Can the knowledge of how L1 is acquired help the ESL teacher?

     In what ways can the knowledge of how L1 is acquired help the ESL teacher?


The rise of Selinker, Krashen and Chomsky’s new theories in second language acquisition, forced the “contrastive analysis” approach, which is related to behaviourism and structuralism, to fade away. A greater attention was set towards Krashen’s theory regarding the similarities between the first language acquisition and the second language one (De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2005, p.34-35). Despite the differences between first language acquisition and second language learning, studies show that first language acquisition and the second language learning share a number of common features and stages. Knowing these features would help giving more information about learning process, efficient teaching techniques, and consequently support and improve second language delivery.


There has been a shift in second language teaching methodology and approaches to embrace the similarities between first language acquisition and second language learning. Modern communicative approaches are the recent ones to oust old grammar-translation and other past-due theories. These approaches aim to reinforce the function over the form (Yule, 1985, p.166) in an attempt to simulate first language settings and conditions and adapt them for the use of the second language. This is mainly due to the fact that Second language conscious process of learning can be integrated along with the subconscious acquisition of language and may result in a better competence on the learner side. The more “natural” the setting in which learning takes place, the better the results were. Jim Scrivener (2005, p.32) goes further in this area and says ‘The purpose of learning a language is usually to enable you to take part in exchanges of information’, and that the traditional teaching methods ‘failed to give learners an opportunity to gain realistic experience in actually using the language knowledge gained’. In this sense, ESL includes and integrates more real-life situations, similar to those of L1 in a try to emphasise on function. This is a good reason why ESL teachers should adopt these communicative approaches and work on approximating ESL environment and settings as far as they can. 


In addition to the setting adaptation, knowing the stages and phases that children pass through when acquiring their first language can also help in second language learning. Second language learners and first language learners exhibit some similarities in the learning process. Ellis (1985, p.20-21) argues that second language learners’ early speech, after the silent periods and in accordance with formulaic chunks, is characterised to undergo a “propositional simplification”: A process in which learners tend to drop words as a result of inability to perform full sentences. Utterances like *Me no book and * You go? are frequent in my teaching context, especially in elementary and beginners classes. This simplification also appears in children’s telegraphic speech period between at the age between 24 and 30 months. It also shows a great similarity in developing syntax between first language learners and second language learners. Second language learners almost go through the same stages that children develop negation and interrogation in their first language. For questioning, students at first add Wh- in front of anything to form questions, or even change the intonation:




Nevertheless, negation starts by placing no or not before any word or phrase to make negatives:


* He not like lesson


The “overgeneralization” process which first language learners undergo (Yule, 1985, p.155) also does exist in second language learning. Students take one morphological rule, the plural –s for example, and apply it to all nouns. After that stage, they start figuring out irregular forms of plural nouns.


All the similarities mentioned above can be used as markers and guidelines in any ESL teaching context. Second language teachers would know by this comparison that learners -whether acquiring their first language or learning their second- do follow a specific order and go through some shared stages and process. They learn chunks before complete sentences, simple negation before using auxiliaries, and intonation change in questions before applying inversion rules, and so on.








           Cook, V 2008, Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, 4th edition, Hodder Education, London, UK.

           De Boot, K, Lowie, W & Verspoor M 2005, Second Language Acquisition, Routledge, New York, USA.

           Ellis, R 1997, Second Language Acquisition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

           Yule, G 1985, The Study of Language, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.