Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In this essay, I argue for viewing mental representation and skill as distinct components of language acquisition. My claim is that language is not a monolithic entity-not a new concept, but one that is often overlooked by instructors and some scholars. I examine language as being (minimally) composed of mental representation and skill. Representation refers to the abstract and implicit knowledge that underlies all language. Skill refers to the use of language, especially fluency (the intersection of speed and accuracy).By thinking about language as at least the distinction between representation and skill, we might better sort out some of the issues related to adult SLA, namely the role that instruction has, and what instruction can actually impact.

KEYWORDS:

Second language acquisition, L2 mental representation, L2 skill, language instruction.

RESUMEN

En este trabajo defiendo el supuesto de que tanto la representación mental como las destrezas (lingüísticas) deben ser tomadas como componentes diferenciados de la adquisición lingüística. Mi tesis es que el lenguaje no es una entidad monolítica -tesis no nueva, pero frecuentemente dejada de lado por profesores y estudiosos. Analizo el lenguaje como un compuesto de representación mental y destrezas. La representación se refiere al conocimiento abstracto e implícito que subyace en el lenguaje. Las destrezas hacen referencia al uso de la lengua, especialmente a la fluidez (intersección entre velocidad y precisión). Entendiendo el lenguaje de esta manera, distinguiendo entre representación y destrezas, será posible superar algunos de los problemas relativos al aprendizaje de lenguas por los adultos, y muy especialmente el cometido de la enseñanza y lo que ésta puede producir.

PALABRAS CLAVE:

Adquisición de segundas lenguas, representación mental en L2, destreza en L2, enseñanza de lenguas.

In this essay, I will argue something that ought to be self-evident but is often overlooked in both theoretical and applied L2 circles: language is multifaceted and not reducible to a single concept. In simplest terms, this means that language consists of two broad domains: (1) mental representation, and (2) skill (use), although within each domain there are separable sub-domains (e.g., syntax, phonology, lexicon, semantics, and so on in mental representation; and reading, writing, speaking, and so on, in skill). The implications of such a view are that the development of different parts of language may respond to different stimuli in the environment. What is more, some domains may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences.

I. LANGUAGE AS MENTAL REPRESENTATION

I.1. What is Mental Representation of Language?

I take mental representation to mean the abstract, implicit, and underlying linguistic system in a speaker's mind/brain (VanPatten & Benati, 2010, p. 107). By abstract I mean that the linguistic system is not something akin to a set of textbook or prescriptive rules, but instead is a collection of abstract properties from which rule-like behavior is derived (e.g., Harley & Noyer, 1999; Jackendoff, 2002; Radford, 2001; Rothman, 2010; White, 2003). From a Minimalist Perspective (Chomsky, 1995; Herschensohn, 2000; Radford, 1997) these abstract properties include universal constraints on language (e.g., Structure Dependency, Extended Projection Principle, Overt Pronoun Constraint, Binding) as well functional categories and features (e.g., Tense, Agreement, Aspect, Number) that can vary across languages (parametric variation). As an example, let's look at auxiliary do in yes-no questions in English. Typical yes/no question are formed using do, while other options, such as subject-verb inversion, are prohibited as in (1) and (2) below. The reverse is true in a language like Spanish that has subject-verb inversion and lacks an auxiliary like do as in (3). …

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