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Interlanguage Theory Essay

It is a well-attested fact that learners commit errors when learning a second language. Errors are in fact considered inevitable in any learning process. For a very long time different authors (Corder, 1967; Richards, 1971; Dulay and Burt, 1972, as cited in Taylor, 1975;) see those errors not only as deviations of the rules but also as important sources for studying the process of learning a target language. The learner’s mental process and rules adopted by them at different stages are evidenced by those errors. (Fauziati, 2011). It is, therefore, the language of the learner that Larry Selinker (1972) would study and name interlanguage. He would consider interlanguage as follows:

L2 learners construct a linguistic system that draws, in part, on the learner’s L1 but is also different from it and also from the target language. A learner’s interlanguage is, therefore, a unique linguistic system (as cited in Ellis, 1997, pag. 33).

This system of the language is evolutional and dynamic, and its grammar is under construction and in constant development. It may have inconsistency errors but it will be changing and developing all the time. Selinker (1972, as cited in Taylor, 1975) claims that interlanguage is not merely the learner target language grammar that is filled with errors due to the learner’s L1 interference but, instead, it is a linguistic system that reflects the learner’s dealing with the deviations of the target language itself. Selinker also states that the perspective of Interlanguage considers the learning strategies which the learner employs in a task despite of their mother tongue or kind of training they receive.

According to Selinker (1972), there are a number of processes or strategies that the learner adopts in order to help them acquire the target language. The first one is L1 Transfer, which is a learning strategy where the learner uses their own L1 as a resource. “[T]he learner transfers their knowledge of their native language into their target language attempts” (Taylor, 1975, p. 393). The second process is L2 Transfer, in which the learner works out the rules of L2 and challenges them. The third process is Overgeneralization; the learner uses an L2 rule in situations in which a native speaker would not use them.

This can occur at different levels, namely, at the phonetic level, at the grammatical level, at the lexical level and at the level of discourse. Taylor (1975) defines overgeneralization as “a process in which a language learner uses a syntactic rule of the target language inappropriately when he attempts to generate a novel target language utterance”. The fourth process or strategy is General Learning Principles; the learner acquires strategies for learning the language, such as association or grouping.

However, these strategies are not exclusive to language learning; they can be applied to any other kind of knowledge. Finally, the fifth process is Communication Strategies, which are actions that the learner carries out in order to compensate their lack of knowledge and also to reinforce or optimize communication. Among these strategies are body language, circumlocution, using a general term, resorting to L1, asking for help (the teacher or the dictionary), coining (making up a word) and avoidance. All of these five processes contribute to the development of the L2.

Another important characteristic of Interlanguage is Fossilization, which is a term introduced also by Selinker in 1972. It refers to “the persistence of plateaus of non-target-like competence in the IL” (as cited in Fauziati, 2011, p. 25). Selinker (1972) provides a precise definition for fossilization:

[A] mechanism that underlies surface linguistic material which speakers will tend to keep in their IL productive performance, no matter what the age of the learner or the amount of instruction he receives in the TL. (Selinker, 1972: 229, cited in Han, 2002) In other words, fossilization can be described as the interruption of the process of development of interlanguage. Learners are usually expected to achieve progress as their competence advances towards the target language system, and thus it contains fewer errors. However, some errors continue to occur and never disappear completely, and are, therefore, considered as fossilized. That is to say, such errors are permanent and defining characteristics of the learner’s language system (Fauziati, 2011).

Among the factors that influence fossilization in the learner’s learning process, there are both external and internal reasons that are worth mentioning. Environment is an external reason that can influence the student’s performance and it can be due to the lack of exposure to the language or probably the level of the course the student is taking is either higher or lower than their level of the language. As regards internal reasons, the learner himself is considered to be a significant influence on their performance. His personality (insecurity, family background, uncertainty), motivation, demotivation and backsliding (the student unlearns things he already knows and goes back to previous stages) contribute to the mechanism of fossilization.

Another important point to consider is that of interlanguage pragmatics, which has been defined by some authors, namely, Kasper and Dahl (1991), Kasper (1998) and Kasper and Rose (1999). However, in this paper, the concept of interlanguage pragmatics will be considered as follows:

[T]he investigation of non-native speakers’ comprehension and production of speech acts, and the acquisition of L2-related speech act knowledge. (Kasper and Dahl, 1991:215, cited in Barron, 2001) Interlanguage pragmatics deals with use of the language as action and its research focuses on the learner’s use and acquisition of pragmatic knowledge.

Although many studies on interlanguage have been based on spontaneous speech data, there is considerable difficulty in processing such data in order to tackle with problems persisting in the L2 learner’s initial state. One possible reason for this is that the speech utterances are gathered so early and may not exactly mirror the L2 initial state. Another perplexing problem is that the collection may be scarce and useless. (Lakshmanan and Selinker, 2001)

A further problem is that language learners, especially young L2 learners, have been thought to undergo a ‘silent period’, during which they do not produce any utterance (Lakshmanan and Selinker, 2001). Although students may differ significantly with respect to the duration of their silent period since some of them undergo longer periods than others, it is not proven what is exactly happening in this stage. Moreover, it cannot be proved whether there is passive acquisition of some of the elements of the target language while undergoing the silent period. Consequently, an accurate account of the development of the language of the learner is difficult to provide.

Another main argument concerning interlanguage is that of comparative fallacy. As Lakshmanan and Selinker (2001) state, criticizing the language learner’s speech utterances as ungrammatical without drawing first a comparison between the interlanguage speech utterances with the related speech utterances of the native speaker is not advisable since it leads to either underestimation and/or overestimation of the student’s linguistic performance. The interlanguage competence’s information should be obtained by examining the data of the interlanguage performance. Lakshmanan and Selinker (2001) suggest that in order to achieve this and not belittle or overvalue the student’s performance, it is necessary to compare consistently the interlanguage performance data with the native speaker’s performance.

Taking everything into account, interlanguage is a theory that has been supported by a number of scholars because it helps educators know what their learner’s language is like. However, it is worth mentioning that it has some weaknesses that need to be addressed. As for teachers, it is not only important that they support this theory but they also should identify its flaws as well so as not to misjudge our language learner’s performance on the language.

* Barron, A. (2003). Acquisition in Interlanguage Pragmatics: Learning How To Do Things With Words In A Study Abroad Context. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins. * Ellis, R. (1997) Second Language Acquisition. New York: Oxford University Press. * Fauziati, E. (2011) Interlanguage and Error Fossilization: A Study Of Indonesian Students Learning English As A Foreign Language. (Vol. I No. 1, pp. 23-38). Indonesia: Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics. * Han, Z. (2002). Fossilization: Five Central Issues. Toronto, Canada: The Second Language Research Forum (SLRF), Teachers College, Columbia University. * Lakshmanan, U. and Selinker, L. (2001). Analysing Interlanguage: How Do We Know What Learners Know? (Volume: 17, Issue: 4, Pages: 393-420). Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Birkbeck College, University of London: Second Language Research. * Taylor, B. (1975) Adult Language Learning Strategies and Their Pedagogical Implications. (Vol. 9. No. 4, pp. 391-399). USA: TESOL Quarterly.

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