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Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991:227) state that “at least forty ‘theories’ of SLA have been proposed” and it is my contention that none of these attempts to explain SLA present a thorough explanation for the phenomenon. Like any other type of learning,language learning is not a linear process, and therefore cannot be deemed as predictable as many models of SLA have hypothesized it to be. Countless theories have been developed to explain SLA, but most such theories focus merely on the acquisition of syntactic structures and ignore other important aspects. In the next section, I present a brief review of the main SLA theories and then move on to thecurrent tendency to see SLA as an emergent phenomenon.


Despite the huge number of SLA theories and hypotheses, I will briefly summarize only eight : behaviourism, acculturation, the universal the grammar hypothesis, the comprehension hypothesis, the interaction

I am grateful to Júnia Braga and Ricardo Augusto de Souza for their insightful suggestions. hypothesis, output hypothesis, sociocultural theory and connectionism. I consider those to be the ones which have caused the greatest impact in the field.

Behaviourism Behaviourism gave birth to a stimulus-response (S-R) theory which sees language as a set of structures and acquisition as a matter of habit formation. Ignoring any internal mechanisms, it takes into account the linguisticenvironment and the stimuli it produces. Learning is an observable behaviour which is automatically acquired by means of stimulus and response in the form of mechanical repetition. Thus, to acquire a language is to acquire automatic linguistic habits. According to Johnson (2004:18), “[B]ehaviorism undermined the role of mental processes and viewed learning as the ability to inductively discoverpatterns of rule-governed behavior from the examples provided to the learner by his or her environment”. Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991:266) consider that S-R models offer “little promises as explanations of SLA, except for perhaps pronunciation and the rote-memorization of formulae”. This view of language learning gave birth to research on contrastive analysis, especially error analysis, the main focusof which is the interference of one’s first language in the target language. An important reaction to behaviourism was the interlanguage studies, as the simple comparison between first and second language neither explained nor described the language produced by SL learners. Interlanguage studies will

be present in other SLA perspectives, as the concern of the area has been mainly with theacquisition of grammatical morphemes or specific language structures.

Acculturation Another environmental-oriented theory is proposed by Schumman (1978). In his famous longitudinal investigation of some syntactic aspects with six learners (2 children, 2 adolescents, 2 adults), Schumman used questionnaires, observed spontaneous conversation for ten months and applied a quantitative treatment to thedata. He found out that “the subject who acquired the least amount of English was the one who was the most socially and psychologically distant from the TL group” (p.34). In his view, SLA is the result of acculturation, which he defines as “the social and psychological integration of the learner with the target language (TL) group” (p.29). The acculturation model argues that learners will besuccessful in SLA if there are fewer social and psychological distances between them and the speakers of the second language.

Universal grammar hypothesis As a counterpoint to the environmental perspective, Chomsky’s followers try to understand SLA in the light of his universal grammar (UG) theory, a human innate endowment. Chomsky (1976) is interested in the nature of language and sees language...
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