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Biology 103
2003 Second Paper
On Serendip

First and Second Language Acquisition

Margaret Tucker

In our everyday lives, the origin of our ability to communicate is usually not often taken into consideration. One doesn't think about how every person has, or rather had at one time, an innate ability to learn a language to total fluency without a conscious effort a feat that is seen by the scientific community "as one of the many utterly unexplainable mysteries that beset us in our daily lives" (3).. Other such mysteries include our body's ability to pump blood and take in oxygen constantly seemingly without thought, and a new mother's ability to unconsciously raise her body temperature when her infant is placed on her chest. But a child's first language acquisition is different from these phenomena; different because it cannot be repeated. No matter how many languages are learned later in life, the rapidity and accuracy of the first acquisition can simply not be repeated. This mystery is most definitely why first language acquisition, and subsequently second language acquisition, is such a highly researched topic.

On the surface one would look at child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition and see similarities. In each case the learner first learns how to make basic sounds, then words, phrases and sentences; and as this learning continues the sentences become more and more complex. However, when one looks at the outcomes of these two types of acquisition, the differences are dramatic. The child's ability to communicate in the target language far surpasses that of the adult. In this paper differences in these two processes that most always produce such different outcomes will be explored.

Before this exploration begins, however, I would like to state that I am looking at child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition because they both seem most relevant to our lives right now as college students who have most definitely mastered our first language at a young age, and are mostly likely attempting to master our second as adults. One could also look at situations where only one variable is changes (e.g. child first vs. child second or child second vs. adult second) but these comparisons are not represented in this paper.

The first area of difference between first (L1) and second (L2) language learning is input specifically the quality and quantity of input. It is the idea of the "connectionist model that implies... (that the) language learning process depends on the input frequency and regularity" (5).. It is here where one finds the greatest difference between L1 and L2 acquisition. The quantity of exposure to a target language a child gets is immense compared to the amount an adult receives. A child hears the language all day everyday, whereas an adult learner may only hear the target language in the classroom which could be as little as three hours a week. Even if one looks at an adult in a total submersion situation the quantity is still less because the amount of one on one interaction that a child gets for example with a parent or other caregiver is still much greater then the adult is receiving.

This idea of one on one interaction versus a class room setting (where an instructor could be speaking to up to twenty, or more students) also ties in with the idea of quality. It is also much easier for a parent or caregiver to engage the child in what he or she is learning. It is hard, however, for a teacher to make the topic being learned relevant to the students' lives. This can lead to a lack of concentration, and a lack of motivation something that will be visited later.

The next great and obvious difference between L1 and L2 learning is age. A large part of this train of thought is the idea of a "critical period, or the "time after which successful language learning cannot take place" (4).. This time is usually aligned with puberty. This change is significant, "because virtually every learner undergoes significant physical, cognitive, and emotional changes during puberty.

There are three main physical changes one undergoes in regards to language acquisition. The first is the presence of muscular plasticity. A child's plasticity goes away at about the age of five. After this age it is very hard for a learner to fully master pronunciation of a second language. The second change is one's memorization capabilities. It is fairly well known that as a person grows older their ability to hold large amount of information reaches its peak fairly early in life, and then begins to decrease. This is seen most dominantly with very old individuals. The third physical change that occurs is more related to neurology.

"As a child matures into adulthood, the left hemisphere (which controls the analytical and intellectual functions) becomes more dominant than the right side (which controls the emotional functions)." (2).

This idea is called the Lateralization Hypothesis. The significance these specific neurobiological changes have on language learning will be discussed below.

The one advantage adults seem to have over children is their cognitive ability. Adults are better able to benefit from learning about structure and grammar. Unfortunately this slight advantage in ability does not help adult second language acquisition in general. In fact this ability almost hinders them in that they analyze too much. Specifically, they cannot leave behind what they know about their first language, which leads to a tendency to overanalyze and to second guess what they are learning.

The final area that puberty changes is within the emotional, or affective, realm. Motivation is much affected by emotional change. A child's motivation is simple. In order to communicate and to be a part of family and society the child must master the target language. This motivation is quite weighty, especially when compared to the motivation that adults have, or rather, must find. Adult motivations usually fall into one of two categories: "integrative motivation (which encourages a learner to acquire the new language in order to become closer to and/or identify themselves with the speakers of the target language) or instrumental motivation (which encourages a learner to acquire proficiency for such practical purposes as becoming a translator, doing further research, and aiming for promotion in their career)" (5).. Either one of these types of motivation must be prevalent for successful acquisition to take place.

The final change that takes place, and changes language learning has to do with egocentricity. Children are naturally egocentric. While learning their language they are not afraid to make mistakes, and in general, they do not feel abashed when they are corrected. Also, their thoughts usually do not surpass their language ability. Adults, on the other hand usually suffer form a fairly large amount of language learning anxiety. Adults often "feel frustrated or threatened in the struggle of learning a different language" (5). Mistakes are seen more as failures then as opportunities for growth. "The adult learner may also feel greatly frustrated, for being only able to express their highly complex ideas at a discourse level of an elementary school pupil" (5). These new emotions leave an adult learner in a slightly helpless position, unable to regain the egocentricity of their childhood, which is just on more hindrance in a line of many.

Although the desired outcomes of child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition are exactly the same, the actual outcomes are in reality quite different. Factors such as motivation, quality and quantity of input and a lack of egocentrism, among many other factors, will forever stand in the way of adult second language learning. In conclusion, because of so many varying factors, both the processes and outcomes of child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition are extremely different, and are only connected by a common goal.


1)Comparing and Contrasting First and Second Language Acquisition

2)First and second language acquisition

3)First Language Acquisition

4) Gass, Susan M., Larry Selinker. Second Language Acquisition. London: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2001.

5)Reviewing First and Second Language Acquisition: A Comparisono between Young and Adult Learners

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