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Second Language Acquisition of Japanese

Summary and Keywords

Empirical and theoretical research on language has recently experienced a period of extensive growth. Unfortunately, however, in the case of the Japanese language, far fewer studies—particularly those written in English—have been presented on adult second language (L2) learners and bilingual children. As the field develops, it is increasingly important to integrate theoretical concepts and empirical research findings in second language acquisition (SLA) of Japanese, so that the concepts and research can be eventually applied to educational practice. This article attempts to: (a) address at least some of the gaps currently existing in the literature, (b) deal with important topics to the extent possible, and (c) discuss various problems with regard to adult learners of Japanese as an L2 and English–Japanese bilingual children. Specifically, the article first examines the characteristics of the Japanese language. Tracing the history of SLA studies, this article then deliberately touches on a wide spectrum of domains of linguistic knowledge (e.g., phonology and phonetics, morphology, lexicon, semantics, syntax, discourse), context of language use (e.g., interactive conversation, narrative), research orientations (e.g., formal linguistics, psycholinguistics, social psychology, sociolinguistics), and age groups (e.g., children, adults). Finally, by connecting past SLA research findings in English and recent/present concerns in Japanese as SLA with a focus on the past 10 years including corpus linguistics, this article provides the reader with an overview of the field of Japanese linguistics and its critical issues.

Keywords: behaviorism (empiricism), child language, cognitive theories, contrastive analysis, error analysis, first language acquisition (FLA), formal (Chomskyan) linguistics, functional theories, psycholinguistic approach, second language acquisition (SLA), social interaction approach (sociocognitive theory), sociolinguistic approach

1. A Brief Summary of the Characteristics of the Japanese Language

1.1. Structural Properties

Many of the basic assumptions underlying conventional models in the field of linguistics derive from English, which is a right-branching (RB), head-initial (HI) language. The syntactic properties of left-branching (LB), head-final (HF) languages such as Japanese challenge these English-based basic assumptions. In fact, the Japanese language is a potentially rich area for linguistic study. In marked contrast to English or other Indo-European languages, Japanese is considered a possible member of the larger Altaic family (see “ORE Altaic language,” Starostin, 2016). To begin with, Japanese is an SOV language, namely, a language in which the basic word order of a transitive sentence (i.e., an “agent-operates-on-another-entity” sentence) is that of subject–object–verb. For example, an English sentence “John saw Bill” would be arranged as “John Bill saw” in Japanese. Japanese is also an agglutinative language (e.g., the verb root is followed by a series of affixes, adjusted by voicing assimilation to fit the root and other affixes) (Yamada, 1992). Moreover, whereas the use of determiners (e.g., a/an, the) is generally obligatory with nominals (at least singular ones) in English, no such functional category exists in Japanese (Shibatani, 1990).

Also, whereas in English a preposition appears at the head of a phrase (e.g., ‘in San Francisco’), an equivalent particle (or case marker) appears at the end of the phrase in Japanese (e.g., “San Francisco de/ni”). Recall that an English sentence “John saw Bill” would be arranged as “John Bill saw” in Japanese. This is so because the head of the verb phrase “saw” comes at the end of the phrase, the predicate in this case. Japanese is thus characterized “postpositional” as opposed to “prepositional” (Kuno, 1973). Unlike English, moreover, in Japanese postpositional markers, such as the following, can represent all case relationships:

Second Language Acquisition of Japanese

Second Language Acquisition of Japanese

Note: [O] is an object case marker (the accusative case, ACC); [Q] stands for an interrogative particle; [S] stands for the subject marker (the nominative case, NOM); and [T] stands for the topic marker or TOP.

As seen in these two examples, two different types of particles mark the subject of a sentence for different purposes (the thematic/topic marker wa as opposed to the subject marker ga). Note, however, that the use of these case markers (or particles) is sometimes optional (e.g., kinoo watashi ø machi e ikimashita or even kinoo watashi ø machi ø ikimashita: ‘I went to the town yesterday’). (Note: For case particle deletion by second language (L2) learners, a review of Kanno, 1996, will be provided later in 3.2.1.)

In addition, it is appropriate to mention that Japanese is both “topic-prominent” and “subject-prominent,” in contrast to languages that are characterized as “subject-prominent” languages (e.g., English) (Shibatani, 1990). The subject on first mention (i.e., new information) is marked by the particle ga (subject marker) whereas the subject that serves as the theme or topic of the sentence (i.e., old or given information) is marked by wa (thematic or topic marker) (Hinds, 1984; Kuno, 1973; Maynard, 1990). As explained earlier, however, the marking of case relationships is optional in Japanese. Furthermore, Japanese is a language with a low frequency of pronouns and extensive use of nominal ellipsis. That is, extensive ellipsis of case markers is grammatically acceptable and, moreover, sometimes pragmatically appropriate.

1.2. Ambiguity Deriving From Structural Properties

The above description relates to subtlety and ambiguity, which are also found in the structure of the Japanese language itself. Although this may be an extreme example, as Clancy (1986) points out, if intonation contour is not taken into consideration, because negation appears as a verb suffix that comes at the very end of a sentence, the speaker can negate a sentence at the final moment, inferring the listener’s reaction (e.g., machi e itta to omou ‘(I) think (he/she/they) went to the town’ as opposed to machi e itta to omowa nai ‘(I) do not think (he/she/they) went to the town’).

This particularistic feature of the Japanese language is generally true of other cases as well. For example, neither a syntactic nor a morphological cue is available to distinguish the difference between a head-final NP with a relative clause (e.g., basu ni notta kodomo [basu = ‘bus,’ ni = object marker, notta = ‘took,’ kodomo = ‘child’]: ‘the child who took a bus’) and a simple sentence (e.g., basu ni notta: ‘ø took a bus’), except for the availability of the information after the verb. Therefore, the listener cannot identify whether the sentence he or she hears is a relative clause or not until the head NP becomes available at the very end (Yamashita, Stowe, & Nakayama, 1993).

