Second Language Acquisition & Universal Grammar FSU
in the Limelight
Vol. 7, No. 1
Feb 2000

Second Language Acquisition
and Universal Grammar

Pininta Veronika Silalhi

Krashen's Theory of SLA

In relation to the development of second language acquisition (SLA), Krashen (1982) sets forth five hypotheses which include: (1) the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis; (2) the Natural-Order Hypothesis; (4) the Input hypothesis, and (5) the Affective-Filter Hypothesis.

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

This hypothesis claims that adults have two distinct ways of developing their L2 competence, i.e. through acquisition and learning (Krashen, 1982; 1985; Krashen and Terrell, 1988). This leads to say that acquisition is a subconscious process similar to the process of acquiring L1 in natural setting. The initiation of utterances in adult L2 performance occurs according to what the performer has picked up via natural language use (Krashen, 1978).

Acquisition is characterized by the lack of conscious awareness of linguistic rules which the native speaker has acquired. Native speakers are generally, when asked unable to state the rules or to explain the use of certain rules, yet they have the sense for correctness of grammatical utterances (Krashen, 1982; 1985; 1988). Thus, acquisition is believed to be governed by universal language strategy available to all language learners (Huda, 1988).

The adults' second way to develop L2 competence is by language learning. Learning is a process focused on the internalization of linguistic rules, not linguistic content through teaching-learning and self-study activities. Learners have explicit knowledge of the rules of the language being learned.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

According to the Natural Order Hypothesis, L2 learners acquire the grammatical structure of the language in a predictable way. Certain structures might be acquired earlier while others are acquired later. In other words, it can be said that some structures might be less difficult than the others, but the order of difficulty does not necessarily correspond with what is deemed to be easy or difficult (Higashi, 1988). However, it does not mean that every acquirer will acquire grammatical structure in exactly the same order (Krashen and Terrell, 1988). The order of acquisition of structural items might be influenced by the quality and the types of input entailed by the learning environment to a certain extent.

The Monitor Hypothesis

Monitor Hypothesis claims that acquisition and learning have important roles in the production of sentences or utterances. Learners' production of utterances in L2 is initiated by his acquired knowledge of the target language. This learnt system or formal knowledge functions as monitor concerning the output of the acquired system. Learners can use the monitor to make changes in their utterances only after the uttterances have been generated by the acquired system. The Monitor can work either before or after the actual production of utterances (Krashen, 1982; 1985; Krashen and Terrell, 1988). This implies that implicit knowledge plays only a limited role in L2 production.

There are three conditions that must be met in order to utilize Monitor successfully, in the sense the learnt system can be reached (Krashen, 1982; Krashen and Terrell, 1988). First, the learner must have sufficient time in order to think about and use conscious rules effectively. Taking time to think about rules may disrupt the communication. Second, the learner has to focus on forms-the correctness of forms. He may be more concerned with what he is saying not how he is saying it. The last the learner has to know the rules. Linguist readily confess that the structure of language is extremely complex, and that they have only been able to describe a subset, a fragment of the overall structures of a language, even well-studied language like English. They presume that even the most intelligent students fail to learn everything presented to them. It needs to note that learners vary in their use of the Monitor, some being over-users, some being under-users and some being optimal users. Monitor over-users are those who attempt to monitor all the time; they constantly check their output on their learnt knowledge in the target language. This may cause the learners to be hesitant, often self-correct in the middle of utterances, and are so concerned with grammaticality that they cannot speak with any real fluency. Over-users may derive from learning without acquisition.

Monitor under-users are second language learners who do not utilize their monitor maximally. They appear to be not influenced by error correction; they exhaustively rely on the acquired systems of the second language and do self-correct by using a 'feel' for grammaticality.

The optimal monitor users are the adult second language learners who utilize their monitor when it is appropriate. The pedagogical goal is to produce optimal users. In ordinary conversation, an optimal user will not be excessively concerned with applying conscious rules to performance. However, in writing and in planned speech, he will make any correction which raises the accuracy of his output. This suggests that adult language learners know how to utilize their knowledge appropriately and accurately.

