Children’s acquisition of their first language seems remarkable given the apparent ease and rapidity with which they master its complexities. This success in developing proficiency in a first language (L1) is often contrasted to the comparative failure of adult language learners to develop a similar level of proficiency in a second language (L2). Many theorists ascribe first language acquisition (FLA) to an innate capacity, which seems neither to require explicit tuition, nor a particular social environment for its actualization. The question is then posed as to why this posited innate capacity appears to be lost or impaired in the majority of adult second language learners.
This essay will begin with a discussion of FLA, arguing that there is strong evidence for an innate linguistic capacity that assists in the acquisition of linguistic structures. However, by broadening the conception of language to include semantics and pragmatics, the child’s environmental and social interactions become increasingly important. The capacity to learn language is therefore multifarious and due to a seemingly inextricable combination of biological and environmental factors. It is with this in mind that the essay will turn to consider whether similar language learning capacities exist within second language learners, noting from the outset some difficulties that arise in making cross-learner comparisons.
The diversity among second language learners and their contexts of learning must be acknowledged. Although SLA theories encompass the acquisition of languages “by children and adults learning naturalistically or with the aid of instruction, …in second or foreign language settings” (Long, 1993, p.225 cited in Jordan, 2004, p.10), the second part of this essay will reflect the professional orientation of the author as a teacher, focusing on the comparison of child L1 learners with adult L2 learners in a foreign language classroom. It is argued that the most salient differences between these two groups are those of age, learning environment, and prior linguistic and cultural experience. By examining some of the neurological, cognitive, developmental, linguistic, and affective impacts of each of these factors, it will be seen that the question of L2 learning capacity is a complex interaction of a multiplicity of factors.
II. First Language Acquisition
II.1. Nativist theories of First Language Acquisition
The overwhelming success of L1 acquisition begs the question of how it is possible. Explanations by behaviorists that language is learned through imitation and habit formation were refuted by Chomsky as being untenable in view of ‘the poverty of the stimulus’, namely that the experiences available to children are inadequate in quantity and quality to account for “the non-random mistakes children make, the speed with which the basic rules of grammar are acquired, the ability to learn language without any formal instruction, and the regularity of the acquisition process across diverse languages and environmental circumstances” (Fromkin, Blair & Collins, 2000, p.330).
This led to the assertion that language must in some way be ‘wired into’ the human brain, a position often associated with Chomsky’s theory of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). A correlate of the LAD is that human languages must share a Universal Grammar (UG); that is they “share the same general design characteristics, are subject to the same formal constraints, and draw on a common pool of language ‘universals’” (Singleton & Ryan, 2004, p.186). Through exposure to a particular language, nativists view FLA as “the result of imposing structure on the input data as a result of the built-in expectations” (Skehan, 1998, p.77). The linguistic environment is unimportant except as a triggering device; hence children in diverse environments appear to acquire aspects of their L1, such as morpheme acquisition, in a set order (Brown, 1973, cited in Singleton & Ryan, 2004). As Pinker (2004, p.287) observes, these innate constraints set children free to create language anew, as exemplified in Bickerton’s studies of creolization and Kegl’s studies of Nicaraguan Sign Language (cited in Herschenson, 2000, p.37).
Although input can be ‘impoverished’, it needs to occur within a ‘Critical Period’ (CP). Singleton and Ryan (2004, p.33) cite Lenneberg (1967) as seeing the critical period as beginning at age two and ending around puberty, a period coinciding with the brain lateralization process. Despite ongoing debate as to the definition and significance of the CP, research into the acquisition of language by isolated and deaf children suggests that beyond the CP, “the human brain appears to be unable to acquire much of syntax and inflectional morphology” (Fromkin et al., 2000, p.343).
However, syntax and inflectional morphology is only one, albeit important, aspect of language. By downplaying the importance of aspects of language such as semantics, pragmatics and discourse, the importance of the environment and the social interactions through which a child constructs a holistic understanding and ability to use language are overlooked.
II.2. The importance of the environment and social interactions in FLA
McLaughlin (1984, p.32) disputes Chomsky’s claim that language input to the child is “meager and degenerate”. Studies into ‘caretaker language’ reveal it be well-suited in its lexicon, intonation, and grammar to hold the attention of a child and to make meaning apparent. Brown (2000, p.40) cites Brown and Hanlon’s findings that the frequency of occurrence of a linguistic item in a mother’s speech may affect the order of linguistic development, and Krause, Duchesne and Bochner (2007) cite Hart and Risley’s (1995) study showing a positive correlation between young children’s language experience and verbal intelligence scores at ages 9 and 10.
Such data lends support to the constructivist view of language as “constructed by the child using inborn mental equipment but operating on information provided by the environment” (Hoff, 2005, p. 16). Bruner (cited in Garton & Pratt, 1998) argues that to support the LAD, there must also be appropriate social scaffolding in the form of a LASS (Language Acquisition Support System). By engaging the child in daily rituals and routines, a child’s family provides clear and emotionally charged contexts for language use. Likewise, Berko-Gleason (cited in Brown, 2000, p.42) argues that for the development of discourse competence “interaction, rather than exposure is required.” “Theory theory” (Bowerman & Levinson, 2001, p.10) also acknowledges the effects of experience on innate cognitive foundations, viewing children as being born with innate conceptual biases or “theories” that they restructure to fit with their experiences. Such a conception offers a better explanation for the extent and depth of semantic variation across languages than can nativist theories (Bowerman & Levinson, 2001).
