Understanding 30 Common Language Learning and Acquisition Theories

tesol Apr 18, 2024

Understanding 30 Common Language Learning and Acquisition Theories

Why Do Language Learning and Acquisition Theories Matter?

  1. Informs Teaching Practices

  2. Predicts Challenges and Facilitators

  3. Guides Research and Curriculum Development

  4. Addresses Individual Differences

  5. Promotes Professional Development


How are ALA and ALA Theories Linked to ALA and ALA Theoretical Approaches Language Teaching Methodologies?

If you are enrolled in Teach Ahead's 120-Hour Online TESOL Certificate Program or a similar course, you have likely or will likely learn about ALA and ALL approaches, ALA and ALL theories and language teaching methodologies.

These groups of concepts will help inform your pedagogical identity, style and beliefs, and they are interconnected in the following ways.

  • Theoretical Frameworks Influence Methodologies: Theoretical perspectives on language learning and acquisition shape the design and implementation of language teaching methodologies. For example, communicative language teaching, influenced by cognitive and innatist theories, prioritizes meaningful communication and authentic language use in the classroom.

  • Empirical Evidence Informs Theories and Methodologies: Research findings from applied linguistics and language education contribute to the development and refinement of theories and methodologies. For instance, studies on the effectiveness of different instructional approaches may lead to revisions in teaching methodologies or modifications to existing theories.

  • Practical Application of Methodologies Validates Theories: The success or failure of language teaching methodologies in real-world classroom settings provides feedback that can validate or challenge existing theories of language learning and acquisition. Observations of learner behavior and language outcomes can contribute to the ongoing evolution of theoretical frameworks.

Understanding 30 Common Language Learning and Acquisition Theories

  • Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis:

    • Focuses on comparing the native and target languages to predict areas of difficulty in language learning.
    • Assumes that language interference occurs when learners transfer features from their native language to the target language.
  • Fossilization:

    • The phenomenon where learners plateau in their language development, despite continued exposure and practice.
    • Marks the point where errors become entrenched and difficult to correct.
  • Critical Period Hypothesis:

    • Suggests there is a biologically determined period during which language acquisition must occur for optimal proficiency.
    • After this period, language acquisition becomes significantly more challenging.
  • Universal Grammar:

    • Theory proposed by Chomsky suggesting that humans are born with an innate linguistic capacity.
    • Posits that all human languages share a common underlying structure.
  • Natural Order Hypothesis:

    • Proposes that learners acquire grammatical structures in a predictable sequence.
    • Certain structures are mastered before others, regardless of the learner's native language.
  • Language Transfer:

    • The influence of a learner's native language on the acquisition of a second language.
    • Can lead to both facilitation and interference in the learning process.
  • Interlanguage:

    • The intermediate linguistic system that learners construct during the process of second language acquisition.
    • Exhibits elements of both the native and target languages.
  • The Monitor Hypothesis:

    • Proposes that learners have two systems for language processing: acquisition and learning.
    • Learning can only be used as a monitor or editor of language output, not as a primary means of language production.
  • Affective Filter Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that emotional factors such as motivation, anxiety, and self-confidence influence language acquisition.
    • A high affective filter can hinder language learning, while a low filter facilitates it.
  • Input Hypothesis:

    • Proposed by Stephen Krashen, suggests that language acquisition occurs through exposure to comprehensible input.
    • Input should be slightly above the learner's current proficiency level to promote language development.
  • Output Hypothesis:

    • Opposite of the Input Hypothesis, suggests that language acquisition is facilitated by opportunities for learners to produce language.
    • Output practice helps learners notice gaps in their language knowledge.
  • Cognitive Theory:

    • Emphasizes the role of mental processes such as memory, attention, and problem-solving in language acquisition.
    • Views language learning as a cognitive skill similar to other types of learning.
  • Connectionism:

    • A learning theory that views language acquisition as the gradual strengthening of connections between neurons in the brain.
    • Emphasizes the importance of exposure to patterns in language.
  • Noticing Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that learners must consciously notice linguistic features in order to acquire them.
    • Awareness of language forms precedes their internalization.
  • Processability Theory:

