Tag Archives: second language

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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“Tasks vs. Conditions: Influences on Second Language Performance” by Professor Peter Skehan

This post was contributed by Chieri Noda, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

linguistics_50_finalWe had the pleasure of hosting a lecture by Peter Skehan, Professorial Research Fellow at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham on 27 October. Being the first Applied Linguistics student to complete a PhD at Birkbeck, Peter was the perfect speaker to kick off the series of talks marking the department’s 50th anniversary. The lecture hall was packed with attentive students and academics from not only Birkbeck but neighbouring institutions – ‘the beating heart of Applied Linguistics’ as the emcee put it.

After reminiscing about his days at Birkbeck, Peter started by giving an overview of the dimensions commonly used for measuring second language task-based performance (complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis) and by highlighting the differences between the two contrasting approaches in cognitive research in this area, i.e. Cognition Hypothesis (Robinson, 2011) and his own Limited Attentional Capacity framework (Skehan, 2014), often referred to as the Trade-off Hypothesis. After pointing out some of the problems with the construct of task complexity on which the Cognition Hypothesis is built, he went on to establish his view that task conditions could better illuminate second language performance.

He took us through research on the effects of on-line planning, repetition and post-task planning he had done with his PhD students and co-researchers in Hong Kong. The studies can be found in a recent book he edited, Processing Perspectives on Task Performance. Particularly interesting was Zhan Wang’s 2014 study in which conditions of on-line planning (i.e. planning while speaking) were carefully controlled using slowed Mr Bean videos. The results suggested that on-line planning itself did not improve performance, but a combination of pre-task and on-line planning boosted accuracy and complexity. While at first glance this might seem to support the Cognition Hypothesis, Peter proposed that with the help of Willem Levelt’s (1989) psycholinguistic model of first language speech production, these effects could be explained to be due to two separate psycholinguistic influences, one of which raised complexity and one of which raised accuracy.

One thing that the audience had the privilege of hearing, which readers of Peter’s recent book would be missing out on, was the amusing but nevertheless insightful account of how his PhD students had been stimulated by past research and had developed their idea into well-designed research. Perhaps it was the accumulation of such experience that prompted him to share a piece of practical advice for MA and BA students in the audience. “In some ways,” suggested Peter, “the best thing to do is to find a study you half like. One that you like, but you’ve got reservations about.” He explained that students could redesign the study within the framework of the original study to correct problematic elements. He admitted this might be edging away from doing something brand new, but pushed students to master research techniques.

Peter’s talk was truly fitting as the first of our anniversary talks, not simply because it presented the findings of his extensive research over the years, but for showing us how he engaged with competing views and with his own data to drive his research forward. My doctoral research on Japanese researchers talking in English takes a conversation analytic perspective and so in terms of methodology very different from Peter’s, but his talk left me with a lot to reflect on.

  • Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: from intention to articulation. MIT.
  • Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2011). Second language task complexity: researching the cognition hypothesis of language learning and performance. John Benjamins.
  • Skehan, P. (Ed.). (2014). Processing Perspectives on Task Performance. John Benjamins.
  • Wang, Z. (2014). On-line time pressure manipulations: L2 speaking performance under five types of planning and repetition conditions. In P. Skehan (Ed.), Processing Perspectives on Task Performance (pp. 27-62). John Benjamins.

A video of the lecture is available here.