Tag Archives: Teaching

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] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of [graur razvan ionut] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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).


Case Study

18 out

“Vitória has learning difficulties and copes with the problems connected to her parents, who are in the process of a tempestuous divorce. Her major difficulty lies in keeping a focus on the subject, but she really wants to learn. Her teacher sends her regularly to “Plantão de Dúvidas” and she attends hopefully, but the results are less than their mutual desire. The teacher also contacts Vitória’s parents at predictable intervals, asking for their input and encouragement with regard to homework and study for tests. Vitória is afraid of her parents’ reaction to her low grades. She is also afraid of being in the spotlight, so it is hard to get her to participate in class”.

Image courtesy of [Ambro] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

According to Zull, “there are extensive connections between the emotions centers (amygdala and basal structures) and the neocortex” (pag.223). Vitória’s learning cycle is being affected by her emotions in a not very positive way because it is causing her difficulties in school, even though she wants and tries to learn. From a brain perspective, her amygdala, that has connections with the cortex, is sending signals to her logical brain that makes it hard to pay attention to an abstract problem.

Her teacher did all the things I thought at first, but then I realized that she/he was using different elements from the same path, meaning that all the solutions had to do with Vitória studying more. I think the teacher should look for different ways of engaging this girl, asking her to draw, or compose something that express how she feels. Maybe if her inner thoughts are connected to the task, she will feel more comfortable, and will internalize the theory. I believe that it is essential to tell her that she is not weak for going through this, that it is natural physiological process, and feelings become especially distracting when we really care about the answer to a problem, that would be the changes she is having to deal with.


James E. Zull. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus Publishing; 1 edition (October 3, 2002).

Emotion and the Brain – An Analysis of two Classroom Activities

14 out

Image courtesy of [Ohmega1982] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of [Ohmega1982] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

After watching two videos (Video 1 and Video 2), I am supposed to analyze them from a brain perspective and discuss a couple of questions:

(1) What concepts discussed in class (such as whole-brain learning, emotions, attention, memory, neuronal networks) have been engaged – or not?

(2) What lessons do you transfer to your own classroom?

Before analyzing the activities, I would like to say that the second video was my favorite. I don’t know if any other TDC student felt this way, but for me it was like entering this whole new “practical universe” of (abstract) ideas that works in a great way because the students are engaged in this concrete experience built on existing neuronal networks that will somehow produce a new knowledge. Not that an expository class don’t have a purpose, it’s just that we are all used to this model, and seeing something different that works is stimulant.

Learning Cycle

From a brain perspective, I would say there was the whole brain learning in the second video because I could identify the learning cycle explained in Zull’s book, “The Art of Changing the Brain”.
(a) Concrete Experience, at the sensory and post sensory cortex, when they had the meteor activity with the actions and all; (b) Reflective Observation, at the temporal integrative cortex, when they had to observe their colleagues’ actions; (c) Abstract Hypothesis, at the frontal integrative cortex, when they had to remember what had happened; and (d) Active Testing, at the premotor and motor, when they had to remark everyone’s actions.

Furthermore, this was the first time the students saw the past continuous, and the whole brain learning is recognized when they could prepare sentences in this tense shortly after the teacher’s few examples.

Chapter 5 says that adrenaline (when affecting the back cortex) improves the work of the hippocampus and increases long-term semantic memory. Considering that the students showed excitement and not fear, it is likely that the adrenaline affected the back cortex, making it easier to think.

As for the first video, I believe that the excitement and the stress caused by the game interfered with students’ attention, especially the ones who were not pressing the buzzer. According to Zull, “Our amygdala is constantly monitoring our experience to see how things are” (p.59), and, when it senses danger (or, in this case, stress and fear of losing), it stops students from learning as the brain is only looking for survival (which means winning the game).

Finally, I wouldn’t say that there was whole brain learning because I couldn’t recognize the Reflective Observation or the Active Testing. The Concrete Experience would be pressing the buzzer to answer the teacher, and the Abstract Hypothesis would happen when they were remembering the facts of the story.

The ultimate lesson I could transfer to my own classroom is to always analyse critically what the exercise I want to bring has to offer and how it could go differently (in learning, not in process) . Likewise, I would follow a TDC colleague’s idea of using the second activity as a lead in, followed by slips (or some other recognition method), to finish up with the students producing the sentences in written form, so I would ensure that all the students actually got the structure and isn’t just echoing what the others are doing.


James E. Zull. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus Publishing; 1 edition (October 3, 2002).