The means of learning/acquiring language is a complex process that is still debated. It has been suggested that due to biological factors, one's first language is acquired, while a second language, as it might utilize different cognitive faculties in the brain, is learned.
L1, or one's native language, has biological connections. In her book Language Matters, Donna Jo Napoli states that a language gene was discovered called FOXP2 (5). This supports ideas that L1 occurs naturally: it begins in the womb with FOXP2, and is developed with the formation of the auditory system around the seventh month. Before the child is born, it hears its mother and can be calmed by her voice after birth. It can be concluded then that the acquisition of L1 begins before an individual is born.
Not only do studies show that children
who are exposed to ordinary speech learn at the same rate as those primarily exposed to “motherese,” but even those children
who do not receive any conscious language teaching still acquire language at the same rate of other children
around the world. In some cultures, such as Samoa, children
learn from overhearing adults speak rather than having adults speak to them or purposefully teach them language (Napoli 4). Theories suggest that there is a psychological language mechanism that changes in the brain at an early age, which explains why L1 acquisition is easier for younger learners, but is more difficult, if not impossible after age five. This theory supports the case of the Wild Boy of Averyon who grew up in almost complete language deprivation and then could not even mimic language once he was rescued at an ‘older' age (Napoli 4). The idea of a psychological language mechanism is also supported by the fact that people who have linguistic damage as a result of strokes and other brain injuries still maintain their intelligence.
Generally speaking, at a year old, kids
start to produce single words. Around two years, they start putting together two-word phrases, usually an object and a word that operates on that object. By age three, kids
usually form longer sentences with varying degrees of complexity. These kids
are using principles of natural language, or Universal Grammar, that are somehow ‘programmed' into the language mechanism in their brain, even if they do not have access to any community languages. Napoli sums this idea up, “We acquire our specific native language in a natural way, by sifting through what we are exposed to or what we create with the Universal Grammar principles that we are born with” (15).
While it is clear that the language mechanism in the brain has certain linguistic parameters, like word order, from the first language, there is debate as to whether or not the parts of the brain used for second language (L2) learning are separate from those used for L1. This examination has presented itself because while L1 acquisition occurs naturally, the learning of L2 has to be consciously taught, and is further affected by self-confidence, anxiety, and motivation issues (Napoli 18). Similarly, while L1 occurs by age five, L2 can happen anytime. Though language learning can be faster for those who have a higher proficiency in L1, the younger the individual, the more proficient they can become in L2. This is partially because L1 serves as the model for which mistakes, particularly in grammar, are made with L2. Therefore, if L2 is learned at a younger age, the child is still discovering both languages and is less likely to make the same mistakes that an older learner would make. From this information, one can conclude that while there are a few similarities between the process of L1 and L2 acquisition, there are vast differences that can present challenges for L2 that are not present for L1.
While there is not enough room to explore the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and what that means for language acquisition, it would be certainly be pertinent for further study. Clearly more research needs to be done to better understand the relationship of first and second language acquisition.