16 Aug

Language acquisition is the study of the development of a person’s language. It generally refers to the way people learn their native, first, second, or other languages. More specifically, it may refer to the time a language feature has been acquired. This may vary from the first emergence or onset of a language item to the time of its accurate use. As a field of study, it is the subject of linguistics, psychology, and applied linguistics. Its object is to study (1) how languages are learned, (2) what are the developmental stages in this process, and (3) what is the nature of language. To find answers to these questions, researchers apply longitudinal and cross-sectional methods. In the first of these, they study specific developments in the language of individuals or groups over a period of time. In the second, they research a particular feature in the language of a group at a given point in time.

First Language Acquisition
First language acquisition is the child’s learning of his or her first or native language. Traditionally, and especially in monolingual societies, ‘first’ and ‘native’ language were used synonymously. With the expansion of cross-cultural communication, the two terms become more distinct. For example, children may acquire some knowledge of another language from a nurse or a relative before they acquire their native language, e.g. the language of the country they live in. Thus, a Chinese child born in the United States may first learn Chinese from her parents, and learn English later from English-speaking children and adults. To avoid the confusion arising from the use of ‘first’ and ‘native’, another term, ‘primary’, is sometimes used to indicate a child’s first language chronologically.

First Language Acquisition
First language acquisition is the child’s learning of his or her first or native language. Traditionally, and especially in monolingual societies, ‘first’ and ‘native’ language were used synonymously. With the expansion of cross-cultural communication, the two terms become more distinct. For example, children may acquire some knowledge of another language from a nurse or a relative before they acquire their native language, e.g. the language of the country they live in. Thus, a Chinese child born in the United States may first learn Chinese from her parents, and learn English later from English-speaking children and adults. To avoid the confusion arising from the use of ‘first’ and ‘native’, another term, ‘primary’, is sometimes used to indicate a child’s first language chronologically.

While early work on children’s language acquisition focused on the development of children’s ability to produce novel sentences, more recently, researchers have emphasized children’s acquisition of word meanings and their linguistic and cognitive development, their acquisition of the phonology of their native language, and their language development in relation to their interaction with parents and peers. Some researchers also see a parallel between the stages of children’s language development regardless of the specific language they are learning.

First Language Acquisition and Cognitive
A child’s language development is closely related to his or her cognitive development. Here, the ability to identify and form categories and concepts is of crucial importance. ‘Categorization’ involves the treatment of distinct linguistic phenomena, such as ‘worked’, ‘studied’, ‘saw’, and ‘went’, as if they were part of the same phenomenon, or the same grammatical category, i.e. past tense. Young children do not have fully developed abilities in categorization. Many childhood first language errors, for example, ‘*I eated it’, point to the gaps in their ability to form categories. Furthermore, even seemingly correct utterances do not imply that the child has achieved an adult stage in the mastery of the corresponding language category.

Closely related to the ability to categorize is the ability to differentiate a category, for example, tense, from the mental structure, which it represents, in this case, time. These mental structures are known as ‘concepts’. To learn a language, a child must acquire the concepts that underlie linguistic structures. It is not possible to master grammatical categories, such as tense, in any language without mastering concepts such as time, space, modality, causality, and number. Young children’s errors in tense indicate that they do not grasp the concept of time.

First Language Acquisition and Social Development
Children’s social adjustment is as important as their cognitive growth to their language development. As they acquire various language categories and the concepts they represent, children also learn about the cultural, moral, religious, and other conventions of the society they live in. They learn how to express their thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a socially acceptable manner. For example, children learn that it is not always advisable to speak their minds. As they come to realize that words can serve to make friends as well as enemies, they learn that it is not always possible to tell the truth. In this way, while acquiring their first language, children also develop a social identity. How-ever, their progress is slow and not devoid of some rather amusing or even embarrassing errors. Children learning their first language, therefore, have a long way to go, even after they have acquired the basic concepts and their corresponding language categories. By comparison, adult foreign language learners, who are knowledgeable about the sociocultural aspects of their native language, are a step ahead of child learners, even though they may also be prone to similar social blunders because of sociocultural differences.

First Language Acquisition and the Critical Period
The ‘critical period hypothesis’ claims that there is a period in child development during which language can be acquired with native-like proficiency. Some, like the biologist Lenneberg, believe that this period lasts until puberty, after which the brain loses some of its ability to adapt due to its laterization, i.e. the establishment of specific language functions in particular parts of the brain. After that, the decreased plasticity of the brain makes the acquisition of another language a psychologically different and more difficult process. While there is compelling evidence that supports those claims, there are also important facts that undermine their veracity. First, the strictly biological evidence is by no means conclusive. Second, other factors, such as lack of motivation, may explain nonnative pronunciation.

