1st language vs 2nd language acquisitionThe differences between how language learners acquire their first language and learn a foreign language should be a topic that gets more attention, as it could help clarify why students struggle with new languages. In order to discuss the similarities and differences, we need to define some of the major lexicon associated with the topic. Generally speaking, someone’s first language (L1) is their native language. But are first and native languages always the same? Not according to the canadian
census, which defines a first language as the one first learned and actually used by the learner. It is not uncommon for a person’s native language and first language to be different in countries like the USA and Canada. People whose first and native languages are different can be passive speakers of their native language, as their exposure was sufficient for comprehension, but not enough for communication.
A person’s second language (L2) is usually thought of as any foreign language someone studies, usually as an adult. However, this is not quite accurate. Of course, any language that is not someone’s first (or native if they are the same) is a foreign language. Yet, if someone moves to a foreign country and learns the local language, that language is often considered a true second language, as typically they will be using it daily and may end up using it more than their first language. If someone learns a foreign language in their home country, and that foreign language is not an official language or widely used by the indigenous population, then it is considered to be a foreign language. There are quite a few countries in which english is an official language, but isn’t the predominate language. Citizens who learn the native tongue may end up learning to speak near-fluent english as their second language. But if english is learned early enough in childhood, the learner may learn it at the same time as their first language, become a true bilingual, and have two first languages.
People often use language learning and language acquisition interchangeably. But a distinction should be made. We acquire our first language, in that we develop fluency by being immersed in the language, using it everyday, and developing our own understanding of the rules of the language. This is very different than how we learn a second or foreign language. Another critical difference is the idea of negotiation. When acquiring a language, the learner must learn how to deal with breakdowns in communication by themselves. As language learning is usually done in a classroom, a teacher is present to help the students if there are communication problems. It’s a much less natural way to learn, and involves a much more cognitive approach, while acquisition can be more intuitive. Language learning is also a much slower process, due to the limited exposure to the language and the low frequency of use by the student. This is one critical difference between our 1st and 2nd (or foreign) languages: acquisition versus learning.
What are some more differences in the ways students learn or acquire their first and second (or foreign) languages? One of the most evident would be age. Students of a foreign language are usually adults while almost all of us begin acquiring our first at a young age, becoming fluent by the age of five. The late age in which most learn their 2nd language effects pronunciation, accents and fluency. Adult learners will, for the most part, usually have difficulty with pronunciations, have extreme difficulty overcoming their native accent, and have little probability of achieving even near-fluency in the language. Speed is another difference. Surprisingly, adult learners will go through the earlier stages of foreign language quicker than young learners of their first language, yet fossilization (reaching plateaus difficult to overcome due to ingrained grammatical mistakes) prevents them from mastering the language. One of the final differences is the rate of success. Obviously, the success rate of our first language is guaranteed. According to the critical period hypothesis, the chances of an adult becoming fluent in a foreign language are exceptionally low due to the late age they start to learn the language. However, some researchers propose that other factors may impede the learning of a second or foreign language, such as motivation and learning settings.
Surprisingly, there are quite a few similarities in the ways students learn their first and second languages. The sequences in which students learn english are usually the same. The idea of depth of knowledge is another similarity, meaning that learners are able to produce language more complex or different from anything they have been taught, read or heard before. Correction and how it should be given is a subject for research in and of its own, but there is agreement as it concerns both first and second language learning/acquisition. There really has been no direct evidence that it actually effects the rate or speed of learning, but there is direct evidence that students (adolescents, teenagers and adults) who “know the rules” learn the target language much faster and more accurately.
In conclusion, it is obvious that the ways people learn a first/native language and a foreign/second language are different. There are many reasons why, one of which is the way in which the brain functions change as we pass through puberty. Realizing this, it is easy to see how important it is to begin to study another language as early as possible, if fluency is the desired objective. Perhaps in the future, the importance of fluency in more than one language will be stressed, which will help bridge cultural gaps between nations.
Works Cited (listed alphabetically)
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