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English as Second Language: Second Language Acquisition Proficiency


Second language acquisition refers to the learning of another language after the native language has been learned. Sometimes the term refers to the learning of a third or fourth language. The important aspect is that the term refers to the learning of a language after the learning of the native language (Gas and Selinker, 1994). It includes how learners create a new language system, what is learned of a second language and what is not learned and why most second language learners do not achieve the same degree of proficiency in a second language as they do in their native language (Gas and Selinker, 1994).

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The second language is commonly referred to as the L2 and the native language as L1. The acquisition of a second language could be in a classroom situation, or in a more natural setting. Second language acquisition is a multidisciplinary field and is linked with a wide variety of subjects such as linguistics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neurolinguistics (Freeman & Freeman, 2001). In the classroom environment, children learn two things: second language and content through second language, both of which are complex processes. There are many questions regarding process, conditions of learning, influences on learning and prediction of success (Snow, 1992).

According to Kathleen E. Snow, any language system is truly complex and has many aspects of grammar that have never been described, and therefore cannot be taught. Moreover, Snow also holds that the knowledge required by a person to speak competently in a second language goes far beyond what is obtained as input and it is very important that the learner takes active role in the acquisition process (Snow, 1992). She also points out that children who grow up learning two languages often display excellent grasp of the second language system and how it works. But they tend to lose language they do not use by a phenomenon called language attrition (Snow, 1992).

Douglas H. Brown lists twelve principles of second language learning based on which teaching strategies may be devised: Automaticity; Meaningful Learning; The Anticipation of Reward; The Intrinsic Motivation Principle; Strategic Investment; Language Ego; Self-confidence; Risk-taking; The Language-Culture Connection; The Native Language Effect; Interlanguage; and Communicative Competence (Brown, 1994).

There are many language acquisition theories that can be applied in the context of students. In an age of increasing diversity in classroom, it is expected that an understanding of second language acquisition can improve the ability of mainstream teachers to serve the culturally and linguistically diverse students in their classrooms (Gass and Selinker, 1994). Stephen Krashn endorsed the ‘comprehensible input’ hypothesis, according to which learners acquire language by intaking and understanding language that is a little beyond their current level of competence (Gass and Selinker,1994).

Merrill Swain and others has expanded this concept to include comprehensible output implying that it is important for a learner to have opportunities to use the language and skills they have acquired in second language acquisition. Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis holds that the emotions of the learner such as anxiety, embarrassment or anger can interfere or assist with the learning of the second language (Gass and Selinker, 1994).

All of these language acquisition theories have provided four key principles that can be directly applied to second language acquisition within the classroom. These principles are important for all students, but are of particular importance to English language learners: increase comprehensibility through simplifying content; increase interaction through cooperative learning, study buddies, project-based learning etc; increase thinking/study skills; and use native language of student to increase comprehensibility; By applying these techniques its possible to enhance the learning experience of second language learners of English (Gass and Selinker, 1994).

The application of grammar in second language has been a matter of great research. The relationship of pedagogy to second language acquisition is complex and is one that is often widely debated in the realm of applied linguistics. The potential influence of instruction on acquisition has been studied by Bardovi-Harlig by studying the acquisition of tense and aspect in an instructional setting. This is a study of a single subsystem of grammar.

The study of the acquisition of tense and aspect is particularly interesting and informative in an investigation of SLA and pedagogy because tense and aspect are central to most second or foreign language curricula. Tense and aspect play an important role in grammatically focused pedagogical materials. The tense/aspect system of a language is best understood in relation to the more general study of temporal expression in that language (Bardovi-Harlig, 1992b).

If we use English as an example, a learner must study linguistic devices such as morphology, morphosyntactic, time adverbials and adverbs of frequency. Learners must acquire the appropriate morphology plus irregular forms for tense, past (-ed) and nonpast (Ά, -s); for aspect, progressive (be + ing); and for perfect (have + en). The morphosyntactic of the system refers to the order of these elements in combination, as in the past perfect progressive ‘had been reading’. The temporal semantics of the system can be perceived as the meaning of each form and the contrast between the forms.

