First Language versus Second Language AcquisitionThere are differences between the acquisition of native language with children
and second language with adults. As children learn their mother language, they make mistakes with language that adults do not make while learning a second language, and vice-versa. Also, the expected outcomes of language acquisition with adults and children are different. Linguists have tried to explain the reasons for the differences with a theory called the Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (FDH). This paper will briefly explore the differences in acquisition of native language (L1) and second language as an adult (L2), as well as discuss FDH which seeks to explain the reasons for the difference.
There is still much mystery around how and why people acquire language as children. Children acquire their native language very quickly and with hardly any overt instruction from parents or teachers. In fact, almost all children have a basic command over the elements of their native language by the time they are in preschool, and the acquisition happens almost haphazardly (Galasso 2000). Also, L1 grammar errors are similar across the board. In other words, children seem to make the same mistakes universally. For example, a child might say “Me want the toy” or “Him went to the store.” However, these mistakes are almost always corrected over time (Galasso).
The comparison to the process of adult L2 learning is striking. Most people who learn a foreign language as an adult will never achieve the same level of fluency as a native speaker despite years of concerted study (Wernli 2002). The nature of the mistakes made with L2 are different as well. Adult L2 learners tend to transfer grammar structures and pronunciation from their native language into the study of their new language, which never happens with L1 for obvious reasons. Finally, while a child's language proficiency will continue to increase and mistakes will be ironed out over time, adults tend to stagnate. Even though an adult might recieve explicit instruction to correct a language error, it is likely that the speaker will revert back to the erroneous pattern over time. This is almost never true of a child with L1 acquisition (COEDU n.d.). In short, it can be argued that children acquire language and adults learn it. That is, children pick up language through a series of “innate universal principles of constraints and assumptions” while adults do it through cognitive problem solving (Galasso).
The reason for these differences has been explained by some linguists with the Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (FDH) (Bley-Vroman 1989). Essentially, this theory asserts that there are fundamental differences in the way L1 and L2 are acquired. The argument hinges on the belief that biological differences between the child and adult brain are to blame. Studies have shown that a child's brain has more plasticity than an adult's, and can therefore process new information more efficiently. This means that the input from a child's environment can be assimilated more easily (Stewart 2003). This explains why children are able to “pick up” L1 very naturally and achieve native fluency within 4 years while L2 fluency can take years of study, with weaker results. Some research suggest that there is a critical period for language acquisition when the learner is particularly responsive to input from his or her environment (Wernli 2002). This critical period is key for developing native fluency and takes place somewhere between the ages of 2 and onset of puberty.
If one were to draw a conclusion based on these arguments, it would seem that the most effective ESL learning takes place within a certain window of opportunity, when the brain is most receptive to new information. Research suggests that this window of opportunity is when the learner is very young. To achieve the best language outcomes, instruction in a foreign language should begin at the elementary level or younger.
In sum, the differences between L1 and L2 are notable, though there is still a level of mystery surrounding how language acquisition happens. FDH points to biological differences to explain the gap between L1 success as opposed to L2. Because of these factors, it seems that the most effective ESL teaching will begin with preschool to early elementary aged students.
Galasso, Joseph. (2000). “First and Second Language Acquisition” California State University Online.
Stewart, John M. (n.d.) “Is There a Fundamental Difference? The Availability of Universal Grammar in Child versus Second Language Acquisition.” University of Texas Online. http://www.lingref.com/cpp/gasla/6/paper1055.pdf
Wernli, Monika. (2002). “The Fundamental Difference Hypothesis.” Online source.
“Robert Blay-Vroman” (n.d.) University of South Florida Online.