By Marc L. Nash

What is the best methodology to use for adult second language acquisition?
Adults do NOT acquire language—they learn language and there’s not a “best” methodology but a combination of them.

One of the most intriguing phenomena studied by linguists is children’s acquisition of language. Fascination with this issue goes back to the time when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. There is actually a revealing true story linguists use to poke fun at environmentalists: Pharaoh Psametichus (17thCent. B. C. E.) had his children brought up by a mute old shepherd couple, just to see what language they would learn. Close to a year later, the children were heard to utter “baa-baa” and the conclusion was that children raised in an environment of sheep would produce syllable “ba”.

Fortunately for all of us, the study of language acquisition has advanced greatly since that Pharaoh’s time. The field of linguistics (the scientific study of language based on sound, meaning and thought) and some of its sub-branches (theoretical linguistics, phonology, phonetics, morphology, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics) have been able to develop a variety of research strategies to study how language is acquired by children. Let’s keep in mind that language acquisition (subconscious/inborn linguistic principle) is not the same as language learning (conscious/deliberate attempt to master a language). I find it odd when people equate acquired language to learned language—they are different. Cognitively more mature second-language (L2) learners do not approach a second language in the same manner as they do their first acquired language. These facts alone justify setting L2 learning apart from first language acquisition (L1) and treating as a separate field of study. The term ‘applied linguistics’ commonly refers to second language research, which is directly concerned with the application of linguistics theory to second language teaching and learning.

To me, L2 means language learned after native tongue is established or L1. Second language learning is not applicable to bilingual or trilingual upbringing since they belong in first language acquisition or L1. I personally define L2 learning and L1 acquisition as unrelated; different cognitive principles apply here. For instance, my L1 acquired language is Spanish, my L2 acquired and learned is English—I included both acquired and learned here because I arrived to this country just before the critical period of acquisition, before age 12. My L2 learning could be any language I pursue to study as an adult. ‘Adult’ will be defined for the purpose of this paper, as anyone who is beyond the critical period for language acquisition, which normally ends by puberty.

I strongly believe that there is a critical period for acquired native tongue and primary language. This critical period is at the same time closely compatible with a transformational-generative theory of language acquisition. This theory stresses the richness and uniqueness of an innate language faculty, distinct from other cognitive abilities, and rapidly activated by children, who, in a wide variety of environments and despite often inadequate samples of language performance to go on to actual production and understanding of language. Children acquire basic linguistic competence by age 5; in other words, they have the understanding of the explicit and implicit of their first language” (Birgit Harley, 5-6: from Chomsky, 1965: McNeil, 1966). After that critical period is over, which ends around 12 years old, just before puberty, L2 learning takes over and can be learned just like any other form of learning. Second language learning cannot be equated to L1 or L2 acquisition after this critical period. L2 learning is done through a conscious, labored effort, and foreign accents cannot be overcome easily after this time (Harley, 6-12).

Study after study has shown that children under 12 acquire L2 in the host or natural environment more easily, three times faster, more proficiently and without an accent than do adults under similar circumstances. A child’s brain is more ‘plastic’ or ‘spongy’ and is receptive to L2 acquisition, especially in the area of pronunciation. Yes, the younger the better. This supports both the rationalist theory and the critical period theory.

The rationalist theory and cognitive psychology states that humans have an innate capacity for the development of language—that we are genetically programmed to develop our linguistic system. Other terms used in association with this perspective are ‘nativist’, ‘mentalist’, and ‘cognitive.’ A highly influential nativist view-point grew out of Noam Chomsky’s work, starting with the publication in 1957 of Syntactic Structures, and his harsh critique in 1959 of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism (Chastian, 137). Chomsky argued further that it must be the case that children were innately programmed to acquire language since they do it so quickly and with such limited input. This view of a child’s experience with language input has nothing to do with behavior, but with “language universals that exist in the human mind” (McLaughlin, 24).

