What is Ellis’s Hypothesis on Second Language Acquisition?


Professor Ellis is the Head of the Applied Language Studies and Linguistics Department at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He has also worked as an English professor in Spain, Zambia, Japan, the UK and the US. In addition to a number of books about second language acquisition which are still university standards, he has authored a number of English textbooks for non-native speakers, including the popular Impact series for Pearson. Ellis is considered to be an expert on TESOL and his workshops for teachers are always in high demand.

Language Acquisition

What is Ellis's hypothesis on second language acquisition? Ellis subscribes to the belief that individuals will have highly idiosyncratic approaches to second language learning. The strategies that will be most effective for a student are influenced by a variety of factors on an individual and situational level. The role of the teacher is not only to provide them with information about the target language, but also to provide students with guidance concerning their own abilities and learning processes. This is often referred to as the metacognitive approach.

He is sometimes also referred to as a connectionist. The connectionist view is that language learning is not accomplished through rote memorization and practice. Instead, it is a very gradual process through which an individual looks at lots of input and draws their own conclusions about how grammar and language function. In short, they draw connections between what they know and the new information they are presented with. These connections may not even be explicit knowledge (here are the rules for simple past) but a more instinctual grasp of how language works.

Language Learners vs. Language Users

Ellis makes the distinction between treating a language as an object and a tool when a person is studying it. If a student sees it as an object, all it takes to reach communicative competence is to study all of the available grammar rules and memorize vocabulary. However, although this approach is not uncommon in the classroom, it is not terribly effective. If language is viewed as a tool instead, then even those who are beginners can be expected to have some ability to communicate.

Those who treat language as an object are language learners, and they are likely to be hesitant about speaking and more concerned with accuracy than communication. Those who treat language as a tool have the ability to formulate their thoughts and then express them using whatever knowledge and skill they have. Although they may not have reached fluency, they are still capable of communication and are called language users.

Ellis writes that all ESL students should be made into language users, because it is through the process of speech and communication that real acquisition occurs.

The Task-Based Approach

The resulting pedagogy is often called the task-based approach. In this teaching style, students are presented with a task that they have to complete. A task in this sense has the following characteristics:

  • It is a work plan.
  • Students are required to speak to complete the task.
  • It allows students to select the linguistic resources they will use. In other words, there is no given target grammar or vocabulary.
  • It requires students to be primarily language users, not language learners.
  • It has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome. For example, it could be a completed poster or a presentation.

In the task-based classroom, students are given a clear assignment to complete in pairs or groups. They have to decide for themselves how to go about completing the task. The teacher can step in when necessary, but generally allows students the space to express themselves. This means allowing students to struggle to put sentences together that express what they want to say. Other students may even play the role of the teacher by supplying vocabulary or providing clarifying questions. At the end of the task, there will be some kind of finished product.

The task-based approach works in two ways. The first way is metacognitive. Students will become aware of gaps in their knowledge and ability through instances where they struggle or fail to communicate something. After the experience, they can address those gaps in whatever way seems best for them. The second way could be called more connectionist. The task gives students a lot of input to evaluate for meaning and grammatical function. It also works as a kind of laboratory for them to try out the connections (intuitive grammar rules) they have already made. If they work as anticipated, then they have made the correct assumptions, but if it doesn't, then they need to reevaluate how that particular word or grammar point works.