All humans learn their first language in the same way. Firstly through a preliminary stage of prelinguistic development and 'babbling' followed by a single word stage, and then a two-word stage. Simple sentences follow after this before the 'embedding' process is finalized through the use of complete sentences.
There are a number of absolute universals that have characteristics which hold for all languages. The most powerful universals take the form of hierarchies (an ordered list). Below are examples of Color, Vowel and Animacy hierarchies:
There are many ways knowledge of universal typologies can aid SLA but one important way could be termed 'The Iceberg Effect'. It can be difficult to learn a second language if you have scant knowledge of the structure and grammar of your own language. Although the L1 and L2 might be vastly different, they are still linked through the brain of the speaker. In understanding one's own language first, we then develop a framework for comparison. When we make a comparison we understand the perils of 'direct translation' from one language to another. While we see similarities in the use of certain tenses, articles, pronouns etc. we know that there are many instances when the two languages have very little in common. This helps a student to gain the 'iceberg effect', whereby one's knowledge of a subject is directly related to deeper background knowledge. Although perhaps never revealed, the hidden part of the iceberg backs up and cements SLA.
The Role of Typological Universals in SLA
Typological Universals have a vital role in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Typological Universals can be defined as the 'notion that human languages necessarily share important, formative, properties'.1 However, this notion can both aid and hinder SLA, as in admitting that there are certain universals which link the native language (L1) with the second language (L2), one must also remain aware of how greatly languages can differ. Being aware of the differences means avoiding direct translation from L1 to L2. Assuming that the L2 works on the same structural principles as your native tongue will ensure you make numerous grammatical, syntactical and vocabulary errors. Research into Typological Universals 'aims to establish the limits within human language'.2 Study into this subject sees the world's languages almost as a single organism with various overlapping areas between the languages closest to them in 'roots' as well as 'universal links' with all other world languages. No matter how diverse, all languages are connected by common principles - these are Typological Universals.
In the introduction to Typology & Second Language Acquisition, Anna Giacalone Ramat stresses how 'a basic connotation of typology is cross-linguistic comparison: implicational universals which are crucial in order to create a typology of languages of the world cannot be discovered or verified by observing only a single language'. Giacolone Ramat 2003, p.1) In 1270 Roger Bacon wrote that 'grammar is substantially one and the same in all languages, despite its accidental variations'. (Thomas 2004, p.2)
While the above