The way in which our innate language abilities are able to influence how successfully we manage to use a language is a somewhat debated and controversial topic within the world of linguistics and cognitive science. Many believe that universal grammar has a very strong influence on how well an individual is able to structure sentences and use grammar while others disagree, at least with regard to how important it is in different situations. It is often argued that universal grammar has at least a moderate influence on first language acquisition, but the affect it has on second language acquisition is where the controversies lie, with many researchers having opposing opinions. Individuals who learn a foreign language frequently experience problems with using correct grammar, at least until they are very advanced in the acquisition process. A lot of the time, individuals learning a second language take a very long time to become as proficient as native speakers are, and they even often never reach the same level of proficiency as native speakers of the language. The significance of this is highly debated however, with a variety of causes being outlined as possible from many different studies.
Time and time again, it has been shown that individuals who learn a second language often use grammar inappropriately, even when they may be at least moderately accustomed to the language and have been learning it for a reasonably long amount of time. For example, Lu (2001) found that Chinese learners speaking English often used the word "the" when it would be more correct to use "a". This is a trend that has been found in many so-called L2 learners (i.e. people who are learning a second language). Interestingly however, such errors have also been found in the acquisition of English as a first language. A good example of this was in a study by Schaeffer and Mathewson in 2005. They found that children learning English as a first language make very similar errors to the errors individuals learning a second language make. They also state that children seem to start off by obeying what seem to be innate universal grammar principals, but as their learning develops, they eventually start to apply the rules of the language in the way adults do (through learning, conditioning and observation). The suggestion here therefore is that universal language is the cause of this incorrect grammar usage in both children learning to speak and in adults learning a second language, at least to some degree. This implies that universal grammar may indeed have a role in second language acquisition, since it seems that there are certain innate rules of language development that everyone follows - right or wrong.
Of course, many other studies imply that universal grammar influences the individual to speak properly rather than wrongly (albeit, at a different stage of the language acquisition process). It is argued that the input an individual receives when learning a language is not enough to allow them to successfully and properly use grammar, therefore meaning innate language abilities have a strong influence on language development, at least with regard to first language acquisition and likely with second acquisition too (White, 1985).
When considering the idea that a large part of grammar ability may be innate, one must question how to differentiate between innate language abilities and learned language knowledge - knowledge that (for L2 learners) was gained from the learning of their first language. To differentiate between innate and learned phenomena, there are two areas to be considered (White, 1990). Firstly, the input the individual receives for learning the language should be insufficient for the phenomenon to be present. Secondly, it should be different from phenomena learned as part of the first language. The fulfilment of both of these criteria could - in theory - mean an innate language ability is responsible for the production of the specific phenomenon in the L2 learning and therefore the role of universal grammar on interlanguage grammar can be looked at.
One of the main ways to study how universal grammar affects interlanguage grammar is to look at individuals who have learned a second language. These individuals are perfect for the study of interlanguage grammar since it is possible to compare and contrast how the grammar they use between the two languages varies, and how much of this variation is due to interlanguage grammar. James and Robert (2009) discuss a study which they carried out amongst people either writing in their first or second language, comparing the similarities and differences between the two. They found a number of similarities in the construction of both group's writing, therefore implying some kind of importance for universal grammar. However, they also state that studies into the area can be somewhat limited with regard to how insightful they can be, since insight into the grammar-text interface of second language acquisition is severely limited due to confounding factors.
Many studies have implied a role for universal grammar through non-sentence constructions (i.e. - from looking at other similarities between first and second language writers, such as their creative expression and the basic principals underlying the writing (Shaughnessy, 1977)). There are many similarities in how first and second language students express themselves, and many write with the same general rules. Another approach has involved looking at the types of errors both first and second language writers make when constructing their sentences. Bartholomae (1980) carried out a study into errors by looking at how exactly student writers (either first or second language) corrected themselves. The point of this study was to look at exactly what types of errors students were able to correct on their own. Interestingly, the finding was that most the self-corrected errors were either at the level of the sentence or the word level, with only one being beyond the level of the sentence.