In this regard, it is appropriate to mention that one way of understanding the communication process is in light of encoding and decoding. Encoding means the process of turning a message into certain linguistic forms, such as word(s), phrase(s), or sentence(s). The individual who encodes and sends messages and meanings is an encoder. Decoding, on the other hand, refers to the process of trying to understand the meaning of word(s), phrase(s), or sentence(s) sent by the encoder. The individual who decodes the messages and meanings sent by the encoder is a decoder. Overall, therefore, it is essential to consider the impact of distinctive features of a particular language (e.g., word order, branching directions, and occurrences of empty categories) not only on how the speaker/encoder produces that language but also on how the listener/decoder processes what he or she hears.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, because Japanese has case markers, unlike English, a relatively free word order is allowed. (It should be noted, however, that English does have some case markers. For instance, even when an object case marker is not attached to pronouns, they are, in many cases, case-marked pronouns, e.g., The girl saved us. This tie becomes him.) To make matters more complicated, in naturally occurring Japanese discourse, case markers are occasionally omitted (e.g., anata ookiku natte hoshii mon, okaasan ‘ø wants you to grow up a big boy, Mama’); the subject and/or object can be omitted as well (e.g., ookiku natte hoshii mon: ‘(I) want (you) to grow up a big boy’). In other words, zero forms (ø) can be prevalently used when a character has been established not only in a preceding clause but also in the context; there is no need to use a full nominal expression or a pronoun. When telling stories, for example, Japanese narrators tend to opt for dispensing with nominal references to entities that they assume to be in the focus of listeners’ consciousness (Downing, 1980). Unfortunately, however, these ellipses consequently result in considerable ambiguity. Therefore, in addition to flexible word order, as Clancy (1980, 1992) and Hinds (1984) argue, the rare use of pronominal references further spurs ambiguity in Japanese. Although no causal relationships between some syntactic features and particular cultural aspects are implied, the aforementioned syntactic features of the Japanese language are well suited for implementing a subtle communicative style. (Note: For referential topic management in English–Japanese bilingual children’s narratives, Minami, 2011, will be reviewed later.)

1.3. The Acquisition of the Japanese Sound System

In addition to syntactic, semantic, and discourse structures, a great deal of research has been conducted in the past decades on the acquisition of the Japanese sound system (see Kubozono, 2015). Developmental research in both the first language (L1) and L2 in particular has played an important role in contributing to better understanding the acquisition of Japanese phonology. In the acquisition and development of sound production in L1 Japanese-speaking children, for example, the research related to the perceptual decline in the discrimination of the English sounds /r–l/ may be a point of interest (Ota, 2015). Specifically, while performance on the /r–l/ contrast is equivalent for American and Japanese infants at 6–8 months, by10–12 months of age English-speaking American infants improve significantly. In contrast, their Japanese-speaking counterparts’ performance noticeably declines (Kuhl et al., 2006). While newborns may be capable of discriminating nonnative speech contrasts, because of the fact that the Japanese language does not require discrimination of the sounds /r−l/, the pattern of decreasing performance with age suggests: (a) facilitation for native-language phonetic contrasts occurs between 6 and 12 months of age, and, more importantly, (b) exposure to a specific language initiates neural commitment to the properties of native-language phonetic units. The finding that a significant change in perceptual ability occurs somewhere between 6 and 12 months of age suggests that it may be useful to consider different degrees of difficulty that L2 learners face. In other words, research requires accurate descriptions of L2 learners’ perception and production performance with their L1 backgrounds (Hirata, 2015).

2. Critical Issues in Linguistics Including Language Acquisition/Learning

Given a vast array of situations in which one acquires/learns language, either the L1 or an L2, it would be a very challenging task to cover all relevant issues. A way of looking at language acquisition is such an example. At this point, based on the assumption that the L1 and an L2 form a continuum, discussing some critical issues in the filed of linguistics holds significant meaning.

2.1. The History of Language Acquisition Studies: Contrastive Analysis vs. Error Analysis

Second language acquisition (SLA) is a relatively young research area that started in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1940s and 1950s the strong assumption prevailed that most of the difficulties facing L2 learners were imposed by their L1. It was assumed that (a) where there were differences between the L1 and the L2, the learner’s L1 knowledge would interfere with the L2, and (b) where the L1 and the L2 were similar or even identical, the L1 would actively aid L2 learning. The process held responsible for this was called language transfer. In the case of similarities between the L1 and the L2 it would function positively, while in the case of differences it would function negatively (Lado, 1957, 1964). This so-called contrastive analysis hypothesis that SLA is basically a mechanical process based on habit formation thus resonates the behaviorist approach of habit formation theory (e.g., Skinner, 1957).

While contrastive analysis regarded learning an L2 as a “habit” that learners were expected to develop and maintain, ever since Chomsky (1965) began to develop the theory of linguistic universals, researchers have been interested in the human biological endowment that enables us to discover the framework of principles and elements common in attaining human languages. Specifically, Chomsky claimed that the child’s knowledge of his or her L1 derives from a universal grammar (UG), which specifies the essential form that any natural language takes. Advocating the principles and parameters approach, Chomsky (1985, p. 146) later claimed:

UG consists of various subsystems of principles; it has the modular structure that we regularly discover in investigation of cognitive systems. Many of these principles are associated with parameters that must be fixed by experience. The parameters must have the property that they can be fixed by quite simple evidence, because this is what is available to the child; the value of the head parameter, … Once the values of the parameters are set, the whole system is operative.

Influenced by the linguistic revolution originated by Chomsky, the 1960s was a period of intensive empirical research into first language acquisition (FLA). Brown (1973), for instance, conducted a longitudinal study and analyzed toddlers’ language acquisition. Brown’s work represents one of the classical developmental psycholinguistic studies. While acknowledging the significant influences of environmental or parental interactions, Brown also paid attention to biological environment to hypothesize the underlying rules of the target language and his morphological analysis in the L1 was later extended to L2 development by his followers, such as Hakuta’s (1976) longitudinal, naturalistic study of the acquisition of English grammatical morphemes by a five-year-old Japanese girl. The notion of underlying rules, which closely corresponds to Chomsky’s conception of an innate language acquisition device (LAD), reflects a major shift from behaviorist or Skinnerian approaches to language acquisition and learning to an organismic accounting of these phenomena. This concept served as a precursor to the Cognitive Revolution, which led to great advances not only in linguistics and psychology, but also in education.

