TEFL First Language vs. Second Language Acquisition

My first language, or "mother" language, is English, and I can´t remember learning any bit of it as a child. I have brief memories of learning grammar in grade school, but as far as I´m concerned, I could speak just fine before Kindergarten. Then why did it take me over eight years to feel slightly comfortable speaking German? How come I could learn so much better as a drooling baby than a university student? Let us consider the differences in learning a first language vs. a second language

In defense of the hardened university student, studies show that a baby´s brain is more apt to learn a mother language when compared with an adult brain learning a second language. According to , "The baby´s brain is actually ´primed´ to learn language." Perhaps a seasoned adult brain is limited in their second language acquisition because it is already wired to produce their mother language. Fresh baby brains, on the other hand, are quite ready to be wired, making first language acquisition easier.

Aside from this, first language acquisition often takes place under total immersion, which means that the student is exposed to their soon-to-be first language to "the highest possible extent" ( ). The university student, however, has only a limited amount of time in class and a varying amount of work outside of class to be exposed to the language. Sometimes second language acquisition does include immersion, and during this time the student will probably become most comfortable with their new language. However, the second language immersion can be limited by practicalities such as getting to and remaining in an area where the language is spoken, or reverting back to your mother language in moments of frustration, which are typically not a problem with first language immersion.

With these difficulties in mind, it´s not uncommon for someone to question why he or she should start learning a second language in the first place. And to be sure, this is a very valid question, although there are several equally valid answers. According to, "Acquiring a language is learning a skill, not a body of information." A new language allows for experiences that beforehand the student never realized existed. How does one know what it is like to juggle without ever actually juggling? You can guess at them, but you would never really know the pleasures.

Perhaps the most important reason for acquiring a second language relates to an understanding of self in the context of a new culture. According to , "Learning another language gives the learner the ability to step inside the mind and context of that other culture." The two main advantages of doing this are to increase your global awareness and to increase awareness of your self. This means not only are you learning about other people, but the way in which you do this inherently makes you conscious of the way you present yourself. In the early stages of learning a second language, you have to think before you speak.

Despite their many differences, there still lies a common thread between first and second language acquisition. states that first and second language acquisition are both lifelong processes. Can anyone define every word in the English Dictionary? It is important to acknowledge that acquiring a language takes time, and "mastering" a language requires much patience. There is always more to learn.

Author: Curtis Gardner

Date of post: 2006-09-26