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1st Language vs. 2nd Language Acquisition: How and TEFL Instructors Must Learn from the First to Better Teach the Second

1st Language vs. 2nd Language Acquisition: How and TEFL Instructors Must Learn from the First to Better Teach the Second | ITTT | TEFL Blog

The contrast between primary language acquisition and second language learning interests professional linguists, language pedagogues, and ordinary students alike. To say that the processes are distinct and involve very different learning processes, as well as even altogether different spheres of the brain is an understatement: these are indeed different functions (Limacher, Ute “Language Acquisition Versus Language Learning” ).

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Brett M. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Differences between the two types of acquisitions

Notwithstanding insights offered by modern neurolinguistics, which are numerous in explaining the striking differences between the process of first language acquisition versus learning of a second language (or third, etc), the prima facie evidence of these respective processes points to their striking distinction (Rastelli, Stefano Neurolinguistics and second language teaching: a view from the crossroads in Second Language Research 2018, Vol. 34 p. 105). The worthwhile question, however, is not exactly how these processes are different, rather how secondary language instructors and learners alike can best re-create the preferable conditions of non-conscious and immediate language adoption, characteristic of primary language acquisition, into the process of second language learning for optimal results.

advanced level students

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Language structure and learning process

We often easily overlook the process in which we developed the capacity for language syntax as well as semantical expression in themselves: learning our ‘mother’ tongue. At its most fundamental level, the learning process of a learner acquiring their first language involves a necessary interlocutor who serves as a source of correct communication (see Limacher, Ute “Language Acquisition Versus Language Learning” ). The language learner, through listening to repeated use of words referring to visual realia as well as their proper pronunciation, acquires a simple lexicon of words to describe the most elementary phenomena of day to day life. Through continued interaction with an interlocutor, the learner begins to form syntactic structures with this elementary lexicon based on repeated grammatical patterns heard from the interlocutor. For the primary language learner, this process occurs before a conscious understanding of abstracted rules of grammar.

Personal experience

This is quite close to my own experience as my two young children are raised in a bi-lingual home between English and Ukrainian. Though my children (aged 3 and 1 ½ ) have no conscious grasp yet of the grammatical and lexical distinctions of these languages, it seems evident that they identify my wife and myself as the respective interlocutor ‘sources’ through the repetitive pronunciation of elementary words and phrases. Furthermore, our responses of approbation for correct speech through simple verbal encouragement or other emotive responses only help to reinforce proper speaking patterns. The assertion of Behaviourist linguistic theorists regarding conditioned behavior as a result of positive reinforcement can be helpful in this case as approbation serves to solidify understanding of correct pronunciation and grammar structure (Abdreiimova, Meruyert "Behaviorist Theory on Language Learning and Acquisition")

two asian students studying

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The Consciousness of language acquisition

Perhaps the difference of second language learning is that it is intentional whereas primary language acquisition is not. The language learner also approaches a second language in a highly conscious way, namely through learning the structure of the language through abstracted rules and learning vocabulary through a method of classical translation of words to his or her native language. Based on their differences, primary language acquisition offers far more direct and concrete access to language than conventional second language learning. While the conditions of primary language acquisition cannot be entirely re-created for second language learners for very obvious reasons, they must be replicated strategically in the second language learning process to make it more effective.

Classroom setting

On an obvious level, full language immersion within the classroom helps to put second language learners in a similar setting to primary acquisition. The key to creating a class environment of full immersion is to make sure that the language of immersion is used in a constructive way taking into account the relative proficiency of the student(s). The goal with such immersion should be to urge the student to ‘build’ upon the previous, foundational knowledge already acquired. The language used must be neither too difficult nor too simple as both cases will blunt the effectiveness of the immersive environment.

For elementary students, very simplified language must be also used with generous use of audio and visual learning tools to make concrete references of terms and phrases to visible realia. For older students, especially adult learners, it is especially helpful to keep conversation and tasks theme-based that are relevant to the experiences, goals, and interests of the students in the class. In any case, the effective immersion environment must not only reiterate forms of language which students may already know but challenge students just enough to force them to ‘fill in the gaps’ for terms or patterns of speaking with which they were previously not familiar.

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Natural environment

Lastly, it is important to place the student into ‘natural’ settings where the student is forced to actively communicate in the immersive language to achieve intended goals. In this case, task-based group activities ought to be utilized as much as possible and the rule of immersion-only language must be reinforced. Encouraging students to speak in the immersion language with their peers while completing a group project helps to strengthen their productive skills in the language and some ways replicate the scenario of the small toddler acquiring their first language and being forced to speak words and later elementary sentence structures to communicate needs, interests, and thoughts.

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In both cases, the student in immersion groups (or the toddler for that matter) have the opportunity to experiment with the language and through more active interchange with their peers, better approximate the standard and correct forms of speaking the language. Because of this, such groups must contain a variety of skill levels as such impromptu and ‘organic’ speaking opportunities will enable higher-skilled students to serve as the sources of correct communication for more novice speakers. The possibility of interacting with a more skilled speaker, which is nonetheless a peer, allows for the novice student to emulate and recreate more complex vocabulary, sentence structures, and speaking styles.

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