The Gap Between 1st and 2nd Language Acquisition is Smaller than We Might Think
One of the most frustrating things about learning a second language is how naturally your first language came to you and how unnaturally your second one seems to! Why can’t we just listen to the language for a while and eventually just “get it” as we did as kids? All of the conjugation patterns and inflections and grammatical oddities of a new language are sometimes hard to grasp even for experienced learners.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Ryan P. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Wires of The Mother Tongue
Our first language is deeply integrated with how we think and relate to the world. Usually, especially in the famously oft monolingual anglophone world, second language education is presented in a similar way to “regular” academics. We learn math through rigorous drilling and textbook studying. Why should language be any different? This seems to result from a simple fact that many language educators in anglophone society seem to have ignored: Language is different from other subjects! A second language should not be presented as an academic subject but rather modeled on how humans naturally learn their first language.
To learn a language, a student must be engaged in using the language as a way to interact with the world. This means that the teacher must first generate interest in the subject through their Engage phase. Why would you learn a language, traverse a deep-sea of frustrating misunderstanding, if there doesn’t seem to be anything interesting to talk about in it?
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Children’s Language Ability
Children constantly try to use their (sometimes rudimentary) language abilities to communicate with the world because it is their key to interacting with people and subjects that intrigue them! If a teacher doesn’t give students a reason to be interested in learning the language it will continue to be another subject in school to them. Language becomes another arbitrary boundary between them and a grade rather than the key to an interesting, vivid world of communication that it should be.
Next, the teacher must appeal to the intelligence of their students. This is called the Study phase. We present a logical puzzle for students to sink their teeth into. Intrinsic motivation to experience a language is not quite enough for students to progress quickly in their studies. Our brains are built to recognize and deconstruct patterns. Slowly revealing to the students the rules and mechanisms of this grand puzzle of language is not just “studying” in the classical sense.
I believe part of its importance is gamifying the process of learning English. For students, being able to put together these patterns then experiencing the gratification of applying their newly acquired knowledge is incredibly important as a motivating factor. In this way, second language learners have a huge advantage over first language learners. First language learners are presented only with examples and must figure out the patterns from there. Their brains must constantly take statistics on what the adults around them consider “correct” and “incorrect” speech. What an arduous task to undertake!
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The Importance of The Engage Phase
However, the fact that children can learn these patterns naturally but have difficulty learning them in class with worksheets and lessons speaks to the fact that examples and natural speech are under-utilized in classroom settings. Teachers may assume students would be too confused if the teacher simply speaks the target language in class and avoids speaking the native language of the students. I propose we give the natural process of language acquisition more credit. Once students are engaged and interested in the material, hopefully, they will want to decode the teacher’s meaning themselves and their brains’ natural genius can help them recognize patterns and solidify that which has been taught in class.
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We then, of course, need to give the students a chance to apply what they have learned. Language is a two-way street after all. Making Activate activities as interesting as possible is one of the most important roles of an EFL teacher. These activities are to second language students of English as are babbling to a baby, sentences to a toddler, paragraphs to a grade-schooler, and finally, speak to an adult. These activities represent the students’ participation in the anglophone world and are, in my opinion, the most important to a student’s eventual mastery of the language.
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Using first language acquisition as a model on which to base our presentations of a second language to our students is an intuitive practice. Second language students learn differently, of course, but they learn for the same reason: to communicate with the world around them. If we give students a reason, a method, then an opportunity to speak a language their brains are built to do it.
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