I presented at a recent ETJ Expo on phoneme acquisition, which is what I’ve been posting about in this blog. One of the questions that arose was about the Native Language Magnet Theory (NLM). I have already written on the topic, and in this post I will say a bit more. I will briefly place the theory into the context of SLA research, and then clarify or expand on some points I made in my earlier posts.
Three broad accounts have been proposed for second language perception problems. These accounts look at the difficulties learners have from different angles and with different emphases. One emphasizes the learner’s characteristics, one emphasizes external factors, and one emphasizes the influences of the first language (L1).
The Critical Period account focuses on the characteristics of the learner, namely the learner’s age. It postulates that the maturation of language learning mechanisms in the brain causes a decline in our abilities to learn an L2. This position holds that the declining ability to learn a language is a biological event. The Environmental Influence account shifts the focus to external factors and argues that variations in L2 proficiency reflect learners’ levels of cognitive, social, and cultural activity or involvement. The L1 Transfer / Interference account holds that L2 perception and production are directly influenced by the L1 phonological system. This is the school of thought the NLM falls into. Evidence suggests that L1–L2 differences may interfere with the perception of L2 speech sounds. This line of thought claims the loss of language learning ability is not biological. It is the result of entrenched behavior. That is, we hear things in a certain way, and it reinforces itself. It becomes a habit.
There are three main claims in the NLM model that are particularly relevant to what I have been posting about. (1) Early learning produces a neural commitment to the phonetic units of the native language and establishes prototypical representations of the L1 phonemic inventories. This is the “sound-map” I discussed in my first post on NLM. (2) The effect of the sound-map is to enhance processing of native sounds, while hindering the detection of the sounds of a foreign language. This is why children lose the ability to hear non-native contrasts at around one-year of age. (3) The initial neural commitment is subject to reshaping by experience. Enriched exposure (including high variability and exaggerated speech) can change the sound maps of second language learners. This is what I wrote about in the post on the most effective way to train children to distinguish phonemes. This plasticity however, decreases with age, so it is best to start young.
These are not difficult ideas but they are unexpected, by many, so are slippery. My next post will be on phonemic awareness and the reason why I call my blog b4.