The issue around first language versus second language acquisition has been a topic of high interest among researchers and scholars for a long time, and is still subject to numerous investigations. Clearly, findings and observations are of relevance for tefl
s as it may provide useful hints or guidelines for teaching students in an effective way. In this paper, current research findings related to language acquisition are discussed.
In general, language acquisition is defined as a process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. Thereby, the capacity to acquire and use language constitutes the key aspect which distinguishes humans from other organisms. Among the scientific community, this unique and complex ability is considered “as one of the many utterly unexplainable mysteries that beset us in our daily lives” In this context, the differences between first language acquisition and second language acquisition make up another highly interested phenomenon widely discussed and researched among scholars. First language acquisition refers solely to infants' acquisition of their native language. In contrast, second language acquisition deals with the acquisition of additional languages (as it is the case for tefl
In order to give a broad overview about the most influential language acquisition theories to date, a few approaches or theories need to be mentioned. One of the major or most noticed theories is the Social Interactionist Theory, which involves multiple hypotheses addressing written, spoken or visual social tools. These tools consist of complex systems of symbols and rules on language acquisition and development. Also, the Social Interactionist Theory suggests a compromise between “nature” and “nurture”, meaning that both innate language behaviors, either caused by nature or triggered by environmental exposure (“nurture”), play a role and interact in the process of language acquisition. The Relational Frame Theory is another important theory generally applied to language acquisition. It provides a wholly learning account of the origin and development of language competence, and states that children
acquire language solely through interacting with the environment. In this way, the theory challenges the view that language acquisition is based upon innate, language-specific cognitive capabilities. Rather, children
learn language via a system of inherent reinforcements. To state one more major theory or approach, Emergentist theories posit that language is mainly a cognitive process that emerges from the interaction of biological pressures and the environment. Neither nature nor nurture is sufficient to trigger language learning. Therefore, both of these influences must work together if children
are to acquire language. Also, it is argued that general cognitive processes sub-serve language acquisition, and that the final result of these processes is language-specific phenomena, such as word learning.
Apart from the complexities and various factors involved in general language acquisition, studies dedicated to investigate first language versus 2.nd language acquisition found a wealth of phenomena worth examining as well. Thereby, it is inferred that 1.st language acquisition takes place during childhood and 2.nd language acquisition during adulthood. Naturally, both 1.st and 2nd language acquisition could occur during childhood, but this setting is not of interest for this research paper.
Generally, input constitutes the first area of difference between first and second language learning, particularly in terms of the input's quality and quantity. For instance, during his or her early developmental years a child receives substantially more input or exposure to the target language as it is the case for adults learning their second language. While a child hears the language all the time within the everyday-life setting, an adult is likely to be exposed to the second language only in the class room. In regards to quality, it similarly tends to be higher along the first language acquisition process. Whereas it is much easier for parents to engage the child in what she or he is learning, it is much more difficult for a teacher
to relate the lesson's content to the students' interests. Another major difference between the two acquisition processes is obviously the learners' age. In this context, it is assumed that there is a “critical period” for successful and effective language learning. This time is usually aligned with puberty. A variety of physical and neurological changes take place within the brain during the course of life which makes it much easier for children
to pick up language compared to adults. Among other things, after the age of five it is very difficult for the subject to fully master pronunciation of a second langue, due to a loss in muscular plasticity. Furthermore, it is well known that a person's memorization abilities decrease as his or her age increases. Thus, it is significantly easier for a child to contain information (e.g. vocabulary) than for an adult. Even cognitive abilities, which at first place seem to constitute an advantage for adults in mastering a new language, present in fact further drawbacks for them for general language acquisition. It is true that adults, thanks to their superior and more advanced cognitive abilities, are better able to benefit from learning about structure and grammar. However, this slight advantage in ability again hinders them in acquiring a second language, because as a result of their cognitive abilities adults tend to analyze too much, meaning that they cannot leave behind what they have learned about language in the first time.
In conclusion, first language versus second language acquisition is a complex topic involving various areas of research. The findings from related research can be of high relevance for a tefl
, as he or she could adjust his teaching methods to scientific findings in order to achieve an effective and successful way for teaching adults (and children
). To state one illustration, knowing about the inferior memorization skills inherent to adults, the teacher
could implement more rehearsal activities for learning vocabulary when teaching older students.