Recall that, in the field of SLA, a great deal of research had been carried out even before the Chomskyan Revolution (e.g., Fries, 1972; Lado, 1957). After the revolution, however, researchers came to recognize the enormous complexity of L2 learning and its many facets (e.g., Richards, 1974). Advocating error analysis, Corder (1971, 1974), for instance, claimed that in both FLA and SLA learners make errors in order to test out certain hypotheses about the nature of the language they are learning and, consequently, investigations into this domain of knowledge have become a great deal more diverse and sophisticated. The shifts among these methodologies reflect changes in the conceptions of the processes of language acquisition and the nature of learners.

To summarize, within the framework of contrastive analysis, which was dominant up to the end of the 1960s, errors that occur in the SLA process are interpreted as an L1 habit interfering with an L2 habit. In terms of L2 teaching, this approach leads to analyzing two languages to see where they differ and then using the differences as the basis for predicting errors and for developing curriculum. This contrastive notion mirrors the behaviorist approach represented by Skinner (1957), according to whom, language development is largely determined by training based on trial-and-error and not by maturation. On the other hand, error analysis in the 1970s (e.g., Corder, 1971, 1974; Richards, 1974) viewed the SLA process as active hypothesis testing in which language learner makes hypotheses and compares them with his or her innate grammar for syntactic and phonological similitude. Both error analysis and longitudinal studies (e.g., Brown, 1973) show striking similarities in which L2 learners of different L1s learn an L2 (Dulay & Burt, 1973, 1974). These explanations clearly exemplify how a Universal Grammar (UG), outlined by Chomsky (1965), would function. In this way, issues associated with language acquisition/development include both FLA and SLA. (Note: Different researchers hold different views about how powerfully UG operates in SLA. For examining the extent to which a theory of UG could be useful in explaining the SLA process, see Flynn & O’Neil, 1988.)

2.2. Various Research Orientations

As a cautionary note, exploring error analysis as an alternative to contrastive analysis is not enough. Researchers with different orientations have contributed to our understanding of SLA. Linguists’ approaches to SLA are such an example. For instance, there is a concept that linguistic rules that are part of the core grammar (i.e., universal) are considered to be unmarked, whereas linguistic rules that are part of the periphery (i.e., language-specific) are considered to be marked. Eckman (1977) argued that markedness theory would provide a basis for solving some of the problems of the contrastive analysis hypothesis, as seen in the likeliness of the transfer of L1 unmarked forms. Instead, therefore, other major theoretical approaches should be explored, such as cognitive and social interaction approaches as well as sociolinguistic issues.

First of all, it is useful to explore what differentiates Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (Piaget, 1952, 1959) from Chomsky’s linguistic theory. Within the Piagetian framework, language plays a relatively secondary role; the sequence of general cognitive development determines the sequence of language development. Therefore, unlike Chomsky’s linguistic or opposing behavioristic or approaches, Piaget argued that the complex structures of language seem neither innate nor learned. This approach differs from that taken by Chomsky (1985), who believes in the LAD, a self-charged “bioprogram,” whereby language acquisition is autonomous; i.e., in the language acquisition process, an individual automatically moves from the initial state (an unspecified period of knowledge readiness) to the steady state (idealized speaker/listener), as if by simply flipping a series of switches. In other words, language exists as an independent faculty in the human mind. Even though it is part of the learner’s total cognitive apparatus, language is separate from the general cognitive mechanisms responsible for intellectual development.

Second, it is also necessary to contrast these linguistic and cognitive theories with Vygotsky’s (1978) social-interactionist account. According to Vygotsky, individuals’ cognitive skills first develop through interactions with more mature members of society and are then internalized. The social interaction approach (or the sociocognitive theory) represented by Vygotsky combines the two opposing approaches of the behavioristic and Chomsky’s linguistic, and, furthermore, considers the functions of language in social communication to hold significant meaning throughout development. This social interaction approach played an influential role in both L1 and L2 studies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Note that Krashen’s account of i+1 (comprehensible input, which means input language that contains linguistic items slightly beyond the L2 learner’s current linguistic competence; Krashen, 1982) resembles Vigotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). However, these are different concepts because ZPD hypothesizes two-way, bidirectional interactions whereas comprehensible input in Krashen’s input hypothesis is based on one-way, unidirectional interactions from the teacher to the student. Taken together, whereas formal theories of language developed by the aforementioned researchers influenced by Chomsky (1965) are concerned with an analysis of the abstract underlying structure of language, those who propose different paradigms for understanding language acquisition insist that environmental influence on language development not be overlooked.

Third, and as an additional note, as seen in the Chomskyan approach, formal theories posit endogenous mechanisms for language acquisition that lead to universally prescribed rules as an abstract template. In contrast, functional linguistic theories posit exogenous factors for acquisition based on social interactions that lead to specific linguistic forms being extracted from these encounters and building up overtime into more formal linguistic rules, i.e., regularities from the environment (e.g., Berman & Slobin, 1994; Slobin, 1991). A usage-based theory of language acquisition proposed by Tomasello (2003, 2009), for instance, suggests that children are guided toward correct word-to-world mappings by skilled conversational partners (e.g., parents) who use such social cues as joint attention. As explained earlier, the formal Chomskyan (nativist) approaches take the position that language is relatively independent of other cognitive domains. On the other hand, not only the empiricist but also functional approaches claim rather that the interplay between domain-general cognitive/learning mechanisms and the environment accounts for language development (see MacWhinney, 1999, for a review). Functional theories are particularly concerned with understanding language in the contexts in which it is used (e.g., learning socially determined rules of interaction in the process of language acquisition). In other words, whereas formal theories primarily place their emphasis on analyzing the child’s (or the language learner’s) developing linguistic competence in syntax and phonology, functional theories are essentially concerned with semantics and pragmatics. Thus, the characteristics that distinguish between the major theoretical positions on FLA lead to different conjectures about the process that involves SLA.

