Chapter 8: Basic Research on Language Acquisition
By James Crawford

Language-Learning Methodologies
Chomskyan Revolution
Critical Period Hypothesis
Input Hypothesis
Interdependence Hypothesis
Threshold Hypothesis
Empowering Minority Students
‘Semilingualism’ and Deficit Models
Challenge to BICS/CALP Distinction
Krashen’s Critics
Cognitive Effects of Bilingualism

Most educated Americans can testify to the difficulty of becoming bilingual. Despite years of schooling in French, Spanish, or German, how many can carry on a real-life conversation in a language other than English? The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages estimated in 1987 that “only 3 percent of American high school graduates, and only 5 percent of our college graduates, reach a meaningful proficiency in a second language – and many of these students come from bilingual homes.” No doubt those rates have increased somewhat, thanks to stiffer language requirements in higher education and the rapid growth of linguistic minority populations. Still, there is no reason to believe that foreign-language instruction has markedly improved. While it may produce passable reading skills, rarely does it equip students to communicate. They may earn high marks for recalling grammatical rules or parroting classroom exercises or producing flawless compositions. Yet oral exchanges with native speakers can be an ego-jarring experience.

Frustrated at having invested so much effort for so little return, monolinguals tend to rationalize:

  • • I started learning a language too late; the longer you wait, the harder it is.
  • • I never had a chance to use the language outside of class, and now I’m embarrassed to try.
  • • I just don’t have any aptitude for memorizing grammar and vocabulary.

Each of these reactions expresses a popular “theory” of second-language acquisition. As generalizations, they are inadequate to explain student failure, but they do reflect persistent problems with foreign-language teaching. Conversational facility is indeed difficult to acquire when there are limited opportunities to engage in actual conversations. An emphasis on grammar drills not only bores students; it seldom trains them to speak the target language. Older learners tend to be especially selfconscious when forced to participate in exercises detached from any purposeful context. For years students have lodged such complaints, with little effect on the way foreign languages are taught in this country.

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