logo  ELT Concourse: a free training course for TKT: modules 1, 2 and 3
The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Background to language learning
The difference (and similarities) between L1 and L2 learning


There is a longer and more technical guide to first and second language acquisition theories on this site.  What follows, however, is all you need to know for TKT.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • innateness
  • natural development of language
  • U-shaped learning
  • imitation theory
  • reinforcement theory
  • active construction of grammar theory

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.


Innateness: language is in our genes

You were not born with the ability to speak, ride a bicycle, play the piano, type, play chess, walk or dive for pearls.  What concerns us here are the abilities you naturally develop as opposed to those which you are taught.

Some of this is quite easy.  Divide this list into learned (i.e., taught or self-taught) abilities and those which naturally develop in all normal children:
Click on the table when you have done that.


It is clear that some behaviours, such as the ability to grasp objects or walk are biologically determined because all children, regardless of their culture, learn to do it pretty much at the same stage in their development.  For example, most babies learn to sit, then roll over, then crawl and finally walk between the first 9 to 12 months of life.  None, however, has to be taught the skill.
Babies in all cultures learn to talk between 18 and 28 months of life.
Some behaviours are never naturally acquired so if you never learn to ride a bicycle or play a decent game of chess, you will not magically develop the ability to do so, no matter how long you live.


the U-shaped learning curve

In their first languages, children often use irregular forms and then revert to an inaccurate regular form before once more acquiring the irregular form.  So, for example, a child may produce The mice ran up the clock, then begin to say The mouses runned up the clock before settling on the correct version later.
If this is true, the importance is obvious: it means that language cannot be being acquired by simple imitation and practice.  If it were, children would never produce something like *comed instead of came for the simple reason that they would never hear it.

relevance to (English) language teaching

teaching children
If the innateness theories are right, then what is required is simple exposure at the right time to a rich linguistic environment rather than explicit instruction.  Instruction may, in fact, be counterproductive.
Practice and correction, too, are pointless.
teaching older children and adults
We should not expect adults to acquire language simply by exposure.


Imitation theory: I speak what I hear

Children speak the language(s) in which they were raised.  A child taken from an English-speaking environment at an early age and raised in an Urdu-speaking environment will acquire Urdu as its first language.
The theory is that imitation must have a role to play because you cannot understand the meaning of a word from its form so you must hear it spoken in a clear context to be able to imitate its use.

There are some problems:

  1. Children's speech is different from adults' speech
    Children do not produce fully formed sentences.  They progress from 1-word utterances (acquired around 12 months) to 2-word utterances (around 18 months) and then go on to more complex sentences.
  2. The U-shaped learning curve
    If imitation were all there was to acquiring language, then the U-shaped curve, going from correct production of irregular forms to recognition of the irregularity (e.g., from went via goed and then back to went) would not occur because a child would very rarely, if ever, hear the incorrect form in order to imitate it.

relevance to (English) language teaching

A number of approaches to and techniques in teaching languages appear to be based on the assumption that people learn language by a process of imitation of a model.
Why do you drill in a classroom if you don't believe imitation and repetition are effective?


Reinforcement Theory: praise, correction and reward

The theory claims that children learn to produce correct language because they are praised and rewarded (by adult approval) when they do and are corrected when they don't.
Here's a very brief summary:

  1. The process starts with a stimulus, say, a question from a carer such as Who did you see? put to the organism (in this case, a child).  The stimulus can elicit a variety of responses but only the 'right' one will be reinforced.
  2. So, for example, if the child responds with I seed Tom the carer will negatively reinforce it with No, say 'I saw Tom'.
  3. If, eventually, the carer can persuade the child to produce a correct utterance, the response will be rewarded (i.e., reinforced) with something like Oh! That's lovely! and the child will learn the form.
  4. Enough Stimulus > Response > Reinforcement cycles will see the habit instilled and the language acquired.

There are three problems with the theory.

  1. If a child produces a well formed but untrue statement, carers are more likely to correct it or at least avoid reinforcing it.  So a true but incorrectly formed statement may receive praise and a correctly formed but untrue statement will receive censure of some kind.
  2. Cuteness will be reinforced
    Carers and other adults have frequently been observed reinforcing false structure and lexical use simply because it is cute and endearing.  Thus Choo-choo Bang-bang! while meaningless, uncommunicative and poorly formed may produce a positive response in doting adults.
  3. Even when adults do focus on correcting form, the research shows that it is almost wholly ineffective.

relevance to (English) language teaching

Much that is recommended in classrooms in terms of praising learners and error correction is based (even implicitly) on this kind of behaviourist theorising.  It is a short step from asserting that all learners respond positively to praise and that praise motivates them to perform better to suggesting that reinforcing acceptable language will lead to the instilling of correct language habits.


Active Construction of a Grammar Theory

The theory is a little like Innateness theory.
For example, a French child will notice that in the language it hears, the adjective normally follows the noun (un évènement fantastique).
A child in an English-speaking environment will hear, by contrast, a fantastic event and notice that English is an adjective-noun language.
Enough exposure will result in the knowledge becoming permanently fixed.
Such hypothesising about language form neatly explains the U-shaped learning curve described in this guide.  When first acquired, the rule is applied indiscriminately and then it is later amended to account for exceptions.

relevance to (English) language teaching

If learners (of whatever age) of a second or subsequent language are applying this kind of rule-forming behaviour to the language they hear then concepts such as noticing and the positive role of error become even more important.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

  • What does innateness theory claim?
  • What is the U-shaped learning curve?
  • If you believe language is learned by listening and copying what you hear, which theory of learning do you support?
  • In which theory is the idea of reinforcement important?
  • What is active construction of grammar theory?

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

Test 1 A short matching task
Test 2 A gap-fill test
Test 3 A gap-fill test
Test 4 A gap-fill test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to learner characteristics.