The Input Hypothesis

Input Hypothesis claims that learners acquire second language in only one way, that is by understanding message or receiving comprehensible input that is a bit ahead of their current level of acquired competence. Learners progress along the natural order by understanding input containing i+1, where i is their current level of competence and i+1 is the level immediately following the i. With the aid of context which includes extralinguistic information, knowledge of the world and previously acquired linguistic competence, the learners can understand input containing unacquired structures.

According to Krashen (1985, 1987, 1988) Input Hypothesis has two corollaries. First, speaking as a productive skill is the result of acquisition and not its cause. Speaking emerges on its own after the acquirer has built up linguistic competence through comprehensible input. Second, if input is comprehensible and there is plenty of it, the required grammar is automatically supplied. Therefore, language teachers do not need to deliberately teach the text structure along the natural order because it will be automatically reviewed in case the learners get an adequate amount of comprehensible input.

Krashen and Terrell (1988) write that a corollary of the input hypothesis is that input need not be finely tuned. A finely tuned input is the input which is directed merely at the learners' present level of acquisition. For example in the language classroom, teachers simplfy their speech which is natural, and in most cases they solely use structures which are being analyzed at the present moment.

However, according to Higashi (1988) a roughly tuned input is also recommended. Roughly tuned input cast a net of structures over the learners' level of acquisition. Some of the structures will be slightly beyond their current level. However, it does not signify that they cannot comprehend them. For instance, in daily communication learners normally make use of all kinds of grammatical structures in organizing and delivering their speech incompatible with their communicative needs. They may start with the simple present, then answer a question using a continuous tense, later produce their conversation with a narrative in the simple past and the like. Higashi (1988) emphasizes that roughly tuned input is more advantageous than finely tuned input. The language used will sound more natural, learners are exposed to a better kind of input, and the structures will be previewed, practised, and ultimately reviewed. Therefore, the input need not be grammatically sequenced. Learners should be exposed to situations involving natural communication in which the grammatical structures will be constantly provided and automatically reviewed.

Input Hypothesis also accounts for the existence of silent period from input to production in second language acquisition. Krashen (1987) and Krashen and Terrell (1988) appraise that the silent period may be the time during which learners build up competence by means of active listening through input. Children can talk and show off their competence when they are ready, that is, after they have acquired a rather inticrated map of how the language works (Spolsky, 1989). Krashen asserts that this idea helps minimize the feeling of uneasiness many learners have when they are asked to speak in the target language right away before they have built up adequate competence through comprehensible input. When they are forced to talk early they tend to fall back on their first language (Krashen, 1987). This leads to say that speaking ability turns up after sufficient linguistic competence has been developed through listening and understanding. The acquirers need silent period to internalize the input properly. One of the problems is that the length of input varies from acquirer to acquirer (Higashi, 1988). Teachers are very often impatient to let their students remain silent their early weeks of learning.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

Although comprehensible input is necessary for the language acquisition process, it is not enough to ensure the success of language acquisition. Learners must be open to the natural speech he encounters, otherwise the acquisition process will not operate (Quinn, 1979: 88). It implies that not all input reaches language acquisition device (LAD), it is filtered somewhere along the way, and only a part of it is acquired or changed into intake. In this case affective filter is amental block that preludes acquirer from impartially using the comprehensible input they receive for the language acquisition (Krashen, 1985). In short, comprehensible input plus a low affective filter are necessary and sufficient conditions for SLA to take place. Acquirers who have low affective filter are more open to the input, and that the input strikes deeper (Krashen and Terrell, 1988), and vice versa.

Universal Grammar

Universal grammar as the general human ability to learn and use the language is assumed to be innate in the learners' mind (Chomsky, 1975:29); Cook, 1988:1: Haegeman, 1991:12; Safir, 1985:2). This is in line with the rationalist view to language learning which concludes that one cannot really teach language but can only present conditions for the learners to develop it in their mind. If this is related to second language acquisition research, there are still controversies on whether or not universal grammar (UG) is available to adult second language learners.

