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The Difference Between First and Second Language Acquisition

The Difference Between First and Second Language Acquisition | ITTT | TEFL Blog

In this course, there were many ideas presented about the best way to teach English as a foreign language, from lesson planning to the activities, to the way the lesson is structured. All of these things were discussed, keeping in mind that learning a 2nd language is very different from the way we learn our first language.

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

Native Language Experience

When a person is learning their first language, it is not taught, as it is in a classroom. It is acquired through total immersion. This is the language that is spoken at home, and usually outside the home as well. This makes for an excellent learning environment. The child will first perceive and understand the language through observation and then eventually build on that, moving to the reproduction of the language. As the child gets older, they learn the rules of grammar and more language complexities, allowing them to be fully fluent in their native language. This immersion gives every opportunity to practice accuracy and fluency.

female student smiling

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Second Language Experience

Second language acquisition usually occurs after the students’ first language has been fully established. They may wish to learn English as a second language for a variety of reasons: moving to an English-speaking country, conducting business, educational purposes, or simply for their enjoyment. Knowing the reason your student is taking your English class will affect the way you conduct your class, which will also affect how the student learns.

The second language is not so much acquired, as it is learned unless it is taught in conjunction with the native language and spoken at home to practice. It takes studying, drilling, and lots and lots of practice. As previously stated, internal motivation is key to creating an effective environment for the student to learn. Knowing the motivation will help the teacher create lessons that would be helpful to the student in the outside world. If the teacher understands the reason for the students taking the class, it will also help the students feel more comfortable and willing to participate in class and put their new language into action.

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Lesson Planning

The lesson structure is key to student learning. First, the teacher needs to model the language and engage the students to participate in the discussion. Then the teacher may move on to activities to test the knowledge and understanding of the student. And finally, there is the activation stage. This helps the students to produce what they have learned and practice their fluency. These three parts of the lesson help to reproduce how a child learns their native language, in a classroom setting. First, the child would observe from a young age. Then they would start to make mental connections before they test it and begin to produce the language. Instead of the second language being something simply known, it becomes a comparison to the word in the first language. Also, because the student is not fully immersed in the language outside of the classroom, the time to practice their language is crucial.

man working on the notes

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Learning Process in Specific Cases

In some cases where a child moves to a different country at a young age, it is interesting how the second language may then become the dominant language. For example, my husband moved to the United States from Poland at the age of 8. Polish was still spoken in his home predominately, however, now that he has lived in an English-speaking country longer than his home country, he struggles to find the right words in Polish when speaking to his family. I also find it fascinating that because he left Poland at such a young age, he does not have any of the languages to communicate with his parents about his work. He is in an engineering field and did not have any exposure to that kind of technical language as a child.

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Students learning English as a second language face many challenges. If the teacher can understand their internal motivation, engage them, and encourage their reproduction, they may help their students overcome the obstacles they face.

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