The early stages of temporal expression in the interlanguage of adult untutored learners of English (Schumann, 1987) have three stages that are common to both tutored and untutored learners. In the first stage of temporal expression, there is no systematic use of tense/aspect morphology. At this stage learners establish temporal reference in four ways: scaffolded discourse (relying on the contribution of the interlocutor), implicit reference (reference inferred from a particular context), contrast of events, and chronological order in narration (Meisel, 1987; Schumann, 1987). In the next stage, reference to the past is first expressed explicitly through the use of adverbial expressions and connectives.

In the third stage verbal morphology appears, but it is not used systematically. During this stage, learners show high rates of use of time adverbials as measured by the ratio of time adverbials to verbs (Bardovi-Harlig, 1992b). As the use of tense morphology increases, the use of time adverbials decreases.

Apart from these three stages, a fourth stage may be identified. The fourth stage is characterized by high rates of appropriate use of verbal morphology. However, the high rates of formal accuracy and appropriate use that characterize the interlanguage of advanced learners at the fourth stage are not the same for untutored learners. Classroom learners of English may surpass untutored learners in terms of formal accuracy.

This shows that English language is best acquired as a second language within the walls of a classroom. This argument is further strengthened by the findings of the European Science Foundation’s 3-year longitudinal study of learners of Dutch, English, French, German, and Swedish. According to this study, “all learners develop at least some inflectional verb morphology, but not all of them develop tense contrasts”. In contrast, all of the classroom learners achieved high appropriate use of past-tense morphology during the single year of Bardovi-Harlig’s 1994 longitudinal study (Bardovi-Harlig, 1994). In the case of classroom second language learners, it has been found that formal accuracy is not always accompanied by equivalent rates of appropriate use. In fact, the early stages of high formal accuracy are characterized by low levels of appropriate use (Bardovi-Harlig, 1992).

For example, learners may show morphosyntactically correct instances of past progressive, but these forms are rarely used. This has been found to be true in cases of both compositions and structured elicitation tasks. In a study of compositions written by advanced adult learners of English, defined by TOEFL scores of 550, it was found that learners exhibited inappropriate use of verb morphology in context but relatively few errors in the forms themselves ( Bardovi-Harlig & Bofman, 1989).

Learners produced well-formed strings such as ‘has been developed’ and ‘had jumped’, but used them in inappropriate contexts; in contrast, ill-formed strings such as ‘had had’ and ‘have been travel’ occurred rarely. Even more common forms such as the simple past were used incorrectly. In fact, errors in use were 7.5 times more frequent than errors in form. In a subsequent study Bardovi-Harlig) tested the relation of form to meaning under more controlled conditions (Bardovi-Harlig, 1992).

Among the forces that shape the acquisition of the tense/aspect system are lexical aspectual classes that have to do with the internal constituency of events or situations. The distribution of the simple past tense, for example, shows a decided bias toward lexical aspectual classes. Learners tend to use past-tense morphology first with punctual verbs (achievement verbs) or telic verbs (achievement verbs and accomplishment verbs) and eventually generalize the use of the past throughout the system.

Among dynamic verbs, past-tense morphology appears first with achievement verbs, then with accomplishment verbs (verbs that have. both endpoints and duration, that is, build a house, write a paper, or read a book), and finally with activity verbs (verbs that have no endpoint but do have duration, e.g. sleep, walk, and play). A number of studies have since corroborated these findings with instructed and uninstructed adult learners of English as a second language (Bardovi-Harlig, 1992).

The results of a cross-sectional study that Reynolds and Bardovi-Harlig conducted with 182 instructed learners of English as a second language revealed an acquisition sequence similar to that of Andersen’s untutored learners (Bardovi-Harlig & Reynolds, 1993). The learners showed a significantly greater use of the simple past tense with achievement verbs and accomplishment verbs (verbs with endpoints, often called telic verbs or events) than with activity verbs (verbs with inherent duration, or atelic verbs). Learners at the higher levels eventually used the simple past with all predicates in all three aspectual classes, but learners at lower levels began with a system of tense distribution that favored telic verbs.

Given the evidence that similar patterns hold cross-linguistically across various environments and across different tasks, it seems clear that success in acquiring grammar in second language English cannot be attributed to instruction. To sum up, tutored and untutored learners follow the same early stages of temporal expression. Tutored learners seem to surpass untutored learners in formal accuracy, an apparent advantage of instruction. However, the distribution of past-tense morphology across aspectual categories is the same for learners in both environments, suggesting that instruction does not change the basic stages of form-meaning associations.

