“What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language?”

What is easy and what is hard to learn in a foreign language? I just read a chapter in an edited volume on this very question, and this post aims to provide both a synopsis of the chapter and a critical reaction to it.

To answer the question, Slabakova (2013) draws on Universal Grammar theory (UG), to develop what she calls the Bottleneck Hypothesis. In brief, UG postulates that, of all the features that make up a language (e.g. word order, semantic relations, verb inflections etc.), some are hard-wired to the brain, and therefore shared across all human languages (i.e., they are linguistic universals), whereas others differ from language to language (or, to be technical, they are subject to parametric variation). In her chapter, Slabakova presents readers with a robust set of empirical data, drawn from several experimental studies, and makes a compelling argument that what challenges learners most is functional morphology (roughly speaking, functional morphology refers to these parts of words which denote tense, person, aspect etc.). She argues that once functional morphology is mastered, it is easy to acquire other aspects of language, such as syntactic structures or semantic notions. Hence, functional morphology constitutes a ‘bottleneck’ of sorts in the process of second language acquisition.

Although UG is primarily concerned with understanding the cognitive processes of language acquisition rather than prescribing pedagogical practice, the chapter includes a discussion of implications for teaching (pp. 24-25). On the basis of her impressive empirical data, Slabakova argues that the communicative approach to language learning does not constitute an optimally effective way to learn a second language. She suggests that it is pedagogically beneficial to engage students in activities that highlight the hard-to-acquire morphological forms, and to provide ample opportunities for practice. In her words:

In a sense, drilling of the functional morphology is inevitable if the form has to […] get sufficiently automatic for easy lexical access. […] Thus, the bottom line of the chapter is: Practice your functional morphology! In ample, clear unambiguous context! As in learning other lexical items, it may be painful, but – no pain, no gain! (p. 25)

It is my view that Slabakova is only partly correct in making this suggestion. Much of her criticism seems to focus on the earliest or ‘strong’ formulations of the communicative approach, which tended to completely exclude the study of formal features of language (Canale & Swain 1980 and Savignon 1983 are explicitly mentioned) In pointing the deficiencies of these approaches, Slabakova makes a valid point, but it is a point that has already been addressed in language education: more recent pedagogical approaches (e.g. Willis and Willis 2007) provide for raising awareness of formal features, and do so in ways that are more compatible with current pedagogical thought than the repetitive drilling activities that Slabakova seems to suggest.

More importantly, I think Slabakova’s criticism of communicative theory brings to the forefront the question of ‘what features of language are to be learnt?” If the goal of second language pedagogy is to help learners to perfectly reproduce linguistic structures in the target language, then it is hard to argue against the kind of approach that Slabakova suggests. Communicative language teaching, however, is not just about learning the rules through which sounds and words come together to produce meaning. Rather, it is about learning to use language (1) in context, (2) in order to do things: it aims, for instance, to help learners understand that “Could you pass me the salt, please?” is not really a question, and that “It’s stuffy in here” might be functionally equivalent to “Open the window!”  Deciding what language is appropriate to different contexts is highly culture-specific, and does not seem to flow easily from the mastery of morphological from. It is therefore hard to see how a pedagogy which is based primarily on mastering morphological variation might be helpful in developing skills necessary to use language effectively.

Coming back to the original question, the point I am trying to make is that Slabakova may well be right in identifying functional morphology as the bottleneck of second language acquisition. However, the cognitive challenges associated with mastering functional morphology do not necessarily promote it to the status of a learning priority. Learning priorities can only be determined on the basis of the learners’ specific needs, and this is a domain which UG is decidedly unsuited to inform.

Works cited

  • Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing, Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 1-47.
  • Savignon, S. (1983). Communicative Competence : Theory and Classroom Practice. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
  • Slabakova, R. (2013). What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language: a generative perspective. In del Pilar García Mayo, M., Junkal Gutierrez Mangado, M. & Martínez Adrián, M. (eds.) Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Willis, D., & Willis, J. R. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4 thoughts on ““What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language?””

  1. Dear Achilleas,

    The communicative approach to foreign language learning and teaching has been criticized for unduly emphasizing meaning (i.e. language as a social tool) over form (i.e. language as a system), and for largely disregarding socio-cultural diversity and transcultural difference in education. Despite these perceived problems, I think that its basic tenets are still valid and valuable today.
    Recent conceptualizations of communicative competence and CLT are truly balanced (see, e.g. Savignon’s Inverted Pyramid Model of Communicative Competence (2002), Richards’ ten core assumptions of CLT (2005), and Celce-Murcia’s model of communicative competence (2008).

    Sandra Savignon, for instance, argues that all dimensions of communicative competence (sociocultural, strategic, discourse, and grammatical) are equally important, and that “all the components are interrelated. They cannot be developed or measured in isolation, and one cannot go from one component to the other as when stringing beads on a necklace. Rather, when an increase occurs in one area, that component interacts with other components to produce a corresponding increase in overall communicative competence” (2002: 8).

    In a recently published paper, I discuss this interrelationship in more detail (see Kurtz 2013; written in German). If you are interested in reading this, please let me know.



    Celce-Murcia, Marianne (2008): „Rethinking the role of communicative competence in language teaching“. In: ALCÓN SOLER, Eva / SAFONT JORDÀ, Maria Pilar (Hrsg.) (2008): Intercultural Language Use and Language Learning. Berlin: Springer, 41-57.

    Kurtz, Jürgen (2013): Der Kommunikative Ansatz und seine Bedeutung für die Theorie und Praxis des Fremdsprachenunterrichts zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts. Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen 42 (2013): 1.

    Richards, Jack C. (2005): Communicative Language Teaching Today. Cambridge: CUP.

    Savignon, Sandra J. (2002): „Communicative Language Teaching: Linguistic Theory and Classroom Practice“. In: SAVIGNON, Sandra J. (Hrsg.) (2002): Interpreting Communicative Language Teaching: Concepts and Concerns in Teacher Education. Yale: Yale University Press, 1-28.

    Savignon, Sandra J. (2005): „Communicative Language Teaching: Strategies and Goals“. In: In: HINKEL, Eli (Hrsg.) (2005): Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Part I. Mahwah, N.J.: 635-652.

    Savignon, Sandra J. (2007): „Beyond communicative language teaching: what’s ahead?” In: Journal of Pragmatics 39, 207-220.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thorough and informative response, Jürgen. Your article seems very interesting, indeed, but it seems that my University does not subscribe to the journal in which it was published.

  2. This is a fascinating post. Thank you. I was wondering if you thought there might be scope in the argument that Slabakova’s analysis may offer a useful approach to the problem of ‘fossilization’.

    1. Hi, and thanks for saying that!

      I have always felt that language is a social phenomenon and needs to be studied with reference to its context. In this chapter, language learning is studied from a cognitive perspective, i.e. with emphasis on the processes that take place inside the head. This is not to say that the author’s approach is ‘wrong’ – it’s just a difference in emphasis. However, our perspectives are so incompatible that I do not feel very well qualified to answer.

      That having been said, I think that you make an interesting point. If the Bottleneck Hypothesis is correct, then it is quite likely that its effects will be visible in fossilisation. That is, fossilised aspects of language should be more common in functional morphology. I think that this could be an interesting research question for future empirical work.

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