Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Second Language Acquisition: The Procedural Skill Hypothesis

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Second Language Acquisition: The Procedural Skill Hypothesis

Article excerpt

1. The objective of this paper

The main line of argument pursued in this paper is the following: the task of acquiring a second language is based on the acquisition of the procedural skills needed for the processing of the language. In this paper, I will present results from on-line experiments in L2 processing to support the above procedural skills hypothesis.

The key objective of this paper is to demonstrate that procedural routines, once automated, are similar in native speakers and non-native speakers. This similarity assumption derives logically from the processing-based continuity assumption (cf. Pienemann 1998) according to which the basic components of language processing do not change during acquisition and over age, except if they are damaged -- as in aphasia, specific language disorders, dyslexia, etc. If empirical evidence can be supplied to show that NSs and skilled NNSs process specific linguistic structures in a similar manner and that unskilled NNSs do not, then the key thesis of viewing SLA as the acquisition of procedural linguistic skills will be supported.

2. On-line experiments in SLA research

The crucial feature of on-line experiments is that they measure language processing in vitro. In the field of SLA this type of experiments is a relatively new methodological approach. In his 1987 book "Theories of second language learning", McLaughlin (1987) was able to survey the literature relating to on-line experiments on automatisation within the space of four pages. The substantive research mentioned there are Dornic's (1979) study of language processing speed in bilinguals, Lehtonen and Sajavaara's (1983) study of response time by NS and NNS in grammaticality judgement tests and Hulstijn and Hulstijn's (1984) experiments on learner performance under different test conditions. The other studies are unpublished student manuscripts. McLaughlin (1987) uses these studies to provide evidence for one of his key assumptions on SLA, namely that SLA is based on the automatisation of language processing skills.

Bley-Vroman and Masterson (1989) advocate the use of on-line experiments as an enrichment of the range of experimental data available to SLA researchers. These authors introduced the particular technique of sentence matching experiments into the field of SLA. During the past seven years this technique has proven very productive in SLA research. Below I will report on its adapted use in the present study.

In the context of SLA research, sentence matching experiments were used by Masterson (1993), Eubank (1993) and Clahsen and Hong (1995). All of these studies were modelled on the experimental design developed by Freedman and Forster (1985) with precursors in Forster (1979) and Freedman (1982). This design is based on the effect of information encoding on processing speed. For instance, it was found that informants can decide more quickly whether pairs of stimuli are identical if the stimuli are words (e.g., HOUSE/HOUSE) than if the stimuli are non-words (e.g., HSEUO/HSEUO) even though the words and the non-words consist of the same number of characters (e.g., Chambers -- Forster 1975). The reason for this effect is that words are encoded as single units while non-words are encoded as strings of characters.

Below I will return to the psychological and theoretical status of the assumptions underlying the sentence matching task. Let us first review the SLA studies which utilised this technique.

The general set-up used in these studies is basically the same: two sentences appear on a computer screen separated by a very short interval; the informant has to decide as quickly as possible if the sentences are identical or not. The test sentences may be grammatical or ungrammatical. In studies with native speakers (Freedman--Forster 1985) it was found that the identity of the sentences can be determined faster with grammatical test sentences. …

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