2.3. Emerging Sociocultural Issues: Sociolinguistic Account of SLA

In contrast to the above-described psycholinguistic studies that appeared primarily in the early 1970s, the latter half of the 1970s and the 1980-90s in particular and even up until today have witnessed the emergence of more social and pragmatic linguistic concerns, which inevitably led language studies to further examine the nature of literacy within a sociocultural framework. Sociolinguists and anthropologists might be interested in how language is used in various social settings. Accordingly, the second question is how language is used in society.

Chomsky (1965) presented the dichotomy of competence (i.e., a person’s internalized grammar of a language) and performance (i.e., the actual use of language in concrete situations). Challenging this dichotomy of competence and performance, Hymes (1974), an advocate of the ethnography of communication, introduced the concept of communicative competence, the ability not only to apply the grammatical rules of a language in order to construct a grammatically correct sentence, but also to know when, where, and with whom to use these correct sentences in a given sociocultural situation. The acquisition of culture-specific communicative competence hence plays a critical role in the process of not only FLA but also SLA, and the development of narrative discourse skills, as described later. (As an additional note, psycholinguistic processing models, Bates and MacWhinney’s [1981] competition model [MacWhinney & Bates, 1989], in which sentence interpretation is governed by accumulated knowledge of the likelihood that certain cues indicate certain semantic roles, focus on performance rather than competence.)

Language use is tied closely to personal identity, to cultural identification, to national or ethnic pride, to specific communicative tasks or situations, and to a set of attitudes and beliefs that influence the course of SLA. The underlying sociocultural questions can therefore be summarized as follows: (a) How do individuals define themselves in and through language? (b) How do communities differ in their ways of speaking and how do individuals accommodate when they are placed in different speech communities? For instance, although speech acts and politeness are purported to share some universal features (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Leech, 1983), they may vary cross-culturally as well as cross-linguistically (Blum-Kulka & House, 1989; Blum-Kulka, House, & Kasper, 1989). To answer these intricate questions, it is important to identify cross-linguistically common—possibly universal or quasi-universal—characteristics in terms of the development of language processing strategies. At the same time, it is also useful to know whether or not speakers of different native languages use different language processing strategies. Thus, both developmental and cross-linguistic issues must be taken into consideration simultaneously.

2.4. Application of Sociocultural Issues to the Japanese-Language Context

Cross-linguistic issues, which, in a sense, search for linguistic universals (Comrie, 1989), apply to various areas of linguistics, not only to sociolinguistics and anthropology but also to formal linguistics, psycholinguistics, to name a few. Iwasaki, Vinson, and Vigliocco (2007), for instance, exemplify the world of language universals on the one hand and language-specific features on the other. Through an experimental study, these researchers try to uncover both cross-linguistically shared and language-specific aspects of sound symbolism that are present in the Japanese mimetic words. They explore and study diverse peoples, languages, and sociocultural settings in order to identify cross-linguistic differences.

In addition to typological (or linguistic) peculiarities, however, it is also important to examine how the language used in a society reflects widely accepted social norms and, conversely, how those social norms shape language use. It is meaningful to consider that L2 learners seek to gain insight into social, political, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and interactional processes entailed in learning an L2, as seen in Japanese-language learners’ acquisition of style shift (Cook, 2016). As previously mentioned, the Japanese language is a highly contextualized language; the speaker must be fully aware of (a) whether the relationship with the listener is intimate, or (b) whether the communication is impersonal. High-context groups like the Japanese are often described as living in a “sea of information” that is widely shared (Hall, 1976, 1989). This culture-specific phenomenon has often been associated with the distinction between “inside” and “outside.” To use an illustration, if a person whom the speaker addresses (or a person the speaker refers to) belongs to the speaker’s circle, that person is an insider. Someone’s immediate inside circle is usually the family. A second inside circle might be the office circle (e.g., fellow workers in a department of a company). On the other hand, if the person is outside of the speaker’s circle, then the person is an “outsider.” The concept of “inside” as opposed to “outside,” widely accepted in Japanese society, accounts for representations of the language used in the society. While this is a rough description, within the inner circle informal forms of speech are used (note that there also possibly could be a certain type of hierarchy even within the inner circle in which the speaker expresses his or her respect to the hearer, using honorifics). On the other hand, when the speaker addresses an outsider, the speaker is more likely to use formal forms of speech.

Although a great deal has been written about linguistic politeness in Japanese (e.g., Shibatani, 1990), literature in this area can still offer insightful perspectives on this sociolinguistic dimension. There has been relatively little investigation into how Japanese honorifics are explained within the framework of the four Gricean maxims (Grice, 1975), the general principles that are considered to underlie the efficient use of language. The maxim of quantity is a case in point; it suggests that the utterances be only as informative as required for the current purposes of the conversational exchange. A possible contention, however, is that the Japanese linguistic politeness phenomena, such as polite utterances to outsiders, deviate from or even violate the Gricean framework, which, as mentioned earlier, precludes unnecessarily informative contributions. The Gricean maxims do not necessarily take into account language-particular features. Instead, emphasis is placed on the importance of considering cultural variation, through the exploration of influences of both typologically and socioculturally distinctive features on language acquisition/development and language processing. Works on discourse and pragmatics thus contribute to the investigation of meaning that a culture encodes in its language, a topic in which linguists and anthropologists share a great interest.

