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A Report on Theories of Language Input - 1


Theories of language input (Behaviourism, Mentalism and Interactionism)
Lecturer: Dr Tung
Reported by Truong Quang Vinh
Diptesol7a, HCM city Open University

Language input is a crucial element in the SLA process (Corder, 1985; Hedge, 1983). For many
years, numbers of second language researchers have proposed many theories of second language
acquisition (SLA). In this paper, I would like to briefly report the three major theoretical views in
SLA such as behaviourist, mentalist, and interactionist learning theory.
1. Behaviourist learning theory
Behaviourism (also called Behaviourist) is a philosophy of psychology learning perspectives
based on the analysis of habitual formation without considering the internal aspects. This theory
focuses on the investigation into the process of overcoming habits (Watson, 1924; Skinner, 1957) of
the first language (L1) in order to acquire new habits of the target language. The theory maintains
that learners can master the second language (L2) through the applying the stimulus-response
approach. Language learning, L1 and L2, was most successful when the task was broken down into
a number of stimulus-response links, which could be systematically practised and mastered once at
a time (Ellis, R. 1982. Understanding Second Language Acquisition, p. 21. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press). This theory is characterized by the following points:
• Language acquisition follows a set of behaviours in a process of imitation and habit
formation (imitation – repetition – memorization – controlled drilling – reinforcement).
• External language reinforcement is decisive. It focuses on the role of the environment,
both verbal and non-verbal. That is the leaners have to simulate exactly what the
teachers do and say exactly what the teachers say.
• Errors are not allowed. Errors avoidance focuses on contrastive analysis (Lado, 1967) to
find out similarities or differences between L1 and L2 in order to eliminate errors.
• Linguistic input and environment play major role in the learning process.
2. Mentalist learning theory
Mentalism (also called Mentalist), theories on the structure and mechanisms of the mind
(Chomsky, 1959) rather than on habit-formation in acquiring a second language. This learning
theory explores the learner’s internal process from different learning stages between L1 and L2 in
the interlanguage (Selinker, 1972) continuum. In this theory, SLA is characterized by a natural
sequence of learner’s innate linguistic development abilities. That is, the learners are assumed
“naturally biological programmed” and were born with a special ability to discover for themselves
the underlying rules of a language system. This inborn ability of L1 is served as an ‘acquisition
A Report on Theories of Language Input - 2

device’ that the leaners match their innate language knowledge (universal grammar) to the
structures of the particular language in the environment of L2 acquisition. This theory illustrates the
following points:
• SLA was seen as a series of evolving system comprising the interlanguage continuum in
which the learners gradually construct and develop the language competence in different
stages from L1 to L2.
• Errors are not treated as non-learning but accepted to be learner’s contribution to
acquisition. They are identified by hypothesis-testing process which is responsible for the
continual correction of the interlanguage system.
• Learners’ inside factors are more decisive. The learners can acquire the L2 through mental
activities of the language themselves.
3. Interactionist learning theory
Interactionism (also called Interactionist) supports the theory that language acquisition is
strongly facilitated by the use of the target language in interaction (Long, 1990). In this theory,
language development is seen as the result of both input factors and of innate mechanisms (Ellis, R.
1982. Understanding Second Language Acquisition, p. 129. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press) and the learners acquire the language from the dynamic interplay between the external and
internal factors. Those factors are correspondent to language input (language exposed to the learner)
and intake (the portion of L2 processed/acquired by the learner). This theory presents the following
• SLA is considered as rule-governed activities in which learners learn L2 from the context of
• Comprehensible input is a crucial element and interactional modifications or negotiation of
meaning can promote acquisition.
• Errors are tolerated and not being paid much attention. Teachers may intentionally produce
strange or incorrect sentences to make the learners learn.
• Environmental factors are more dominant in language acquisition.

In conclusion, the above three theories have yet to give complete answers to SLA, because each
offers a partial explanation of the SLA process and still has limitation. The behaviourist theoretical
view mainly considers language development as habit formation whereas the mentalist theory
generally treats the process of language acquisition as something in learner’s mind and the innate
aspects. The debate between behaviourism and mentalism arises the theory of interactionism, which
admits the active processing by the learner, and on the other hand attaches much importance to the
input, intake and the interaction between internal and external factors.