Second Language Acquisition is an academic discipline which has been flourishing for some 50 years now.
SLA specialists explore the process by which we learn a second language.
Their findings make fascinating reading for language learners and can be of great help when trying to scope out your French studies.
A core term in SLA vocabulary is Interlanguage.
Interlanguage describes what is spoken by people trying to talk in a foreign language. It’s not their own native language but it’s not really the target language either.
The concept is useful because it helps establish a realistic model for how we acquire a second language.
Language acquisition cannot be compared to memorising a shopping list, or a book of grammar and a dictionary. We absorb language from multiple sources, mirroring – to a certain extent though not completely – the unconscious process of acquisition by which we learnt our first language as a child.
We learn fastest when confronted with a need or desire to express ourselves: and we do this using an Interlanguage. The gap between the Interlanguage and the target language is the zone we try to reduce when we seek to to improve our French.
The trap of stabilisation
What researchers have discovered is that adults can receive and understand explanations of how the target language should be spoken… and then immediately carry on using their own personal interlanguage just as they were before.
This phenomenon is known as interlanguage stabilisation: adults become stuck in their Interlanguage and resistant to further progress.
It’s very common and happens irrespective of motivation or aptitude for acquiring knowledge in other fields.
There is no unanimity as to why stabilisation happens.
Some believe our minds are formatted by our first language and so the superimposition of a second language becomes more difficult.
Others believe our self-image is built around our first language and this sense of identity holds adults back.
There’s no firm evidence that adults are worse than children at learning and memorisation.
What does seem to be true that it’s harder to acquire a native sounding accent after puberty, possibly for physiological reasons.
Stabilisation is by no means inevitable.
There are plenty of Near Native Speakers who get very close to the real thing. And improving your ability to express yourself freely is a highly attainable goal.
So how do we keep moving? The aim of Second Language Acquisition as a discipline is not to discover the best way to learn a language. Even if it were, no one particular method will be best for all individuals.
However the research can point us in the right direction.
We need as adults to be made aware of the difference between our Interlanguage and the Native Language. Left to our own devices, we risk levelling out.
Once we are aware of the need to change, it’s important to use the knowledge regularly to keep it in our active memory. And we need to keep seeking correction – ideally in live situations – to stay on the right track.
Further Reading: Second Language Acquisition by Susan M. Glass
This Month’s Exercise
How good’s your interlanguage? Send a composition on the subject of your choice of up to 500 words and receive a personal correction from French Classes rédactrice en chef Françoise Le Roux.