The Role of Universal Grammar in Second Language Learning Essay

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Universal Grammar has been one of the most debated topics in linguistics since its inception in 1976. As to its role in first language acquisition, UG has already established a name because it has fully explained why children are able to learn their mother tongue or any other language in such an easy and rapid way. However, in terms of second language acquisition, more debates are still in progress. The bright side in all of these is that despite the uncertainties and speculations on the role of UG in second language acquisition, it has been developed into a fruitful approach towards second language teaching in the principle of minimalism.

In this approach, second language practitioners have acknowledged the fact that all languages share a common denominator which is consistent in all languages except for various parameters. This approach has based its technique on developing competence in lexicon which is one of the most important parameter that needs to be learned and mastered in order to achieve a native-like competence in second language acquisition. Universal Grammar as a Concept

The concept of the Universal Grammar (UG) is famous to be postulated by Noam Chomsky in 1976 as the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages¦ the essence of human language (Cook et al, 1996). Within this theory, it is believed that all human beings have a cognitive knowledge of the language that they speak. Whichever their language is, all humans possess a common denominator when it comes to language learning: Universal Grammar. Its main concern is how the internal structure of the human mind.

It holds the theory that speakers of a language know a set of principles that is similar to speakers of all languages and parameters that varies from speakers of different language. These parameters will then be the reason of the variation and limitations of each language (Cook et al, 1996). In a nutshell, universal grammar is not a grammar in itself, it is just a set of conditions that possible grammars are said to conform. It is just an abstract blueprint for the construction of grammars of whatever language possible. Moreover, it is also the one that allows variation in languages which is controlled by parameters in of various languages.

These parameters are controlled by the Universal Grammar. For instance, there is a parameter that would allow a zero subject such as in Italian language. This kind of parameter conforms to the general grammar / universal grammar of similar languages that does the same (Jordens et al, 1996). Chomsky and his followers claimed that the competence of speakers in their native language is an innate language that is endowed genetically in individuals. For instance, children come to acquire a specific language because they already posses a general language on how languages work.

This innate knowledge is what Chomsky called language faculty which is defined as a component of the human mind, physically represented in the brain and part of the biological endowment of the species (Saville-Troike, 2006). This is the main reason why children acquire language apart from the fact that the social setting serves as an input that makes them fully learn the language that their parents speak. In other words, Universal Grammar guides how children learn their first language alongside the input that they receive from their environment (Saville-Troike, 2006).

It has already been established that children are able to unconsciously interpret and unconsciously analyze the input they receive to be able to construct an appropriate first language grammar. L1 learning has always been relatively rapid and successful compared to second language learning because UG has guided them to never violate a principle of language learning and using. For instance, children knows without their parents teaching them that in every language, a phrase consists of the same elements such as the Head, that is, a noun phrase should have a noun as a head and a verb phrase should have a verb phrase.

The only thing that children have to work out would be the parameters that distinguish one language from another. For instance, children who are learning English as a first language would eventually discover through inputs from the environment that the language has a head-initial parameter setting. On one hand, children learning Japanese as their first language would also learn through inputs from the environment that the language has a head-final parameter. The role of the Universal Grammar in acquiring first language has been very secure for a long time.

However, there have been debates and challenges regarding the role of the Universal Grammar in the learning of a second language (Saville-Troike, 2006). Universal Grammar and First Language Acquisition First language acquisition happens when a learner especially a child acquires a language for the first time in which he/ she will use to communicate his/her needs and wants as he/ she grew up. The learning of a first language is bound with the childs cognitive and social development. Because of this, there are a number of differences between first language acquisition and second language learning (Klein, 1986).

When it comes to cognitive development, it can be concluded that the production of grammatical utterances does not mean that the speaker has already mastered the language because even when the speaker has already displayed a competence in the language, there is a tendency that these utterances will be given by the speaker different meaning. It can also be inferred that the speaker has already acquired the cognitive categories which is the reason why they are able to express themselves in the language.

This cognitive aspect of learning a first language is not necessarily available in the second language learning which makes the two different (Klein, 1986). In terms of social development, learning a native language is one of the childs gateways in becoming a fully-fledged member of a particular society. Through social inputs, the child will enable to express his feelings in such a way that it is socially accepted. For instance, a child will learn from what he observed from his environment that he cannot speak his mind at all times and at all circumstances.

Because of language, a child is able to acquire cultural, moral, religious, and values of the society. Furthermore, a first language learner would find it easy to learn the intricacies of the language because along with it he/she is learning the culture and identity of its speakers. This is not the case with second language learning which will be explained later (Klein, 1986). Another important thing in the difference between first and second language acquisition would be the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which is considered to be the reason why first language acquisition proceeds quick and easy.

This is where Universal Grammar comes in the aspect of first language acquisition. The concept of the LAD is also postulated by Noam Chomsky in relation to the UG. The researches on LAD for the past 30 years have contended that any normal child has a cognitive device that is responsible for it to master the grammar of its native language in a short time. There is evidence that proves this such as the capability of every child to learn any language. This lead to the conclusion that there are innate structures that is common to every language which is commonly referred to as the Universal Grammar.

The UG would only constitute a number of general principles and there are still specific features that are unique in every language. For instance, there are features that would differentiate Chinese from English such as vocabulary, morphology, and syntax (Klein, 1986). Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition Second language acquisition (SLA) is a relatively young field in the study of language. It is defined as the acquisition of a non-primary language or a language that is beyond the native language of a speaker (Gass et al, 2008).

