First Language v Second Language AcquisitionHow can a child learn language so quickly and how is that similar or different to how they pick up english later on in our classrooms? In this brief article I will attempt to highlight the differences between how children
pick up their first language and how they pick up their second language. Then, a look at what can be improved upon for teachers of second languages.
First, let us examine the environment in which the first language is picked up: a child is born and from their earliest memories (and indeed earlier) they hear language spoken all around them, by everyone, all the time. The technical term, input, is very high. Another feature is the relevancy and quality of that input; parents, friends, family all speak about issues, events, people that are very important and pressing to the learner. A further feature is the age of the learner (which was quickly referenced earlier); the first language is learned from the start of life and continues to their current age. The final feature is the physical abilities that are present while the first language is being learned. A child’s brain assesses information easiest at a young age, a child also desires to understand and speak the first language simply to communicate with the world around them. In many ways the first language is learned so well because of the environment, the abilities, and the motivation of the learner. The result? The ability to be fluent in that language at an early age.
What is the environment in which students learn their second language? Generally students are older (usually past age five) and are doing most of their learning in the classroom. The younger the age there is generally less choice in the matter of learning english (or any second language) though the “choice” is more self-chosen for learners as they get older, especially into their adult years. The main fount of their teaching comes from a teacher who is neither family nor friend (not strictly speaking) and approaches learning from a more academic route (which is not bad though it does lead students to compare their second language to their first).
In most ways the environment and factors greatly favor the acquisition of the first language. The age is preferable, the body is better able to gain (and keep) knowledge, the motivation is greater, and the teachers, being primarily parents, are much closer and able to speak on a breadth of topics of the greatest relevancy. It should be of no surprise that the second language is not gained as easily as the first. Where then do we go from here, as teachers and educators?
Can the first language acquisition be replicated in the classroom? No, the differences are too substantial, too great. However, can teachers of second languages make changes to mirror the first language acquisition and, in hope, reap the benefits? Yes, and that is what should be pursued, as reasonable, as possible. To create a class culture where relevancy is tuned into, where students are immersed in english as much as possible, and where there is quality conversation that avoids being too pat and clean cut.