First Language Acquisition and Bilingualism
Cognitive and social development, as well as the language acquisition device and the critical period affect the language development of the bilingual as well as the monolingual child. Bilingual first language acquisition is defined as the parallel acquisition of two languages, which is, supposedly, an evenly paced process. However, such a perfect balance can rarely be achieved. Commonly, the child would use one language in one environment, and another in a different setting. Thus, inevitably, one language gains dominance over the other. This dominance may extend to some or all areas of communication. As a result, the child’s other language may become secondary in both development and use. Furthermore, there may be some interference from the dominant language that causes errors in the child’s secondary language. However, there is no evidence that this results in massive confusion in one or both languages. Furthermore, there is no evidence that bilingual children differ from other children in their cognitive, social, or language development.

Second Language Acquisition
Second language acquisition (SLA) is defined as the process of becoming competent or proficient in a second or foreign language, from the first use of a language item to its advanced applications at a later stage. As a field of research, SLA is a fairly new interdisciplinary subject with most of its empirical research done since the 1960s. It is largely based on theories and research methods developed in the fields of education, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, foreign languages, English as a second language, and linguistics. In the United States, researchers study the way nonnative speakers acquire English phonology, syntax, and pragmatics. The purpose of SLA studies is to describe and explain the way second languages are learned in terms of both linguistic and communicative competence. To do this, researchers study learners’ performance and their intuitions about correct and incorrect use of language. The object of second language acquisition is to find more effective ways of teaching and learning foreign languages, and assumes that such research can affect the way foreign languages are learned.

The Meaning of ‘Second Language’ in Second
Language Acquisition
There are different interpretations and uses of both ‘second’ and ‘acquisition’ in SLA. ‘Second’ may be used to distinguish it from ‘foreign’ or ‘third’ language acquisition. Traditionally, the terms ‘second’ and ‘foreign’ have been used alternatively to refer to any language other than the first. More recently, with the emergence of English as a global language and the establishment of Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) as a worldwide professional organization, a distinction is made between the two. ‘Second’ language acquisition refers to the study of English by foreigners in countries where English is the native or the official language, whereas ‘foreign’ language acquisition refers to the study of English everywhere else. Furthermore, this distinction extends to differences in what is learned and how it is learned. Learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) prefer standard varieties of English, whereas learners of English as a second language (ESL) try to blend with their sociolinguistic environment. All of these differences are reflected in the goals and methods of EFL and ESL. A further distinction is made between ‘second’ and ‘third’ language acquisition, which marks the learner’s relative proficiency rather than the order in which he or she acquired these languages. Sometimes, the term ‘alternative’ is used to refer to any nonnative language.

The Meaning of ‘Acquisition’ in Second Language
Acquisition is often used to refer to different aspects of the process and results of learning a second language. While trying to find out about the process, i.e. how second languages are learned, researchers often compare different learning experiences that lead to SLA, such as learning a language through organized instruction or in an immersion situation. From a sociolinguistic perspective, acquisition through organized instruction occurs in classrooms with the help of teachers and instructional materials. Acquisition through immersion occurs in social situations using contextual clues. Yet another distinction is made from the psycholinguistic perspective. Klein identifies ‘spontaneous’ and ‘guided’ acquisition. The first focuses on everyday communication, whereas the second targets the mastery of the language system. Similarly, from a psychological point of view, Krashen distinguishes between ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’. In his analysis of the process of mastering a second language, he reserves ‘acquisition’ for the subconscious process of learning a language by being exposed to it. ‘Learning’, according to him, is the conscious process of mastering a language by studying it. Ellis finds this distinction problematic and considers its demonstration difficult. Furthermore, he states that researchers disagree about what kinds of performance constitute evidence of ‘acquisition’. For some, such evidence can be found in the ways learners speak and write. For others, it is the learner’s intuitions about the second language that matter. Yet another group of scholars seek evidence of acquisition by assessing the learner’s introspections.

Other researchers analyze what it means to know a second language. From a linguistic perspective, Chomsky focuses on the results of SLA, which he defines as ‘competence’ and ‘performance’. According to him, ‘competence’ in a second language is the mastery of the internalized grammar that the ideal speaker or hearer, not a real one, has of the whole language. Such mastery enables him/her to produce grammatically correct sentences as well as recognize existing and nonexisting sentences. For example, knowing the rule, which makes ‘I speak English’ possible, a person can produce ‘I speak French’ even though he or she may not have seen this before. Furthermore, he or she would know that the form ‘*I speaking English’ is nonexistent. ‘Performance’ in Chomsky’s Generative Transformational Grammar, on the other hand, refers to a person’s actual use of a language in the understanding and production of sentences. Unlike communicative competence, which is internal and invisible, performance is external and observable. Furthermore, performance does not mirror competence, since people may know how to produce a sentence but may err when they try to do so. Thus, performance can also be defined as the grammar that a person uses to understand and produce language, which is both correct and appropriate. Performance could be used to investigate competence through the analyses of samples of spoken or written discourse. Within performance, Widdowson distinguishes ‘usage’, which refers to the learner’s ability to apply grammar rules accurately in the production of grammatically correct sentences. ‘Use’, on the other hand, signifies their ability to apply linguistic and sociolinguistic knowledge appropriately and communicate effectively in diverse contexts.