3. Critical Analysis of Scholarship: Present and Future Directions

Over the last few decades, the field of L2 research has grown dramatically (see Bialystok, 2001, for review). Theoretical approaches are numerous and are often linked to very different interests. Some were born out of an interest in the relationship between language and society and how this affects acquisition. Some try to explain acquisition from a functional perspective, a cognitive perspective, which, as seen in construction grammar (Tomasello, 2003), emphasizes that language structure is built up from a set of units, namely, aspects of form, meaning, and usage, and yet others examine the availability of a hypothetical module of the human mind called the LAD in the UG sense to the L2 learner. In SLA studies, therefore, the predominant views can be summarized as the cognitive/functionalist perspectives on the one hand and the formal generative approach on the other.

3.1. The Language Continuum

3.1.1. Orality and Literacy as a Sociocultural Continuum: L1 Researchers’ Account of Language Acquisition

FLA and the development of L1 literacy skills are a natural starting point for understanding not only the so-called language continuum but also SLA. In the past, spoken language and written language had been considered separate and distinctly different skills. Since the late 1980s, however, research has focused on a possible continuum of these two language skills for each individual child (Garton & Pratt, 1989; Robinson, 1990); i.e., literacy skills are built upon the oral language acquired in infancy and the first several years of life. In other words, early oral language proficiency possibly relates to the later acquisition of reading and writing. In this sense, it is important to focus not only on the cognitive bases of language acquisition, but also to examine language socialization (e.g., Ogura & Murase, 2016).

Language socialization further implies that the relationship between young children’s oral language acquisition and the later years of their language development should be conceptualized as an orality–literacy continuum. Mastery of any language often includes writing skills, and in the case of Japanese, it includes hiragana (i.e., the cursive form of Japanese syllabary used for conjugation endings, function words, and native Japanese words) and katakana (the square form of the Japanese syllabary normally used for loanwords and foreign names) writing systems. In addition to hiragana and katakana orthography as potential sources of developmental influence on prosodic units (Ota, 2015), the necessity to learn Chinese characters (kanji) further complicates literacy development (Haryu, 2016).

3.1.2. The First Language (L1) and a Second Language (L2) as a Possible Continuum

As has been repeatedly been emphasized, comparing FLA and SLA is a worthwhile endeavor. In the case of literacy acquisition, for example, the importance of the analysis of spoken and written discourse of L2 learners becomes clear when writing is viewed as a notational system (Endo Hudson & Sakakibara, 2007). In addition to the possible continuum between orality and literacy, it is thus important to understand that the L1 and an L2 possibly form a continuum (Okuno, 2005; Ozeki, 2008). Through the lens of child language researchers, who are less likely to attribute a large role in SLA to transfer, SLA might be similar in many ways to FLA. Errors are a sign of progress because learning involves reorganizing knowledge, not just storing it (i.e., language acquisition is a developmental process). If L2 learners exhibit patterns of acquisition similar to those of L1 learners, it can be argued that similar processes of hypothesis testing and rule generation operate for both (e.g., akai no o-hana ‘a red flower’ in FLA and ii no kuruma ‘a good car’ in SLA; suki-ku-nai instead of suki-ja-nai ‘ø do not like ø’ in both FLA and SLA). That is, regardless of the L1 or an L2, language acquisition is nothing but a developmental process. Although it may sound a little extreme to disregard stages of cognitive development, child language researchers are likely to argue that providing L2 learners with conditions that resemble those for young L1 learners will facilitate SLA. (Note, however, that while some of adult L2 learners’ errors are similar to the errors children make in their FLA whereas and others are different from those of L1 children. These may be attributable to different developmental stages in cognition and to the fact that the language learner has already acquired a foundation in one language before embarking on an L2.)

Second, studies that delve into SLA and bilingualism also deal with another possible sociocultural continuum, a relationship between the L1 and an L2. The transition here reflects the overall question: If an individual who has acquired a certain paradigm for communication in one culture is thrown into another culture, what happens? The transition from the L1 to an L2, as a matter of fact, illustrates an extreme example. Even within the L1 framework, individuals (particularly, children in this case) experience a series of transitions. From babyhood on, an individual is socialized in culturally specific ways, with the primary agent of socialization being the family. However, once an individual has started schooling, which is widespread in modern societies, the main agent of socialization changes from the primary speech community, namely, the family and local community where the individual was raised, to the secondary speech community, namely, the school, in which the individual’s discourse style and subsequent literacy practices are often reshaped. A stronger restatement of this problem, which inquires whether or not a language continuum exists, suggests that the habitual way of communicating learned in one cultural setting (either home or, more broadly, an L1 context) might not necessarily function appropriately in a new setting (such as school or an L2 environment).

Multiple issues should be considered when looking at the aforementioned transition, such as individual differences and possible language transfer as seen in contrastive analysis. First, age has been considered to be one of the major factors that explain individual differences in language acquisition among bilinguals and multilinguals, i.e., whether there is an optimal age for starting SLA. While numerous studies have investigated the relationship between age and language acquisition/learning, many questions still remain unanswered. One of these unresolved questions derives from the critical period hypothesis (Lenneberg, 1967), which claims the existence of a limited time period in an individual’s development during which native-like language attainment is possible. The hypothesis has stirred heated debate among scholars in different academic disciplines, ranging from linguistics and psychology to neuroscience. Focusing on whether a critical or sensitive period exists in language acquisition, Butler (2016) discusses the conceptual and methodological issues as well as the challenges that have arisen in previous studies, and offers suggestions for future research. These findings make a significant contribution to a general theory of SLA. (Note: While this is L2 English, examining the L2 status in the Japanese brain both in adulthood and childhood, Hagiwara [2015] claims that a certain aspect of syntax—core computation in narrow syntax and morphology–syntax interface—is free from the notion of the critical period, and that lexical learning in childhood is biologically constrained in the human brain.)

