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Inspired by the "Meaningful Learning Theory" posited by David Ausubel, I set out to find another one of his works. I wanted to know how his theory was born and relate his "theory" to the acquisition of second language (L2). What sparked this brilliant man to "contend that learning takes place in the human organism through a meaningful process of relating new events or items to already existing cognitive concepts or propositions"? I had painstakingly searched and found an article written in 1964, "Adults Versus Children in Second-Language Learning: Psychological Considerations". After reading this article, I think David P. Ausubelís "theory" was born by the need to assert that the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM) was "incompatible with effective learning processes in adults" if they are acquiring a second language. The article is a representation of the differences between adults and children in L2 acquisition, it is a reaction against the ALM, and it is an early presentation of what we now call Ausubelís "Meaningful Learning Theory".

In the article he put forward, that adults acquire L2 easier than children can. He supports his premise that adults learn "more readily" by stipulating these facts: first is that adults "have a much larger native-language vocabulary than children" and second that "they can make conscious and deliberate use of grammatical generalizations and can apply them to suitable exemplars." Therefore, L2 acquisition is facilitated by the prior knowledge the adults bring into the situation. This correlates to his "Meaningful Learning Theory" or what others call his "assimilation theory". The assimilation theory has as its foundation, "subsumption". The learner has prior stored information so when the new information is received it can then be "subsumed" by the prior stored information (Brown, 2000). The learner has to find the subject matter "meaningful" to him/her so that it can be related, retained, and hence "subsumed". Therefore, adults have a greater foundation from which they can "subsume" new information. Conversely, children lack certain concepts, vocabulary and syntactic rules which help, "subsumption" to take place "more readily".

Ausubel does credit younger L2 learners with "acquiring an acceptable accent" in L2. Asher and Garcia further researched this in 1969 and they found that "the younger the human organism when he is exposed to a language, the greater the probability that the individual will acquire a native pronunciation". I guess I was not young enough when I immigrated into the USA. I still have a slight accent. This little accent of mine had bothered me in the past, but now, because of this course and because of Professor Romero, I no longer feel this way. My accent does not impede me from being understood; nor does it impede me from speaking, writing and reading English. Ausubel does not dwell on the younger learnerís facility to pronounce L2; rather, his concern is the cognitive process by which language is acquired by adults and by children. There are motivational differences in adults and in children, which can either hinder or aid the individual in L2 acquisition. He states that children are "less self conscious in attempting to speak the new language", they are more "venturesome and less rigid" and that "they are less likely to manifest strong emotional blocks".

Looking back I realize that different "motivations" drove my mother and I in our L2 acquisition. As a young immigrant into the United States, I always felt the need to understand what went on around me. Being a bilingual student, I did not like the way others treated me in school; I felt different. I requested for English only books after a year and a half and my teachers obliged my request. With the elimination of Spanish books, I was placed in a monolingual classroom after three years. My mother, on the other hand, puzzled me. I did not understand why, after residing in New York for so long, her English was rudimentary. The English that she had learned was the English of her neighborhood, the workplace (a shoe factory) and of the Beauty School she attended. My mother and I had acquired L2 in a different way because of the different settings in which we learned English, the type of instruction received and our personal "blocks" and "motivations" where different.

The "blocks" Ausubel writes about are what we now like to call "affective filters". "Performers with high or strong filters will acquire less of the language directed at them, as less input is "allowed in" to the language-acquisition device"(Krashen, 1981). From this I can conclude that adults have higher "filters" than children do but they can overcome them due to the necessity to learn L2. Adults need to worry about work and the security of a family, which are strong motivations that can lead to the lowering of the "affective filters" and thus more "input" is received. While for school age children the "mastery of second language is more essential for communication, peer relationships and school progress"(Ausubel, 1964).

