1st Language vs. 2nd Language Acquisition There is a basic and observable outcome


There is a basic and observable outcome of language skills acquisition between first language (L1) learners and second language (L2) learners. L1 learners will just about always acquire their language to a native-speaking level. L2 learners will, more often than not, never really acquire the L2 to the same level of fluency that they have acquired their L1; and if they do, their ability in L1 is often sacrificed to acquire the L2. What this means for the English learner is that their English may never really reach native- like competency. Most learners go into the classroom without having a completely clear picture of what level of competency they can expect to achieve. It may be important for learners to be more aware of this when they begin studying English.

One of the more difficult things to factor into a language-learning course is the ability of the students. There are students who are exceptional at language acquisition, and there are those who have more difficulties than most, the vast majority is somewhere in between. Some may be able to reach perfect bilingualism, eventually learning English with no expense at all to their mother tongue. Most will, however, learn English with a distinct tell tale sign of what their L1 is. The caricature of the English language learners and the particular aspects of their pronunciation has been used many times, often to comedic effect. An example is the character of Inspector Clouseau played by Peter Sellers in the ‘Pink Panther’ series and how he pronounces his English with a ‘typical’ French accent. There are caricatures of Asian learners, German language learners, Spanish language learners and learners from most other major linguistic groups. These caricatures are all derived from the process, and result, of L2 acquisition and how the L1 of the language learner ‘interferes’ with, in our context, their English.

L2 learners should strive towards attaining a native-like level of English as possible, but the students should be aware of the constraints present. Most L2 learners will naturally strive for native-like competency and may be of the idea that acquiring it is subject to the same constraints as acquiring their L1. Research, for example, Grosjean (1982), is increasingly concluding that L1 and L2 acquisition does not undergo the same processes. In acquiring L1, the learner forms phonological, semantic, grammatical and other linguistic patterns that become a matter of routine. When that student then begins to acquire his or her L2, the patterns formed when acquiring the L1 ‘interfere’ with the patterns required by the L2. This is most obvious in phonology, and that is where we get the characterization of a ‘typical’ French, German, Japanese, etc, English speaker.

In practical terms, to the L2 learner of English, this asks him or her to try and determine where to place the bar for expectations. Individual ability will have a lot to do with the learning outcome, but generally, the L2 English language learner should be aware that it will require enormous sacrifice to reach native-like competency and that perfect bilingualism is the rare exception rather than the standard rule. The learner can expect to acquire English to a level that provides communication and comprehension at the most advanced level, but there will probably be some features of the learner’s English that is colored by his or her L1. For most learners, sacrificing competency in their L1 is probably not something they want to do, and for most English teachers, a trend toward global monolingualism is probably not something they would like to be held responsible for. Most English teachers are not in the classroom to create perfect English speakers, they are there to teach the art of communication in English, and the very diverse outcomes of that learning, is what makes second language teaching so compellingly rewarding.

Baker, C. (1992), Attitudes and Language, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Crystal, D. (2003), English as a Global Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Graddol, D., Leith D. and Swann, J. (2003), English: History, Diversity and Change. UK: Routledge.

Grosjean, S. (1982), Life with Two Languages. An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge, Mass & London, UK: Harvard University Press.

Romaine, S. (1995), Bilingualism. Malden, Mass & Oxford. UK: Blackwell Publishing.