    • Focuses on the cognitive processing demands of different linguistic structures.
    • Predicts the order in which learners acquire grammatical features based on their cognitive complexity.
  • Competition Model:

    • Proposes that multiple linguistic representations compete for activation during language processing.
    • The most activated representation determines language output.
  • Neurolinguistic Theory:

    • Investigates the neural mechanisms underlying language processing and acquisition.
    • Examines how brain structures and functions contribute to language learning.
  • Skill Acquisition Theory:

    • Views language learning as the development of a complex set of skills.
    • Emphasizes practice, feedback, and automatization of language tasks.
  • Socio-cognitive Theory:

    • Integrates social and cognitive factors in language acquisition.
    • Emphasizes the role of interaction, collaboration, and cultural context in learning.
  • Interaction Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that language learning is facilitated by meaningful interaction with proficient speakers.
    • Opportunities for negotiation of meaning promote language development.
  • Zone of Proximal Development:

    • A concept proposed by Vygotsky, referring to the difference between what a learner can do independently and what they can do with assistance.
    • Language learning is most effective when instruction is targeted within this zone.
  • Variability Hypothesis:

    • Proposes that variation in input and interaction promotes language learning.
    • Exposure to diverse linguistic forms and contexts enhances language acquisition.
  • Emergentism:

    • Views language as an emergent phenomenon arising from interaction between cognitive, social, and environmental factors.
    • Language patterns emerge from complex adaptive systems.
  • Input Enhancement Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that highlighting or manipulating certain linguistic features in input can facilitate language learning.
    • Drawing attention to specific forms increases learners' noticing and acquisition of those forms.
  • Dynamic Systems Theory:

    • Emphasizes the complex, dynamic nature of language development.
    • Language learning is influenced by multiple interacting factors, including individual, social, and environmental variables.
  • Attentional Resource Theory:

    • Proposes that language learning requires cognitive resources such as attention and memory.
    • Competing demands for attention can affect language processing and acquisition.
  • Markedness Differential Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that marked linguistic forms (less common or more complex) are acquired later than unmarked forms.
    • Language learners tend to acquire simpler or more frequent forms first.
  • Error Analysis:

    • Investigates the types and sources of errors made by language learners.
    • Provides insights into learners' interlanguage development and areas needing instructional focus.
  • Task Complexity Theory:

    • Examines how the complexity of language learning tasks influences acquisition.
    • More complex tasks may promote deeper language processing and greater learning gains.
  • Attribution Theory:

    • Focuses on learners' beliefs about the causes of success and failure in language learning.
    • Attribution of success to effort or ability influences motivation and persistence.
  • Narrative Input Hypothesis:

    • Suggests that exposure to narrative discourse facilitates language acquisition.
    • Narrative structures provide meaningful contexts for language learning.
  • Selective Attention Theory:

    • Proposes that learners attend selectively to linguistic input based on its relevance and salience.
    • Attentional focus influences what linguistic features are noticed and acquired.
  • Experiential Learning Theory:

    • Emphasizes the role of hands-on experience and reflection in language learning.
    • Learners acquire language through direct engagement with meaningful tasks and experiences.


Optional Activity

Consider and respond to the following questions.

  1. What is the central idea behind the Critical Period Hypothesis?
  2. How does the Input Hypothesis propose language acquisition occurs?
  3. According to Connectionism, what is the role of neural networks in language learning?
  4. Explain the difference between the Monitor Hypothesis and the Input Hypothesis.
  5. How does the Affective Filter Hypothesis influence language learning?
  6. What is the main premise of the Universal Grammar theory?
  7. Describe the concept of Interlanguage and its significance in language acquisition.
  8. How does the Noticing Hypothesis relate to language learning?
  9. According to Cognitive Theory, what role do mental processes play in language acquisition?
  10. What does the Dynamic Systems Theory propose about language development?

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