Applied Linguistics

Schools of thought in second language acquisition Structuralism behaviorism

Schools of thought Second Language Acquisition

While the general definitions of language, learning, and teaching offered above may meet the approval of most linguists, psychologists, and educators, the points of clear disagreement become apparent after a little investigation of the components of each definition. For example, is language a “set of habits” or a “system of internalized rules”? The different points of view emerge from equally informed scholars. We are describing Schools of thought in second language acquisition

However, with all the possible disagreements between applied linguists and SLA researchers, some historical patterns emerge that highlight trends and fads in the study of second language acquisition. These trends will be described here in the form of three different schools of thought that follow in some way historically, although the components of each school overlap chronologically to some extent. Note that such an outline highlights contrasting ways of thinking, and such contrasts are rarely overtly evident in the study of any subject in SLA.


In the 1940s and 1950s, the school of structural or descriptive linguistics, with its advocates — Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, Charles Hockett, Charles Fries, and others — prided itself on a rigorous application of the scientific principle of observation of human languages. . Only “publicly observable responses” could be investigated. The linguist’s task, according to the structuralist, was to describe human languages ​​and identify the structural characteristics of those languages. An important axiom of structural linguistics was that “languages ​​can differ from one another without limit” and that no preconceptions can be applied in this field. Freeman Twaddell affirmed this principle in perhaps its most extreme terms:

Whatever our attitude towards mind, spirit, soul, etc., as realities, we must agree that the scientist proceeds as if there were no such things as if all his information were acquired through processes of his physiological nervous system. Insofar as he deals with psychic, not material forces, the scientist is not a scientist. The scientific method is simply the convention that the mind does not exist …

The structural linguist examined only openly observable data. Such attitudes prevail in BF Skinner‘s thinking, particularly in Verbal Behavior, in which he said that any notion of “idea” or “meaning” is explanatory fiction and that the speaker is simply the locus of verbal behavior, not the cause. . Charles Osgood reestablished meaning in verbal behavior, explaining it as a “representational mediation process,” but has not yet departed from a generally non-mentalistic view of language.

Of greater importance to the structural or descriptive linguist was the notion that language could be dismantled into small pieces or units and that these units could be scientifically described, contrasted, and added back to form the whole. Out of this principle sprang a rampant rush of linguists, in the 1940s and 1950s, to the ends of the earth to write the grammars of exotic languages.

Among psychologists, a behavioral paradigm also focused on publicly observable responses, those that can be objectively perceived, recorded and measured. The “scientific method” was rigorously followed, and therefore concepts such as consciousness and intuition were considered “mentalistic” and illegitimate domains of research. The unreliability of observation of states of consciousness, thinking, concept formation, or knowledge acquisition made such topics impossible to examine in a behavioral setting. Typical behavioral models were classical and operant conditioning, verbal rote learning, instrumental learning, discrimination learning, and other empirical approaches to studying human behavior. You may be familiar with the classic experiments with Pavlov’s dog and Skinner‘s boxes; these also typify the position that organisms can be conditioned to respond in the desired way, given the correct degree and timing of reinforcement.

2-Rationalism and cognitive psychology

In the 1960s, the generative-transformational linguistics school emerged thanks to the influence of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky was trying to show that human language cannot be scrutinized simply in terms of observable stimuli and responses or the volumes of raw data collected by field linguists. The generative linguist was interested not only in describing language (reaching the level of descriptive adequacy) but also in reaching an explanatory level of adequacy in the study of language, that is, a “basis of principles, independent of any particular language. , for the selection of the descriptively adequate grammar of each language.

The first seeds of the generative-transformative revolution were planted at the beginning of the 20th century. Ferdinand de Saussure claimed that there was a difference between probation (what Skinner “observes” and what Chomsky called performance) and langue (similar to the concept of competence, or our underlying and unobservable linguistic ability). A few decades later, however, descriptive linguists largely chose to ignore the language and study probation, as noted above. The revolution brought about by generative linguistics broke with descriptivists’ preoccupation with performance (the external manifestation of language) and capitalized on the important distinction between the overtly observable aspects of language and the hidden levels of meaning and thought that give birth and generate observable linguistic performance.

Similarly, cognitive psychologists stated that meaning, understanding, and knowledge were important data for psychological study. Rather than focusing quite mechanistically on stimulus-response connections, cognitivists attempted to discover psychological principles of organization and functioning.