It is interesting to note that second language acquisition is a whole new field in relation to language acquisition because how a child learn his first language would not be the same as the process on which an adult learn another language. There are a number of factors as to how this happened. First of which would be the so called critical period on which humans have the greater ability to learn a language. Second would be the factor of guided learning in the case of SLA and the spontaneous learning for first language acquisition. Guided learning is said to be derivative because it is not learned in the course of everyday communication.

In addition, the learning of the language is also not embedded in a relevant situational context. In this process, the material for learning the language is supplied in a digested form. Despite the move to a more communicative approach to second language teaching, still it cannot copy and imitate wholly the first language acquisition spontaneity. Finally, there is also a factor on social identity which is considered as an obstacle to learning a second language because more or less a speakers social identity is already fixed within his/ her first language.

When there is a desire to preserve that social identity that is connected to the first language, there is a difficulty in assimilating the second language into the system (Klein, 1986). However, second language learners face a parallel task as that of first language learners. Like L1 learners, L2 learners need to arrive at a linguistic system so that they could account for the L2 input and eventually learn the language. The first studies on the relation of UG and L2 learning focused on the access issue which answers the question on whether or not the Universal Grammar still has a role in non-primary acquisition.

There have been varied positions on this. There is a position that says that L2 learners have access to UG which means that L2 learners can arrive at important properties of the second language independent to that of the grammar of their first language. This particular position is called the direct access. Another position called the indirect access posits the idea that L2 learners have access to the principles and parameters of the UG of the second language through both UG and L1. The access is said to be fostered by L1 with a possibility of restructuring it in the light of the influence of the L2 input and environment.

Although, there are numerous positions on the possibility of UG affecting second language acquisition, this paper will investigate on how UG can aid in the development of theories regarding effective second language acquisition (White, 2003). Development of Language Theories on the Influence of Universal Grammar in Second Language Acquisition Since SLA has been a relatively young field, the UG theory has not been constructed for the purpose of explaining the concept of SLA because it is pretty much prevalent on L1 explanation.

However, it turned out through the course of several studies that it is after all relevant in the domain of second language acquisition. The first theory posited in this claim is that L2 behavior is said to follow the properties inherent to language faculty of humans themselves. In the full access hypothesis, it is argued by linguists that L2 learner has a second copy of UG which they build on as they learn their non-primary language. In this case, the learner can build an L2 grammar from scratch the same way as he has constructed his first.

This idea would also posit the idea that L1 acquisition is similar to that of L2 but L1 does not anything to do with the learning of the second language. For instance, L2 learners are found to know principles and parameters that they have not known before such as the test-case done on Japanese students learning English. The Japanese language does have movement within the sentence constructions. The experiment tests whether or not L1 impedes the learning of L2 among Japanese learning English. The study shows that the Japanese were 95. 1 per cent correct on the tests which meant that L2 learning cab have a UG on their own.

In the partial access theory, L2 learning process is consisted with L1 grammar and UG. However, there are missing elements and categories in these two that need to be filled by L2 input such as functional categories like (Cook, 1996). Furthermore, there are inquiries as to why second language learners seldom achieve the competence of the native speakers of the targeted language. UG plays an important role in explaining this phenomenon. It might be that L2 learners knowledge of grammar is still a human language within the remits if UG principles and parameters.

UG is still available in second language learning, it just result into a different grammar that the leaner has already acquired in his first language (Cook, 1996). The process of SLA is said to be the same as that of L1 acquisition, only that in addition to it, L2 learners are faced with a problem on arriving at the abstract and complex properties of grammar that is not determined by L2 input. If those properties are learned by L2 learners without input, this means that UG constrains interlanguage grammars (White, 2006).

In terms of SLA, UG is more helpful in second language teaching domain. It explained the lack of success on acquiring second language after puberty age. It is due to a number of mitigating and overlapping factors which were still investigated until now. The minimalism approach is one of the research programs that aim to cerate effective tools on second language teaching by using UG. The aim of minimalism is to provide the simplest possible Universal Grammar that can account both for language acquisition and differences in languages.

It focuses on two things: the basic principles that the grammars of all languages must satisfy and the ways in which these principles are realized in various languages (Hinkel et al, 2002). Two of the most important principles that are helpful in formulating an efficient second language teaching theory and technique are found in minimalism. First is the principle of hierarchical structure, the assumption in this principle is that the formation of syntactic structures are combined in a pair-wise fashion to form larger categories.

This means that even the most complex structure can be built from the simplest structures. Another principle would be the economy of structure which postulates the idea that there is no level or type of structure in the grammar that is not absolutely necessary for describing the specialized cognitive system that is human language. These two would affirm the contention of UG that languages are the same in principles despite their differences in parameters (Hinkel et al, 2002). Among the most significant source of variation in languages would be the lexicon.

Therefore, the minimalist approach to SLA is based on the details of lexicon. In this approach, both interlingual and intralingual comparison and contrast of lexicon is helpful in the learners gain of understanding of the relevant semantic distinctions and classes in the learning of a second or a foreign language (Hinkel et al, 2002).


Cook, V. and Newson, M. (1996). Chomskys Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Retrieved in Google Books Search: http://books. google. com/books? id=Jv0eIBfhd7EC&pg=PA221&dq=second+language+acquisition+and+universal+grammar&ei=eYAeSsj-HI2GkQTYyuDSCA#PPA224,M1

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