First vs Second Language Acquisition INTRODUCTIONHow did you learn to speak


How did you learn to speak your native language' Notice, this shouldn´t be such a puzzling question. Do you remember when you learned to tie your shoes, ride a bike, and eat with a fork' Sometimes we can remember a parent helping us to do these things. But have our parents helped us learn to speak our first language' Do you remember when your mother taught you the past tense' When your father laid down the rules for passive sentences' We don´t remember these important moments of our childhood because they never occurred. Sometimes we as adults study for years to acquire a new language. It is then quite wonderful to think that children, by around the age of 5, have more or less mastered their first language, excepting some vocabulary and a few grammatical structures. This is even more extraordinary if we keep in mind that relatively few parents actively put an effort into training their children in their home language. It is as if the child, before the age of 5, just learns the language all by her- or himself.

A second language (L2) is any language learned after the first language or mother tongue (L1). However, it is quite possible, for a person's dominant language not to be his or her home language. The first language a person learns may no longer be the one he or she uses most or the one he or she is most comfortable in.

According to some researchers, the defining difference between a first language and a second language is the age in which the language was learned. For example, the linguist Eric Lenneberg said that a second language is a language a person consciously acquired after puberty.

It is quite rare for people to achieve the same level of fluency and comprehension in their second languages as in their first language. This phenomenon lead theorists to form what is called the Critical Period Hypothesis:

Hyltenstam (1992) found that around the age of 6 and 7 there seemed to be a cut-off point, after which it is difficult for people to achieve native-like proficiency in a language. Later, Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson (2003) said that it is not that clear cut. They said that after childhood, in general, it becomes more and more difficult to acquire native-like-ness.

Similarities and differences between L2 and L1 acquisition Feature L1 acquisition L2 (foreign language) acquisition

Overall success children normally achieve perfect L1 mastery adult L2 learners are unlikely to achieve perfect L2 mastery

General failuresuccess guaranteed

complete success rare


Much evidence has been gathered to show that basic sounds, vocabulary, negating phrases, forming questions, using relative clauses, and so on are developed in systematic stages for both L1 and L2. This development is independent from input (we do not hear nor read language in this order), independent from learning situation (in the classroom or on the street), and is generally applicable across a spectrum of learners (from different language backgrounds). For L2 it is similar to the learning stages that babies go through when acquiring the first language: babbling (bababa), vocabulary (milk then later milk drink), negation (no play), question forming (where she go), and so on.

Depth of knowledge

Learners in first and second languages have knowledge beyond the input they received. They know features of the language they have never consciously learnt.


little variation in degree of success or route L2 learners vary in overall success and route


target language competence L2 learners may be content with less than target language competence or more concerned with fluency than accuracy


unknown common, plus backsliding (i.e. return to earlier stages of development)


children develop clear intuitions about correctness L2 learners are often unable to form clear grammaticality judgments


not needed helpful or necessary

Negative evidence

In the first language, children do not learn faster when they are corrected. They do not need instruction at all to learn the language. Correction generally helpful or necessary. Instruction may affect the rate of learning but the stages remain the same. Adolescents and adults who know the rule are faster than those who do not.

Affective factors

not involved play a major role determining success


Acquisition is rapidMay be a lifelong process

Stephen Krashen drew the distinction between acquiring and learning a languageA

cquiring a language is a natural process. The 'student' takes part in natural communication situations.

Learning a language is a conscious one where the student is corrected when making a mistake. The student studies grammatical rules isolated from natural language. (Not all second language educators agree to this distinction).


Several factors related to students´ first and second languages shape their second language learning. These factors include the linguistic distance between the two languages, students´ level of proficiency in the native language and their knowledge of the second language, the dialect of the native language spoken by the students (i.e., whether it is standard or nonstandard), the relative status of the students´ language in the community, and societal attitudes toward the students´ native language.

One of the on-going debates among language teachers is that of whether or not to use the students´ first language (L1) in foreign language (L2) classrooms or learning environments. Generally, few teachers feel that the primary language of instruction should be the L1.

However, there seems to be a wide range of opinions on the degree of L1 use. One end of this spectrum favors banning the L1 from the classroom totally; the remainder (a fairly large remainder) proposes various types of L1 use or limitation. Factors which affect these decisions include such things as social and cultural norms, student motivation and goals, whether or not English is a primary means of communication in the environment external to the classroom (ESL) or not (EFL), age and proficiency of the students, and the linguistic makeup of the class (monolingual or multilingual as relates to L1), among others. One interesting point is that the same factors may lead to different conclusions and methodologies for different teachers, and even when different policies and practices are implemented in the classroom, all of them may well lead to successful results.


Finally second language students should have the ability to recognize cues in language and extrapolate from them. They need to learn to be good guessers and to figure out meaning of words from context instead of constantly going to a dictionary. Maybe all second language learners have this ability to a lesser or greater extent. The responsibility lies with the teacher to create a context within which this ability could come to the fore.