Thursday, December 30, 2010

On natural sequence of language learning

Bailey, N., Madden, C., & Krashen, S. D. (1974). Is there a “natural sequence” in adult second language learning? Language Learning, 24(2), 235-243.

Abstract: The Bilingual Syntax Measure (Burt, Dulay, and Hernandez 1973) was administered to 73 adult learners of English as a second language in order to investigate accuracy of usage for eight English functors. It was found that there is a highly consistent order of relative difficulty in the use of the functors across different language backgrounds, indicating that learners are experiencing intra-language difficulties. Also, the adult results agreed with those obtained by Dulay and Burt (1973) for 5 to 8 year old children learning English as a second language, indicating that children and adults use common strategies and process linguistic data in fundamentally similar ways.

A classic article, right? One of the fun things about reading older articles like this one, which was published in 1974 (gosh, I wasn't even born then), is it allows you to see how ideas and academic genres change over time and consequently teaches us to be humble. One of the problems with this framework is that it cannot explain where these functors, like plurals, progressive, etc. come from or why these functors and not others follow a specific order. Still, at the time this natural sequence was a brilliant idea.
[The two hypothesis tested in this study are] 
1)    adults learning English as a second language will show agreement with each other in the relative difficulty of functors in English
2)    The adult ranking will be similar to that of the child learning English as a second language, rather than to that of children learning English as a first language (p. 237)


Despite the differences in adult learners in amount of instruction, exposure to English, and mother tongue, there is a high degree of agreement as to the relative difficulty of the set of grammatical morphemes examined here, supporting Hypothesis 1.  (p. 240-241)
Comparison with Dulay and Burt’s data reveals that relative accuracy in adults is quite similar to the relative accuracies shown by children learning English as a second language for the same functors, supporting Hypothesis 2. ..indicate that they process linguistic data in ways similar to younger learners. (p. 241-242)
Since subjects with different first languages performed similarly, the results are also consistent with findings that errors in second language learning are not all the result of interference from the first language. Along with studies of errors in second language learning cited above, this argues against any strong version of the contrastive analysis hypothesis. While casual observation affirms that errors due to mother tongue interference do occur in second language learning in adults, our data imply that a major source of errors is intra- rather than inter-lingual, and are due to the use of universal language processing strategies. (p. 242)

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