The idea that universal grammar may have a role in the development of first language acquisition is generally more accepted than the idea that it plays a role in second language acquisition. This largely could be to do with the fact that determining a role for innate language abilities at the stage of learning a second language is a lot more challenging, since with first language acquisition the only confounding factor that needs to be taken into account is the level of input the learner receives about the language. When looking at interlanguage grammars, it is important to be able to get past the confounding factors, since the only real way to study it is through observation of language abilities of people who are bilingual.
Hale (1996) suggests that universal grammar is very difficult to distinguish from first language acquisition in L2 learners, implying that the two are almost one of the same. Indeed, many researchers agree with the idea that universal language is something that goes hand-in-hand with first language acquisition, but not with second language acquisition. This would therefore imply that - if any common traits that are not obviously learned are shown between individuals with different first languages - interlanguage grammars are likely playing a role.
It seems that the matter of how involved universal language is in interlanguage grammar may never be resolved. On one hand, the presence of certain phenomena in L2 that are absent in the first language along with evidence that the phenomena have not been learned suggest that maybe innate language skill do have a role in interlanguage grammars, however evidence from Zdorenko and Paradis (2007) along with other studies suggest that innate language abilities at least don't hold the most significant level of importance. Taking into account the fact that many L2 learners never reach the level of ability they have with their first language suggests universal grammar is certainly not the only factor in how easily one can grasp grammar concepts between languages.
The general consensus from many studies is that grammar across languages does have similarities, which could be explained by the idea of universal grammar, but they could also - at least to some degree - be explained by other factors. The study of this subject is very challenging and confounding factors are a real problem, as many researchers have pointed out. Defining what is learned and what is innate, especially in an area where we are looking at similarities and differences between languages poses all sorts of problems. The skill and intelligence of the individual is arguably one of the hardest factors to account for. Estimating how well an individual should be able to use a language can be very challenging and matching them with individuals equal in all respects is an issue.
Selinker and Douglas (1985) proposed that a major cause for variation in presented interlanguage grammars is due to the context in which they are being assessed. They suggest that subject matter is important, and variations can occur based on whether the individual may be simply reciting facts or whether they are giving more emotional answers. From their study, the finding was that certain language features were found to occur within specific context "domains" and therefore it is important to take this particular variable into account when studying interlanguage grammars, ensuring that all tested individuals are being analysed under the same domains.
The conclusion that can be taken from the literature really is that universal grammar plays at least somewhat of a role in interlanguage grammar, with L2 learners showing similarities to first language learners in a number of ways, both at the sentence/word level and at a higher level. Further research might focus on the cognitive pathways that both first and second language individuals must go through to construct sentences. Such research would give great insight into the route of language output, and therefore would be ideal for looking at the innate, underlying grammar ability that is universal grammar.
- Bartholomae, D., 1980: The study of error. College Composition and Communication, 31, 253-269.
- Curtiss, S., 1977: Genie: a psycholinguistic study of modern day 'wild child'. Academic Press.
- Flynn, S, 1996: A Parameter-Setting Approach to Second Language Acquisition, Ritchie & Bhatia : Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, San Diego, Academic Press, ch.4, p.121-158.
- Hale, K., 1996. Can UG and the L1 be distinguished in L2 acquisition? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19, 728-730.
- Lu, C. F.C. 2001: The acquisition of English Articles by Chinese learners. Second Language Studies 20, 43-78.
- Schaeffer, J. and Matthewson, L., 2005: Grammar and Pragmatics in the Acquisition of Article System. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 23, 53-101
- Shaughnessy, M., 1977: Errors and expectations. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Selinker, L and Douglas, D, 1985: Wrestling with 'Context' in Interlanguage Theory. Applied Linguistics, 6, 190-204.
- White, L., 1985: Is there a logical problem of second language acquisition? TESL Canada 2, 29.
- White, L., 1990: Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 121-133.
- Zdorenko, T and Paradis, J: The Role of the First Language in Child Second Language Acquisition of Articles. Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America, 483-490.