Towards a Unified Theory of L1 and L2 Learning’: Professor Martha C. Pennington Lecture

Oscar MacMillan, a second year student on the BA Linguistics and Language shares insights from the lecture given by Martha C. Pennington on 6th June.

Professor Martha C. Pennington, PhD Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, has written numerous books on various topics including Linguistics. On the 6th of June she gave a lecture at Birkbeck, where she shared her insights on the issues with current theories of L1 (first language) and L2 (second language) acquisition, and what the future for these theories may hold. She started by explaining the idea of a conceptual binarity, when something is perceived as falling into one of two extremes. She explained that L1 and L2  learning, implicit (learning while unaware) and explicit (learning while aware, intentionally), and language learning and language use serve as examples of conceptual binarities that have manifested within the field of Language Acquisition, implying that these ideas are false or overdrawn dichotomies.

Professor Pennington went on to explain her doubts of the critical period and related hypotheses. The idea of a critical period comes in many forms, but it fundamentally describes points after which the ability to learn language, or certain aspects of language, becomes limited. She pointed out problems with the evidence that has been presented, for example that the left-hemisphere lateralisation of language (the idea that language is local to the left-hemisphere) has been exaggerated and is not universal. Furthermore, she explained that some aspects of language seem to have earlier critical periods than puberty, for which there is a lack of a sufficient explanation of a biological mechanism or evolutionary benefit for those earlier critical (or so-called “sensitive”) periods, and discussions about this have been sparse.

This led to her next point, that some researchers see the evidence as indicating that there is no biological mechanism for critical periods, therefore, indicating there are no fundamental differences between L1 and L2 learning. Professor Pennington pointed out that the limitations of L2 performance can be explained by factors such as the L1 of an individual affecting their perception and attention, which could block future learning. She also pointed out that as children are exposed to writing and many begin to read fairly early literacy may be a factor, and that more research should be done to compare literate and non-literate individuals in terms of how they learn language. Also, while L1 is typically associated with implicit learning and L2 with explicit learning, she suggested that explicit learning still depends on implicit processes, which would further support the idea that L1 and L2 learning are more similar than people seem to think.

Finally, Professor Pennington discussed language use and language learning. She explained that even those who are fully proficient in a language continue to learn and change the way they use language. As even native-speakers are exposed to new vocabulary, they continue to adapt their language use, so language use influences language learning. They are not entirely independent from each other.

The talk was fascinating and raised many questions about the current consensus surrounding language acquisition. Professor Pennington argued that theories which may have originally been suitable are often adapted and expanded to remain compatible with new research and ideas, sometimes up to the point that they become overly complicated and arbitrary. It may be the case that some language acquisition theories have reached this point. While no one can know exactly what the future holds, it is clear that research will lead the way for new ideas, and that existing theories are bound to change.


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