||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (November 2010)|
An interlanguage is the term for a dynamic linguistic system that has been developed by a learner of a second language (or L2) who has not become fully proficient yet but is approximating the target language: preserving some features of their first language (or L1), or overgeneralizing target language rules in speaking or writing the target language and creating innovations. An interlanguage is idiosyncratically based on the learners' experiences with the L2. It can fossilize, or cease developing, in any of its developmental stages. The interlanguage rules are claimed to be shaped by several factors, including: L1 transfer, transfer of training, strategies of L2 learning (e.g. simplification), strategies of L2 communication (or communication strategies like circumlocution), and overgeneralization of the target language patterns.
Interlanguage is based on the theory that there is a "psychological structure latent in the brain" which is activated when one attempts to learn a second language. Interlanguage theory is usually credited to Larry Selinker, who coined terms such as "interlanguage" and "fossilization," but others such as Uriel Weinreich have claimed to have formulated the basic concept before Selinker's 1972 paper. Selinker noted that in a given situation the utterances produced by the learner are different from those native speakers would produce had they attempted to convey the same meaning. This comparison reveals a separate linguistic system. This system can be observed when studying the utterances of the learner who attempts to produce meaning in using the target language; it is not seen when that same learner does form-focused tasks, such as oral drills in a classroom. Interlanguage can be observed to be variable across different contexts; for example, it may be more accurate, complex and fluent in one discourse domain than in another (Tarone, 1979; Selinker & Douglas, 1985).
To study the psychological processes involved one should compare the interlanguage utterances of the learner with two things:
- Utterances in the native language to convey the same message produced by the learner
- Utterances in the target language to convey the same message, produced by a native speaker of that language.
Interlanguage work is a vibrant microcosm of linguistics. It is possible to apply an interlanguage perspective to learners' underlying knowledge of the target language sound system (interlanguage phonology), grammar (morphology and syntax), vocabulary (lexicon), and language-use norms found among learners (interlanguage pragmatics).
By describing the ways in which learner language conforms to universal linguistic norms, interlanguage research has contributed greatly to our understanding of linguistic universals in SLA. See below, under "linguistic universals".
Before interlanguage theory rose to prominence, the principal theory of second-language development was contrastive analysis. This theory assumed that learners' errors were caused by the difference between the their first language and their second language. A further assumption followed that a sufficiently thorough analysis of the differences between learners' first and second languages could predict all of the difficulties they would face. This assumption was not based in rigorous analysis of learner language, but was often anecdotal, and researchers claims were prone to confirmation bias.
In an influential 1957 paper, Robert Lado said that the claims of contrastive analysis should be viewed as hypothetical unless they were based on systematic analyses of learner speech data. Following this, the focus of research into second-language acquisition shifted from hypotheses of language learning and the development of language-teaching materials to the systematic analysis of learner speech and writing with the practice of error analysis. Although this was initially done to validate the claims of contrastive analysis, researchers found that there were many utterances that could not be easily explained by transfer from learners' first languages to their second languages.
The idea that language learners' linguistic systems were different from both their first language and the second language was developed independently at around the same time by several different researchers. William Nemser called it an approximative system and Pit Corder called it transitional competence. However, it was Larry Selinker's formulation of interlanguage which came into standard use.
It can fossilize, or cease developing, in any of its developmental stages. Fossilization is the 'freezing' of the transition between the native language and the target language. Reasons for this phenomenon may be due to complacency or inability to overcome the obstacles to acquiring native proficiency in the target language. This phenomenon occurs often in adult language learners. Fossilization occurs when a L2 learner is capable of conveying message with current language knowledge, therefore the need to correct the form/structure is not required. Thus, the learner fossilizes the form instead of correcting it.
Though the interlanguage perspective views learner language as a language in its own right, this language systematically varies much more than native-speaker language. Selinker noted that in a given situation the utterances produced by the learner are different from those native speakers would produce had they attempted to convey the same meaning. This comparison reveals a separate linguistic system. This system can be observed when studying the utterances of the learner who attempts to produce meaning in using the target language; it is not seen when that same learner does form-focused tasks, such as oral drills in a classroom. Interlanguage can be observed to be variable across different contexts; for example, it may be more accurate, complex and fluent in one discourse domain than in another (Tarone, 1979; Selinker & Douglas, 1985). A learner may produce a target-like variant (e.g. 'I don't') in one context and a non-target like variant (e.g. 'me no') in another. Scholars from different traditions have taken opposing views on the importance of this phenomenon. Those who bring a Chomskyan perspective to SLA typically regard variability as nothing more than "performance errors", and not worthy of systematic inquiry. On the other hand, those who approach it from a sociolinguistic or psycholinguistic orientation view variability as an inherent feature of the learner's interlanguage, where the learner's preference for one linguistic variant over another depends on accompanying a social (contextual) variables such as the status or role of the interlocutor (see Selinker & Douglas, 1985), or b) linguistic variables such as the phonological environment or neighboring features marked for formality or informality.(Fasold & Preston, 2007; Tarone, 2009; Tarone & Liu, 1995).
