Differences between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

Differences between First Language Acquisition and Second
Language Learning

Differentiating Language learning from language acquisition is considered as one
of the many linguistic phenomena that emerged in the 20th century. The need for a
systematic study of how languages are learned was developed as part of the cultural
and communication expansion the world has witnessed (Ellis 1997, p.3).

First Language acquisition is the natural process in which children subconsciously
possess and develop the linguistic knowledge of the setting they live in. In contrast,
Second language learning takes place where the target language is the language
spoken in the language community that differs from the mother tongue “first
language” and distinguished from Foreign language learning in which the language is
absent from the setting of that community (De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2005, p.7)

Many studies addressed the distinction between L1 (First language) acquisition and
L2 (Second language) learning. The very first thing to address is the natural process
in which L1 learners acquire their language knowledge. L2 learning is more of a
conscious one.

Compared to L1 learning, L2 learners develop this knowledge by utilising conscious
and cognitive efforts. De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor (2005, p.7) argue that Krashen
and Terrel tried to draw a line between second language acquisition and learning
by stating that acquisition is a subconscious process and very similar to the one that
children develop in their first language.

Yule (1985, p.163) defines acquisition to be ‘…the gradual development of ability in a
language by using it naturally in communicative situations with others who know the
language’. He contrasts it with learning: ‘a more conscious process of accumulating
knowledge of the features, such as vocabulary and grammar, of a language, typically
in an institutional setting’.

The natural subconscious or conscious learning factor is highly and vitally linked and
attached to the linguistic setting. This leads to another major distinction between L1
and L2 learners which is exposure. The L1 acquisition, as defined earlier, takes place
in a setting where the acquired language is the language spoken by parents and or
caregiver. The acquirer is in a constant exposure to this language. Second language
learners have lesser contact with the language, and maybe as few as hours per week in
the case of foreign language learners (Yule, 1985, p.163).

There are also some individual differences that play part in this distinction and they
fall in two groups. First, physical differences and age: Children who are acquiring
their first language are still developing their speech organs. This explains the
gradual and natural development of sound production accompanied with the brain
development. L2 learners’ competence is also affected by age-related physical
conditions that hinder their learning. Yule (1985, p.145) argues that the readiness
of the human mind to receive and learn a new language is most in childhood, which
is called the critical period. Ellis (1995, p.67) describes the critical period that in
which ‘…language acquisition is easy and complete (i.e. native-speaker ability is
achieved)’.

Second, cognitive and psychological differences: A number of cognitive and
psychological learning barriers that separate L2 learners from the L1 acquirers.
Recent studies show that motivation plays a great role in attaining language
proficiency. Cook (2008, p.136) states that bigger motivation leads to better
performance in L2. According to Cook, the motivation for learning falls in two
types: Integrative ‘… reflects whether the student identifies with the target culture
and people in some sense’; and instrumental one in which learning takes place for a
career or other practical reason (Cook (2008, p.136-137). Ellis (1995, p.75) even adds
two more types of motivation: Resultative motivation that takes place when learning
controls the motivation, and an intrinsic motivation in which it involves the activation,
arousal, and maintenance of the learning curiosity.

There are other cognitive factors that play a role in determining learner’s effort and
competence in the second language learning. Those factors are highly related to
aptitude which is “… natural ability for learning an L2″ (Ellis, 1995, p.73)

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