First and second language acquisition

Unraveling the mystery of language learning

Hausarbeit, 2013

23 Seiten, Note: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Defining the Terms
2.1 First Language acquisition
2.2 Second language acquisition

3. Acquisition Process
3.1 First language acquisition
3.1.1 Input
3.1.2 Production
3.1.3 Errors and Error Correction
3.2 Second Language Acquisition
3.2.1 Input
3.2.2 Production
3.2.3 Errors and Error Correction

4. Critical factors in language learning
4.1 First language Acquisition
4.1.1 External
4.1.2 Internal Universal grammar Mental Development
4.2 Second language Acquisition
4.2.1 External
4.2.2 Internal Age L1 Influence Motivational Forces

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Language acquisition is not instantaneous but essentially developmental in nature” (Berman 12).

We acknowledge the fact that to learn any language takes time. It is a process and not instantaneous as we have all experienced whether it was through our first or our second language. Most of us though don’t remember putting much effort into learning our mother tongue but remember well the effort we put into learning a foreign language. Understanding the underlying processes can especially be valuable to teachers and learners of a second language. It can help teachers with their teaching methods and both teacher and learner can be more patient and enjoy exploring the new language. Processes in first and second language acquisition share common sequences but are still different and vary especially in the outcome. While all speakers achieve native proficiency in their first language, they do not or are not able to do so in their second.

To be able to assess such results, we will compare the acquisition processes of L1 and L2, taking a look at the differences in the input they receive and inquiring their production from the early stage to the final stage. We will also take a look at errors that both natives and non-natives produce when they learn a language. In the end we will be looking at internal and external influences that are important to consider when learning a language. Internal are the things that are coming from within the language learners such as universal grammar, mental development, age, motivation and L1 influence. The things impacting the learner that come from without are mostly the people around and the learning environment. A lot of factors play a part and these processes are highly complex. So this term paper won’t be a full representation of all the processes that there are to find in literature but we are looking at some of the widely discussed approaches and trying to clear up the question of the fundamental differences in first and second language acquisition. Before we dedicate ourselves to the investigation of the processes in language learning, we start off with defining the terms of first and second language acquisition.

2. Defining the Terms

2.1 First Language Acquisition

The first language acquisition is the process of learning the language everyone learns from birth or even before birth when infants acquire their native language. Children learn their mother tongue at a fast pace and very efficiently with “a rapid and effortless transition from the “initial state” to the “final state” (Crain and McKee 94) and “there is a growing consensus that by the age of three, children have acquired the basic phonological, morphosyntactic, and semantic regularities of the target language irrespective of the language or languages to be learned” (Weissenborn and Höhle vii).

And even though to become a native speaker is a rapid and efficient process, it takes a long time to become a proficient speaker (cf. Berman 10).

2.2 Second Language Acquisition

In the process of second language acquisition, people learn a language other than their first language, as the name indicates. This might be early in life as a child, in adolescence or even later in adulthood. The second language is usually learned after the first language is already established. Sometimes the second language is learned as early as at the age of 3 or 4 and thus the boundaries to bilingualism are not always clear. The studies of second language acquisition, however, focus on the language learning after the age of 4 where the process of acquiring the language is generally completed (cf. Ortega 4). Second language acquisition describes a process where the learner has to make a conscious effort to learn the language, as opposed to the first language, where it seemingly proceeds automatically. In second language acquisition, compared to the first language, a lot of factors play an important role and therefore the outcome can vary enormously.

3. Acquisition Process

3.1 First Language Acquisition

Infants, strikingly fast and seemingly with no effort, acquire their first language (cf. Meisel 1). They are not taught, yet they reach a level of proficiency that second language learners never or extremely rarely reach (cf. Meisel 1).

3.1.1 Input

Infants begin to learn a language without prior knowledge of any other language. They start out solely with the innate capacity for language acquisition (cf. Saville-Troike 18).

Input is absolutely necessary for either L1 or L2 acquisition to take place. For L1 learning “direct and reciprocal interaction with other people” is vital and without this they are not able to learn their mother tongue (Saville-Troike 20). It is not possible for toddlers to learn exclusively through exposure to media (cf. Saville-Troike 20).

The important question one has to answer regarding the acquisition process is the so-called “Poverty of the stimulus-argument.” The input that children get is often incomplete and deficient. It is not as rich as they would be able to derive the vast amount of possible sentences in a language (cf. Bickes and Pauli 13). Yet, they are forming sentences correctly which they have never heard before and at the same time avoid faulty constructions (cf. Bickes and Pauli 13).

So the question is how is a child able to build lexical units, grammatical categories and productive patterns in their own language by listening to the people around them (cf. Bickes and Pauli 19)?

