Language Acquisition and Language Learning

While need or motivation can be strong impulses in second language learning, they do not influence language acquisition. The question is do we as children acquire language for any other reason than that we are communicating (speaking) animals and language is as natural to us as breathing?

I think part of the way we learn a second language is similar to the way we learnt our first language. How much? Well we can consider the question. Language acquisition (as children learning our MT) occurs in an unorganized way. There is no syllabus for children learning their MT. And the data children receive are not just the utterances addressed specifically to them, but any language they are exposed to.

If there is a learning program it is an “internal” one, a product of their normal cognitive development. Now with the exception of the kind of thing I was talking about above, second language learning takes place under formal instruction. In that sense it is quite unlike language acquisition. I’ll try to explain this a bit more below.

Then there is the question of practice. Is practice in second language learning of any positive value? Educationists are split on this question.

We do learn to do a lot of things through practice from using a knife and fork to changing a wheel on a car to writing with a pen to typing on the keyboard to cooking scrambled eggs to playing bridge. Of course we need to repeat things when we are learning a second language. Practice doesn’t negate anything. It reinforces. Repeat things often enough, all other things being equal, you can become good at them.

Learning a language is like any other human activity. Football players practice, chess players practice, rocket scientists practice (very expensively). The problem is that in terms of language learning we are not sure what function precisely practice fulfils. Does the development of cognitive skills occur in the same way as the development of psychomotor skills? Recent language studies recognize practice as an element in first language acquisition, but not in the way we would use it in second language learning.

Of course we all draw on past experience if it helps, and draw on it many humans will, as often as it is useful. As thinking animals we bring everything useful to help develop new skills. Anecdotally, I have a friend who has become a very famous golfer. He has won a number of tournaments in the past 2 years. A lady asked him if he felt that he had really been lucky to have won like this. He said, “Yes, indeed. And the more I practice the luckier I get.”

Let me try to put it more thoughtfully. One school of thought points out that the conditions under which language acquisition and language learning take place are so different that there can be no transfer from one to the other. Language acquisition takes place during the time when an infant is maturing physically and mentally. Certain milestones in language acquisition occur at the same time as other milestones in physical and psychological development.

There does not appear to be any motivation for infants to learn language, and yet all physically and mentally normal children do learn language. As I said above it is a natural human activity.

Again, as I said above, language acquisition appears to occur in a totally unorganized way. This raises a problem of language skills. We talk about speaking, listening, reading and writing, and we can talk about the “active” and “passive” elements of these skills (although I prefer “productive” and “receptive performance”). But there must be an internal skill that allows us to decode utterances we have never heard before, which will be a high percentage of what we hear. Theoretical linguists go on about this ad nauseam, as if there was some amazing mystery in it. It does assume importance if we accept the concept of linguistic universals.

Then we come to practice and imitation. We know these are used widely in the classroom with widely differing results. Drills, choral work, nonsense rhymes, repetition exercises, nursery rhymes quickly come to mind. A more recent language learning theory recognizes imitation as the acquisition of a language response and practice as a means of strengthening it. Certainly young children love imitating and practicing language, usually among themselves in the form of “verbal play”, practicing for the sake of practicing.

In addition, language learning may take place after language acquisition is complete. So the second language teacher is not really teaching language, but a new manifestation of language. The teacher is teaching a new way of doing what the learner can already do.

Now the point I want to get to is that those arguments that I have listed all show that it is the circumstances (learner, teacher, linguistic data) in which first and second language learning take place that are different. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the processes of learning are different. The processes of relearning something are not necessarily different from the original learning process. The question really is: has the learner changed so much physiologically and psychologically in going from youth to adult that he is unable to use the same learning strategies that he used as an infant?

Finally, when we acquire language in infancy, the particular outward form it assumes is that of the dialect of the society into which we were born. For example, English infants acquire language in its English form, French infants in its French form, Turkish infants in its Turkish form, etc.

So is learning a second language, after we have acquired verbal behavior in its mother tongue form, a matter of adaptation or extension of existing skills and knowledge rather than the relearning of a completely new set of skills from the start? Perhaps it is not that first language and second language learning are different, but rather that there are some fundamental properties which all languages have in common and it is only their outward characteristics that differ. Thus, when these fundamental properties have been learned (through MT acquisition) the learning of a second language will be a relatively much smaller task.

Extract from a paper on “Language Acquisition and Language Learning”, Windhoek 2004

Useful Links

Second Language Acquisition‏‎ or SLA – a look at the way in which we learn a second language‏‎.

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Posted in Linguistics.

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