Center for Language Acquisition at the Pennsylvania State University

Invited Lecture: Schumann


John Schumann, Professor of Applied Linguistics at UCLA, presented an invited lecture entitled:


"Evolution and Second Language Acquisition"


Date and Time:  Monday, November 5, 2012 at 4 p.m.


Location:  358 Willard Building


Our species has never had sufficient evolutionary pressure to develop neural systems that would guarantee SLA in older learners (Hagen, 2008). In our environment of evolutionary adaptation, we lived in small groups that were isolated from others. But when groups speaking different languages did come into contact, we found various strategies to deal with communication problems. None of these strategies solved the adult SLA problem; they simply provided workarounds that allowed us to cope with it.

  1. Since all brains are different (Edelman, 1992; Schumann, 1997), within any population there would have been certain adults with a neural hypertrophy that would allow them to acquire an L2 and function as interpreters.
  2. If the contact between the two groups was cooperative and long-lasting, there would have been intermarriage, and the children would be brought up bilingually (Ostler, 2010). This would shift the L2 acquisition from adults to children for whom it is easier.
  3. The development of a lingua franca (Ostler, 2010) (e.g., Sabir, Greek, Persian, French, English) would reduce the language learning burden to one L2.
  4. In some cases, the lingua franca would become one of the first languages of the children (e.g., India), again shifting the language acquisition task to children (Ostler, 2010)).
  5. With the acquisition of a language by an immigrant group, the L2 would become simplified and easier to learn (McWhorter, 2007).
  6. In colonies, immigrants speaking many different languages often developed pidgins or creoles which required minimal acquisition effort (McWhorter, 2004).
  7. Sprachbunds developed where languages become similar to each other, easing the L2 burden (McWhorter, 2004).
  8. The development of specialized institutions that select only  talented learners and provide them with special instruction (e.g., US Army Language School).
  9. The provision of immersion education in an L2, shifting the acquisition task to children.
  10. The development of translation technology (Ostler, 2010).



John Schumann is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). His primary research interests are language acquisition, language evolution, and the neurobiology of language. Major publications include The Neurobiology of Affect in Language (Blackwell, 1997), The Neurobiology of Learning:  Perspectives from Second Language Acquisition (Routledge, 2004), and The Interactional Instinct:  The Evolution and Acquisition of Language (Oxford University Press, 2009).

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