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Giving Adult Language Learners Wings to Fly (and Acquire)
Bill VanPatten Responds to Robert O'Neill's Criticisms of SLA

Bill VanPatten's new book, From Input to Output: A Teacher's Guide to Second Language Acquisition Theory (McGraw-Hill) will be published this fall. Professor VanPatten, now on sabbatical from his responsibilities at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agreed to reply to some criticisms of SLA from Robert O'Neill's recently featured interview. (Read also O'Neill's new rebuttal of VanPatten's arguments)

Bill VanPattenI would like to thank Robb Scott for the invitation to respond to Robert O'Neill's comments in his recent interview. It is difficult sometimes to respond to people in the field of teaching who have such vast experience and who have clocked thousands of hours of teaching and interaction with students. But there is, as I see it, something not quite right about O'Neill's position on the possibility of acquisition in adult L2 learners. I hope my comments are taken in the spirit of lively debate.

When people reject the concept that an L2 is acquired it is most likely because they are reacting to instructional pronouncements rather than SLA research and theory. That is, a methodologist comes in and says, "Based on SLA theory, languages should be taught such and such a way." In spite of what we know about SLA, pronouncements about methodologies other than some broad principles by which to guide teaching may simply be wrong. In addition, it is sometimes the case that such instructional pronouncements offer misinterpretations of theory and research. One such misinterpretation is this: if we use the term acquisition, then that use means that L1 and L2 acquisition must be the same and therefore we teach the L2 in the manner that the L1 is acquired. That L2 languages are acquired does NOT in anyway imply in and of itself that they are acquired the same way L1s are. Compare this idea with the following situation: A bird flies to Chicago from Champaign, Illinois while a man gets into a prop plane and also flies to Chicago. They both got in the air and "flew" but one could hardly call what the man did the same thing as what the bird did, right? Well, no and yes. In one scenario, one of them flapped its wings and the other did not. In one scenario, one of them could inherently fly and the other needed a machine. Yet, at the same time, they both had to drag wind across a wing to propel them forward. There are certain aerodynamics of flight that (currently) govern and constrain how one takes to the air and in the case of the man and the bird, there was something fundamentally the same that each couldn't get around. In short, there is only one way to fly through air; to drag wind across a wing (even rockets do this, but their wings are small). This was what the Wright brothers understood and what led them to their famous Kitty Hawk experiment. Just imagine if they had not discovered this fundamental aspect of flying. (Flying through space is another matter since it is largely a vacuum and birds couldn't go there anyway.)

Acquisition is like flying. There is something that everyone must do, something fundamental, even if they don't do it exactly the same. What is that thing? Get exposure to input and construct an implicit linguistic system based on the raw data in that input. And there is only one kind of input; language that is used to express some kind of meaning. Now, this does not mean that children and adults acquire in exactly the same way or that the product is exactly the same. It does not mean that you can talk to children and adults in the same way. It does not even mean that children and adults have access to all the same acquisition mechanisms in the same way or to the same degree. And it certainly doesn't mean that language classrooms need to look like a toddler's learning environment. All it means is that acquisition is input dependent. It is entirely possible that children and adults possess different mechanisms for getting language while at the same time need exactly the same "data." One needs a machine and the other flaps, but they both have to drag air across a certain kind of wing structure.

With the above in mind, then, it makes perfect sense to say that adults acquire languages. All the evidence we have points to it and even completely different theories such as Universal Grammar and Connectionism (one posits innate language specific mechanisms involved in acquisition the other does not) would claim that adults acquire language. It makes no sense to say that adults learn languages. Even in cognitive theory that is not oriented to language one tends to hear such things as "the acquisition of expert knowledge or skill" because it is not clear that such expert skill is taught and learned in the sense O'Neill implies.

What then is acquisition? It is nothing more and nothing less than the creation of an implicit system; in the case of SLA a linguistic system. It is knowing more than what you could have possible learned explicitly. It is knowing more than what you have been exposed to. It is having mechanisms inside your head that are responsible for the processing, organization, and storing of data. These abilities are observable in SLA and are summarized in any contemporary book on SLA.

Acquisition is not explicit learning and explicit knowledge cannot become implicit knowledge. This is simply fact in all theories and research. Now, by noting this fact one should not conclude that explicit knowledge is not helpful. Nor should such a statement be taken to mean that conscious effort at acquisition is not involved. Such conclusions are premature. That explicit knowledge cannot become implicit knowledge means one and only one thing: you don't learn language by practicing explicit rules. The research on the effects of instruction is pointing quite strongly to the conclusion that explicit instruction is beneficial. However, it is also quite clear that only some instructional efforts help language acquisition and that some are definitely better than others. The ones that are better are those that help learners maximize what they get out of the input and that push them beyond non-syntactic processing (to paraphrase Swain).

But back to acquisition and whether adults acquire languages. Independently of all the empirical research there is one overwhelming truth to adult second language competence and abilities: the only learners who become advanced are those who have lots of exposure to input and interaction with speakers of the language. These learners study abroad, work and live abroad, marry into the L2 culture or otherwise have a good deal of contact with the language in communicative situations. No learner who is restricted to learning in O'Neill's sense becomes advanced in the same way. So, adults do need access to input-and lots of it. And what they do is abandon learning at some point and become acquirers.

Now these advanced learners are interesting because, guess what. They can have intuitions about the L2 like L1 speakers have about an L1. What is more important is that even when their systems are non-native like and their intuitions are different from those of an L1 speaker, those intuitions reflect that the construction of the implicit system are governed by the very biological constraints that O'Neill alludes to, namely, Universal Grammar. Being governed by Universal Grammar does not mean a person acquires an L1 and an L2 in exactly the same way (just to be sure). And to drive the point home (again) it does not mean that L2 learners wind up with grammars in their heads that are the same as L1 grammars. Being governed by Universal Grammar simply means that your internal efforts are constrained. Chomsky's comments on language teaching may be right (in a certain reduced sense) but not for the reasons that O'Neill states or implies by his statements. Teaching languages in an explicit way that is somehow supposed to affect the workings of Universal Grammar is not possible. Chomsky is right on that score.

To believe, then, that there is no adult language acquisition is to ignore almost four decades worth of research and the very simple fact that people have been acquiring second languages in cultures where there is no writing, no schools, and thus no learning in O'Neill's sense. To say that adults do not acquire language is to ignore how the term is actually used in SLA research and theory and reminds me of a recent debate on this same website: the role of theory in teaching (a debate, by the way, in which O'Neill played no part; so these particular comments are directed toward another discussion). I was surprised by the lack of specificity underlying some of the discussion. Concepts such as "what works" are deceptive. What does it mean for something to "work"? And work on what? What was missing in the entire discussion (except in Yates' response and I wish he would have expanded on it) was any concept of language, language acquisition and what teaching is supposed to do (i.e., the processes that teaching is supposed to affect). If one knows my own work, it should be clear that I believe in acquisition and yet I also believe that teaching can make a difference. However, I further believe that teaching should be informed so that instructors understand the processes that their efforts can reach/touch/affect. In the end, concepts like "profound difference" that are used to contrast adults and children are misleading because what we think are profound differences may not be as profound as we think. Just ask the Wright brothers.

By Bill VanPatten
Director of Spanish Basic Language Program
& Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition
University of Illinois at Chicago

2002 ESL MiniConference Online