Language Acquisition and Language Learning Everyone agrees that learning a second


Everyone agrees that learning a second language is more difficult than picking up our native language. However, why this is so is still a question of great debate in the scientific community.

Most children with normal intelligence and neurological development will easily pick up their native language. The ease of this process is something that still mystifies scientists. Furthermore, parents do not usually make painstaking efforts to teach their children to speak. In many ways, the process appears innate; the child either “absorbs” the language through immersion or models the language that he or she hears her parents speaking.

Although we speak of language learning as innate, recent scientific studies seem to point to the fact that the brain is not hard- wired with preset pathways for language learning. There is an area, in the left frontal lobe, called Broca’s center, which controls motor functions associated with speech. However, most language functions seem to be spread throughout the brain. Connections between synapses appear to form from infancy through the first few years of life. Before infants begin to speak at all their language skills are being ”sculpted by language input.” Others have pointed out the importance of musicality, the rhythm of sound as important to the development of language.

Anthropologist Timothy Mason, among others, has pointed to the use of “caretaker language” by parents of young children. Parents, while not reciting rules of grammar, often simplify their sentences and speak slightly more slowly.

On the other hand, “L2” or second language learning is a much more difficult process. Recent methods of second language learning have tried to recreate as much as possible the circumstances of first language learning. This not only includes the Suggestopedia approach, but also many immersion methods and the practice of promoting second language learning among very young children.

Yet with all the emphasis on trying to recreate natural language acquisition, critical skills come into play with learning a second language. Because it usually deals with older children, teens and adults, L2 language learning tends to take a more “cognitive” approach, with thinking, analysis and conscious study of the language.

However, this is not the only way children learn language, if it was one would suspect that scientists would have an easier time unraveling the mystery of language acquisition. Thus, language teaching continues to examine early childhood language acquisition and incorporate some of the processes which occur in early childhood.

It is also very important to encourage skill and development of the first language. These factors have been found to have a positive effect on learning a second language again and again. First language skill s can serve as important reference point, especially if the target language is similar to the native tongue. Even for languages that are not very similar, the thinking skills used to build native language learning may be helpful. When children acquire their first language, there are many practical reasons for them to do so. They need to be able to communicate to their parents their wants and needs. In the same way living in a foreign country may help speed second language learning. The student needs to pick up the target language in order to be able to communicate his or her wants and needs to others. Some schools in North America and other places have recreated the foreign country in school, with an immersion method in which the entire curriculum, from science to gym class, is taught in the target language.

So perhaps the best approach in teaching a second language is to nourish as much as possible the motivations for learning. If language study is practical, natural and works with a student’s strengths and interests, it is much more likely to be successful.

References

Fopolli, Julio. Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning. Ezine articles.com

Galasso, Joseph. First and Second Language Acquisition. http://www.csun.edu/~galasso/lang1.htm

Kuhl, Pat. Newshour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, May 29, 1997.

Mason, Timothy. http://www.timothyjpmason.com/index.html

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004; http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li7lk 12.htm

Vaneechoutte, M. and Skoyles, J.R. The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates. Journal of Memetics, 1998.

1. Pat Kuhl, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, May 29, 1997.

2. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2004; http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li7lk 12.htm