The proponents of the view that UG is no longer available to adult L2 learners argue that learning mechanism underlying adult L2 acquisition and L1 acquisition are radically different (e.g. Bley-Vroman, 1989; Clahsen, 1990; Clahsen and Muyshen, 1986; Schachter, 1988; Felix, 1987; see White, 1990 for further discussion). The evidence from Clahsen's study shows that embedded clauses are absent from the child's grammar at the earliest stage of L1 acquisition, while in the case of L2 acquisition, embedded clauses are present from the start. Schacter (1988) in White (1990) concludes that UG principles such as subjacency are no longer available to adult learners; while Felix (1987) in White (1990) bases his idea on Piagetian's cognitive learning strategies. He claims that the availability of additional learning strategies to adults blocks the functioning of UG which yields differences between L1 and L2 acquisition.

In contrast is the view that Universal Grammar is still available to adult L2 learners (e.g. Ritchie, 1978; Flyn, 1987; White, 1988; see White, 1990 for further discussion). The proponents of the availability of UG argue, if UG is no longer available to adults, and second language acquisition proceeds by means of general cognitive abilities, as the opponents of this view claim, L2 learners should not be able to work out abstract properties of the L2 from restricted input data. White (1990) suggests one form of evidence for the hypothesis that UG operates in L2 acquisition. The evidence can be seen based on the fact that L2 learners attain the kind of complex and subtle knowledge which is attributable to UG. For instance, if UG is available, they should unconsciously know that subjacency applies as soon as they find that WH-Movement is present in English; they should reject subjacency violation. This evidence can be gained by providing test case.

The controversies on the availability and unavailability of UG in the adult learners' mind is still continuing. Although the exact criterion of the rejection of constraint construction has never been mentioned, this study is intended to find evidence on the availability of UG on the basis of the learners' rejection on Wh-Movement constraints.

Second Language Learning

It has been stated that learning a language cannot be done through memorizing rules (Wexler et. al., 1983). In this case, learners are argued to have linguistic creativity. The creative construction that learners have refers to the subconscious process by which language learners gradually organize the language they are exposed to. They generate sentences by constructing rules. The form of the rules is determined by mental structure (language acquisition device) which is responsible for human language acquisition which is believed to be innate (see Dulay et. al. 1982 for further discussion). The availability of mental structure (language acquisition device) is also claimed by cognitive-code learning theory which states that learning a language is learning the rules of the language (Boey, 1975). This is done by testing a series of hypothesis against the language data until they are able to produce grammatical sentences. The notion of creativity entails the assumption that internal processors contribute to learning progress which is independent of the contribution made by the input (Dulay and Burt, 1982). The best evidence for creative construction is the occurence of systematic errors (Ritchie, 1978:73).

A number of studies show that some learning behaviors are common to children no matter what language they are learning. For example, Brown (1973) who conducted a study on three children acquiring English as their first language, found that children learn grammatical morphemes in relatively the same order. Slobin (1971) reported that children learning Hungarian and Serbo-Croation first learn grammatical markers that come after nouns and verbs and then followed by those that come before nouns and verbs. The acquisition of plural inflection by children in a second language follows the same order as in the first language (Natalico and Natalico, 1971).

The regularities in the above findings lead to infer that language acquisition is an interaction between the child's innate mental structure and the language environment, called a creative construction process. It can be inferred that the child approaches the task of language learning equipped with a set of principles for the analysis of linguistic data. Therefore, language acquisition is a process in which a series of hypothesis are tested against the data available (Kiparsky, 1968:194; Tavakolian, 1981:167; Huebner, 1983:12).

In relation to second language acquisition, the process related to creative construction is acquisition, opposed to learning (Krashen, 1978). Krashen claimed that acquisition occurs subconsciously in constructing the system of a language, while learning is the result of conscious study (Krashen, 1984). This view is countered by claiming that there is no clear distinction between conscious and subconscious process (Bialystock, 1978; McLaughlin, 1982).

Although the process of learning and acquisition is still under debate, a number of studies show that regardless of the learners' first language background, a second language acquisition order is similar to a first language acquisition order (Bailey, Madden and Krashen, 1974; Dulay and Burt, 1973, 1974; Larsen-Freeman, 1975).