When it comes to the possible L1–L2 continuum, it would be impossible to fully discuss SLA without referring to common underlying proficiency (CUP), which has been used to refer to the cognitive/academic proficiency that underlies academic performance in both L1 and L2 (Cummins, 1991a, 1991b). As seen in the contrastive analysis approach, there had been a strong assumption that most of the difficulties facing the L2 learner were imposed by his or her L1. The process that was held responsible for this phenomenon was called language transfer (Lado, 1957, 1964). Ever since Cummins proposed CUP and linguistic interdependence across languages (Cummins, 1979), cross-lingual transfer has been conceived as something expected to happen naturally and automatically over time, mainly in literacy-related language domains. Cross-linguistic influence on language learning is emphasized not only in research but also in teaching. For instance, Gabriele and Hughes (2015) discuss L1 transfer in L2 Japanese at the levels of grammatical and lexical aspect, as well as the processing of tense and aspect in L2 Japanese. Teaching for transferring literacy skills from the L1 to an L2 is also considered worth promoting vigorously in schools through the integrated bilingual instructional approach (Nakajima, 2016). This is reasonable because it is also important to recognize the significance of academic language for L2 students’ success in schools.

3.2. SLA Studies from Various Perspectives

3.2.1. Research within a UG Paradigm and Psycholinguistic Account of SLA

Psycholinguistics is a branch of linguistics that examines the relationship between linguistic behavior and the psychological processes regarded to underlie that behavior. Everyone agrees that adult L2 learners often make errors. As has been emphasized, some of those errors resemble the errors children make in their FLA; yet others differ from those of L1 children. Let us take a look, at least briefly, at the approaches to SLA taken by both formal linguists/psycholinguists within a generative framework, who might want to use SLA to test notions about a Universal Grammar (UG), and by psycholinguists, who might be interested in language processing issues. As an example of psycholinguistic studies interested in UG formulations, Kanno (1996) examined the role that UG plays in adult Japanese-as-a-second-language (JSL) learners’ early SLA stages. Investigating case particle deletion in Japanese (both nominative and accusative cases), Kanno claims that UG is operative in SLA; i.e., UG is involved in adult SLA. This type of studies gives us an impression as if they were examining Chomsky’s (1965) notion of competence through the window of performance.

Another way to consider language acquisition is psycholinguistic studies that deal with language processing (note that other SLA studies also look at language acquisition from the performance/processing perspective). Based on a modular approach to the L2 grammar within an interface framework, Nakayama and Yoshimura (2015) discuss a theoretical framework that accounts for the complexity of errors L2 learners make, such as fossilized errors in L2 English and Japanese. The interface approach, which assumes different grammar modules such as lexicon, syntax, morpho-phonology, semantics–pragmatics that interact with each other, supports the idea that syntactic properties fall in only a syntax module, i.e., narrow syntax, are acquired early while the acquisition of interface properties is delayed in SLA and, as a result, more errors would persist if they fall into more than one grammatical component.

To make this further complicated, different grammar modules show different types of vulnerability with respect to L1 transfer during the course of SLA. Some linguists (e.g., Schwartz & Sprouse, 1996) hypothesize that L2 grammar starts with L1 grammar; L1 transfer is hence observed. While negative L1 transfer (i.e., interference errors) is often evident in the phonetic/phonological and morphological domains, in the case of Japanese, it is not the case in the syntax–semantics domain. According to Nakayama and Yoshimura (2015), there seem to be default interpretations regardless of L1-type; different grammatical errors observed in SLA seem to support this kind of a modular approach to L2 grammar. By discussing different modules and interfaces in a theory of grammar, these researchers attempt to uncover the mechanism of language acquisition in a more dynamic way. In addition, performance factors such as computational limitation bring further complications during the course of SLA. Nakayama and Yoshimura thus claim that the interface approach would account for the comprehension/production processes more logically than Chomsky’s (1985) principles and parameters approach described earlier in this article.

3.2.2. SLA Studies in Sociocultural Contexts: Sociolinguistic Account of SLA

Sociolinguistics is a branch of linguistics that investigates various aspects of the relationship between language and society. From a sociolinguistics/sociocultural perspective, the issues related to SLA can be conceptualized in different ways form the aforementioned psycholinguistic perspectives. The sociolinguistic account of SLA is regarded as a potential conflict between two differing speech communities. The underlying questions can therefore be summarized as follows: (a) How do individuals define themselves in and through language? (b) How do communities differ in their ways of speaking and how do individuals accommodate when they are placed in different speech communities? The focus of research not only in FLA but also in SLA has, in fact, shifted to the issue of how language is used in various sociocultural contexts.

As mentioned earlier, the influence of FLA research on SLA research could be identified in the error analysis approach in the early 1970s. Like children learning their L1, L2 learners might be characterized as proceeding through a series of systematic, intermediate grammars (Corder, 1971) known as interlanguage (Selinker, 1972). At the same time, unlike FLA, there may be cases in SLA known as fossilization in which incorrect linguistic features become a permanent part of the way an individual speaks or writes a language. Since then, this conceptualization has survived for more than four decades. Examining various types of errors made by learners of Japanese as an L2, Sakoda (2016) identifies how their language systems and their rules operate and examines how they differ from the ones that teachers teach and from those of native speakers. Sakoda specifically examines the following issues: (a) differences in SLA between two different settings, namely, acquisition as a result of classroom instruction and acquisition as a result of natural interactions; (b) the acquisition process in different environments, namely, the difference between JSL, which primarily takes place in Japan (where the target language is used in daily interactions), and Japanese-as-a-foreign-language (JFL), which generally takes place in a learner’s country (where the target language is not necessarily used in daily interactions); (c) the effect of language transfer (with a particular focus on grammatical rules). Using both longitudinal and cross-sectional orally gathered data, Sakoda provides an account of how language-learning strategies work as a system.

