Theories of First and Second Language Acquisition

Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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There are various theories that have been put forward to describe first and second language acquisition. This paper outlines similarities and difference between first and second language acquisition. Additionally key theoretical points on second language acquisition have been identified. Finally, an explanation of how I intend to use my understanding of language acquisition theory to inform my teaching practice will also be included. Similarities of First and Second Language Acquisition Rod Elis (1984) examined the concept of developmental sequences.

Studies have revealed that both first and second language learners follow a pattern of development, which is mainly followed despite exceptions. Elis outlined three developmental stages: the silent period, formulaic speech, and structural and semantic simplification. Both L1 and L2 learners go through the silent stage. In this stage, children acquiring a first language will go through a period of listening to the language that they are being exposed to. This period is used to discover what language is. Second language learners usually opt to remain silent for a period when immediate production is not required of them.

The usefulness of the silent stage in second language acquisition is not agreed upon by researchers. Gibbons (1985 , as cited by Ellis, 1994)argues that this is a stage of incomprehension while Krashen (1982) argues that it builds competence in learners via listening. The second stage identified is formulaic speech. It is defined as expressions which are learnt as “unanalyzable wholes and employed on particular occasions (Lyons, 1968, cited in Ellis, 1994).

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According Krashen (1982), these expression can have the form of whole utterances learned as memorized chunks (e. g. I don’t know) and partially unanalyzed utterances with one or more slots (e. g. Where are the______? ). The expressions can also consist of entire scripts such as greetings (Ellis, 1994). In the third stage, the first and second language learners apply structural and semantic simplifications to their language. For instance, they may omit articles and other grammatical forms as is the case with structural simplifications. Semantic simplifications take the form of omitting content words (e. g. nouns). These simplifications occur because learners may not have yet acquired the necessary linguistic forms.

Another reason is that they are unable to access linguistic forms during production. In both first and second language acquisition there are particular structures that are acquired in a set order. Research shows that a learner’s first language has an effect on acquistional sequences which either slows their development or modifies it (McLaughlin, 1987). Individual variation in how individuals acquire language (such as communication strategies) may mask acquisitional sequences for certain constructions (Mclaughlin, 1987).

Based on the morpheme studies in L2 acquisition, Krashen (1982) put forward the Natural Order Hypothesis which claims that the rules of language are acquired in a predictable order. This acquisition order is not determined by simplicity or the order of rules taught in the class. It seems that there exists an order of acquisition in both first and second language acquisition. In both first and second language acquisition, learners may over generalize vocabulary or rules, using them in contexts broader than those in which they should be used.

For instance, a child may say ‘eated’ instead of saying ‘ate’ for past tense of ‘eat’, and same thing may happen in second language acquisition an adult may say ‘holded’ instead of ‘held’ for the past tense of ‘hold’. Differences between First and Second Language Acquisition Nearly everyone acquires a first language but this is not the case with second languages. Acquiring a first language happens naturally, while acquiring a second language often requires conscious effort on the part of the learner.

Another difference between first and second language learning relates to input, specifically the quality and quantity of input. According to the connectionist model the language learning process depends on the input frequency and regularity. Second language learners may have limited exposure to the target language that may be restricted to a couple hours a day where as first language learners are immersed in the language consistently. In first language acquisition, the basis for learning is universal grammar alone (Chomsky, 1968 as cited by Murray & Christison, 2006).

In second language acquisition, knowledge of the first language serves as the basis for learning a second language. As a result of this, there may be both positive and negative transfer between the first and second language in second language learning. Key theoretical points that inform second language acquisition Various theories have been used to study the acquisition of a second language. These theories have strengths and shortcomings in their explanations of how second languages are acquired. I will attempt to highlight a few key points made by some of these theories.

The behaviourism theory assumes that a person learns a second language by transferring habits formed in first language acquisition. These habits may sometimes interfere with the new ones needed to acquire a second language or the habits can be transferred to aid second language acquisition. However, further research has found that the influence of the learner’s first language may be more than a transferral of habits but involves a process of identifying points of similarity, assessing the evidence in support of a particular feature and reflecting on the feature’s relevance to the target language (Lightbown & Spada,2006).

This theory is believed not to provide adequate explanations about how second language are acquired. However, there is value in the notion that an individual’s first language has an effect on second language acquisition efforts. The innatist’s perspective put forth the concept of Universal Grammar (UG). According to White (2000) Universal Grammar offers the best perspective to understand the acquisition of a second language. The concept of UG supports the belief that individuals have an innate language competence that is not taught to them formally.

This competence is altered by the acquisition of a first language. This results in the need for second language learners to get direct information about what is not grammatically acceptable in the second language (Lightbown &Spada, 2006). Otherwise learners may assume that some first language structures are also present in the second language when they are not. This perspective encourages investigation into learners’ language competence and gaining an understanding of what learners know about the language rather than how they use it.

The monitor model offers a couple valid points about second language acquisition. This model proposes that second language acquisition follows a predictable sequence. It also suggests that second language acquisition will occur when learners are exposed to language that is comprehensible and that contains the level of language already known along with language that is just a step beyond that level. There also different psychological theories that offer explanations for second language acquisition.

Researchers who subscribe to the information processing model see second language acquisition as the construction of knowledge that can be called on automatically for speaking and understanding (Lightbown &Spada, 2006). Learners will have to use cognitive resources to process any aspect of the language that they are attempting to understand or produce. The connectionism perspective claims that learners gradually build up their knowledge of language through exposure to countless instances of linguistic features that they eventually hear (Lightbown & Spada,2006).

When learners hear language features in specific situational or linguistic context constantly, they develop a network of connections between these elements. There are many other theories that are used to explain second language acquisition. After considering these theories, it is apparent that there is no one theory that adequately explains how individuals acquire second language. Using language acquisition theory in ESL practice

It is apparent that there is no one theory that fully explains how language is acquired, so as an instructor, I have to consider the aspects of language acquisition that different theories have in common. I would then use these to inform my practice. For instance, it has been established that a learner’s first language affects their second language learning efforts. So as an instructor, it is my responsibility to identify the features of the first language that are interfering with the student’s second language learning as well as provide the student with the necessary material overcome that obstacle.

I also understand that adult language learners do not acquire second languages as quickly as children. The Critical Period Hypothesis supports this claim. With this knowledge, I know that I will have to be patient with my adult students. I also know that there are stages of acquisition that they have to go through even if it is at a slow rate. So my intention is to use the information that has been established in my practice. I also have to be open minded as well be willing to make adjustments for individuals who are operating outside of the norm.

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Theories of First and Second Language Acquisition. (2016, Aug 02). Retrieved from

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