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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Second Language Acquisition: A closer look at its theory and practice

By Sandy Dracovic

Special to CSMS Magazine

Whether a child is foreign-born or born in the United States from immigrant parents, the process of learning English to later succeed in life is the same. Even when a typical American child conveys his/her interest to learn a foreign language—be it French, German, Spanish, Chinese etc—the process is more or less the same. SLA has become one of the quintessential elements in teaching academic vocabulary skills that will eventually lead to the grasping of higher order of thinking. Although the constitution of the United States never states English as the official language of the land, it is an open secret that no child can ever move from the fringes of society to make his/her way to the mainstream without being proficient in English.

From a strategic standpoint, the United States could lose a competitive edge if there aren’t enough of its citizens well versed in other prominent languages. In either situation, the theories and practices of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) must be activated. Henceforth, the need for constant retooling of its pedagogical dispositive has become all the more urgent. In the article that follows, Sandy Dracovic breaks down for us the historical and contextual framework of SLA.


Language is largely responsible for the human ability to form a society. Schools, as an institution within a society, perform an important role in socializing students and helping them gain the knowledge and skills they need for success. Schools help student to acquire the roles and identities within the larger culture and to maintain social relationships. In majority of schools in the United States, English is the dominant vehicle, the most popular dialectic form through which children are taught. Students who enter school must develop a high level of English proficiency, and teachers are challenged to develop English skills designed to cater the needs for K-12 period schooling. With the influx of large numbers of students who speak languages other than English, schools are seeking teachers who not only can help students develop literacy, but also can teach the fundamentals of speaking and listening to those students.

The challenge is obvious, the prospect is exciting. Teachers have the opportunity to guide and inspire English learners in new ways; to learn about their students, their lives and cultures, their dreams and expectations; and to expand their own teaching repertoire. This can be achieved through the knowledge of language acquisition and use, and communication strategies that help break down barriers. Collaboration and cooperation with students, parents, and community members enrich the lives of all. Classrooms become lively and productive places.

Historical Theories of Language Development

Humans have been describing and analyzing language for over 2,300 years. As early as the forth century B.C., Greek philosophers were debating the nature of language. Early theory held that words were the natural and logical representations of ideas and objects, rather than arbitrarily chosen symbols. The early Greeks identified the action performed in a sentence and one that is identified the person or thing that performs that action. In about the second century B.C, Dionysius Thrax identified eight different word classes. His book, The Art of Grammar, became a model for grammar throughout the Middle Ages. When grammarians finally began writing grammars for vernacular languages, they generally copied the Latin grammars, using the same terminology and the same word classes (Kitzhaber et al.,1970).

Prescriptive Grammar

Grammarians who believed there were certain “correct” forms when a language is written proceeded to write prescriptive grammars. Using Latin grammar as a model, English grammarians not only ignored the syntactic differences between Latin and English but also tried to force English to fit the Latin description. Moreover, in copying from the Latin, they limited themselves to using classical grammar to prescribe how language should be used. No effort was made to describe the nature of language should be used. No effort was made to describe the nature of language or how people use it (Kitzhaber et al.,1970).

This approach to language led to the grammar-translation method of instruction, in which learners memorized long lists of vocabulary words, verb forms, and noun declensions. The chief activity in class was to translate written texts. Teachers were not expected to speak the language, but merely to have a thorough knowledge of grammatical rules.

Descriptive Linguistic

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to notice similarities that existed among some ancient languages. Studying written documents of earlier forms of languages, they traced the origin of words and sounds and attempted to show particular changed languages had undergone over time and the historical relationships among various languages. These linguists analyzed the sound units of language, showed how these units were organized, and described the structure of sentences. They did not concern themselves with describing the meaning of sentences or how they relate to each other.

Diagramming sentences became an important pedagogical tool based on the language descriptions. Teachers began the analysis of sentences by dividing sentences into two parts, or constituents, each of which could be further subdivided, until the entire sentence had analyzed. Knowledge of the structure of one language was believed to transfer to a second language. Furthermore, it was believed to transfer to a second language. Furthermore, it was believed that a thorough understanding of the phonetic basis of the first language could help to contrast the phonetic constituents of the target language. Knowing about the structure of the first and second language was an important part of the teacher’s role, so that the second language could be explained in terms of the first.

Behavioral Theory

Although behaviorism is not strictly a linguistic theory, its vast influence on learning theory has affected second language teaching. Behaviorists claim that mind is a “blank state”; a learner must be filled with content during the course of teaching. Strict principles of timing, repetition, and reward led to classroom methodology that incorporated extensive drill and practice of language components—from sounds to complex sentences.

That audio-lingual method of language learning is based on behavioral principles. Oral language practice is believed to be the primary means to language learning, which is based on behavioral principles. Teachers provide constant oral pattern drills that are based on specific grammatical forms; for example, a complete lesson can be centered on the tag question (its cold today, isn’t it?). Meaning is not specifically addressed, only the appropriate form.

Overall, second language acquisition is indeed a pedagogical and complex process that can only be achieved successfully through the means of rigid lesson planning from academics totally engaged to change the lives of millions of immigrant children whose parents may not be up to the challenge of motivating, teaching, coaching, and leading their youngsters to the path of academic success.

Note: Sandy Dracovic is distinguished scholar well versed in SLA issues. She has written several essays on the complexities of second language acquisition. She lives and works in New York City. She wrote this piece exclusively for CSMS Magazine.

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  1. Education is the key to success for our immigrant youngsters. We need to make sure they receive a solid education. I was an ESOL student for over 4 years. So, I understand very well the second language acquisition process for there was a time I could only speak Spanish. Great work!

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