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How Can Knowledge of First Language Acquisition Aid Successful Second Language Acquisition?

How Can Knowledge of First Language Acquisition Aid Successful Second Language Acquisition? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Successful acquisition of a first language (otherwise known as an L1) has almost a 100% success rate. Aside from a few people that are unable to read or write everyone can communicate fluently in their L1. Successful acquisition of a second language, however, does not occur nearly as often. Why is this so and can anything be learned from first language learning to improve second language fluency.

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

Variations in the English Language Form

Firstly, it must be noted that among native speakers of a language there is a high amount of variation inabilities to write concisely, to use grammar structures correctly and the level of vocabulary used. For example, less educated native Italian speakers are less likely to correctly use the subjunctive mood and in European Spanish 3rd person indirect and direct object pronouns are commonly confused. This suggests that although the L1 language is for the most part grammatically accurate, the main outcome of L1 acquisition is fluency and the ability to use a language to express complex ideas spontaneously and with ease. How is it that they acquire this seemingly innate ability?

boys talking

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Language Acquisition Process

At birth an infant is immediately immersed in a language, constantly receiving input. They typically spend one year surrounded by a language before they even begin to speak, usually using simple nouns. Students of an L2 rarely have this silent phase in language acquisition. Be it due to strict progression testing or pressure from employers to become proficient, there is an emphasis on being able to use the language almost immediately in second language acquisition. Extensive reading of comprehensible materials outside of the classroom could be an effective way to have an input period where the focus is only to become acquainted with the language.

Second Language Acquisition Process

This brings us neatly to another way that first language acquisition might be more effective than second language acquisition. Infants acquiring their L1 have not yet developed an identity or an ego to protect that identity. This alone means that they are far more comfortable making mistakes. In contrast, adult L2 learners have developed an ego that encourages them to avoid mistakes that may make them look stupid (Zakarneh, 2019). Teachers of second languages should be aware of this and try to provide a comfortable and safe environment as possible in the classroom to encourage students to interact so that they can pick up the language better. This can be done in an Engage activity, by introducing the lesson with words and structures students are already familiar with to build their confidence. Teachers can also encourage students to invest time reading to become more comfortable with the language, so they may be more disposed to participate actively in class discussions.

father and his sons talking

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Teaching Ways

These discussions should be tailored to the language abilities of the students, however, this can be difficult, especially when dealing with adult learners who can get frustrated when their abilities do not allow them to convey ideas that they would normally express in their L1. When this happens students risk becoming demotivated or reverting to their L1. It is the job of the teacher to avoid this. When parents speak to their children, they instinctively lower the level of their language use to that of the child, whilst still using grammatically correct structures and speaking about topics that directly affect the child. This same method could be applied to classrooms if the teacher can modify their language but still engage in a topic that is of relevance to the students.

This should help prevent frustration and maintain the motivation necessary to learn a language. Infants have this motivation through an inherent need to learn their L1. L2 students, already being able to express very precise and abstract concepts in their L1 need to find L2 learning motivation elsewhere. A good teacher should recognize this by keeping lessons interesting and diverse and encouraging motivation (Hammer, 2007).

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Children and Language Acquisition

It is also worthwhile noting that children acquiring their L1 are not corrected in their language use. The first attempts of communication, i.e. babbling and saying isolated words, are met with great enthusiasm. As a child advances in their abilities, the reinforcement of correct language usage comes from hearing those structures from other adults and children. This suggests that the use of direct corrections, especially in fluency activities inactivate stages of an ESA lesson should not be used. Despite this, often time constraints of L2 students do not allow for this lengthy process. Therefore, it is important to use corrections inaccuracy based activities in the study phase of a lesson where grammar structures are covered in depth. This grammar instruction, which is not present in L1 acquisition, is helpful as it takes advantage of the advanced analytical skills of adult learners. It may also highlight areas in which an L1 and L2 differ or overlap significantly and could reduce language interference.

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Unfortunately, language acquisition is a thing of complexity and intricacies that is not yet fully understood. Due to this, teachers should not base their teaching solely on any single observation of language acquisition, be it L1 or L2. It is, however, important to note the differences between the two so that teachers can enhance the efficiency of L2 acquisition (Diller Yüksekokulu, 2019). It is also clear that the acquisition of an L1 language takes much more time than a person is generally able to dedicate to learning an L2. Due to this, teachers need to take advantage of adult learner processing ability to teach grammar and speed up the learning process.

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