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AUTHOR: Tania Ionin

The term ‘second language acquisition’ refers to the acquisition of a new language by

children and adults who already have full knowledge of their first language. It is thus

distinct from childhood bilingualism, or simultaneous language acquisition, which refers

to the child language acquisition of two languages simultaneously, with exposure to

both languages beginning in infancy or soon after (Genesee 2000, Meisel 2001, 2004).

Child second language acquisition, also known as sequential bilingualism, refers to the

acquisition of a second language after age three of four, when much of the first language

is already in place (Gass and Selinker 2001, Lakshmanan 1994, McLaughlin 1978).

There is disagreement on exactly when child second language acquisition ends and adult

second language acquisition begins (Gass and Selinker 2001), but age eight or nine is

often taken as the upper boundary for true child second language acquisition (Bialystok

and Miller 1999, Schwartz 2003).

The input that child and adult learners receive in their second language takes many

different forms; like child language acquisition, second language acquisition involves

naturalistic exposure to the target language. However, the amount and type of input are

different for second language learners immersed in the language on the one hand, and

foreign language learners with classroom-only exposure to a foreign language on the

other hand (R. Ellis 1989, Pica 1983). Furthermore, second language learners often

receive negative evidence about the target language in the form of explicit and/or implicit
instruction (Bley-Vroman 1989, 1990, Doughty and Williams 1998; see White 1991 on

positive vs. negative evidence in the classroom). There is a debate in the field of applied

linguistics concerning the degree to which linguistic knowledge learned through explicit

instruction can become internalized, implicit linguistic knowledge (N. Ellis 2005, R. Ellis

2002, Norris and Ortega 2000, Krashen 1981; see R. Ellis 2006 for an overview of the

issues in grammar teaching). On the relationship between second language theory and

second language instruction, see the papers in Eckman et al. (1995).

In addition to the target language input, a potential source of knowledge for second

language learners is their native language. Early morpheme-order studies (Bailey,

Madden and Krashen 1974, Dulay and Burt 1974, Larsen-Freeman 1975) focused on

developmental sequences across second language learners from different native language

backgrounds, and found little effect of the native language (but see Larsen-Freeman and

Long 1991). However, there is much evidence from other studies that second language

learners are influenced by their native language in the acquisition of the target language,

a process known as transfer (Dechert & Raupach 1989, Gass & Selinker 1992, Odlin

1989, among many others). Transfer has traditionally been divided into positive transfer

or facilitation, which helps learners acquire properties of the target (second) language,

and negative transfer or interference, which hinders learners in their course of acquisition

(Odlin 1989). Generative approaches to second language acquisition look at transfer at

the level of grammatical categories and features (Schwartz & Sprouse 1994, 1996,

Schwartz 1998, Vainikka and Young-Scholten 1994, 1996; see White 2003 for an

The role that age plays in second language acquisition has received much attention in the

literature. Early studies focused on how age affects ultimate attainment of the target

language, and found that younger age of exposure to the target language is related to

better performance on the target language phonology and syntax (Johnson and Newport

1989, 1991, Oyama 1978, Patkowski 1980; for critiques and replications of the Johnson

and Newport 1989 study, see Bialystok and Miller 1999, Birdsong and Molis 2001,

deKeyser 2000, among others). Following the proposal of Lenneberg (1967) that first

language acquisition is subject to critical period effects, many researchers (Hyltenstam

and Abrahamsson 2003, Long 1990, Patkowski 1980, Pulvermüller and Schumann 1994)

have argued that age effects in second language acquisition are a result of biological

maturation. At the same time, it has been argued that non-biological factors, such as the

type and amount of target language input, and learners’ motivation and attitude, may

account for, or at least contribute to, differences between child and adult second language

learners (Flege, Frieda and Nozawa 1997, Klein 1995; for a variety of approaches to age

effects, see the papers in Singleton and Lengyel 1995 and Birdsong 1999; see Birdsong

2004, 2006 for an overview). As pointed out by Long (1990) and Birdsong (2004), a

biologically determined critical period should prevent native-like attainment in all

learners past a certain age. While Coppieters (1987) found that even highly advanced

adult second language learners in fact did not exhibit native-like attainment, much

literature since then has pointed out the existence of adult second language learners who

do perform near-natively on phonology (Bongaerts 1999) and syntax (Birdsong 1992,

White and Genesee 1996). For a review of the recent literature on near-nativeness, see

Bongaerts (2005), Sorace (2003).

