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Overview on Interlanguage


As discussed in our introduction to error analysis, learner language evidences linguistic system.

Interlanguage (IL) is a term for the linguistic system that underlies learner language. We see that system when the learner tries to use learner language in unrehearsed communication (Selinker 1972). In error analysis, you looked at learner language in terms of deviance from the target language norms; that deviance we call 'error.' In interlanguage analysis, you can look at the same learner language but now you ask what system the learner might be using to produce the patterns you observe. Interlanguage is usefully viewed as a transitional linguistic system (at all levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) that is different from the target language (TL) system and also different from the learner's native language (NL) system. It can be described in terms of evolving linguistic patterns and norms, and explained in terms of specific cognitive and sociolinguistic processes that shape that system.

To illustrate the difference between error analysis and interlanguage analysis: an error analysis might tell you that a learner makes a lot of errors in marking gender in French, while an interlanguage analysis may show that that learner is using a system where masculine gender is used for all nouns and noun modifiers. This gender marking system results in some errors (e.g. when referring to females) but also some seemingly correct forms (when referring to males). The cognitive process of overgeneralization that leads to this pattern is very typical of interlanguage.

Developmental Sequence

One way we can see systematicity in learner language is in the common developmental sequence followed by learners from different native language backgrounds when they acquire such linguistic structures as questions or negation in English L2 or German L2. For example, videos in Tarone & Swierzbin (2009) show learners of English L2 producing the same stage 3 questions as they speak in unrehearsed communication tasks. In stage 3 questions, these learners start with a question word like "what" or "why" and then use declarative word order (Q + subject + verb + object):

Xue: What he is doing?
Antonio: Why this guy say, stop?
Catrine: Why the bus driver can’t stop for him?

Though the 3 learners above have different native languages (Chinese, Spanish and French), they all produce stage 3 questions in English. Notice that stage 3 questions do not appear in English input from native speakers or English grammar books. Yet they are part of a seemingly universal developmental sequence for second language acquisition of English questions.

Human Cognition in Acquisition

Researchers believe that developmental sequences in second language acquisition result from cognitive processes in the human brain: language processing that all humans can be expected to use whenever they learn a second language. Research studies now suggest that it is common for learners to form overgeneralized rules at first, and also (as we have seen) that there are developmental sequences that learners can be expected to move through on their own, IF they are provided with adequate input in the language, the opportunity to use the language to communicate, and corrective feedback from more knowledgeable users of the language (Lightbown & Spada, 2013). In other words, Corder’s (1967) construct of the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’ has research support. For a review and update on current interlanguage research, see Han & Tarone (2014).

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Last Modified: March 3, 2016 at 10:42