3.2.3. L2 Instruction and Assessment Issues: Language Teachers’ Account of SLA

Applied linguistics is a branch of linguistics where the primary concern is the application of linguistic theories, methods, and findings to the elucidation of language problems, such as L2 instruction and assessment. Language teachers carrying an actual teaching load might view SLA further in different ways. Instructed SLA research suggests that, in order to promote language acquisition, learners’ attention should occasionally be shifted to a certain form during meaningful communicative activities. Let us go back to the issue of case particles, for a moment. Su, Yoshimoto, and Sato (2007) analyze how JSL learners acquire the usage of the Japanese case particles o and ni. Also looking at acquisition of particle use, Kabata (2007) examines three Japanese particles, kara, ni, and ga based on a collection of telephone conversations between native speakers of Japanese. In the same vein, based on data from a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in interviews, Kabata (2016) further focuses on two particles, ni and de, which both cover a wide area of meanings. She claims that the obtained results, which show differing patterns of particle acquisition, support not only item-based language development but also usage-based language acquisition. Ganir (2014) similarly examines how L2 learners of Japanese employ the pragmatic particle ne in non-turn-final positions during their conversations (e.g., japantaun ni itte, ne, takusan nihongo hanasemasu. ‘We go to Japantown, ne, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak Japanese’). The major question for language instructors is how L2 learners pay attention to these phenomena, and how they should assess those L2 learners’ performance.

Instruction can provide opportunities for focus on form, i.e., simultaneous processing of form and meaning/function that is supposed to facilitate further learning. Koyanagi (2016) explores the effect of focus-on-form instruction, such as negative feedback and output practice on the acquisition of Japanese as an L2, and discusses how instruction could enhance acquisition processes. Since the impact of instruction is mediated by grammatical difficulty and learners’ variables (e.g., language aptitude), Koyanagi also explores these issues in her research.

However, some kind of assessment is necessary in order to monitor Japanese-language learners’ progress. Kobayashi (2016) examines how to assess L2 learners’ proficiency. To begin with, the purpose of assessing foreign language proficiency is to demonstrate/determine learners’ language abilities in actual use within their target language domains. The assessment is in reference to established criteria, and the rating is made according to its goal. Kobayashi reviews key features of existing proficiency tests, such as the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), from the viewpoint of test validity, rating method, and scale descriptions. She introduces the Simple Performance-Oriented Test (SPOT), which has been developed based on a cognitive theory of language processing in order to measure Japanese language proficiency in an indirect way. Kobayashi focuses on the authenticity and the value/utility of SPOT in various language tests. Overall, by collaborating with Japanese-language teachers in the area of applied linguistics, SLA studies can stimulate Japanese-language teachers’ efforts to educate and improve their teaching methods.

3.2.4. Narrative Discourse: Social-Interactionist Account of SLA

Let us go back to the central issue of sociocultural issues in SLA. As has been reviewed in this article, culture has a pervasive influence on the language people use—an influence on the lexicons and vocabulary as well as the rules by which words are put together in order to construct meaningful phrases, sentences, and, more globally, narrative discourse. In fact, everyone everywhere tells narratives, personal narratives in particular. Everyone has stories to tell. Wherever people go, they find narratives serving such important functions as mediating interpersonal relationships, self-presentation, and making sense of experiences. Deeply embedded within this universality, however, are starkly culture-specific or even language-specific narrative styles. It is even possible to encounter individuals from other cultures with speech styles that are difficult to understand, even for people who “know” their language.

Narrative discourse strategies include, either consciously or unconsciously, plans to solve potential problems in order to reach a particular communication goal. This is not limited to native speakers. When L2 learners communicate in their target language, they use a variety of discourse strategies to make communication successful. An example of this is code switching (the practice of moving back and forth between two or more languages, or language varieties/dialects), which involves stretches of discourse ranging from single words to whole phrases and even complete turns. Another discourse strategy draws on prosodic resources, such as a rising intonation that attempts to elicit help from the interlocutor indirectly by implying lack of confidence in a needed L2 item. In the case of bilinguals, therefore, whether narratives are told in the narrator’s L1 or L2 should be taken into consideration.

As a case in point, let us look at bilinguals’ narrative production. Minami (2011) examines what kinds of referential strategies English–Japanese bilingual children, who are faced with the task of keeping track of the right system in the right language, deploy in storytelling activities in the two different languages. He investigates how storytellers referred to characters in the subject position of sentences; i.e., whether a full noun phrase (nominal referent), a pronoun (pronominal referent), or zero-marking/zero anaphora (ellipsis/omission of an overt reference term) was used on first mention, second mention, re-introduction, and continuous mention of a referent. The study reveals that, while the usage of some linguistic devices are language-specific (pronouns in English and ellipsis in Japanese), similarities exist between English and Japanese in the usage of noun phrases on first mention, second mention, re-introduction, and continuous mention.

As mentioned above, one way to establish narrative cohesion is through tracking and maintenance of reference (e.g., full noun phrases or pronouns) across clauses and chunks of clauses (Nakahama, 2011). However, because proficiency is contextual, using the task of narration may suggest contextual limitations. That is, contextualized language used mainly for narration purposes is possibly different from decontextualized language, which is used for explanatory purposes mainly developed in school settings. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the focus of research not only in FLA but also SLA shifted to the use of language in the sociocultural context. Implementation of SLA theories derived from discourse analysis and those focusing on social variables has since then helped language instructors develop more effective teaching methods than the explicit/strict grammar and vocabulary approach used in traditional foreign-language classrooms. Language learners’ difficulties in conveying their messages in the target language, however, also seem to be related to a lack of interactional/communicative competence. For instance, despite the emphasis on communicative competence in their Japanese language curriculum, producing extended discourse like oral narratives has been a challenge for adult learners of Japanese. Studying L2 learners’ narrative productions thus holds significant meaning.

Examining aspects of two disciplines—(a) SLA and (b) narrative discourse—Minami (2007) investigated the oral personal narratives of adult learners of Japanese. This is done in order to track some specific characteristics in the development of narrative skills as well as to determine ways in which L2 learners become able to utilize narrative devices effectively. More recently, a trilogy—a set of three independent but interrelated studies by Minami—analyzes oral personal narratives through three related but different perspectives. Minami (2015a), which discusses narrative development in the L1, deals with narratives told by Japanese preschoolers and their mothers and examines the influence of these mutually constructed narratives on development. In addition to monologic narratives, dialogic narratives told by the same children and their mothers are also analyzed in order to identify and study culturally preferred narrative elicitation patterns and possible cultural transmission. Minami (2015b) also compares children’s L1 narrative development with narratives of both adult native speakers and adult L2 learners of Japanese. Minami (2016) shifts to L2 learners alone. Investigating the personal narratives of adult L2 learners, this work tracks some specific characteristics in the development of narrative skills and suggests ways in which L2 learners become able to utilize narrative devices effectively. In this way, the trilogy addresses problems related to narrative, cognition, and culture, using the framework of narrative discourse.

