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Comparing L1 and L2 Acquisition: Teaching Implications

Comparing L1 and L2 Acquisition: Teaching Implications | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Language is a fascinating and unique aspect to the human species: it enables communication using a set of sounds and written symbols, combined in a coherent system. Even though a person can be proficient -to various degrees- in many languages, he or she usually has only one First Language (L1) that is the person's native language, acquired in a subconscious effortless way. On the contrary, L2 (or second language) is usually effortfully learned, involving both explicit and implicit processes. These characteristics may have important implications in L2 teaching methods, in that teachers can help students in both these processes, leveraging similarities and differences to deliver more effective lessons. In this essay, I will compare them to identify effective teaching methods and guidelines.

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

Errors in L2

A major difference between L1 and L2 acquisition is that when learning a second language, students already master their L1, which invariably interferes causing so-called transfer errors. This phenomenon is –to some extent- predictable and it can be used as a basis for learning the second language: the teacher can anticipate particular transfer errors that may arise and make teaching more incisive by emphasizing differences.

Even though in L1 children have much more time at their disposal to develop mastery of their native language (usually years), L2 adult learners can use metacognitive processes more efficiently -by consciously analyzing and manipulating grammatical structures- to speed up the learning process. In addition to this, their life experience can help them with copying or learning strategies. They can also develop a better l2 literacy in the long run, benefitting from prior literacy experience, as they already know how to read and write in their first language.

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Level of Exposure

L1 learners are exposed to their native language much more than L2 learners are exposed to L2 -unless they live in a country where the L2 is spoken- but they can increase their proficiency using extensive input in real or simulated contexts. In this light, it can be said that appropriate and repeated practice in the classroom can lead to real acquisition. Dialogues, role-playing and other meaningful interactions such as pair work, information gap activities and classroom discussions are a good source for input. However, overwhelming L2 learners with input above their language capacity might result in a lack of self-confidence and resistance to learning. So, using the input to promote language learning is beneficial as long as it is aimed at the level of the students.

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Listening Time

Another issue in L2 learning is a reduced sensitivity to phonological distinctions with regards to phonemes that are not present in the native language of the students. In this case, the Behaviorist theory may be of help. Repetitive drilling and audio aids in the study and controlled practice phase will foster the formation of positive habits and develop accuracy.

In terms of similarities in both first and second language acquisition, there are predictable stages: silent period, formulaic speech and structural and semantic simplification. It would be a good idea to address the needs of learners in the silent period using simple activities such as listening comprehension, vocabulary input or formulaic expressions like greetings. There are also methodologies, which explicitly incorporate a silent period, such as Total Physical Response and the Natural Approach.

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Personal Challenges

Finally, additional factors are playing a role in L2 acquisition: age, personality, and motivation. The first factor can play a role in both L1 and L2 acquisition, while the others are uninfluential in L1. It is known that after puberty, the brain loses its plasticity as lateralization is accomplished, so it is important to start learning a second language as soon as possible. Even though not much can be done about students’ personalities, teachers can affect the learning process influencing their affective state and boosting their motivation. It is vital to build up trust and to make the content relevant to them. More positive than negative feedback, more praise than criticism and interesting topics might be a good strategy.

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In conclusion, L1 and L2 acquisition are quite complicated interacting processes, but the teacher should know these phenomena to design syllabuses, teaching processes, and classroom activities, acting as a facilitator and directing action within school activity in a manner appropriate to the learners’ level of development.

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