations about the structure of English language. Communication strategies, conversation, and creative essay writing using cultural content will be more beneficial at these levels.
With regard to the translation program, the analysis of source language texts that translators have to translate and the analysis of texts they have to create, a process of linking aspects from cognitivism with that of behaviorism should be observed. Negotiating the meaning of the source
language text is not just a sociolinguistic matter; it is psycholinguistic as well. Saudi trainees in our translation program happened to have rendered the meaning of “They are into the habit of splitting straws” based on knowledge acquired through some behavioristic approach and produced a literal erroneous translation outcome. This means that there is always much room for the smaller scale experimentation on the factors affecting the text conversion process. The transformation of a text originally in one language into an equivalent text in a different language demands that the content of the message and the formal features and functional roles of the original text should be retained. In this regard the Saudi trainees translated the verb “laid” in “They laid him open to blackmail” without any reference to a likely secondary meaning that the verb “lay” might imply. This approach
supports the belief that much of our experience of the external world of the senses and of the inner world of the mind is mediated by language and by the concepts stored in our memories. These factors refer to entities via the convention of language and do so variably depending on the medium of communication (language used).
It is the process that creates the translation outcome and it is only by understanding that process that we can hope to help our Saudi trainees to improve their linguistic skills. Having said that, it is difficult to see how translation theories can move beyond the subjective and the normative evaluation of texts without drawing heavily on aspects from both behaviorism an cognitivism.
Translation theories have made little systematic use of the techniques and insights of contemporary linguistics. With this fact in mind, Saudi translation trainees should be trained within a framework that combines features from all branches of cognitivism and behaviorism. This entails developing in the trainees‟ performance and competence a familiarity with and a competence in the use of the psychological and psycholinguistic models of memory and information processing on the one hand, and linguistic models of meaning, including meaning beyond the sentence on the other. Logic of the examples provided above asserts the validity of some aspects of the two psycholinguistic views.
Cognitive approach may operate with some specific semantic and pragmatic aspects of L2 by means of exploring features as cohesion, conceptual and connotative meanings, speech acts and kinetics. Such features should, at this stage, receive due consideration.
From the above analysis proceeds that with regard to language acquisition, behavioristic theory can provide much useful information concerning verbal responses and reinforcement. But it is inadequate to account for innate and cognitive features. Transformational theory, on the other hand, provides much useful information on the basic nature of the organism and its internal processes, but makes little or no account of stimulus-response-reinforcement relationships. Unlike the cognitive approach, behavioral approach tends to manipulate the language and disregard the content.
Despite the pedagogic significance of both theories, it seems that none of their approaches is complete in itself. For one reason, the nature of the Arabic language has significantly different phonetic and grammatical structure from that of the English language. Due to this difference and as advocated by Smith (1987) there are “… far fewer areas of facilitation, and far greater areas of interference…” (14) The situation of the Saudi EFL learners at the university level requires an eclectic approach with combined aspects derived from the approaches stated earlier. This approach can guarantee more effective outcome at the pedagogical level.
I believe the attitude, the age, and the aptitude of the learners are three factors that should be considered in second language acquisition. A combination of innate propensities and objective necessity create the most favorable attitude. All these factors, including the teaching strategies, stand for fundamental variables in learning a foreign language.
Relationship between communicative exchanges and syntactic forms alert the translator to the mechanisms that link the highly abstract and universal proposition with the totally physical and context-dependent utterance or text.