Chomsky and McLaughlin, along with the rationalist, linguist and applied linguist, oppose the behaviorist or environmentalist perspective of language acquisition. The empiricist, behaviorist or environmentalist, believe that human learning and animal learning might be parallel. Chastain points out that Darwin’s theory of evolution made behaviorism seem credible, since Darwin’s theory implied that there was indeed continuity between the human species and the lower animals, and by implication between the human mind and the animal mind. As a result of this, the empiricist approach to psychology caught on,

particularly in the 1920s when laboratories were filled with intricate mazes, boxes, and cages to measure animal stimulus and response.

Chomsky maintained that language behavior was far more complex than the establishment of S-R connections, and that skinner’s theory could not possibly explain the creativity of children’s generative language (Chastin). Skinner’s research, in fact, was no real research since it ignored human subjects, in particular a child’s language acquisition.

Traditionally, language practitioners, especially in the field of applied linguistics for second language learning, have grouped themselves along the rationalist theory since empiricism for language was out by the 1960s. The empiricists believed that language was an oral phenomenon consisting of concrete signs that could be described. Empiricist methodologies like the Grammar-Translation and the Audiolingual treated language learning as habit formation through mimicry, memorization, and drills. Rationalists saw language not as structure, but as rule-governed creativity. Rationalist methodologies emphasize meaningfulness, understanding of psychology, humane approach, and for students to learn in a context of a relaxed, stress-free environment. The current methodologies that jumped on the ‘bandwagon’ of the rationalist theories (Monitor theory, Universal theory and Cognitive theory) of language acquisition are the Direct Method (immersion and total physical response—TPR), and the Natural Approach (communicative language teaching in context, real language for real situations).

The goal of the Natural Approach, based on Stephen D. Krashen’s Monitor theory, is to teach intermediate survival skills based on what natives do to survive in their society. The problem with applied linguistics is that its practitioners group together native acquisition, and second language learning in teen/adults because they do not have a solid understanding of linguistic theory on language acquisition—many of them do not have theoretical linguistic training.

No matter how hard Stephen D. Krashen’s Monitor theory or any other methodologies would like to equate the two, the facts still indicate that L1 and L2 learning are different. Krashen’s Comprehensible Input (i + 1) biggest flaw is in assuming that acquirers go for meaning first and acquire structures later. Chomsky states we have the structure first and meaning comes later. Krashen assumes that those beyond the critical period, L2 learners, have language acquisition when in fact they do not. Krashen has a ‘nativist’ assumption in assuming adults acquire by watching, listening and having a careful construction of the grammar rules. Professor Krashen overlooks basic principles of L1 acquisition, theoretical linguistics and neurolinguistics when he states that teen and adults acquire language just like children.

The Monitor theory and its five other major hypotheses, the key one being the Input Hypotheses (i + 1), have made an impact on many language educators who like the idea of teaching language in the most natural way, the way children acquire their native tongue. McLaughlin expresses this view nicely when he warns that Monitor theory, especially IH (I + 1), is difficult to believe and prove because no clear definition of ‘comprehensible input’ is given. He does not see how the Input Hypothesis can be tested or even how the students get tested to see if learning is taking place. ‘Comprehensible input’ and the ‘silent period’ are true for children, but we are not talking about how children acquire their native tongue, but how teens and adults learn a second language. McLaughlin also mentions that theoretical linguistics prefers cognitive view of language learning which recognizes essentials differences between the way children and adults process information.

Cognitive theory also believes language L1 is inborn, but then goes on to compare language learning to any other kind of learning. It makes the biggest mistake by simply stating adults acquire language instead of adults learn language. Rationalists, followers of Monitor and Cognitive theory, fail to explain L1 and they do not use linguistic theory for L2 learning. These theories do not explain why certain features of L1 do not transfer to L2 learning.

My experience as a second language educator, common sense and careful observation, have put me on the side of the rationalists. Language is species-specific, which means we humans have an inborn biological mechanics or grammar for language acquisition at an early age. Human brains are so constructed that one brain responds to language just like any other brain, regardless of culture. This is why a baby can learn any language; it responds to triggers in the same way as any other baby. Noam Chomsky’s theory of ‘universal grammar’ for L1 acquisition is universally the most accepted one. He states children do not acquire language but a grammar—a set of rules, conditions and elements that allow people to eventually speak and understand language. These ‘universal grammar’ elements, common to all natural human language such as phonemes and syntactic categories are what composes a child’s inborn grammatical rules.

