What sets off the Linguistic Acquisition Device?

Bob Ponterio, moderator of flteach, wrote on the following thread:

Comprehensible input in grammar acquisition-goals of instruction

“No. It is not about the actual knowledge or behavior being already present, though it does tie into the notion that the “blank slate” is a myth. Complex behavior emerges out of the social interactions and the mental faculties that do not, in and of themselves, contain the full complexity of the behavior. In SLA, at least at a basic level, acquisition seems to be hidden in a black box. What’s really going on when we say that a skill is “acquired”? What are all the different aspects of the process? What’s built-in, what isnít? what’s the range of variation? Etc.”

This gets to an idea I want to present at some point, what I call the “seed pattern”. This Black Box or Language Acquisition Device (LAD) may be a nucleus of potential interactive patterns in the brain that unfold along paths offered by the (linguistic) environment. We see that deaf children manage to invent sign language on their own (Nicaraguan deaf community as described in Pinker’s The Language Instinct, in the NYT magazine and elsewhere) which, like Pidgins, seem to follow certain lines of development into full-fledged (sign) languages, like Creoles from Pidgins.

It could be that language, like fruit, grass, etc., lies waiting for the environmental trigger to sprout and grow. Social interaction does not cause language but rather triggers it. I think it is extremely revealing that deaf people who do not inherit a sign language but make one up from scratch… do so, with the only “input” being social interaction (that I can think of – maybe there is something else besides social interaction).

This is the basis of my claim that students learn/acquire L2 only when they are interacting with someone in a communicative manner and not through staged dialogues and scripted activities. It would also explain the failure, in my view, of acquisition in academic situations where students only “learn” L2, using “learning” in Krashen’s sense of material useable only by the Monitor i.e conscious awareness of the forms and their application.

Back to the LAD: the secret, I believe, lies in a kernel that expands upon exposure to the sociolinguistic environment, whose complexity is unmeasureable and so thus far impossible to replicate by AI (artificial intelligence). The common criticism of communicative approaches, that they are based on the mistaken notion that L2 acquisition is like L1 acquisition, is wrong; the theory suggests the possibility that the LAD can work for L2 as well, albeit in a sociolinguistic environment different from that of typical L1 acquisition. To ignore the LAD and try to drum paradigms into learners’ heads is to beat one’s own head against a brick wall.

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