Linguists have been unraveling the mysteries of first language acquisition for many years though research on second language acquisition is relatively recent. Researchers have found many similarities and differences between the two. There is now also research that shows that it is possible to use these similarities and differences to create a more effective and motivating english
as a second language program.
One of the biggest differences between acquiring a first language and acquiring a second is the time frame of the critical period. If a child is not exposed to language before the age of six or seven, it is unlikely that they will ever acquire any language (Cole & Cole, 1993). In contrast acquiring a second language can occur at any stage of life. It is commonly believed that a second language is best started at a very young age. While this is true, learning a second language is possible at age. There are even some studies that have shown that adolescents and young adults may even exceed young learners
when acquiring a second language (Collier, 1995).
When gaining a first language, the learner is often immersed in an environment that is saturated with natural interaction and sound/meaning pairings. This environment easily provides all the necessary components of successful language acquisition. The components necessary to produce language are phonology, vocabulary, grammar, discourse and pragmatics. This complete package facilitates the acquisition and comprehension of a language (Tabors, 1997). Learners of a first language usually have a rich and interactive environment to learn from. Most children
follow a fairly predictable progressional path when acquiring their first language.
This is not always true for learners of a second language. There can be great variation in the rate and success in which a second language is acquired (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994). Also many learners acquire their second language under formal instruction which sometimes lacks strong sound/meaning pairs. Formal instruction is usually condensed into a much smaller time frame than informal learning from a parent or environment. In a formal teaching setting it is sometimes difficult to provide learners with exposure and context for all the necessary components of a language.
Despite the differences between acquisition of first and second languages there proves to be very powerful similarities between the two. One of the biggest factors in how well a learner will acquire either a first or second language is the importance that is placed upon the language being learned. The more importance that is placed on learning the language the more likely the learner will acquire and retain the vocabulary and grammar for that language. Learners will adopt languages which they feel are necessary to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Moreover, whether a person is learning a first or second language, when learners lose opportunities to use and express themselves they tend to lose fluency. One to the most deciding factors is motivation. Motivation is crucial in acquiring and retaining any language.
When creating or choosing second language programs for young learners
it is important to keep both the similarities and differences of learning a second language in mind. Take advantage of the flexibility of learning a second language while simultaneously incorporating the elements that make first language acquisition effortless. Provide your students with the motivation to learn a language and the rest will follow suit.
Beverly A. Clark. First and Second Language Acquisition in Early Childhood.
Cole, M., & Cole, S. (1993). The development of children
: Scientific American Books.
Collier, V. P. (1995a). Acquiring a second language for
school: Vol. 1, No. 4. Directions in language and educa-
, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual
Education. (ERIC Document No. ED394301)
Bialystok, E., & Hakuta, K. (1994). In other words. New
York: Basic Books.
Tabors, P. (1997). One child, two languages. Baltimore,
MD: Paul H. Brookes. (ERIC Document No. ED405987)