Mature language users and children are able to produce and understand an unlimited number of sentences unspoken before. Children often produce unanalyzed stretches or chunks of speech: “it’s my turn. stop it. D’youwanna”, etc… Those are complex constructions and no one taught them to the children. Children formulate the general rule that adds ‘-ed’ to verb stems like “doed, leaved, goed, washed, walked.” These are just a couple of the many facts that support Chomsky’s universal grammar—people, especially children do not memorize these rules or sentences, rather they create their own using the

inborn grammatical rules. This mental system of inborn grammatical rules allows natives, or L1, to form and interpret familiar and novel sentences. This grammar governs the articulation, perception, and patterning of speech sounds, the formation of words and sentences, and the interpretation of those sentences.

At one time it was widely believed that children learned language by simply imitating the speech of those around them. Let’s go back to the ‘ba’of the Pharaoh—this same ‘ba’ is produced universally by all children during the babbling stage. In fact all children also produce ‘ma’ ‘pa’ and any combination of the vowels. These sounds do not take any effort and are produced by simply closing and opening the mouth and breathing, and parents get all excited that their children are talking to them. During the babbling stage, children begin to use patterns, intonation and the musicality of their soon to be native tongue before they start to speak real language. The linguist can tell, even before babies use any genuine words, what language the child will end up speaking by simply listening to the patterns of their babbling.

A superior L2 learner, for example, a non-native college professor, does not have the intonation, patterns or the musicality all natives have since the babbling stage. Children in English produce many utterances that do not resemble structures found in adult speech such as: ‘foots’; ‘no the sun shining’; ‘nobody don’t like me’. Such utterances reflect children’s attempt to construct their current inborn grammatical rules, not the imitation of adult speech. When adults try to correct children’s grammatical errors, their efforts have almost no effect.


Nobody don’t like me.
No, say ‘nobody likes me’.
Nobody don’t like me
No, now listen carefully; say ‘Nobody likes me’.
OH! Nobody don’t LIKES me (frustrated).

Of course, some children will accept the correction at the moment, but they will go back to their original inborn grammatical rules. This classical example shows children do not blindly mimic adult speech.

Jean Piaget suggests that cognitive development shapes language acquisition, and prominent linguists claim that language acquisition is crucial to cognitive development. Although both cognitive development and exposure to the speech of others are clearly crucial to language acquisition, other factors must also be involved. Apes have many of the cognitive skills of a three year-old child, but they do not acquire language when they are exposed to speech. Also, parrots mimic words and phrases but will never acquire language. This supports the inborn theory of L1.

People should be surprised when empirical theory equates us with animals. Behaviorists are naïve of linguistic fact and L1 when they compare L1 acquisition to another aspect of general learning. Some of their scientific approach, however, does apply to adult L2 learning; hence, this theory can influence teaching methods. Most of our behavior and learned material have been successful to habit formation brought about by an observed stimulus-response. Pavlov’s salivating dogs and Skinner’s rats have enlightened the field of learning, even teen/adult L2, but we are not sure if it benefits humans. I certainly do not want to be trained like an animal.

Because the field of L2 research, or applied linguistics, is very young, second language teachers and researchers are realizing that one method alone will not satisfy the demands of L2 learners of different ages, styles, strategies, diverse background and varying degrees of motivation. There is NOT a best method but a combination of them. I personally support a humanistic, fun, and progressive approach until the contributions of many source disciplines like linguistics, pedagogy, sociology, neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, phonetics, phonology and psychology get together and understand more about the mystery of what happens inside the L2 learner’s mind.



Chastin, Kenneth. Developing Second Language Skills: Theory to Practice, 2nd ed. Chi cago: Rand McNally, 1976.

Hadley, Alice. Teaching Language in Context . Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle, 1993.

Harley, Birgit. Age in Second-Language Acquisition . San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press, 1986.

McLaughlin, Barry. Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood . Hillsdale, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1978.