This is another presentation that I found to be full of useful, relevant, and–yes–even interesting information. It was so nice to attend this conference, mingle (a little–OK, so nobody wanted to be my best friend, but whatever), and understand most of what was presented at this conference.

Brian MacWhinney’s talk about Linking L1 & L2 theory to Web-Based learning examined whether acquiring your first and second languages are similar or different. There is a lot of debate about this with some people arguing that yes, they use the same mechanisms in the brain and others saying no it’s different. This is kind of exacerbated by the fact that unless you are the exception and have either a neurological disorder or some pretty extreme life circumstances that have left you isolated from language input, everyone ends up acquiring their first language.

This is, of course, not the case with the second language, as evidenced by the “man on the street” whose favorite refrain is “I’m bad at languages.”

One explanation for this is the Critical Period Hypothesis, popularized by Eric Lennneberg in about 1967, which basically states that up until a certain age (super young too, like 4 or 6), children can acquire any language with native-like proficiency. After that point, your ability to do this drops drastically.

This hypothesis partially supports Chompsky’s Universal Grammar, which states that everybody has an internal mechanism for learning language, and really acquiring your first language is just about receiving enough input to activate the language mechanism. This kind of goes a ways toward explaining why people can produce utterances in their language that they’ve never heard before–if it were all imitation, there would be no room for creativity in languages.

CPH, the fact that few adult l2 learners achieve native-like proficiency and some variable errors pretty much form the crux of the Fundamental Difference Hypothesis, which states that learning a second language (years after acquiring your first language) is fundamentally different than learning your first language.

What MacWhinney wanted to examine in his talk, however, was how these processes could be fundamentally similar. He named 5 risks toward acquiring a second language and protections that instructors could use against these risks.


Risk 1: Map entrenchment. Apparently when we are acquiring our first language, the areas in our brain where aspects of these languages live are mutable, and they move around in the cortex and self-organize. Well eventually these maps become fixed, and then we’re stuck with our L1 phonology (sound system), syntax (grammar) and lexicon (vocabulary). This is why it’s so difficult for language learners to acquire a native-like accent, or to master those weird grammatical intricacies of another language (for example, no matter how much I practice, I always use pronouns in Spanish–OK. Truth is I don’t practice much. But still, English needs pronouns and so pronouns are entrenched in my mind, meaning I say stuff like Yo hablo ‘I I-speak’).

Protection 1: Resonance. “Units that fire together wire together”–semantic grouping, morphological analysis, mnemonics, multiple repetitions, internalizing the L2–anything that can get learners to organize what they’re learning together can help!

Risk 2: Misconnection. I think this relates to risk 1, but I’m not sure. Basically, connections are the way your brain’s white matter is wired. It explains the interaction between hemispheres and can even explain some L1 issues. The theory behind this is that L1 is mapped out quite neatly and is well-aligned–the L1 maps “know” what to do. L2 maps on the other hand don’t quite align, and sometimes there are long distance connections that cannot regrow, etc.

Protection 2: Chunking. I’m sorry, I’m a big fan of chunking. It doesn’t exactly lead to creativity, but it can lead to big gains in learning quickly. Idioms, compounds, poems, rhymes–lexical chunking can short-circut problems with mapping and connections.

Risk 3: Parasitism and Transfer. In successive bilingualism, the L1 dominates the L2. It follows that everything that can transfer from the L1 will. This is not always a bad thing, and it usually follows markedness, plus it is strongest when a mismatch CAN’T be detected.

Protection 3: We can increase fluency by cutting out steps. This harkens back to the previous risks and protections–we have to rewire things. An example of cutting out steps would be in going from translation i.e. see a picture of a turtle, think turtle then think “tortuga” to a direct picture of a turtle/”tortuga” mental representation. It took me about 5 years of learning Spanish to figure out that’s why I couldn’t understand.

Another protection is internalization, which produces a whole-brain (something–I missed that word–conference presentations sometimes go faster than you can write!). The communicative approach promotes internalization. Also, Krashen’s notion of “comprehensible input” (i+1) came up here–this allows the L2 speaker to construct a coherent mental model.

Risk 4: Isolation. Language learning is inherently social–in fact, a lack of social(er–ness?) has been shown to actively inhibit L1 acquisition  So it makes sense that isolation would be a risk for L2 acquisition as well. Insufficient comprehensible input; peer group exclusion; immigrant group insulation; and role entrenchment can all lead to language-acquisition inhibiting isolation.

Protection 4: Participation. Getting students to identify with the L2 culture and L2 members will intrinsically motivate them to acquire the language  Group alignment like church membership or teams can also help.

So what does a classroom provide then? Why even attend language-learning classes? Well, classrooms provide scheduled practice, consistent feedback, and an immediate link to the outside world. Explicit training has also proved to be helpful in language learning, such as with Nora Presson’s work in training Spanish conjugation. Plus, explicit feedback and formal rule diagnosis has been shown to lead to the best retention.

MacWhinney argues that on some level, all L2 learning (disregarding simultaneous bilingualism) is explicit because even children are aware that they are learning a new language. Therefore, the discussion is better served as degrees of explicitness, rather than explicit versus implicit learning.

I think this makes sense.