Second Language Acquisition Research
A large part of SLA research is learner based. It describes and analyzes the nature of learner language and learner differences, learning processes, and pedagogical input and output. It does so to provide answers to important second language research questions, which may offer effective solutions to crucial second language classroom problems.

Learner Language in Second Language Acquisition Research
Researchers study learner language by examining samples of oral and written texts. Their goal is to identify errors, establish developmental patterns and sequences, trace variability, and explore use. Errors were first believed to be the result of native language ‘transfer’ or ‘interference’. This view was promoted by numerous contrastive analyses conducted from the 1940s to the 1960s. Such studies compared two languages to find out what similarities and differences existed between the two. Lado thought that similar elements would be easy to learn, while dissimilar ones would be difficult to master. The belief that linguistic difference could be a predictor of difficulty gave rise to the ‘contrastive analysis hypothesis’. That and the behaviorist approach to learning, which claimed that learning is a process of habit formation, led to the belief that SLA should be a process of overcoming habits from the native language and consolidating correct habits in the target language.

In 1967, Pitt Corder proposed a new definition of errors. He thought they were systematic deviations from the norm, which reflect the learner’s current stage of second language development. Errors, he claimed, are different from mistakes, which can easily be self-corrected. ‘Error analysis’ treated errors as a sign of the learner’s hypothesis testing, which would ultimately lead to the formation of the correct form and its underlying rule. Thus, errors were seen as part of the learner’s language at every stage of its development. To emphasize its unique features, Corder referred to learner language as ‘idiosyncratic dialect’. Nemser called it an ‘approximative system’ and Selinker coined the term ‘interlanguage’. Thus, the notion of learner language evolved from a faulty, deviant product of the target language to a continuous, approximative progress towards its mastery. Both contrastive and error analysis were criticized for their exclusive reliance on the analysis of a linguistic product, i.e. errors, to yield insights into a psycholinguistic process, i.e. second language acquisition.
Another feature of learner language is its passage through a sequence of developmental stages, which are universal. Thus, many of the initial utterances that learners produce may be simple formulae, for example, ‘What’s this’. These are followed by structures of greater morphological and syntactic complexity, for example, ‘I wonder what this might be’. The existence of developmental stages in SLA, which are similar to those in first language acquisition, along with some variations in the specific order in which particular features occur, have renewed interest in grammar instruction. In its systematic development, learner language also exhibits certain variability. For example, learners may use the third person singular ‘s’ correctly sometimes and omit it at other times. In addition to lexical and syntactic variability, they often have problems on the pragmatic level, i.e. they may use language or act in a socially inappropriate manner.

Factors in Second Language Acquisition
SLA is also influenced by the environment in which it occurs. Social factors, language input, and interaction affect the way learners acquire a second language. Ellis contends that social factors shape learners’ attitudes, which, in turn, may affect motivation and learning outcomes. Social factors include natural and educational settings. For example, natural settings, where English is the native or the official language, offer opportunities different from educational settings, such as the foreign language classroom where the native language is the medium of instruction.

While social factors influence second language acquisition indirectly, input, output, and interaction seem to have a direct impact. ‘Input’ is the learner’s access and exposure to the second language, both written and oral. Exposure to the foreign language may engage learners in ‘interactions’ with native or nonnative speakers, or it may involve them in listening to tapes, films, radio, and TV programs. Researchers vary in their assessment of the importance of input and interaction. Behaviorist theories emphasize the importance of input. Chomsky, on the other hand, claims that there is no necessary correlation between language input and learner output. Krashen believes that learners acquire language in a natural order as a result of being exposed to ‘comprehensible input’ addressed to them. In contrast to Krashen, Swain proposes the ‘comprehensible output hypothesis’, which claims that comprehending input alone will not prepare students to produce language. According to him, it is correct production resulting from challenging practice in speaking and writing that facilitates acquisition. Both the comprehensible input and comprehensible output hypotheses have been criticized on the grounds that the processes of comprehensible input and output and the process of SLA are not the same.

General factors, such as social setting, input, output, and interaction, result in a variety of individual differences in SLA. Furthermore, individual factors, such as age, language aptitude, motivation, cognitive style, and learning strategies can have similar effects. These factors affect second language learning in ways that are mostly independent of the learner. For example, a learner can do nothing about his or her age, or language aptitude. Few learners may have the opportunity to switch from one educational setting to another given the appropriate guidance, however, some learners may be able to improve their motivation and learning strategies over time. For example, ‘extrinsic motivation’, which derives from external rewards, may evolve into ‘intrinsic motivation’, which derives from personal interests. Learner strategies, which contribute to the learner’s conscious efforts to learn, may also change. For example, learners may expand their ‘cognitive strategies’ by learning new concepts. They may also perfect their ‘metacognitive strategies’ by developing their study skills, or enhance their ‘social strategies’ by practicing their knowledge in authentic social settings.


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