Theories of language learning (2017/2018)

Course code
Name of lecturers
Serena Dal Maso, Chiara Melloni
Serena Dal Maso
Number of ECTS credits allocated
Academic sector
Language of instruction
Second half of Semester 1 , First half of Semester 2

Lesson timetable

Go to lesson schedule

Learning outcomes

The course aims at providing students with detailed knowledge and skills on first language acquisition by monolingual, typically developing children. The students will also be introduced to the main issues on the acquisition and learning of a Second Language and to some of the main theories proposed to explain it.

At the end of the course students are expected to:
- acquire detailed knowledge on linguistic development and understand the fundamental milestones of L1 and L2 acquisition process;
- apply the tools for linguistic analysis in order to recognize and describe the main phenomena characterizing L1 and L2 acquisition process, to discuss them at the different levels of analysis (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon);
- develop critical judgments about the interpretations provided within the different theoretical frameworks for the acquisition and learning mechanisms.

The course will be held in ENGLISH.


This course in organized in two parts, dealing with different topics and having a different practical organization (see the COURSE NEWS).
The first part (prof. Melloni, semester IB, 18 hours) will introduce the students to the phenomenon of first language acquisition by monolingual, typically developing children. The course will cover specific aspects of language acquisition (phonology, lexicon, morpho-syntax) from newborn’s first steps in sound perception to the articulated morphosyntactic competence of children of five/six years of age.
The second part of the course (prof. Dal Maso, semester IIA, 36 hours) will deal with Second Language Acquisition and Learning and will present the most recent theories proposed to explain the acquisition processes. We will particularly focus on the psycholinguistic experimental research conducted on the processing of morpho-synctactic structures and of simple or morphologically complex words in L2. Main results and theoretical implications will be discussed. Furthermore, a guest teacher, prof. Alessandro Benati (University of Portsmouth, UK) will present the students with key issues in Input Processing Theory and Interaction Hypothesis (classes will be held in the period from 12-23 of March).

Main bibliographic references (check the relevant files on the e-learning website)
On L1 acquisition (prof.ssa Melloni):
Book chapters:
• Guasti, Maria Teresa (2002/2004). Language Acquisition, The Growth of Grammar. Cambridge (MA), The Mit Press. (1-4 and 11).
• Fernandez, E. M. & H. S. Cairns. 2010. Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell. Chapters: 1. 2. 4.

• Bonatti, Luca et al. (2005). "Linguistic constraints on statistical computations the role of consonants and vowels in continuous speech processing." Psychological Science 16.6: 451-459.
• Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. NATURE REVIEWS | NEUROSCIENCE.
• Saffran, Jenny R. (2002). “Constraints on Statistical Language Learning”. Journal of Memory and Language 47, 172–196 (2002).
• Waxman, Sandra R., and Raquel S. Klibanoff (2000). "The role of comparison in the extension of novel adjectives." Developmental psychology 36.5.

On L2 acquisition (prof.ssa Dal Maso):
• Ortega, L. (2013). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London & New York: Routledge.

Non-attending students can find a detailed program on the e-learning page linked to this course.

Reference books
Author Title Publisher Year ISBN Note
Guasti, Maria Teresa Language Acquisition: The growth of Grammar MIT Press 2002
VanPatten B. & Williams J. (eds.) Theories in Second Language Acquisition Routledge 2015

Assessment methods and criteria

The final exam aims at assessing the theoretical knowledge acquired by the students during the course, as well as their ability to apply this knowledge to concrete linguistic phenomena.

The assessment is carried out by means of a written examination, which last 2:00 hours and is articulated in two separate tests, one on prof. Melloni’s program (First Language Acquisition) and the other on prof. Dal Maso’s program (Second Language Acquisition/Learning).
The tests consist of both open-ended and multiple-choice questions and concern all the topics in the program, both those addressed during classes and those autonomously studied by the students.

The evaluation criteria are:
- substantial correctness of the responses and exhaustiveness of the contents
- adequateness of analytical skills
- expressive clarity and argumentative skills

The final (non-negotiable) grade corresponds to the mean of the grades obtained in the two parts of the exam.