According to the behavioristic approach it is primarily imitation that causes someone to learn their language. It is by listening to the people around them and imitating what they say and how they express themselves (cf. Bickes and Pauli 30).

Yet this doesn’t fully explain the learning process of children who are faced with often incomplete and faulty input.

One explanation given by Noam Chomsky is the one of a universal grammar- a grammar that is highly abstract and complex and valid for all the 6000 languages in the world (cf. Bickes and Pauli 15). As we know, everyone has the capacity to learn any language in the world, so there needs to be a common ground on which all the languages are built on. According to Noam Chomsky, children from birth have all the connections in the brain to learn the grammar of their first language, including some variables that can be formed according to the specifics of their mother tongue (cf. Bickes, Pauli 15). That means that their inborn knowledge and not a gradual learning process make them observe the grammatical rules of their first language (cf. Bickes, Pauli 15).

Although children usually only get a simplified input and only a finite number of sentences in a language, they are able to produce not only complex but also an infinite number of sentences (cf. Savile-Troike 22). What is even more remarkable is that they receive the knowledge of faulty constructions, even though their input does not provide them with such information (cf. Saville-Troike 22).

3.1.2 Production

In L1, the acquisitioning process is a largely unconscious process closely connected with cognitive maturation (cf. Saville-Troike 19). This means that as children mature so does their language.

The sounds babies produce to communicate happen almost automatically and involuntarily (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). Crying is probably the most effective one that immediately gains attention and calls parents to tend to their baby’s needs. It is one means by which parents are told that their baby is hungry, their diapers are full, they are sick, a tooth is growing or maybe they are just bored and want attention.

Next to that we hear the “cooing and gurgling” (Lightbown and Spada 2) of fascinated babies who discover shapes, forms and movements around them (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2).

Even though they do not yet produce their own sentences and the sounds they make are kind of reflexive, they notice even the smallest differences between sound like pa and ba (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). Before the age of one, they are able to understand several frequently used words and they themselves utter one or two words that are identifiable (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). At the age of two their repertory encompasses at least 50 words and they start producing simple two or three word sentences (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). They say phrases like´ me go outside´ or´ Mommy book´ (Lightbown and Spada 2).At this early stage articles, preposition and auxiliary verbs are excluded (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). Even though these function words and grammatical morphemes are missing, their sentences are not only understandable but even according to the syntactical rules of their language (cf. Lightbown and Spada 2). By simply changing the order of a two word sentence like´ give Mommy´ and´ Mommy give´ the meaning is not equal, but children are very sensitive in producing them correctly.

In their first three years they also acquire the expression of negation and Questions. The order in which children learn to form questions seems pretty much predictable (cf. Lightbown and Spada 5). They learn the wh-questions in English in a consistent way with what being the first one. In the beginning they learn it as part of a chunk, that is whassat and only later are able to use variations of this form (cf. Lightbown and Spada 5). Depending on the frequency they start using where and who next (cf. Lighbown and Spada 5). Why is followed right after that, even though they often don’t fully understand the answers but children realize that they get people to speak by asking such questions(cf. Lightbown and Spada 5). When does only appear at a point when children have developed some understand of time (cf. Lightbown and Spada 5). So we can see that not only the frequency is important but also their mental capability plays an important factor for uttering certain words.

By age 4 children have managed the basic grammar of the language spoken to them and expand their vocabulary with several words each day (cf. Lightbown and Spada 7-8). Also, they start to learn more complex structures such as passives and relative clauses and can even perceive language as an object, that is, their metalinguistic awareness arises (cf. Lightbown and Spada 8). Even though by age 5 to 6 their phonological and grammatical system is established with

“Vocabulary knowledge and interaction skills that are adequate for fulfilling communicative functions, vocabulary learning and cultivation of specialized registers, such as formal academic style may continue into adulthood” (Saville-Troike 21).

In their school years they see the written word and learn that their words have form and meaning (cf. Lightbown and Spada 9). They also get acquainted with different conversational and written styles such as official and colloquial language (cf. Lightbown and Spada 9). Remarkable is the growth of vocabulary, which increases from a couple hundred to a thousand new words a year (cf. Lightbown and Spada 9).


Ende der Leseprobe aus 23 Seiten


First and second language acquisition
Unraveling the mystery of language learning
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
602 KB
first, unraveling, language learning, language acquisition, erst und zweit spracherwerb, language, first and second language acquisition, chomsky, Spracherwerb
Arbeit zitieren
Susanne Wrobel (Autor:in), 2013, First and second language acquisition, München, GRIN Verlag,


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