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The process of learning a first language and a second language differ greatly. Not much consideration is given to how a child learns their first language or to how an adult might learn their second. In the early stages of life a child appears to master their first language with ease and perfection, never giving a second thought to how it is done, or how best to accomplish this amazing task. One might think that the process is the same and that an adult has only to replicate the same process that occurs in the child's brain. This is easier said than done.
Research has shown that the adoption of a language in the early stages of a child's development is a once in a lifetime event. Children have a definite advantage when it comes to language acquisition. Due to changes that occur during the period of growth from a child to an adult, the likelihood of similar continued language acquisition greatly decreases. The most commonly described of these are physical, cognitive and emotional development. These processes of human development do not happen separately, but are intertwined with the progress of one enabling the progress of another and vice versa. It is no wonder that it has been a great challenge to understand how people learn language so easily when they are young, but with difficulty after maturation.
The main physical change which occurs as a human matures is the loss of adaptable muscle function. To put it simply, this means that the person will be less likely to master the pronunciation of a second language due to the inability to move their muscles properly.
Cognitive changes are those that change a person's brain from the emotional to the analytical. This means that an adult has the ability to analyze and seek structure within a target language, perhaps to a degree that is more of a hindrance than a help.
Emotional development of a learner may remove the desire to remove the second language or the survival mechanism required to speedily acquire. The mature adult may be unable to separate the emotional success/failure mechanism from the process of language acquisition, thus hindering him or herself. It is certain that the changes that take place in a person's cognitive and emotional makeup add a great deal of complexity to the differences between a child and an adult. There are, however, certain things that can be said about the differences between an adult and child when acquire a new language.
First, the child's goal is to achieve one hundred percent mastery of the language by any means necessary. Otherwise, how would he or she become part of their environment? The concept of being content with a less than perfect level of mastery is an unknown concept to a child working on acquiring their first language. The child's ultimate aim is seamless absorption into their host culture and environment, and language is one aspect of this extremely critical process. The adult, on the other hand, may have a target fluency that serves to assist with work, socializing, etc. This is a limiting factor for the second language learner, and may be the reason for backsliding, inability to absorb correction, and a lack of general fluency.
Perhaps one of the most important changes that occur with the process of maturation is the loss of intuition with regards to what is correct and incorrect. Intuition may be described as the brain's method for dealing with large amounts of information and determining a conclusion that is the best for the survival of the self. Before the brain has made the change from an emotional/intuitive view to a more analytical/calculating one, it has the ability to gather and record huge amounts of material without bias. Correction is not necessary as the intuitive process will do this automatically. The adult on the other hand, will be limited due to over analysis and the need for and possible resistance to outside correction.
The reality is that the differences between the processes of first and second language acquisition is not entirely understood and many theories abound. There is certainly no answer which is accepted by everyone. The search for solutions to problems faced by those who are attempting to acquire a second must include the study of how children acquire and master so quickly when they are young. This study will only serve to assist those who are trying to master a new language.
Tucker , Margaret. First and Second Language Acquisition. [Online] Available http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f03/web2/mtucker.html, Dec 2, 2003.
[Online] Available Galasso, Joseph. First Language Acquisition
HTTP://WWW.CSUN.EDU/~GALASSO/LANG1.HTM MAY 23, 2009
V.J. COOK, J. LONG AND S. MCDONOUGH. FIRST AND SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING. [ONLINE] AVAILABLE HTTP://HOMEPAGE.NTLWORLD.COM/VIVIAN.C/WRITINGS/PAPERS/L1&L21979.HTM
ASSOCIATED CONTENT [ONLINE] AVAILABLE HTTP://WWW.ASSOCIATEDCONTENT.COM/ARTICLE/600311/HOW_DO_CHILDREN_LEARN_LANGUAGES_SO.HTML FEB 19, 2008