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) Researches

The SLA research was motivated by the paradigm shift brought about in linguistics and related fields by Chomsky's theory of grammar (Ellis, 1986:283). It was begun with Chomsky's attack to Skinner's behaviorist account of language learning as a habit-formation. Chomsky claimed that a child is born with language-forming capacity (1965:30) which is present in the mind as a system of principles and parameters (Cook, 1988:57). This leads to say that acquiring a language means setting all the parameters of Universal Grammar appropriately.

The fixing of parameters is undone without experience or exposure to the language. This experience is recognized as three types of evidence: positive evidence, direct negative evidence and indirect negative evidence (Chomsky, 1981:8-9; Cook, 1988:60). Direct negative evidence is claimed to be not necessary for language acquisition, but indirect negative evidence may be relevant (Chomsky, 1981:9). The reason for this can be stated as follows: "One does not learn the grammatical structure of a second language through explanation and instruction beyond the most elementary rudiments, for the simple reason that no one has explicit knowledge about this structure to provide explanation and instruction."

The above claim is not followed by a concrete way of how a second language is learned, but some studies show that regularities were found in the acquisition of a first language (Brown and Bellugi, 1964) and uniformity of learners; errors are observed (Corder, 1967; George, 1972; and Richards, 1971) cited in Huebner (1983:12).

Thus, language learning can be claimed to be important based on the fact that it might support linguistic theory by showing whether or not a principle is present in a certain case investigated. In line with this idea, Kenji Hakuta (1981:1) says that the game of language acquisition research can be described as the search for an appropriate level of description of the learner's system of rules.


Boey, Lim Kiat. 1975. An Introduction to Linguistics for the Language Teacher. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1975. Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Cook, V.J. 1988. Chomsky's Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dulay, Heidi; and Burt M. and Krashen S.D. 1982. Language Two. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, Rod. 1986. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haegeman, Liliane. 1991. Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press.

Hakuta, Kenji. 1981. "Some Common Goals for Second and First Language Acquisition". In Roger W. Andersen, New Dimensions in Second Language Acquisition Research. Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

Huebner, Thom. 1983. A Longitudinal Analysis of the Acquisition of English. Ann Arbor: Karma Publishers, Inc.

Higashi, Aldo M. 1988. "Adapting Krashen's Second Language Acquisition Theory". English Teaching Forum 4. (October): 41-44.

Huda, Nuril. 1988. "The Merits of Group Work in Foreign Language Teaching". Warta Scientia 45. (May): 18-28.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1978. "Individual Variation in the Use of Monitor". In Willian C. Ritchie (ed) Second Language Acquisition Research: Issues And Implications. New York: Academic Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1982. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1985. The Input Hypothesis Issues and Implications. New York: Longman Group Ltd.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1987. Applications of Psycholinguistics Research in the Classroom". In Michael H. Long and Jack C. Richard (eds) Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Reading. New York: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1988. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. New York: Prentice-Hall International Inc.

Krashen, Stephen D. and Tracy D. Terrell. 1988. The Natural Approach. New York: Prentice-Hall International Inc.

Ritchie, William C. 1978. "The Right Roof Constraint in an Adult-Acquired Language". In William C. Ritchie, ed., Second Language Acquisition Research: Issues and Implications. London: Academic Press, Inc. Ltd.

Safir, Kenneth J. 1985. Syntactic Chains. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scahchter, Jacquelin and Virginia Yip. 1991. "Grammaticality Judgements: Why does anyone object to subject extraction". In Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12( 4): 379-392.

Tavakolian, Susan L. 1981. "The Conjoined-Clause Analysis of Relative Clauses". In Susan L. Tavakolian (Ed.), Language Acquisition and Linguistic Theory. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Wexler, Kenneth and Cullicover P.W. 1983. Formal Principles of Language Acquisition. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

White, Lydia. 1990. "Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar". In Lydia White, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 121-134.

Pininta Veronika Silalahi, lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, Universitas 17 Agustus 1945 Surabaya.

[Volume 1] [Volume 2] [Volume 3]
[Volume 4] [Volume 5] [Volume 6]

[Home] [Current issue] [Archives] [Staffs] [Submission]