From the point of view of cognitive theorists, the attempt to ignore conscious states or to reduce cognition to mediational processes that reflect implicit behavior not only removes from the field of psychology what is most worth studying but also simplifies dangerously complex psychological phenomena.

Cognitive psychologists, like generative linguists, sought to uncover the underlying motivations and deeper structures of human behavior by using a rational approach. That is, they freed themselves from the strictly empirical study typical of behaviorists and used the tools of logic, reason, extrapolation, and inference to derive explanations of human behavior. Going beyond the descriptive power to the explanatory power acquired the utmost importance. Schools in Second Language Acquisition

Both the structural linguist and the behavioral psychologist were interested in description, in answering what questions about human behavior: the objective measurement of behavior under controlled circumstances. The generative linguist and the cognitive psychologist were undoubtedly interested in the question of what; but they were much more interested in a more fundamental question, why: What underlying reasons, genetic and environmental factors, and circumstances caused a particular event?

If you see someone enter your home, grab a chair and throw it out the window; and then go out, different kinds of questions could be asked. One set of questions would relate to what happened: the physical description of the person, the time of day, the size of the chair, the impact of the chair, etc. Another set of questions would ask why the person did what he did: what were the motives and psychological state of the person, what could have been the cause of the behavior, etc. The first series of questions is very rigorous and demanding: it does not admit failures or errors in the measurement; but does it give you the definitive answers? The second group of questions is richer, but obviously more risky. By daring to ask some tough questions about the unobserved, we can lose some ground but gain a deeper understanding of human behavior. Schools in Second Language Acquisition


Constructivism is not a new school of thought. Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, names often associated with constructivism, are by no means new to the language studies scene. However, constructivism emerged as the prevailing paradigm only in the latter part of the 20th century. What is constructivism and how is it different from the other two views described above?

Constructivists, like some cognitive psychologists, argue that all human beings construct their own version of reality, and thus multiple contrasting ways of knowing and describing are equally legitimate. This perspective could be described as

an emphasis on active processes of construction [of the meaning], attention to texts as a means of better understanding those processes, and an interest in the nature of knowledge and its variations, including the nature of knowledge associated with belonging to a particular group. Constructivist scholarship can focus on “individuals engaged in social practices, … in a collaborative group, [or] in a global community”

A constructivist perspective goes a bit beyond the rationalist/nativist and cognitive psychological perspective in its emphasis on the primacy of the construction of each individual’s reality. Piaget and Vygotsky, both commonly described as constructivists differ in the extent to which each emphasizes social context. Piaget highlighted the importance of individual cognitive development as a relatively solitary act. Biological timelines and stages of development were basic; It was claimed that social interaction only triggered development at the right time. On the other hand, Vygotsky, described as a “social” constructivist by some, argued that social interaction was fundamental in cognitive development and rejected the notion of predetermined stages.

Researchers studying first and second language acquisition have demonstrated constructivist perspectives through studies of conversational discourse, sociocultural factors in learning, and interactionist theories. In many ways, constructivist perspectives are a natural successor to the cognitivist studies of universal grammar, information processing, memory, artificial intelligence, and interlanguage systematics. Schools in Second Language Acquisition

All three positions should be considered important to create balanced descriptions of human linguistic behavior. Consider for a moment the analogy of a very tall mountain, seen from a distance. From one direction, the mountain can have a sharp peak, easily identifiable glaciers, and distinctive rock formations. However, from another direction, the same mountain could now appear to have two peaks (the second was previously hidden from view) and different configurations of its slopes. From yet another direction, even more, features emerge, hitherto unobserved. The SLA study is very similar to the visualization of our mountain: we need multiple tools and observation points to know the whole picture.

Schools of Second Language Acquisition timeline

Time Frame Schools of Thought Typical Themes
Early 1900s & 1940s& 1950s Structuralism & Behaviorism description

observable performance

scientific method


surface structure

conditioning, reinforcement

1960s & 1970s Rationalism & Cognitive Psychology generative linguistics acquisition, innateness interlanguage systematicity universal grammar competence deep structure
1980s, 1990s& early 2000 Constructivism Interactive discourse sociocultural variables cooperative group learning interlanguage variability interactionist hypotheses

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