Within the field of generative approaches to second language acquisition, the critical

period debate takes the form of a debate concerning whether innate mechanisms

underlying language acquisition, in the form of Universal Grammar, are available to adult

learners. In a highly influential proposal, Bley-Vroman (1989, 1990) argued that first

language acquisition by children and second language acquisition by adults are

fundamentally different processes. Bley-Vroman argued that while child language

acquisition is guided by innate linguistic mechanisms, adult second language acquisition

relies on problem-solving, instruction, and explicit strategies. Much work in the field of

generative second language acquisition over the past twenty years has debated this view.

Proponents of the deficit view argue that adult learners are impaired with regard to all or

some aspects of language acquisition and/or constrained to those aspects of Universal

Grammar instantiated in their native language (Hawkins and Chan 1997, Hawkins and

Hattori 2006, Meisel 1997, Schachter 1990, Tsimpli and Dimitrakopoulou 2007). On the

other side of the debate, proponents of the Full Access to Universal Grammar view argue

that innate linguistic mechanisms remain active throughout adulthood, and that

differences between children and adults stem from other sources (Epstein, Flynn and

Martohardjono 1996, 1998, Schwartz and Sprouse 1994, 1996; see White 2003 for an

overview). On the influential Full Transfer / Full Access model of second language

acquisition (Schwartz and Sprouse 1994, 1996), second language learners transfer the

grammatical characteristics of their native language to the second language, but are then
able to acquire new aspects of the target language through direct access to Universal


Evidence for Full Access views of second language acquisition comes from two different

sources. The first source of evidence comes from developmental comparisons between

child and adult second language learners, under a research program put forth by Schwartz

(1992, 2003). On the assumption that innate linguistic knowledge is available to child

second language learners, evidence of similar developmental sequences among children

and adults (with the native language held constant) is used to argue that such knowledge

is available to adult learners as well (Gilkerson 2006, Schwartz 2003, Unsworth 2005).

The second source of evidence comes from studies of poverty-of-the-stimulus

phenomena with adult second language learners: when adult learners are able to master

aspects of the second language which are not instantiated in the native language, not

obvious from the input, and not explicitly taught in the classroom, this provides evidence

that innate linguistic knowledge is at work (Dekydtspotter, Sprouse and Anderson 1997,

Dekydtspotter, Sprouse and Swanson 2001, Montrul and Slabakova 2003, Kanno 1998,

among others). Much of this work has been done with phenomena at the syntax-

semantics interface (see Slabakova 2006 for an overview). The syntax-pragmatics

interface has also been examined in recent literature, both in second language acquisition

(Sorace 2003, 2005) and childhood bilingualism (Serratrice, Sorace and Paoli 2004).

Second language acquisition is a growing field, encompassing a variety of perspectives

on how languages are learned (Doughty and Long 2003), including interlanguage
pragmatics and approaches in applied linguistics, as well as generative approaches

(White 2003), and, more recently, psycholinguistic perspectives and techniques (see

Marinis 2003 for an overview). The study of second language acquisition is also closely

related to the study of attrition and incomplete acquisition of the first language under the

influence of a dominant second language (Montrul forthcoming, Polinsky 1997). Many of

the same issues, including the role of transfer and the effects of age, are studied with

regard to both second language acquisition and first language attrition.

See also: Applied linguistics; child language acquisition; competence, communicative;

competence, linguistic; competence, pragmatic; communication failure; cross-cultural

pragmatics; development, pragmatic; intercultural communication; interlanguage

pragmatics; psycholinguistics; semantics; semantics-pragmatics interface;

sociolinguistics; specificity; syntax-pragmatics interface.

Suggestions for further reading:

Doughty, C. & Long, M. (eds.) (2003) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition,

Oxford: Blackwell.

Gass, S. & Selinker, L. (2001) Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course,

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

White, L. (2003) Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.


Bailey, N. Madden, C. & Krashen, S. (1974) ‘Is there a “natural sequence” in adult

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Birdsong, D. (ed.) (1999) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period

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Bley-Vroman, R. (1989) ‘What is the logical problem of foreign language learning?’, in

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