Variability vs. Systematicity | TESL Issues



  • In contrast to the undeniable systematicity of the route of development, the rate of acquisition and the outcome of the acquisition process are highly variable, unlike L1 acquisition in which children seem to progress at roughly similar rates. It is very difficult to predict in second language acquisition what makes some people learn faster and better than others. Some factors have been isolated as playing some part in this. For example, age is one such factor (Singleton & Lengyel, 1995).
  • Learner language is systematic. That is, at a particular stage of development, learners consistently use the same grammatical form, although this is often different from that employed by native speakers. On the other hand, learner language is variable. That is, at any given stage of development, learners sometimes employ one form and sometimes another. Thus, one type of error may alternate with another type (Ellis, 1997) ((Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)).
  • Learner language (interlanguage) is not only characterised by systematicity. Learner language systems are presumably unstable and in course of change, that is, they are also characterised by high degrees of variability (Towell & Hawkins, 1994). In other words, learners’ utterances seem to vary from moment to moment, in the types of ‘errors’ that are made, and learners seem liable to switch between a range of correct and incorrect forms over lengthy periods of time. Variability is described by Towell et al. (1996) as a central feature of learner interlanguage that SLL theories have to explain.
  • The variability found among second language learners is undoubtedly more ‘extreme’ than that found for children (Mitchell & Myles, 2004) ((Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (2004). Second language learning theories (2nd Ed.). London: Hodder Arnold.)).
  • Notable among models of variability are Tarone’s (1988) ‘capability continuum paradigm’ and Ellis’s (1994) ‘variable competence model’, both of which assumed that the context and language tasks can affect variation in the interlanguage process.

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