Are there similarities in first and second language acquisition?

Term Paper, 2006

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. First Language Acquisition
a. External Factors
b. Acquisition Process

III. Second Language Acquisition
a. External Factors
b. Acquisition Process

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

At the end of the 1960s there was an intense discussion about the similarity or dissimilarity of First and Second Language Acquisition - although there was only few relevant material about Second Language Acquisition available. From the 1970s on research on that topic increased and showed that the question whether the second language is acquired the same way as the first or not is far too simple to be answered in a proper way[1].

Nevertheless, I find it interesting to look, at least, at the basic findings on both acquisition processes and see:

„Are there similarities in First and Second Language Acquisition?“

In this paper, I will focus on two aspects of language acquisition, namely external factors and the acquisition process itself. They seem to me, on the one hand, basic to the topic itself and, on the other hand, suitable parameters for comparison. One should bear in mind that the external factors are concrete facts since they can be observed. Whereas the acquisition process itself happens in the learner‘s mind and can therefore not be described as accurate as the external factors although neurology today is able to examine a lot of the brain‘s functions. Since my knowledge about neurology is only very, very basic, I will not go into detail here and neglect this part of the acquisition process.

II. First Language Acquisition

a. External Factors

Time is a very important factor when learning language. We have all the time in the world to learn our mother tongue. As children we are all day exposed to language input from different sources: the parents, siblings, TV, radio, etc. which leads us to the next important factor, the input. In First Language Acquisition the child gets „natural“ input, usually unmodified, normal talk which depends on the specific conditions and situations for communication. There is the phenomenon of „motherese“ which is the special way mothers talk to their children but it is not necessary for language acquisition. In cultures where motherese is not used, children still learn to speak, too[2].

Another point is the social environment in which language is learnt. A social group, normally the family, is the place where the first language is acquired. It is a safe place without competition or fear of failure.

Interestingly, the feedback a child gets on its utterances is predominantly communication-based, i.e. the mother will usually not correct false grammar etc. She might make a comment on the wrong use of words or false pronunciation but mainly they do not correct their children.

So we can state four main factors: time, input, the social environment and feedback.

b. The Acquisition Process

Inner factors which contribute to and influence the acquisition process are e.g. the age, previous knowledge and motivation.

Obviously, the age of the learner of a first language is very low. Starting with the moment of the birth or even before. One might think that in a new-born there is no knowledge about language at all, but Chomsky‘s Universal Grammar model claims that there are basic principles and parameter built-in to the mind.[3] And finally, the motivation to learn language is closely linked to the natural socialization process.

Looking at Language acquisition we can distinguish three different levels:

- phonetics and phonology (how are the sounds produced?)
- semantics and lexis (what is the meaning of words?)
- morphology and syntax (which grammatical rules exist?)[4]

Interestingly, children start using words and learn their meaning before they are able to master all the sounds in the language.[5]


They produce their first word between the age of eight and twelve months and when they are fifteen months old they already know about ten words. From then on they acquire about ten words a day, until the age of six years. After that age, they learn up to 20 new words a day which is a lot when one thinks of how to do that in learning a foreign language. When leaving high-school the vocabulary comes up to about 60,000 words in the mother tongue.


[1] Felix, Sascha W.: Psycholinguistische Aspekte des Zweitsprachenerwerbs (Tübingen: Narr, 1982) 78-79.

[2] O‘Grady, William: How Children Learn Language (Cambridge: The University Press, 2005) 177.

[3] Cook, V.J.: Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (London: Edward Arnold, 1991) 117.

[4] terlagen/Erstspracherwerb.pdf, last access: 2006-09-17, 1:34 a.m.

[5] O‘Grady, William: How Children Learn Language (Cambridge: The University Press, 2005) 5.

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Are there similarities in first and second language acquisition?
University of Heidelberg
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language acquisition
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Eva-Maria Griese (Author), 2006, Are there similarities in first and second language acquisition?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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