Bardovi-Harlig and Dörnyei (1997) looked at pragmatic competence in academic counseling sessions and found that pragmatic errors were more severe than grammatical errors. For example, the non-native group tended to use less mitigation in their suggestions and rejections, which resulted in their being perceived as too direct or even rude. Zohreh Eslami-Rasekh, in his article titled, “Raising the pragmatic awareness of language learners” points out that it is necessary to understand and create language that is suitable for use in real-life situations. To improve second language communicative competence, it is necessary to focus on both form and pragmatic concerns.

This means, just being able to produce grammatically correct sentences will not help a person to order food at a restaurant. Bardovi-Harlig and Dörnyei (1997) looked at pragmatic competence in academic counseling sessions and found that pragmatic errors were more severe than grammatical errors. For example, the non-native group tended to use less mitigation in their suggestions and rejections, which resulted in their being perceived as too direct or even rude.

Pragmalinguistic failure is mainly due to the cultural differences between L1 and L2. This implies that different strategies should be used with people from different cultures. Egyptians tend to compliment each other on natural attributes which may not be easily accepted in North America. Complimenting another saying “your skin is beautiful” will be accepted in an Egyptian context, whereas in a North American context, it is likely to be considered sexual harassment and can lead to a lawsuit.

Pragmalinguistic failure can lend itself to miscommunication. Gumperz (1982) in his research found that people who were responsible for job interviews, loan applications, etc, tended to misconstrue information about the L2 speaker’s abilities and attitudes. This form of intended bigotry happens because minority groups are not given equal opportunities for moving up the social ladder as compared to the majority.

Discrimination such as this can be prevented by properly preparing L2 learners pragmalinguistically. Eslami-Rasekh (2005) suggests a few activities to increase students’ pragmatic awareness. Through these activities, students get to know what strategies are used for apologizing in native language L1 and second language L2, what is considered an offense in their culture compared to the target culture, what are different degrees of offense for different situations in the two languages, and how the nature of the relationship between the participants affects the use of apologies. Two major techniques are teacher presentation and discussion; and student discovery.

Teachers can show the importance of contextual variables in the different language forms by providing detailed information on the participants, their status, the situations and the speech events that are happening. In the case of student discovery technique, students observe and record naturally occurring speech acts and learn language intricacies through observation. One strategy given by the author is to have students translate speech acts from their first language to English, identifying and discussing pragmatic norms in different speech communities (Eslami-Rasekh, 2005).

House and Kasper (1987) argue that strong similarities (also known as corresponding effects) can be found in some languages such as Danish and German and these similarities make it possible to transfer certain strategies into English without formal instruction.

But then, students tend to compartmentalize their knowledge and fail to carry over what they already know to a new task. This tendency to compartmentalize knowledge should be taken into consideration, when planning to teach strategies to avoid pragmalinguistic failure. Another notion that needs to be examined is that there are some linguistic and cultural universals vis-a-vis pragmatic knowledge (Kasper, 1997a). Kasper (1997a) reviewed 10 studies that indicated that pragmatic competence can be taught and comparison of control and experiment groups illustrates the effectiveness of instruction.

When implicit vs. explicit instruction was taken into consideration, it was found that students’ pragmatic ability improved regardless of the methodology employed. However, the group that was taught by explicit instruction performed better than any other group. An eclectic approach and the use of suggestopedia were both effective in improving students’ pragmatic ability, but students taught by the eclectic approach outperformed the suggestopedia group. The review of the 10 studies also indicated that the student’s level of second language proficiency does not seem to hinder the teaching of pragmatic competence.

In Japan learners rarely have the opportunity to use the L2 outside of the classroom, which limits their out-of-classroom observation opportunities. However, authentic materials can be brought into the classroom (Bardovi-Harlig). EFL/ESL textbooks are not considered sources of authentic material because there appears to be a wide discrepancy between the way native speakers use the language and what is represented in the texts.