Therefore, when looking at the development of a holistic L1 proficiency, nativist conceptions of language and linguistic capacity appear incomplete in their conceptual and explanatory power.
III. Second Language Acquisition
III.1. Characteristics of Second Language Learners
In comparing the L1 and L2 learner, it is apparent that the L1 learner nearly always begins acquiring their L1 from birth (or even in the womb) and is surrounded by other speakers of the L1 throughout their development, whereas the L2 learner can be of any age and in any environment. Given the diversity of L2 learners, this essay will narrow its focus to those learners whom the author teaches; namely adult language learners learning in a classroom. Such learners are typically characterized by their failure to learn a language to a level approaching native speaker proficiency (Han, 2003), although Widdowson (cited in Deriwianka, 2000, p.254) has pointed out that the concept of “native speaker competence” is not well-defined. Bialystok also observes that “for a particular individual, some aspects of language learning are mastered more easily than are others” (cited in Han, 2003, p.7), again highlighting that the capacity to learn a language is more usefully construed as a multiplicity of competences.
Notwithstanding these issues, in analyzing the capacity of an adult in a classroom setting to learn an L2, the common characteristics that differentiate such a learner from a child acquiring his/her L1 can be made to serve as the basis for investigation. The salient distinctions of age, learning environment, and the L2 learner’s prior knowledge of a particular language and culture, serve as factors which can be analyzed as to their neurological, cognitive, linguistic, and affective impacts on capacity.
III.2.Age related factors
Fromkin et al. (2000, p.346) notes that, “(y)oung children who are exposed to more than one language before the age of puberty seem to acquire all the languages equally well”, whereas Lightbown and Spada (1999, p. 163) note that despite the ability of adults to acquire a great deal of a second language without any formal instruction, the evidence suggests that the use of ungrammatical forms may persist for many years without such instruction (see also Schmidt, 1983). This suggests that UG, essential to many innatist conceptions of language capacity, does not operate in the same way as it does in child language acquisition and that conscious learning of aspects of syntax and structure may be needed for adult L2 learners in the absence of the child-like ability to form such rules simply from input (c.f. Krashen, 1982).
We have already seen in relation to FLA a hypothesis that unless linguistic input is provided to the child prior to the Critical Period, the ability to acquire syntax will be permanently impaired. In SLA research however, the question of a CP takes on a much wider ambit, becoming a set of deterministic explanations for the mostly nonnative like end state for late L2 acquisition (Birdsong, 1999, p.2), which while useful to consider, often defy conclusive proof. Hence, there is, for example, conflicting research regarding the effect of loss of neural plasticity in the brain on the ability to develop a native-like accent; entrenched disagreement as to the degree of access to UG; speculation as to whether language acquisition circuitry is dismantled because of age or through lack of use; and ideas that adult L2 learning may be impeded either by the ongoing strengthening of neural connections to the L1, or due to the tendency of adults to attend to too many items in the linguistic input simultaneously (Birdsong, 1999, pp.2-9). After reviewing the evidence for a CP, Singleton and Ryan (2004, p.227) conclude “the notion that age effects are exclusively a matter of neurological predetermination, that they are associated with absolute, well-defined maturational limits and that they are particular to language looks less and less plausible”. It can also be noted that under a Popperian criterion of falsifiability, reports of adult L2 learners achieving native-like proficiency (see e.g. Bongaerts, 1999; Ioup et al.,1994; Nikolov, 2000, cited in Han, 2003, p.5) are sufficient to suggest that the CPH cannot be used to predict failure for all adult L2 learners (Birdsong, 1999).
That is not to say that such age-related factors are not important to consider, simply that we should be cautious about overstating their impacts on the capacity to learn a language. Notwithstanding their conclusion above, Singleton and Ryan (2004) acknowledge that early exposure to L2 may be important simply for the amount of input a learner gains from early L2 learning. From a different angle, older adult learners may process information more slowly, and have problems with phonetic coding due to their decreased hearing acuity. Singleton (2005, p.277) also cites Krashen‘s claims that the “affective filter” is strengthened at puberty thanks to the onset of formal operations, so that “for the adult it rarely goes low enough to allow nativelike attainment”. Snow (2002) sees older learners as having both advantages and disadvantages that emerge from age-related variables, including “how much one already knows, how strategic one's learning can be, how embarrassed one is about making errors, etc”. In conclusion, it can be argued that while age-related changes to neurology, cognition, and affect cause the language learning process for adult learners to be quite different to that of children, there is little to suggest that age necessarily extinguishes any part of the capacity to learn another language.
