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First Language Vs Second Language AcquisitionI will begin by exploring what second language learning means, how we acquire or learn language and then examine the differences between form and function and the qualities both treatments bring to the area of learning a second language.
Second language acquisition is a term used to describe students who are learning a language other than their native tongue. The settings in which the students learn amongst can make considerable difference to the learning outcomes achieved. Some students live in the target language country and are immersed in the other language and culture whilst others are learning a second language in a foreign location to the target language. They are generally described as learning a ‘foreign language’ as their immediate community does not speak the target. If they are lucky enough to be children
growing up from birth around more than one language, during the critical period when language acquisition is at its peak, then it is possible the dual language environment they are immersed in will produce simultaneous bilinguals. Most people are not fortunate enough to acquire a second language in this way.
Interestingly, no matter where we live in the world, our brains are able to subconsciously develop the ‘language gene’ and acquire the features of language and its meaning by constructively interacting with caregivers and our environment. Children actively construct language without inhibitions of producing sounds and with the benefit of learning through trial and error. Tests such as the ‘wug test’, invented by Jean Berko Gleason used invented words to test the productivity of inflections and has proven that children’s language goes beyond what they have heard to them constructing new forms and structures. We have a good idea about how a first language is acquired due to the research of three main theories for language acquisition: The Behaviourist theory based on imitation (Skinner), the Innatist theory based on biological endowment and the Critical Period Hypothesis (Chomsky), and the Interactional/Developmental theory which is based on interacting with the environment (Piaget and Vygotsky). It is from these studies that second language learning research is influenced.
Traditionally there was a strong emphasis on teaching a second language using form-focused instruction. This style produced people who learned a second language, who could write well, but found it ineffective for speaking in everyday conversations. The form-focused approach is rooted in behaviourism with the mimicking and memorisation of sentence patterns. Students gained the skills to ‘learn’ about the component parts of language such as phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax, and the application of these in the construction of cohesive and coherent texts. They performed these tasks repeatedly and in remote locations from the target language. This style of teaching was found to produce students who had learned the language but whom found it difficult to communicate when immersed in the target language.
For students to have a more holistic understanding of the social, cultural and pragmatic features of language they needed to learn about how language is used; the rules of discourse particular to the different functions of language. It is the understanding of how to use linguistic forms to achieve the functions which allow language users to communicate the meaning they intended, such as referring to events in the past, and achieve communicative proficiency in english. Students participate in discourse analysis and learn language by interacting within a variety of cultural settings. As each culture has its own way of communicating similar cultural events, such as greeting each other, it is important that the L2 learners are taught the correct words needed in the target language context.
Learners tend to bring their own cultural schema into context if they are not aware of the sociolinguistic differences entrenched in the other language. Therefore it is important to study language for the correct form and cultural meanings and to identify how attitudes and perceptions are expressed within certain social groups and settings. In L2 acquisition they may never sound like a native because each language has their own sound patterns and these are developed early in life. As many L2 learners are past puberty, acquiring the L2 may not be possible as it was L1, but the language gene is activated and can be built upon due to the neuromuscular plasticity of the brain.