For example, Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991) found that when examining conversational closings in 20 textbooks few of them represented naturalistic use, implying that even the native speakers who contribute to textbook development may lack explicit knowledge of pragmatics. The authors have suggested a two-pronged approach. First, increasing awareness provides opportunities for students to increase their knowledge base vis-a-vis pragmalinguistics. For example, students could be taught under what circumstances it is appropriate to compliment someone, what topics are appropriate, and what syntactic formulas are most commonly used.

Second, students could be given a task such as studying a film outside of class in conjunction with its screenplay and taking notes on the pragmalinguistic features that were explained in class. Students could then report back to class and compare their notes with others. This approach would provide opportunities for students to focus on applicable features in the film context and at the same time enable them to “make connections between linguistic forms, pragmatic functions, their occurrence in different social contexts, and their cultural meanings” (Kasper, 1997a, p. 10).

The relevance of pragmalinguistic failure to language teaching is that it is an important component in the development of communicative competence. It is important to examine the L1/L2 relationship in regards to corresponding effects and also determine the types and degrees of difference between two respective cultures. Furthermore, learners need to be made explicitly aware of what they already know in order to consistently and correctly apply their knowledge. This should involve the use of authentic materials to raise awareness and to provide opportunities for practice.

There are a few effective strategies based on research and principles of second language acquisition that may be used to teach English as a second language through use of a student’s native language:

Total Physical Response (TPR). Developed by James J. Asher in the 1960s, TPR emphasizes the use of physical activity to increase meaningful learning opportunities and language retention.

Cooperative Learning: Robert E. Slavin (1995) has shown cooperative learning can be effective for students at all academic levels and learning styles. Cooperative learning involves student participation in small-group learning activities that promote positive interactions. In fact it has been found that ELL students can benefit from face-to-face verbal interactions, which promote communication that is natural and meaningful (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1994; Kagan, 1994).

Language Experience Approach: This approach uses students’ words to create a text that becomes material for a reading lesson (Carrasquillo & Rodriguez, 2002). This approach allows students to bring their personal experiences into the classroom—especially important for culturally diverse students

Dialogue Journals: This is an interactive approach between teacher and student. Students write in a journal, and the teacher writes back regularly, responding to questions, asking questions, making comments, or introducing new topics.

Academic Language Scaffolding: The term “scaffolding” is used to describe the step-by-step process of building students’ ability to complete tasks on their own (Garcia, 2003).

Native Language Support: Whenever possible, ELL students should be provided with academic support in their native language. Teachers can use texts that are bilingual or that involve a student’s native culture in classroom activities.


Appropriate choice of teaching strategies to improve outcomes in teaching English as a second language depends on various factors. Understanding the principles behind second language acquisition will enable teachers to suitable devise strategies for the particular student for a particular lesson. Different strokes for different folks for different works are then the key principle behind teaching English as a second language.


Bardovi-Harlig and Hartford (1996). Beyond Methods: Components of Second Language Teacher Education. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., & Dörnyei, Z. (1997). Pragmatic awareness and instructed L2 learning: An empirical investigation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), Orlando, FL, USA.

Bardovi-Harlig, K., Hartford, B. A. S., Mahan-Taylor, R., Morgan, M. J., Reynolds, D. W. (1991). Developing pragmatic awareness: Closing the conversation. ELT Journal, 45, 4-15.

Brown, H.Douglas (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Prentice-Hall Regents. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Eslami-Rasekh, Zohreh (2005). Raising the pragmatic awareness of language learners. ELT Journal. Volume 59.

Garcia, G. Gilbert (2003). English Learners: Reaching the Highest Level of English Literacy. International Reading Association.

Gas, M. Susan and Selinker, Larry (1994). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Hillsdale, NJ.

Gumperz, J. (1982). Discourse strategies. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. UK.

House, J., & Kasper, G. (1987). Interlanguage pragmatics: Requesting in a foreign language. In W. Lorscher & R. Schelze (Eds.), Perspectives on language in performance: Festschrift for Werner Hullen. Tubingen, Germany: Narr.

Kasper, G. (1997). Can pragmatic competence be taught? Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center. The University of Hawaii.

Snow, E. Catherine (1992). Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition. Psycholinguistics Today.

Snow, E. Catherine (1992). Perspectives on Second-Language Development Implications for Bilingual Education. Educational Researcher. Volume 21, No. 2. pp. 16-19.

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