The Factors Influencing a Foreign Language Acquisition
What does it mean to learn a language? Generally, when we talk about learning a language, we mean a process that starts with a person not knowing a language but ends up knowing it, regardless of the number of languages a person might already know. Of course, this is an overly simplified definition, but it gives us a decent starting point. So why are our experiences and the mental image of acquiring our first language so different from one of learning a foreign language? In this essay, I will consider the perceived difference between first and second language acquisition.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Eszter E. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Learning a Foreign Language
When we say “learning a language” most people will automatically think about the process of learning a foreign language, even though all of us went through the process of first learning our native language, and only a smaller percentage of people go on to learn another. We usually don’t think of our acquisition of native language as “real” learning, not only because we most likely lack memories from our early years, but also because that process generally doesn’t include vocabulary lists, memorization or grammar drills — activities that come to mind most readily when thinking about learning. First language acquisition feels natural, stress-free and organic; something that just happens to us. By contrast, when talking about a foreign language learning, most people will think about challenging situations and a lot of effort — often without much feeling of accomplishment.
Our mental image and experience of first language acquisition are usually dramatically different from that of learning a foreign language. While we take the first for granted, we often look at the second as something we have to work hard for. But what are the factors that make these two experiences look and feel so different?
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Age is a significant factor in this comparison for several reasons. When we are learning our first language our brains are developing, we have very limited cognitive abilities, and little, if any, memories will remain with us. We have no concept of intentional learning, and we simply absorb everything around us. Our brain “does” the language acquisition without any conscious decision or effort on our part. We could not stop acquisition from happening even if we wanted to.
The age of a foreign language learner can be any, from small children to older adults. But one thing these learners will all share is that they already know their first language. Different age groups have different cognitive abilities, different motivations, and varying levels of what we call the “affective filter.”
Way of learning
Nobody is presenting toddlers with thematic vocabulary lists when they begin speaking their first language. No grammar explanations or conjugation charts. Learning takes place in very small chunks — word by word, phrase by phrase — in an organic setting, over a very long period. Kids are therefore exposed to the same language hundreds of times in a meaningful context.
Learning a foreign language is a mostly conscious process, especially when done in a formal classroom setting. There is usually a lot of information presented about the language for cognitive understanding, such as the explanation of grammar, or the rules of spelling that native speakers might not even be aware of. The effort is usually expected to memorize and reproduce language. Instruction time is very limited compared to the acquisition time of the first language. There is usually a person (teacher, tutor, etc.) in charge of guiding the learning process, who might exert a certain amount of pressure on the learner for a specific type or level of output. The learning process therefore usually includes a certain degree of anxiety or discomfort.
When we learn our first language it happens naturally, not because we want to, or because anyone else wants us to. We learn about a lot of other things at the same time, as our young brains explore the world and start making sense of all the things and events around us. A language is a tool to understand and to be understood. It’s not a goal in itself, although it can be a source of fun when we learn songs or chants.
The focus of the whole process is to learn the language. The content of the specific course can be very different, but usually, there are clear expectations about how much the learner should be able to know at the end of the course. Success is determined by meeting those expectations.
When we look at the differences in these three categories between first and second language acquisition, we can find the very different mental images we have constructed about these two processes justified. While we perceive learning our first language as unconscious, organic and instrumental, we find the process of learning a foreign language as conscious, guided/organized, and goal-oriented. The two couldn’t be more different, while the process itself, of going from not knowing to know, is the same!
Research in the field
While it’s a common misconception to attribute this huge difference in experience exclusively to the age of the learner, the real difference lies elsewhere.
According to Stephen Krashen, pioneer linguist in Second Language Acquisition, learning and acquisition are two different processes, even though they are often used interchangeably. His basic idea is that in order to speak a language fluently, we need to acquire it — which is the natural, unconscious process of the brain absorbing comprehensible input when exposed to it with enough repetition, a process that is so deeply wired into our brains that we couldn’t even stop it from happening (think about annoying songs getting stuck in your head).
In contrast, learning is a conscious process where cognitive skills and effort are utilized, and where memorization is a common tool. While learning can contribute to the effectiveness of acquiring a language, it is not the same thing and can’t lead to fluency on its own.
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Looking at the above differences between first language acquisition and second language learning from this perspective, we can understand why they look like two different processes — it is exactly because they are.
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