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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI15: First and Second Language Acquisition

This paper is available for the academic year 2024-25.

In this course we will explore issues in both first and second language acquisition. The general question we are asking is what we know when we know a language and how we get there. Language acquisition has been studied from many different perspectives and the different perspectives lead to different areas of acquisition being researched more or less in depth. This course will provide an overview of issues studied in the various approaches, thereby giving a comprehensive introduction to the domain of language acquisition.

The first term will be devoted to generative approaches and the second one to functional and cognitive approaches to language acquisition.

Characteristic of the generative approach is an innateness assumption triggered by the observation that exposure to the input alone cannot explain the acquisition process. The basic question is how children come to have the knowledge of language they have, given that the input is both under-informative (not all possible expressions are represented) and over informative (it contains a lot of irrelevant information for a learner). We will then explore how the process of second language acquisition compares to the acquisition of a first language, trying to identify what exactly is the task for a second language learner and how learners solve it.

Characteristic of functional and cognitive approaches is the idea that language is communication. As a result, understanding language acquisition implies understanding human communication. The main question, as for the generative approach, is: what information do learners use in order to acquire language. Different from the generative approach are the basic assumptions. It is not excluded in these approaches that learners acquire language purely from the input, as long as the input is provided in optimal communicative contexts for learning.

Note: a solid footing in linguistics is necessary to follow this course. Particularly, the generative approach is strongly syntax-oriented and requires, therefore, background knowledge: you should have followed at least Paper Li2. If you haven't taken Li2, you are strongly advised to work through the Li2 materials available on the website or on the Li2 Moodle course. Having followed Li9 or following it in parallel would also be very helpful

The following are suggestions for additional background readings on basic linguistic concepts and on syntax, which are necessary for following this course.

On Linguistics
Baker, A. & K. Hengeveld. 2011. Linguistics. Wiley-Blackwell.
Radford, A., M. Atkinson, D. Britain, H. Clahsen & A. Spencer. 1999. Linguistics. An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yule, G. 2014. The study of language. 5th ed. Cambridge: CUP.

On Syntax
Carnie, A. 2013. Syntax. A generative introduction. 3rd ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
Haegemann, L. 2005. Thinking syntactically. A guide to argumentation and analysis. Wiley-Blackwell.
Radford, A. 2004. Minimalist Syntax. Exploring the structure of English. Cambridge: CUP.




Week Subject

Introduction to the generative approach to acquisition.

What we know when we know a language and how we get there.

Two Early two-word combinations and the initial stage in first language acquisition
Three The arrival of morphology and syntax
Four Complex sentences
Five Second language acquisition: the task and the initial state
Six The development of sentence structure in second language acquisition
Seven Optionality in second language acquisition
Eight What is learnable in a second language? Features and feature learning


Week Subject
One Introduction to the course and Babbling
Two Gestures and First Words
Three Early two-word Combinations and Word-order
Four Morphology and Narratives
Five Vocabulary Acquisition in Second Language Acquisition
Six Morpheme Order Studies in L2 Acquisition
Seven The Acquisition of Syntax in L2 Acquisition: the “ESF” Project
Eight Linguistic Relativity or “Thinking for Speaking” and its Impact on L2 Acquisition
Preparatory reading: 

Relevant reading lists are available on the Moodle course for this paper.

Teaching and learning: 

You will receive sixteen lectures in total, eight in Michaelmas Term and eight in Lent Term. You will also have eight supervisions, normally three during Michaelmas Term, four in Lent Term and one in Easter Term. The Department will also be providing four hours of practical classes.

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


Assessment will be by a 3hr in person written exam.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Henriette Hendriks