I now turn to Ausubelís reaction against the Audio-Lingual Method. If we agree with his "Meaningful Learning Theory", we can see why ALM has its disadvantages. For Ausubel learners must find meaning in the process of learning. He said: "If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly". According to Ausubel, the ALM does not take prior knowledge into account. It is a "rote" learning method, drills that do not have meaning for the learner. The ALM was devised, during Word War II, to instruct military personnel in foreign languages. According to Ausubel this method has 5 features he terms "incompatible" with L2 acquisition in adults and D. Brown outlines these features for us as follows:

v The rote learning practice of audiolingual drills lacked the meaningfulness necessary for successful first and second language acquisition.

v Adults learning a foreign language could, with their full cognitive capacities, benefit from deductive presentations of grammar.

v The native language of the learner is not just an interfering factor-it can facilitate learning a second language.

v The written form of the language could be beneficial.

v Students could be overwhelmed by language spoken at its "natural speed" and they like children, could benefit from more deliberative speech from the teacher.

Drills in ALM do not carry "meaning", for they are only meant to increase pronunciation of random phrases. In addition, ALM is a behaviorist approach to language acquisition. As a behaviorist approach, it relies too much on reinforcement and does not leave enough room for social interaction in L2 (Romero 2003). The learners cannot "subsume" these phrases because there is no link between them and what the learner already knows. There is no room for the learner to negotiate meaning. "When we do not understand something, the social interaction between two people (in the talk) about the thing not understood, helps fill in the gaps so that meaning can come across"(Romero, 2003). Moreover, the speed at which the learner in ALM is receiving the information is too fast. The learner is not receiving enough comprehensible input. According to Ausubel L2 acquisition is best "assisted in the beginning by means of a slower rate of speech that is progressively accelerated as oral comprehension improves". This may be why total immersion in a language does not achieve optimal results. Hearing a language does not mean understanding a language.

I hear the birds chirping outside my window, but I do not understand what they are saying. This of course may be a far-fetched notion since I really do not know if birds have a mode of communication or not. However, even if they did, their melodious chirps do not carry meaning for me and thus comprehension is not achieved. The same would happen if I were thrown into a room where everyone speaks only Chinese. In that situation, I could not attempt to negotiate meaning. There will be no social verbal interaction between them and myself. Even more important, communication and mutual understanding could not take place in such a setting because the words being said cannot be "subsumed" by what Ausubel calls my "cognitive structure".

The article, in my opinion, served as the launching pad for further research in L2 acquisition. Ausubel clearly presented the differences between adult L2 learners and children L2 learners. He reminded me of why, when I acquired French and Italian as my L3 and L4, the ALM did not work for me. At NYU, it was (and still is) required for French and Italian students to attend audio-lingual lab 4 hours a week. That meant 8 hours a week of mindless repetition of phrases that bored me to death. I performed better when I was in the classroom, and had the opportunity to interact with my teachers and classmates. The information I received was more meaningful because of the interaction. I understood the languages because the languages where tailored to my level. The teachers, by scaffolding the information, facilitated my language acquisition.

As a result of the reading of this article I have found the answers to my questions. I sought to find out how Ausubelís "Meaningful Learning Theory" relates to L2 acquisition. Even though the article did not present the "theory" it did support its premise; that learners cannot "subsume" new input if it is not linked to their prior knowledge. I also think that Ausubelís reaction against ALM might have prompted his "Meaningful Learning Theory". He wrote his book about cognitive learning after this article was written. To tell the truth, I thought learning languages was easy. The fact is that "meaningful" input facilitates L2 acquisition and that without "meaning" words get lost.


Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, Ausubel, 1968

Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Stephen Krashen, 1981

The Optimal Age to Learn a Foreign Language, J. Asher & R. Garcia, Modern Language Journal, 1969,v53

Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, Brown, 2000

Adults Vs Children in Second-Language Learning, D. P. Ausubel, Modern Language Journal, 1964, v48

Portfolio, Steven McGriff, 2001


  Psychology of Language Learning & Teaching, Romero, class notes, 2003