Tag Archives: language learning

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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Internationalisation on campus – or is it?

This post was contributed by Louise Rolland, a NewRoutePhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalProfessor Jennifer Jenkins presented a talk on the 18 March as part of a series of talks celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck. Professor Jenkins gave a brief introduction about her early career in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and shared the first experience that triggered her passion in this field. She gave her take on the development and trends of ELF and then  talked about her recent projects in details.

Professor Jenkins started her career as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher and taught large groups of students from all around the world. During her experience in teaching EFL, she made a keen observation of students’ ability to apply the English language rules very well in classrooms and exams but hardly ever elsewhere. She noticed that even though the students were not applying those rules outside classroom premises, they still managed to communicate successfully with each other. This struck up a question for Professor Jenkins as to why it would be necessary to teach students ‘native English’ when they were effectively capable of using English in their own way. This question has led Professor Jenkins on a journey to explore  non-native students’ use of English among each other, i.e. their use of English as Lingua Franca, in her PhD and  a number of publications such as English as a Lingua Franca, Attitudes and Identities (2007, Oxford University Press) and English as Lingua Franca in International Universities (2013, Routledge).

The 2014 monograph is based on her research project which she outlined in-depth in the talk. It investigated the following aspects of the use of English in international universities using different data collection methods ranging from analyzing website data to open ended questionnaires and unstructured interviews:

  1. The prevailing academic English language policies and practices of universities around the world that teach partly or entirely in English medium, in respect of any stated or implicit attachment to native academic English norms
  2. The academic staff’s dominant beliefs about non-native academic English
  3. The perceived effects of current English language policies and practices on international (including mainland EU) and home students

The project findings as a whole pointed to the fact that international UK universities demonstrated a lack of critical thinking about language on the part of many who work or study there. Some of the main conclusions from the study indicated that positive orientation to diversity was rarely extended to English. Native English speakers among management and staff showed little awareness of difficulties faced by non-native English speakers operating in their second or third language and had no sense of linguistic fairness.

Professor Jenkins thought that  Doiz et. al.’s (2013) comment in their conclusion of their book Global EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) on diversity echoed her views on ELF. They quote that “diversity does not prevent the emergence of many commonalities between the different case studies presented” (p.213); but rather “Every context has its own characteristics and, therefore, studies rooted in each specific context will be much welcomed. Results from other contexts may always be helpful and enlightening, but every situation should carry out its own research, which ideally will lay the foundations of the most appropriate language policy for them” (p. 219). This inspired her to start her second on-going project by comparing practices in universities (now nine universities in nine different countries have joined the project). Data will be compared and contrasted to answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent do language practices correspond to stated language policies in the partner institutions?
  2. What are the overt/covert English language expectations of/made of students and staff, and how far do students and staff feel they meet these?
  3. What similarities, differences, and implications from questions 1 and 2 emerge across the nine research settings? Are there any particularly noticeable differences between the EM and English dominant settings, and/or across the nine settings, or across the two English dominant settings?

Professor Jenkins concluded her talk on a positive note. She explained that despite the two massive obstacles in English in HE, i.e. academic publishers and international exam boards such as IELTS and TOEFL, there are many signs of change in relation to ELF. The Editorial of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca stated that “We see no need to insist on conformity to native-speaker usage for its own sake… . We have therefore removed conventional publisher’s submission guideline … and simply ask that authors submit manuscripts writing in an English that will be intelligible to a wide international readership.” (Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, Editorial, Vol 1, issue 1). In addition, McNamara (2014) stated that “The distinction between native and non-native speaker competence, which lies at the heart of the movement, can no longer be sustained; we need a radical reconceptualization of the construct of successful communication that does not depend on this distinction.”


  • Doiz, A., Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (Eds.). (2012). English-medium instruction at universities: Global challenges. Multilingual matters.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a lingua franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford University Press.
  • Jenkins, J. (2013). English as a lingua franca in the international university: The politics of academic English language policy. Routledge.
  • McNamara, T. (2014). 30 Years on—Evolution or Revolution?. Language Assessment Quarterly11(2), 226-232.