III.3. Environmental Factors
A classroom learning environment is strikingly different to that of the environment for L1 acquisition which is characterized by constant immersion and “(c)ontextualized, appropriate, meaningful communication” (Brown, 2000, p.73). The L1 learner is usually surrounded by L1 speakers and is highly motivated to communicate due to the increased agency this brings her/him. “Impoverished” L1 input still compares favorably to the exposure of an L2 learner, hearing the L2 for only a few hours a week in a classroom. L1 exposure can be contrasted to L2 exposure not only in amount, but also in the nature of the language used. While the L1 learner has no externally imposed syllabus (c.f. Corder’s, 1967, suggestion that there may be an in-built syllabus), L2 classroom learners most commonly follow a syllabus that suggests that language is acquired in a linear and orderly fashion. Whereas parents will often give their children the opportunity to pursue topics and items of interest to them (Lightbown & Spada, 1999), L2 classroom learners are often constricted by the topics and structures of a textbook. Children learning their L1 focus on the ‘truth value’ of language rather than its grammatical forms (Brown, 2000, p.39), whereas language teachers often focus on grammatical accuracy at the expense of factual correctness (Willis, 2001, p.59). Hofstede (1986) found the classroom setting itself impedes the meaningful interaction so typical of an L1 learning context, contributing to the formation of individual attitudes and beliefs about language learning that can affect outcomes. Brown (2000, pp.64) offers a list of such affective considerations, including empathy, self-esteem, extroversion, inhibition, anxiety etc., with the observation that any affective factor can be relevant to L2 learning given “the pervasive nature of language”. Acculturation, which Schumann (1986) sees as controlling the degree to which a learner acquires a target language, is also difficult to effect in a classroom setting.
From the point of view of the second language teacher, classroom environment is the variable over which there is most control, and issues of second language teaching and learning methodology become central to assisting learners in actualizing their language learning capacity. It is however difficult to resist the conclusion that, in the absence of learners also receiving L2 input and interacting using the L2 outside of the classroom, a high level of overall language proficiency is unlikely to be achieved.
III.4. Linguistic and Cultural Considerations
Every adult L2 learner has an array of linguistic and cultural knowledges and competences, and a linguistic and cultural identity that may influence the acquisition of various aspects of the L2.
Brown (2000, p.68) suggests the L1 can be a facilitating factor, “used to bridge gaps that the adult learner cannot fill by generalization within the second language”, as well as an interference. Ringbom (2006, p.1) points out that when learning a language closely related to the L1, “prior knowledge will be consistently useful, but if the languages are very distant, not much prior knowledge is relevant”. However, great differences between L1 and L2 do not necessarily cause great difficulties or enable prediction of interference (Brown, 1990, pp. 212). L2 learners have also been shown to proceed through common phases of acquisition of certain syntactic items, regardless of their L1 (Krashen, 1982).
This has led to a view of L2 learning as a “process of creative construction of a system” (Brown, 2000, p.215) in which learners test hypotheses about the L2 from the many sources of knowledge available to them: knowledge of the L1, the L2, communicative functions, language, and life in general. This view sees learners as “creatively acting upon their linguistic environment” (Brown, 2000, p.215), by continually restructuring their individual system of language, their “interlanguage” (Selinker, 1972, cited in Han, 2004), in accordance with their learning experiences, a view reminiscent of constructivist theories of FLA.
In interlanguage terms, the study of the failure of a learner to gain mastery of an L2 in all its aspects is dealt with under the construct of “fossilization” (Han, 2004, p.4). The question then arises as to when, how, and why a particular learner fossilizes, which in turn leads back to explorations of the neurological, cognitive, developmental, environmental, linguistic, and affective components of capacity, and their intersection with individual attitudes and motivation.
The question of language learning capacity in both FLA and SLA is complex. The multifarious nature of language itself necessarily leads to different interpretations of the idea of language learning capacity. This essay has argued for a broad and functional view of language, whereby the child relies not only on innate structures in the brain, but also on input from, and interaction with, people in the child’s environment, in order to develop various language skills and competences. This process of FLA is necessarily unique according to the age and developmental state of the child, the amount and quality of linguistic input and interaction provided within the child’s environment, and the relatively unformed state of the child’s linguistic and conceptual systems. Therefore it cannot be expected that second language acquisition will proceed in the same way and a narrow or monolithic construction of language learning capacity will be even less helpful than it is in FLA. In examining the capacity of adult learners to learn an L2 in a classroom setting, age, learning environment, and prior linguistic experience were used as the differentiating constants by which the language learning capacity of these L2 learners could be compared to child L1 learners. In reviewing some of the effects of these factors on different aspects of the capacity to learn a second language, it becomes apparent that such effects are complex, interconnected, and variable. Empirical evidence may show that the adult learner is less likely to reach the same level of ultimate attainment in the L2 as the child-turned-adult will in L1, however there is little other evidence to suggest an inevitable extinction of any part of the capacity of an adult learner to learn an L2. For language teachers, the question then becomes how to incorporate into our teaching practices our understanding of the way in which learning processes are impacted by factors relating to age, environment, and prior linguistic and cultural experience in order to better assist L2 learners.
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