Second Language Acquisition. What do we know? Part one.

Abstract

I hope that this post will be the first one in a series of posts I want to write on the topic of second language acquisition abbreviated in linguistics as SLA. What is meant by SLA is  a language that a person learns as a second language (L2) after he had acquired the first one which is a native language (L1). The research into the subject shows that the first and second language acquisitions are interconnected and may effect each other. So it makes sense to discuss first language acquisition too.

Why am I interested in this topic?

Since childhood I was interested in how we learn languages. As my life progressed from childhood to where I am now I happened to acquire two languages with a very high level of proficiency and learned a number of others to some extent. As a native Russian speaker growing in Ukraine I learned Ukrainian as a second language at school, but my knowledge of the language is quite superficial, though I can understand it when I hear it well. Then I learned and talked Hebrew for about 19 years. Even though I also studied English back in Ukraine I never knew it well before I started to learn it by mostly reading magazines back in 1999. So I would say that real experience with English language I started to gather for about 19 years too. Though, one important point to make is that I only started to use it for speaking communication purposes for about 2 years now. In addition, back in Tel Aviv University I studied a Japanese language for a year. But my diminishing knowledge of it is rudimentary.

To summarize the above I would rate my knowledge of the languages as below, when by knowledge I understand speaking, reading and writing.

  1. Russian 
  2. Hebrew
  3. English
  4. Ukrainian
  5. Japanese

I hope that this background description explains a little bit why I might be interested in understanding how we learn a new language be it second, third or N-language.

Introduction

It is very strange that we know so little about how we learn first or second languages taking into consideration the advances in Neuroscience since early 2000 and Artificial Neural Networks starting from 2012 (also known now as Deep Learning). First, I heard about the subject of SLA back in 2004 when I studied Generative Linguistics in Tel Aviv University. When looking into the state of the art of the research back then I heard only about Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen’s research into this subject. Now almost 15 years since the state of the art of the research seems like frozen in the same place. But my intuition indicates, that by incorporating approaches from Supervised Machine Learning which includes Recurrent Neural networks such as LSTM and Convolutional Neural Networks with Attention Mechanism, along with a very promising research done at Numenta company and other approaches it is possible to make a significant progress in the field of second and first language acquisition.

The more detailed description of what I propose will be explained in further parts.

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