Acquiring first and second languages: differences and similarities

16 dez

Having read the two chapters of How Languages are Learned, and discussed in class some of the aspects of Second Language Acquisition, I am going to talk about the differences and similarities I can see between the processes of acquiring a first and a second language. Most people acquire a first language, but not everyone acquires a second, because the first language comes naturally, while the second one often requires conscious effort on the part of the learner.

Image courtesy of [graur razvan ionut] /

Image courtesy of [graur razvan ionut] / 

The first difference, I see is the chances someone will have to practice with native speakers. While in first language acquisition, a person will have the opportunity to practice extensively, in second language acquisition that is not necessarily true.

The second difference, according to the innatist theory, is the usage of universal Grammar. In first language acquisition, the basis for learning is universal grammar alone, whereas in second language acquisition, first dialect knowledge also serves as a foundation, which can make it easier or more challenging for the learner. Even so, in both processes, universal grammar may influence learning.

Also, making errors is an essential part of learning. Learners need to make and test hypotheses about language in order to build an internal representation of that language. In both first and second language acquisition, learners may overgeneralize vocabulary or rules, using them in contexts broader than those in which they ought to be utilized. For example, a learner may start out using the correct form of an irregular verb as part of a language chunk, but later overgeneralize and place a regular affix on that same verb.

In both first and second language acquisition, foreseeable stage and specific structures are obtained in a set order. People might move all the more gradually or rapidly through these stages, yet it is very unlikely that they will skip ahead. Of course, they can often comprehend more complex language than they are able to produce, but that doesn’t mean that they will fully grasp all verb tenses when they are still learning the colors.

Something that not everybody considers is the fact that, in first language acquisition, children spend several years listening to language, babbling, and using telegraphic speech before they can structure sentences, and in second language acquisition in older learners, learning is quicker and individuals have the capacity to form sentences within a shorter period of time. Noticeably, older learners carry more background information to their studying.  They have more schemata and more learning strategies to help them study the second language.

It is important to highlight the language contact someone has. That’s because in both processes learners need comprehensible input and opportunities to learn language in context in order to increase their proficiency, but there are factors which may reduce the likelihood that second language learners will attain native-like proficiency. In other words, in order to know specific sounds from a language, one needs to listen as well as be aware of its existence. Thus, there may be less sensitivity to phonological distinctions not present in the native language.

In both first and second language acquisition, the learner uses context clues, prior knowledge, and interaction to comprehend language. That’s why a learner’s proficiency, no matter if it’s a first or second language learner, can vary across situations.

A positive result in formal second language learning in older learners is that they are able to use more metacognitive processes in their learning process.  They can consciously analyze and manipulate grammatical structures, and they can explicitly describe how language works, which can not only help, but also speed the learning process.


Patsy Lightbown & Nina Spada. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press, USA; 4 edition  (March 21, 2013).


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