Skip to Main Content

Writing Center: Chapter 2: Theoretical Perspectives on Learning a Second Language

A guide to information to help you research and write more effectively.

Summary of Chapter 2

Lauren Stovall
Chapter Summary of ESL Writers by Bruce and Rafoth, Second Edition
Chapter 2: “Theoretical Perspectives on Learning a Second Language” by Tseng
     This chapter provided four theories for how ESL students learn English, which are Behaviorist, Innatist, Cognitivist, and Interactionist. In the bullets below I have fully outlined the description of these theories. The book makes the point that while all four of these are possible theories they only solve part of the problem by themselves. It is really a mixture of all of these theories that helps explain a student’s Second language Acquisition (SLA). Throughout the different theories it seemed that focus of the learner as very important. When the second language (L2) learner is aware of the language around them they can pick it up, practice it when they have the opportunity, and self-monitor to make corrections. The idea of self-monitoring and student correction was prevalent throughout the theories. There were several examples of conversations with tutors and ESL students where the ESL students would make an error in word choice, articles, or a simple grammar mistake and the tutor-instead of correcting-would ask a question about why that word was chosen or why that verb form was used. In several examples the ESL students were self-correcting and would fix their mistake. In the other situations the tutor would simply explain why native language speakers use another word or verb form. By using this process, the majority of all ESL student mistakes can be easily corrected.


       I.            Behaviorists believe you learn by drill and practice. Rote memorization is key. After being exposed to new language, practicing it repeatedly with encouragement will eventually make it natural and habitual.


    II.            Innatists believe that learning is hardwired in a person. They believe second language learners (LS learners) learn in much the same way that native language learners (L1 learners) learn. Stephen Krashen developed a model of this theory in five steps:
1.      Acquisition/learning hypothesis-subconsciously picking up the language
2.      Monitor hypothesis-editing what you write or say as you go
3.      Natural order hypothesis-applying the use of grammatical structures (articles or verb endings) incorrectly at first
4.      Comprehensible input hypothesis-being exposed to language that is beyond their current understanding, but that they can still decipher the meaning of the text.
5.      Affective filter hypothesis-having a high or low filter level means a high or low stress level. Anxiety prohibits a person from grasping or articulating in a new language.


 III.            Cognitivists believe learning is a process of noticing and practicing word use or language format that will slowly become automatic.


 IV.            Interactionists believe learning happens when students speak with a proficient English speakers.


Questions to consider:
·         How can we help L2 learners with this very internal learning process?
·         Are theories really so important when we know learning is a process that will take time, no matter how it happens?
·         Since language acquisition is a long process that is different for everyone and often has ups and downs, how can we truly know if a student is improving?