1. Learner language studies

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2 1. Learner language studies The establishment of learner language research as a particular area of linguistic investigation can be traced to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when CA and EA started to compare L1 and L2 and to look at data produced by learners, particularly at errors, with the purpose of improving the learning and teaching of languages. CA researchers were able to find some connection between the learner s errors and the difference between the learner s mother tongue (L1) and their second language (L2). CA was mainly concerned with pinpointing the source of errors by contrasting the two languages. EA researchers took on the role of turning learner language (rather than L1 and L2 comparison) into the central element to be examined. As commented by Selinker (1992: 1), the publication of Corder s seminal 1967 paper The Significance of Learners Errors initiated a large number of empirical studies about IL in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). This chapter aims to present a general overview of the evolution of SLA research in order to give a historical perspective of contemporary SLA. The definition of learner language or interlanguage in SLA studies is taken here as the starting point in section 1.1. Furthermore, the present chapter reviews, in chronological order, the traditional approaches to the study of learner language. In section a brief summary of the evolution of the most controversial aspects of the field of research known as CA is offered. Section deals with the new concepts and ideas introduced by the proponents of EA for the study of learner language. Section is devoted to the main ideas that Interlanguage studies brought forward in the field of SLA. In section 1.2.4, a comparative point between the three proposals for L2 studies outlined in the previous sections is established, taking Sridhar (1981) as a basis. He states that CA, EA and IL could be studied in general as three chronological phases of one similar goal: the study of the factors that influence L2 learners acquisition and errors. CA, EA and IL studies prevailed until the 1980s with constant overlapping regarding their basic notions and methodologies.

3 Due to this overlap, they were gradually submerged into a more general study in the field of L2 acquisition which is known as SLA today (Ellis 1994: 68). Finally, contemporary SLA is revisited and CIA (Granger 1996, 1998a, 2002) is presented as the methodology currently employed by most researchers in this field, and consequently adopted in this research. Section 1.3 offers a summary and final remarks as well as some discussion about the successes and limitations of current SLA and CLC studies Defining Interlanguage and learner language Learner language has been the central object of study of SLA and other areas of linguistics (e.g. psychology, teaching) over the last sixty years, beginning with the work by pioneers such as Fries (1945), Weinreich (1953) and Lado (1957). In contrast with first language acquisition, which studies children s acquisition of their native language, second language learning (or acquisition) can be defined as the cognitive process of acquiring a linguistic skill or knowledge, namely learning how to use any language after the acquisition of the mother or native tongue. The process of acquiring or learning the new language consists of successive stages through which the learner develops a linguistic system while approximating the target language. The word interlanguage summarizes the previous definition and has become the technical term used in linguistics to refer to learner language. However, the term interlanguage represents more than a simple notion, since it is closely linked to some relevant methodological and theoretical issues in SLA studies. Thus, the origin and meaning of both the term and the notion of interlanguage are provided in what follows. An interlanguage is an emerging linguistic system that has been developed by a learner of a L2 who has not become fully proficient yet but is only approximating the target language, preserving some features of her/his L1 when speaking or writing in the target language and creating innovations. The concept and definition of interlanguage 14

4 as accepted in SLA studies in the last thirty years were formulated by Selinker (1972: fn 5, quoted in Selinker 1992: 231) as follows: An interlanguage may be linguistically described using as data the observable output resulting from a speaker s attempt to produce a foreign norm, i.e., both his errors and non-errors. It is assumed that such behaviour is highly structured. In comprehensive language transfer work, it seems to me that recognition of the existence of an interlanguage cannot be avoided and that it must be dealt with as a system, not as an isolated collection of errors. Sridhar (1981: 227) summarises in three points the appropriateness of such a term: 1) It captures the indeterminate status of the learner s system between his native language and the target language; 2) it represents the atypical rapidity with which the learner s language changes, or its instability; 3) focusing on the term language, it explicitly recognizes the rule-governed, systematic nature of the learner s performance and its adequacy as a functional communicative system (from the learner s point of view, at least). Selinker (1992: 31) also stresses that [i]nterlanguage begins at the beginning whenever one attempts to express meaning in the target language. Nevertheless, in the prologue to Rediscovering Interlanguage, Selinker (1992: xiii) acknowledges that Watkin (1970) was the first to use the phrase IL hypothesis. Furthermore, Selinker (1992: 259) also accepted that the concept of interlanguage was already present in CA and successive approaches to learner language in the work of scholars such as Lado, Martinet, Weinreich, Briere, Harris, Corder, Van Buren or Nemser, where some sort of in-between language or grammar was implied. Also at the beginning of the seventies, other researchers proposed different terms to refer to concepts which were fairly similar to interlanguage as defined by Selinker. Nemser (1971) introduced the term approximative systems : in this view, learner language is understood as a continuum between the L1 and the L2, where the learner s departure point is zero and the goal is native proficiency. This concept also highlights the fact that each learner s linguistic system is particular to that individual (i.e. also called idiosyncratic dialects by Corder 1971) and it corresponds nei- 15

5 ther to the L1 nor to the L2 linguistic system. Similarly, Corder s (1967: 166) transitional competence, which he defines as the learners underlying knowledge of the language to date, basically coincides with Selinker s and Nemser s concepts, although it stresses the dynamic aspect of interlanguage, which must be seen as a system in continuous evolution. As commented by Alonso (2002: 51), although Nemser s and Corder s terms have been considered synonymous to interlanguage (see Corder 1981), Selinker (1992) disagrees with this view, since he believes that they represent different theoretical points of view. For example, Nemser s term pays attention to the transitional nature of learner language but ignores fossilization and stabilization of IL subsystems. Furthermore, the term approximative system suggests that the learner s language is discrete and always goes in the direction of the L2, disregarding a strategy observed by interlanguage, namely interlingual identifications, which controls the learning process indirectly by the use of avoidance strategies. Such strategies are sometimes wrongly identified as approximations to the L2 rules. The establishment of the term interlanguage (and the other equivalent or similar terms) broke away with the previous traditional CA approach and opened new ways to the description and analysis of L2 data. Selinker s model also provides a possible explanation about the creation of the interlanguage system. This model includes the following five interwoven processes: native language transfer, transfer of training, strategies of second-language learning, strategies of secondlanguage communication and overgeneralization of the target language linguistic material (see Alonso 2002: and section in this volume). In the interlanguage model, the development of grammatical knowledge in the learner s mind is seen as more autonomous. Thus, a number of elements which had been previously disregarded now start to be focused on, such as the nature of learner grammar, the development of theories applied to the learning of the L2, and the methodology employed for research. Furthermore, some years later, Selinker (1992: ) revisited the topic in Rediscovering Interlanguage. In this book, he talks about his discussions on the matter with Corder, who, in a series of papers (Corder 1981, 1983), proposed a view of IL and IL development that moved away from the idea of IL as a hybrid between na- 16

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