Research on variability in learner language distinguishes between "free variation", which has not been shown to be systematically related to accompanying linguistic or social features, and "systematic variation", which has. Of course, the line between the two is subject to debate.
Free variation in the use of a language feature is usually taken as a sign that it has not been fully acquired. The learner is still trying to figure out what rules govern the use of alternate forms. This type of variability seems to be most common among beginning learners, and may be entirely absent among the more advanced.
Systematic variation is brought about by changes in the linguistic, psychological, social context. Linguistic factors are usually extremely local. For instance, the pronunciation of a difficult phoneme may depend on whether it is to be found at the beginning or end of a syllable.
Social factors may include a change in register or the familiarity of interlocutors. In accordance with Communication Accommodation Theory, learners may adapt their speech to either converge with, or diverge from, their interlocutor's usage. For example, they may deliberately choose to address a non-target form like "me no" to an English teacher in order to assert identity with a non-mainstream ethnic group (Rampton 1995).
The most important psychological factor is usually taken to be attention to form, which is related to planning time. The more time that learners have to plan, the more target-like their production may be. Thus, literate learners may produce much more target-like forms in a writing task for which they have 30 minutes to plan, than in conversation where they must produce language with almost no planning at all. The impact of alphabetic literacy level on an L2 learner's ability to pay attention to form is as yet unclear (see Tarone, Bigelow & Hansen, 2009).
Affective factors also play an important role in systematic variation. For example, learners in a stressful situation (such as a formal exam) may produce fewer target-like forms than they would in a comfortable setting. This clearly interacts with social factors, and attitudes toward the interlocutor and topic also play important roles.
When learners experience significant restructuring in their L2 systems, they sometimes show what has been termed U-shaped behavior. For instance, Lightbown (1983) showed that a group of English language learners moved, over time, from accurate usage of the “-ing” present progressive morpheme, to incorrectly omitting it, and finally, back to correct usage. This is explained by theorizing that learners first acquired the “-ing” form as a chunk, second, lost control of this form as their knowledge system was disrupted by expanding understandings of the tense and aspect systems of English, and third, returned to correct usage upon gaining greater control of these linguistic characteristics and forms. These data provide evidence that learners were initially producing output based on rote memory of individual words containing the present progressive morpheme. However, in the second stage their systems apparently contained the rule that they should use the bare infinitive form to express present action, without a separate rule for the use of “-ing.” Finally, their systems did contain such a rule. According to Interlanguage theory, this seeming progression and regression of language learning is an important and positive manifestation of the learner's internal understanding of the grammar of the target language.
Ellis (1994)[vague] distinguished between "order" to refer to the pattern in which different language features are acquired and "sequence" to denote the pattern by which a specific language feature is acquired.
Research on universal grammar (UG) has had a significant effect on SLA theory. In particular, scholarship in the interlanguage tradition has sought to show that learner languages conform to UG at all stages of development. A number of studies have supported this claim, although the evolving state of UG theory makes any firm conclusions difficult.
Versus creoles and pidgins
The main distinction that interlanguage holds is that it often varies even between speakers of the same language seeking to learn the same target language. It is highly individualized, whereas creoles and pidgins are generally the product of groups of people in contact with another language. In addition, creoles and pidgins may be more stable, while an interlanguage often changes as the speaker improves and learns more about the target language.
The concept of interlanguage is closely related to other types of language, especially pidgins and creoles. Each of these languages has its own grammar and phonology. The difference is mostly one of variability, as a learner's interlanguage changes frequently as they become more proficient in the language. In addition, pidgins and creoles have many speakers and are developed as a group process. An interlanguage, on the other hand, is something that has only one speaker, the learner.
At the very beginning of language learning, the learner has some idea of what the foreign language is like, and how it works. According to these ideas, they produce utterances, some of which may be correct, and others which may be wrong. Then, as the learner gains more knowledge about the language, they may come up with new and better ideas of how it works.
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- Fremdsprachen und Hochschule
- Interlanguage fossilization
- Language transfer
- Macaronic language
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- Tarone, E., Bigelow, M. & Hansen, K. (2009). Literacy and Second Language Oracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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- J. C. Richards, Error Analysis: Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition, Longman Press, 1974, pp. 34–36.
- Tarone, E. (2001), Interlanguage. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.). Concise Encyclopedia of Sociolinguistics. (pp. 475–481) Oxford: Elsevier Science.