Chapter 1

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Introduction to L2 Learning

It has always been a challenge for adult L2 (i.e. second or foreign language) learners to acquire native-like mastery (i.e. in terms of production and perception) of their L2. For instance, native Japanese adult learners of English as an L2 often find it hard to perceive the distinction in English between /r/ and /l/ phonemes as the difference does not exist in the Japanese language (e.g. Goto, 1971; Iverson et al., 2003; Miyawaki et al., 1975).

Many factors are known to influence L2 acquisition and in particular, the acquisition of phonemes that are not found in the L2 learner’s native language. These include the learner’s linguistic background and the amount of knowledge in their L1, the proximity between L1 and L2 phonetic inventory (i.e. the more similar the phonetic inventory of the L1 and L2, the faster and more likely the L2 learner would be able to learn the L2) and the starting age of learning the L2 (Chobert & Besson, 2013).

The idea of neural commitment was suggested by Kuhl (2004) as an explanation for why adult L2 learners find it more difficult to achieve native-like mastery of their L2. In one of the study conducted by Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens & Lindblom, it was found that infants were sensitive to the phonetic details of all speech sound from the moment of their birth (1992). At six months of age, however, their perceptual system is reorganised. The overall structure and neurons in the infants’ brains were found to have developed to detect the phonetic and prosodic patterns of speech found in the language(s) that they encounter in their immediate environment, presumably their L1(Kuhl, 2004; Zhang, Kuhl, Imada, Kotani, Tohkura, 2005, Zhang et al., 2009). This results in the fossilisation of the perceptual system which places the system in a state that is non-optimal for learning a new language and prevents learners from modifying the perceptual categories that were developed in the early stages of life (e.g. Lenneberg 1967 as cited in van Heuven, Broerse, & Pacilly et al., 2011).

Many studies (e.g. Kelly, McDevitt, & Esch, 2009; Macedonia & von Kriegstein, 2012) have been conducted to find how to best teach L2 to the adult L2 learners. However, one interesting area that has yet to be fully explored is the study on how/if sensorimotor training can help improve L2 learning.

Hence, in view of this, in this wiki chapter, we will be focusing on exploring how sensorimotor training is thought to improve the speech perception of L2 phonemes for adult L2 learners. A brief overview of the current L2 learning methods is provided before beginning to delve deeper into what sensorimotor training is and how studies have suggested that it can improve L2 learning.

Current L2 learning methods

There are many ways that one can pick up a L2, either through naturalistic ways (e.g. through conversations around them), in a formal setting (e.g. a classroom) or through immersion (e.g. living in a foreign country and picking up their language).

Picking up a L2 through naturalistic ways exposes the L2 learner to a variety of natural discourses that help the learner to pick up certain social cues and pragmatic meanings of words, phrases and sentences that native speakers use in their daily conversations. However, the downside to learning a language in this way is that the learner would need a lot of time to analyse and break down what they heard; this is especially the case if the L2 learner has had no prior experience with the language.

The value of second language classes lies not only in the grammar instruction, but in the simpler “teacher talk”, the comprehensible input (Pierce, 2014). In a classroom, the teacher would slowly expose students to the foreign language by using the L1 as a means of communication to explain the word meanings, grammatical structure, pragmatic patterns and sentence structure (syntax). As the proficiency level of the L2 learner increases, the use of L2 in the L2 classroom would gradually increase. This helps to train students in their use of L2 and provide them with more opportunities to use their L2. Hence, the classroom can be an efficient place to achieve at least the intermediate levels rapidly, as long as the focus of the class is on providing input for acquisition (Pierce, 2014). However, the range of discourses that the student can be exposed to in a classroom is limited and not as natural as compared to the variety of discourse in the outside world (Pierce, 2014). In addition, students may not get the chance to use their L2 outside of the classroom which would affect their rate of progression in their L2.

The benefits of learning a L2 through immersion are that it exposes the L2 learner to a variety of natural discourse and provides the L2 learners opportunities to interact with native speakers in situations outside of the classroom. However, as immersion involves being “thrown to the deep end”, where the only form of communication is in the L2, L2 learners may struggle to pick up the language in the beginning.

First Created Grace Tan Shu Ting, Joan Peh Wan Xuan, Thing Jia Yun, AY2014/15 Semester 1