Is there a Second Chance for First Language Acquisition?

First and Second Language Acquisition

Term Paper, 2012

12 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Language Acquisition during the First Years of One’s Life
2.1 First Language Acquisition in a Regular Surrounding
2.2 Feral children and language acquisition

3. Second Language Acquisition in Contrast

4. Feral children case-studies
4.1 Victor
4.2 Genie
4.3 Amala and Kamala
4.4 Memmie LeBlanc - an Exception?

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

According to Noam Chomsky, children are born with an inherited ability to learn any human language. What has to happen, that these abilities are realized?

This term paper with the title: “Is there a second chance for first language acquisition?” was written for the seminar psycholinguistic with at the Justus-Liebig University Gießen in the summer term of 2012.

The goal of this term paper is to answer the question if it is possible to achieve a later language acquisition than in the stage of a baby or a toddler, like the problems so called feral children have by discovering language at a later point in life. Therefore, it is necessary to define and describe the terms first language acquisition and feral children first. Afterwards (chapter three), the difference between first and second language acquisition will be clarified and it will also been mentioned, why it is not possible for feral children to acquire the first language like other people acquire the second language in a later point in time. To show this, different cases of those children with language acquisition in extreme situations will be used to underline the thesis.

2. Language Acquisition during the First Years of One’s Life

2.1 First Language Acquisition in a Regular Surrounding

Language learning already begins inside the womb. The unborn babies recognize language via “prosodic and metrical properties of their auditory environment” (cf. Kidd 2011:92). Steinberg reports about different experiments of pregnant women and the positive effect of babies with post-birth listening, which was tested by loudspeakers placed into the womb̓s direction (cf. Steinberg 2006: 1.2.1).

It can be shown, that all Children are different in the process of their language acquisition, as Steinberg recognized “a wide range of individual differences” (Steinberg 2006: 1.1.2). Some of them are able to articulate themselves at the age of two, whereas others nearly start to talk at the age of three. Nevertheless, they all start to articulate their first words by babbling, in time they start walking (cf. Dörney 2009:84) around the age of 10-12 months. Newborn babies articulate themselves by crying, they can still breathe and eat at the same time and start to filter human language. At the age of around three months they start to produce gurgling different sounds and can express comfort. There are some reports saying, that first words are produced by the age of four months olds. This variability has to do with “physical development”, the “musculature in the mouth” and the “brain development” (cf. Steinberg 2006: 1.1.2). In the next stage between six and twelve months, children can already babble vowels and manage their need by gaze management with their eyes. All babies in that stage babble in the same way, which theoretical gives the possibility to learn every language and their different sounds. Therefore, they are called cosmopolites in that stage. They can also already understand the meaning of around 150 words by that time. Later, between 12 and 18 months they start to imitate words they hear and even make up their own words. For some people this developing language by imitation seems even more important than any other fact “through imitation, children learn how to pronounce sounds and words…” (Steinberg 2006: 1.5.1). They are able to form one word sentences by uttering nouns. This is called the holophrastic phase: they point on things to learn new words. Calling for a banana by saying “nana”, is a good example for this stage. Notwithstanding, they are not able to transfer the meaning of one concrete thing to another yet. Nevertheless, at the age of 19 months they already know around 100 words.

Between 1,5 and 2,5 years, children can already utter verbs and adjectives next to nouns and are in a multiword stage. They even start to combine these. They start to repeat sentences and ask questions. At the end of that stage, they can normally utter two- or even three-word-sentences which are called the telegraphic speech. They know around 200-300 words (cf. Butzkamm 2008: 105). At the age of three years, children start to talk to each other, even in an abstract way of non-concrete things in their imagination, made up in their fantasy. “When acquiring the meanings of words, children begin with the concrete and go on with the abstract” (Steinberg 2006: 1.6). That means, compared to the beginning of acquiring, they not only name physical things they can see. Moreover, the use of grammar tenses is starting and the sentences are up to four words. Around the age of four years, they are already advanced speakers. They master nonverbal communication by mimics and gestures and even intonate their sentences by stressing words. They have learned around 60 new words in a week and at the age of six they have an amount of around 14,000 words.

2.2 Feral children and language acquisition

Considering this, there is the question why, if children can learn a language in around four years, a so called feral child is not able to do the same in a later point in time. By the term feral children or wild children, children are meant, which grew up in isolation of others or even really in the wild, without communicating to other human beings and the ability to talk at different ages by the time they were found or rescued. First cases of feral children are already reported and documented in the 14th century. Some of them were even adopted and nurtured by animals like wolves and bears and behaved like them, not only in sound, but in all of their habits. Others were abandoned to the wild and were wandering alone for years if they survived. Illustrating this, there is the case of “Genie”, who was rescued at the age of 14 years, in the USA in 1970. “She was kept in isolation from human company and virtually all other mental stimulation” (Sampson 2005: 41). Details about this case and other ones will be given at a later point.

Similarly, other external factors influence the language acquisition of children next to the physical development which describes the necessarily of the anatomy of a body and their speech organs by uttering words. It is also closely connected with the mental and social development “Bevor das Kind “ich” und “mein” sagen kann, muss es sich als ein Ich verstehen” (Butzkamm 2008: 13). He mentions the importance of the whole progress instead of language acquisition on its own. The acquiring of the mother- tongue would be only a part of the development. Another part of this development is the perceiving of emotions and their handling. Butzkamm declares this as one of the biggest problems of the “wild children”. They acted like beings with emotional and cognitive disabilities which are not able to build any relationships or even are not even able to handle or interpretate the feelings of others (cf. Butzkamm 2008: 14).

3. Second Language Acquisition in Contrast

The differences between first and second language acquisition is, that in normal cases the second language acquisition starts in a later point in time. Exceptions are made by young children, which moved to a foreign country and learned the other, new language beiläufig like in kindergarten. But these cases are far more part of the term “bilingualism” than it is second language acquisition. Bigger difficulties appear by looking at the new language acquisition of older people. Like the parents or even grandparents of immigrated children have. “The critical period hypothesis has traditionally been used to explain why second language acquisition is difficult for older children and adults” (Harley 2008: 75). Harley describes this phenomenon with two possible hypothesizes: the first maturational state hypothesis suggests that humans would have a “superior capacity” for acquiring language at an early point in time and this capacity would “disappear or declines as a maturation progress”. This progress would be interdepending of other factors. On the other hand, the exercise hypothesis declares, that this capacity gets lost by not using or exercising it. (cf. Harley: 2008: 75). Blending out the exercise hypothesis, the maturational hypothesis explains the problems of immigrants at an older age have by trying to learn a new language which would stable the fact that there really is a critical period in time. After missing this point in time the acquiring of a new language becomes harder and harder.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Is there a Second Chance for First Language Acquisition?
First and Second Language Acquisition
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Anglistik)
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second, chance, first, language, acquisition
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Nadine Custer (Author), 2012, Is there a Second Chance for First Language Acquisition?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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