3.3. Corpus Linguistics for Current and Future SLA Research

Up until today, there have been two major streams, SLA studies based on Chomsky’s UG on the one hand and psycholinguistic approaches such as the competition model (MacWhinney & Bates, 1989) on the other. However, other approaches, such as sociolinguistic and sociocognitive (or social interaction) approaches, have been vibrant as well (Tomasello, 2003, 2009). Furthermore, when discussing the current orientations in linguistics to support these various approaches, it is important to include corpus, or a collection of linguistic data. Corpus linguistics—the study of language using real world text—has, in fact, played an increasingly important role by serving as a means of verifying hypotheses about a language. The rapid development in corpus linguistics, which has been observed in the last couple of decades, has particularly demonstrated the great magnitude of impact of usage data on linguistic research (Kabata, 2007). Reflecting the emergent diversity of the field, the contribution of the CHILDES Project, which was developed by MacWhinney and Snow, as a repository for child and adult language, has been enormous (MacWhinney, 2000; MacWhinney & Snow, 1985, 1990). Note here that CHILDES is an acronym for the Child Language Data Exchange System. The project has made it possible to automate the analysis of language samples. Miyata and MacWhinney (2016) review the development of CHILDES in the area of the Japanese language. They describe the beginnings of CHILDES in Japan and its remarkable influence on Japanese language development research. Since CHILDES was introduced to Japan in the early 1990s, a variety of Japanese corpora, such as longitudinal child data, bilingual data, narratives, mother–child interactions, and adult–adult conversations, have been added to the database. The rich annotation system of CHILDES, combined with the language-specific morpho-syntactic tags and English translation tags, as well as the increased use of audio and video technology, allows a multifaceted analysis of Japanese corpora.

Corpora originated in Japan, such as the Kamada and Yamauchi (KY) corpus (see Lee and Nakagawa, 2016, for review), should also be mentioned as an example of learner corpora. Using a longitudinal spoken learner corpus called the Corpus of Japanese as a Second Language (C-JAS), Horiuchi (2014) examined the use of semi-polite forms of verbs, which are made up of plain forms of verbs followed by the polite form of copula desu, by learners of Japanese. Findings demonstrate that over a period of time, L2 learners develop not only individual semi-polite verbs but also their paradigms, which consist of affirmative non-past, affirmative past, negative non-past, and negative past. Horiuchi also compared the use of semi-polite verbs with that of standard polite forms of verbs and revealed their usage rates. Based on the results, Horiuchi proposes a hypothesis that L2 learners have a general tendency of preferring analytic operations to synthetic operations in order to develop their own grammar. Here, therefore, it is important to understand how corpus data may contribute to the way some grammatical items are introduced in textbooks and in classroom instructions.

Of course, corpora have various limitations; there are various aspects of L1 and SLA that cannot be uncovered by simply using corpus data. Ozeki (2016), for instance, compares learner corpus data on SLA of Japanese with SLA of English and other languages as well as FLA, and explores what can and cannot be found through the analysis of learner corpus data. While corpus linguistics holds significant promise for SLA studies, it is also important to know how to use learner corpora to investigate the developmental processes of interlanguage as well as to make theoretical contributions to the field of SLA.

4. Bridging Past, Present, and Future Investigations

Issues surrounding the acquisition/learning of an L2—including bilingualism—in any language are fairly complicated. This is because the SLA process is multifaceted, involving various linguistic and non-linguistic factors. No one may doubt that individuals are capable of acquiring two or even more languages at different stages of human development, particularly in childhood. But research investigating how adults acquire two languages also carries important insights into what is taking place during the later stages of human development. Given that early and late state bilinguals encounter and acquire their second language at different stages of cognitive development, it is predictable that these two groups encounter differences in language processing.

Language has the structure and properties necessary to satisfy both linguistic and communicative functions it is supposed to serve. Part of the SLA-related complication also comes from the fact that these structural/functional features apply not only to FLA but also to SLA. Thus, it is important to review both FLA and SLA research from comprehensive perspectives. As reviewed in this article, SLA research has tended to follow in the footsteps of FLA research in its methodology and in many issues that it has treated. In addition to formal and functional theories, different approaches have been further proposed, including psycholinguists’ approaches, as well as sociocultural approaches to SLA. Thus, if researchers wish to understand SLA, they should not be in awe of disciplinary boundaries.

A variety of issues have been appropriated for study by a wide array of disciplines, ranging from linguistics to anthropology, psychology, and sociology. However, researchers sometimes face the reality that how language is processed and acquired is primarily based on the facts and observations in a small number of European languages, such as English (Shirai, 2015). Luckily, the beginning of the new millennium has witnessed the arrival of an impressive number of books as well as the inauguration of several professional conferences, societies, and journals focusing on SLA research on learning and instruction. (For instance, see Mori & Mori, 2011, who reviewed over 200 empirical studies published in English and Japanese between 2000 and 2010.) Yet questions of quality and the diversity of language studies still continue to present problems for researchers, such as how to stay in touch with discoveries in various language-related disciplines and how to assess those discoveries effectively. Even if one knows that researchers in other disciplines are engaged in inquiries germane to one’s own, one may not know where to find work that is held in highest regard by scholars who have positions to assess it. For future investigations, therefore, by covering various domains of linguistic knowledge, the article has attempted to make a connecting bridge between past SLA research findings in English and present concerns in Japanese SLA.

Further Readings

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