L2 Learning and Teaching

By Arif. Z. Mustafa

Integrating perspectives

There are some perspective in viewing the study of second language acquisition. It is on the are a of linguistic, psycological, and social perspective.  The basic question of what, how, and why will be covered in uncovering SLA it self.

There are significant differences of opinion within each perspective as well as between them, depending on subdisciplinary orientations. This chapter will integrate findings from the three perspectives as muc as possible, but it is given greatest weight linguistic contribution in answer to what, to psycological contribution in answer to how, and to social contribution in answer to why.

What exactly does the L2 learner come to know?

  • A system of knowledge about second language which goes well beyond what could possibly have been taught. There is significant overlap with first language knowledge, especially (1) in underlying rules or principles that languages have in common and (2) in the potentials of language to make meaning.
  • Patterns of recurrent elements that comprise components of L2-specific knowledge: vocabulary (lexicon), morphology (word structure), phonology (sound system), syntax (grammar), and discourse (ways to connect sentence and organize information). The amount of overlap with L1 knowledge depends on the genetic or typological relationship of the two languages and on whether there has been borrowing or other influence between them. Exactly which elements are acquired within each of these components depends in large measure on learner motivation and on other circumstances of learning.
  • How to encode particular concepts in the L2, including grammatical notion of time, number of referents, and the semantic roles of elements (e.g. whether subject or object).
  • Pragmatic competence, or knowledge of how to interpret and convey meaning in contexts of social interaction.
  • Means for using L2 in communicative activities: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Many learners develop only an oral channel (listening, speaking), or only a written channel (reading, writing), without the other, though they may reinforce one another. Minimally, language learning requires means for participation in at least one perspective activity (listening or reading); otherwise, necessary input for SLA would be available.
  • How to select multiple language system and how to switch between languages in particular social contexts and for particular purposes. What is required thus include the system of knowledge about how to process multiple languages: understanding of multilingual language processing is also highly relevant to our understanding of how languages are learned.
  • Communicative competence: all of the above plus social and cultural knowledge required for appropriate use and interpretation of L2 forms. Inclusion and definition of communicative competence as a goal or outcome of L2 learning is highly variable, depending macrosocial contexts of learning as well as on linguistic, psychological, and interactional factors.

A basic disagreement among different linguistic perspective comes in considering whether the system of knowledge about a second language is primarily (1) an abstract system of underlying rules or principles, (2) a system of linguistic patterns and structures, or (3) a means of structuring information and a system of communication.

How does the learner acquire L2 knowledge?

  • Innate capacity. Language learners are not merely passive recipients of “stimuli”. There is a creative force involved in language development (and other domains of learning) which must be an innate endowment.
  • Application of prior knowledge. The initial state of L2 includes knowledge of L1 (and language in general), and the processes of SLA include interpretation of the new language in terms of what knowledge. There is also application of what has been acquired as part of general cognitive development, as well as of all prior social experience.
  • Processing of language input. The critical need for L2 input in SLA is agreed on, although its roles in acquisition receive differential definition and weight in accounts from alternative perspectives and orientations. The processing of input in itself as a necessary factor in acquisition.
  • Interaction. Processing of L2 input in interactional situation is facilitative, and some think also causative, of SLA. Benefits come from collaborative expression, modified input, feedback (including correction), and negotiation of meaning.
  • Restructuring of the L2 knowledge system. SLA occurs progressively through a series of systematic stages. Development of L2 knowledge does not manifest itself in a smooth cline of linguistic performance but rather in one which sometimes shows abrupt changes in the interlanguage system.
  • Mapping of relationship or association between linguistic functions and forms. L2 acquisition (like L1 acquisition) involves increasing reliance on grammatical structure and reduced reliance on context and lexical items. This development is driven by communicative need and use, as well as awareness of the probability that a particular linguistic from represents a particular meaning.
  • Automatization. Frequency and practice lead to automaticity in processing, and they free learner’s processing capacity for new information and higher-order performance needs. Automatization is an incremental achievement upon which efficient and effective engagement in all language activities ultimately depends.

Why are some learners more successful than others?

  • Social context. Feature of social context which affect degree of success include the status of L1 and L2, boundary and identify factors within and between L1 and L2 speech communities, and institutional forces and constraints.
  • Social experience. Quantity and quality input and interaction are determined by social experience, and both have significance influence on ultimate success in L2 learning.
  • Relationship of L1 and L2. All language are learnable, but not all L2a are equally easy for speakers of particular L1s to acquire. Knowledge of L1 is an important component of all L2 competence in its initial state, but the genetic, typological, and historical relationship of L1 and L2 will yield differential possibilities for positive transfer of parameter setting and surface-level features, including vocabulary and writing system.
  • Age. Younger learners generally have an advantage in brain plasticity, in not being so analytical, in (usually) having fewer inhibitions and weaker group identity, and in having more years to learn the language before ultimate proficiency is judged.
  • Aptitude. Learners differ in capacity to discriminate and process auditory input, to identify patterns and make generalizations, and to store linguistic elements in memory.
  • Motivation. Motivations largely determines the level of effort which learners expand at various stages in their L2 development, and it is often make a key to ultimate level of proficiency.
  • Instruction. Quality of instruction clearly makes a difference in formal contexts of L2 learning, although this book has not attempted to evaluate teaching method.

Basic disagreement remains in the definition of relative “success” in L2 learning. Without common criteria for evaluation, drawing general conclusion is very difficult, since the definition of criteria for “success” depends on theoretical orientation. Any answers to this question must be considered within the disciplinary framework in which it is posed.

Approaching near-native competence

The judgment that L2 learners have approached or achieved “near-native” or “native-like” competence means that there is little or no perceptible difference between their language performance and that of native speakers. Because one’s L2 system is never exactly the same as the native speaker’s, most of us would not consider the final state of L2 development to be completely “native”, although we may allow for some rare exceptions.

Implication for L2 learning and teaching

Although we have seen that knowledge of L2 goes well beyond what can be consciously learned and taught, we have also seen that (unlike L1) L2 acquisition usually requires intentional effort, and that a number of individual and social factors strongly affect ultimate outcomes. We can not control most of these factors, but recognizing them can contribute to efficiency and effectiveness in second language development. As a starting point, our findings about SLA suggest the following general guidelines for L2 learning and teaching:

  • Consider the goals that individuals and groups have for learning an additional language.
  • Set priorities for learning/teaching that are compatible with those goals.
  • Approach learning/teaching that are compatible with an appreciation of the multiple dimensions that are involved: linguistic, psychological, and social.
  • Understand the potential strengths and limitation of particular learners and contexts for learning, and make use of them in adapting learning/teaching procedures.
  • Be cautious in subscribing to any instructional approach which is narrowly focused or dogmatic. There is no one “best” way to learn or teach a second language.
  • Recognize achievement in incremental progress. And be patient. Learning a language takes time.


Saville-Troike, Muriel. (2006). Introducing Second language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.