See the online recording of the lecture here.


“A multilingual approach to analysing test results and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community” by Gessica De Angelis

This post was contributed by Agnès Marchessou, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalDr Gessica De Angelis’ seminar was the second in a series of talks being hosted by Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, as part of its 50th Anniversary celebration. It gave us the opportunity to hear from one of the great alumni contributors to the field. De Angelis obtained her PhD at Birkbeck in 2002 with Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele as supervisor. She worked at the University of Toronto, the University of Bolzano and is currently Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin.

One of the most inspiring aspects of De Angelis’ research is the fact that it has sociopolitical implications, well beyond the field of Applied Linguistics. By presenting a critical overview of standardised tests, De Angelis exposes the language barriers to an equal education, with ramifications at policy-making level.

The research presented takes place in the province of South Tyrol (Northern Italy), a multilingual region where three languages coexist within the community: German (the largest population), Italian and Ladin (the Dolomites’ dialect). De Angelis took us through the traumatic and complex history of the region, torn apart by neighbouring nations. Of particular interest was the signing in 1972 of Article 19, the statute which gave the right to education in any of the three local languages, and introduced three separate monolingual school boards. By stipulating that teachers had to be of the same mother-tongue as their students, it actually made bilingual education illegal.

De Angelis presented two pieces of research in this complex sociolinguistic context.

The first study (De Angelis 2012; De Angelis and Jessner, 2012) looked at the relation between school performance and the language spoken in the community (population distribution), with speakers of Italian L1, German L2 and English L3. Written national evaluations undertaken by 14 year old students were used as data. The results showed a typical association between L2 exposure and proficiency, but most importantly, the research demonstrated that it was the absence rather than the presence of Italian L1 in the community that made the difference, by increasing proficiency in L2 German. In other words, a context with a majority of L1 German speakers gave the L1 Italian group more opportunities to communicate with them and therefore improved their L2 proficiency in the language of ‘the other’. This in turn had an effect on L3 competence, given that high proficiency in German L2 was found to have a positive effect on English L3.

The second study (De Angelis 2014) focused on the language proficiency of immigrant children attending Italian schools in Italian and German-speaking areas. National school test results on seven year olds were compared at a national and local level. Unexpectedly, in the case of South Tyrol, both 1st and 2nd generation immigrants underperformed to a similar extent, when it would typically be expected that 2nd generation immigrants would outperform 1st generation ones (as shown in national results). When reassessing the data in view of the language spoken in the community, 2nd generation immigrants actually also outperformed 1st generation ones in German speaking areas (where opportunities to practice Italian within the community are limited).

Consequently a multilingual approach can prove beneficial for the accurate reading of test results within specific local linguistic contexts. The misinterpretation of such results can have heavy financial repercussions for the use of (often limited) resources in education. Standardised tests also have important social implications (McNamara & Roever, 2006), therefore raising concerns about their interpretation may assist in addressing inequalities (in education for instance). I have found such insights into the language conflicts of South Tyrol most valuable, as my current research is taking me to another European border region, Alsace.

De Angelis, G. (2014) A multilingual approach to analysing standardized test results: immigrant primary school children and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community. Intercultural Education, 25 (1), 14-28.

De Angelis, G. (2012) The effect of population distribution on L1 and L2 acquisition: evidence from the multilingual region of South Tyrol. International Journal of Multilingualism, 9 (4), 407-422.

De Angelis, G. and Jessner, U. (2012) Writing across languages in a bilingual context: A dynamic systems theory approach. In R. M. Manchòn (Ed.) L2 Writing Development: multiple perspectives. Trends in Applied Linguistics Series. Mouton de Gruyter. 47-68.

McNamara, T. F. and Roever, C. (2006). Language testing: The social dimension. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

See the full recording of the talk here.