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A pedagogical comparison of first language acquisition and second language learning/Ana dil edinimi ve ikinci dil ogreniminin pedagojik karsilastirmasi.


Language is one of the most fundamental properties of humans which distinguishes them from animals. Just the way animals acquire the physical properties they need in order to survive (and in a very quick time when compared to humans), human beings acquire their first language (mother tongue) in a very short time and without any formal teaching. When careful parents are asked how their children learn their mother tongue, they would say that this process goes on in a very surprising manner. Parents are frequently astonished with the words, phrases, sentences, even idioms they hear from their children. First language acquisition (henceforth, FLA) is a magnificent event which has charmed a lot of linguists and thus has paved the way to a great body of research.

There are many astounding aspects of FLA which make linguists as well as ordinary people admire this process. The children's journey in mastering the native tongue starts from their life in utero. DeCasper and Spence (1986) have found out that the language babies hear before they are born influences their behaviors after birth and that they hear and retain some of the stories presented to them in utero. Newborns prefer their mother's voices to those of strangers (DeCasper and Fifer, 1980); they can recognize their own names by 4.5 months (Mandel et al. 1995), and 8-month-old infants can segment speech into words by attending to the probabilities of various sound sequences (Jusczyk and Aslin, 1995; Saffran, et al. 1996). This ability to segment speech into separate words is an impressive and important accomplishment, one that sets the stage for children to acquire the lexicon of their native language (Carroll, 2008:261). An interesting study by Mehler et al. (1988) found that infants could distinguish between utterances in their maternal language and those in another language by 4 days of life. Nazzi et al. (1998; cited in Carroll, 2008) have also demonstrated that newborns can distinguish between two foreign languages. In their study, their French newborns were able to discriminate between English and Japanese, which have different rhythm patterns, but not between English and Dutch, which have similar rhythm patterns. Besides some of these amazing properties of FLA, there are main principles that underlie FLA, most of which are universal with a certain amount of variation between individuals.

Principles of First Language Acquisition

Child language studies have a long history. Through these studies, a considerable amount of information has been gathered and some general principles have been identified which are valid for all children all around the world. Below are the main principles of first language acquisition:

1. It is important to recognize that any child who is capable of acquiring some particular human language is capable of acquiring any human language. Biologically speaking, there is no biological basis for preferring one particular language over another; children find all languages about equally simple to acquire as a native tongue. Of course, some parts of a language might be learned easier than another part of another language, but on the whole "it is accurate to say that all languages are about equally challenging to acquire as a mother tongue when considered in their entirety" (Finegan, 1989: 14-15).

2. All children except those with mental or physical impairments acquire their native tongue in childhood, regardless of their culture and level of intelligence. As Lightbown and Spada (2006:17) explain, children with very limited cognitive ability develop quite complex language systems if they are brought up in environments in which people interact with them. Children master the basic syntax and morphology of the language spoken to them in a variety of conditions - some which would be expected to enhance language development (for example, caring attentive parents who focus on the child's language), and some which might be expected to inhibit it (for example, abusive or rejecting parents).

3. By about age 6, children the world over acquire most of what they need to know about their language to speak it fluently.

4. Linguists and psychologists are convinced that language is not acquired only by imitation although exposure to a language is an essential ingredient in the process of acquiring it. We have all heard even very young children make up sentences that they are very unlikely to have heard before. As a father, I myself have heard my 4-year-old son (and his elder brother when he was at the same age) produce sentences which we have never used near him or which it is very improbable that he has heard from somebody else in any other environment. Children have an undeniable capacity to be creative with language, and they certainly do not wait to hear a particular sentence before using it.

Children establish a system of rules for expression and communication that enables them to produce sentences socially appropriate with very little (maybe at most times with no) explicit teaching by parents. They do this very successfully, although they are exposed to limited and defective data, and they acquire their mother tongue in a way that will enable them to produce and understand sentences they have never heard before. One striking point is that they achieve all this in the first few years of life.

5. "It is a common observation that children seem to comprehend more than they produce" (Ingram, 1989:11). Even in the very first months of his life, a baby can react to some utterances from his parents while he cannot produce any 'real' word. An example for this is that children can distinguish between singular and plural long before they reliably add plural endings to nouns. Mastering irregular plurals takes even more time and may not be completely under control until the school years (Ligthbown and Spada, 2006: 2-3).

6. Children all over the world acquire their native tongue through the same stages. That is to say, a Japanese child does not start with 'telegraphic speech' to acquire his first language whereas a Turkish child starts with 'prelinguistic development stage'. All children of all nationalities go through the same stages of language acquisition. Celik (2007:384) formulates the issue as: "... children go through a series of developmental stages with distinguishable boundaries, each following the other in an incremental fashion." As an example of this universality, Gleason (2008: 4) says: "An examination of children's two-word utterances in many different language communities has shown that everywhere in the world children at this age are expressing the same kinds of thoughts and intentions in the same kinds of utterances. They ask for more of something; they say no to something; they notice something, or they notice that it has disappeared."

7. In language acquisition, no single child has any predisposed advantage over any other child. As Finegan states (1989:15): "Fortunately, language acquisition is an intellectual feat that all normal human beings are equally well adapted to and at which we are equally successful. Even intellectual geniuses have no advantage over others in acquiring a first language." This is also very interesting, because otherwise the situation would be something which would make life much more disadvantageous for many children who are born into socio-economically underprivileged families or those who have a relatively low intelligence and mental capacity.

After this basic information on FLA process, we now turn to the comparison of the two processes, namely first and second language acquisition (henceforth, SLA).

Comparing and Contrasting First and Second Language Acquisition

It has always been a matter of curiosity and debate whether FLA and SLA are similar processes and to what extent these similarities can be made use of in second/foreign language teaching. There have been various points of view about this issue, and some language teaching methods have risen out of them (Natural Approach, The Silent Way, partly Communicative Approach, Direct Method, etc.). With the frequent failure in second language learning, language educators have begun to seek ways to facilitate this nail-biting learning process. Children have always been seen as great language learners, so many language teachers have sought ways to make the two acquisition processes similar. At this point, linguists and language teachers have to be very cautious, because it has not been proved scientifically nor practically that the two acquisition types are identical. But, of course, for the sake of improving second language education, some analogies can be made. Unfortunately, some scholars have made false analogies and many myths (actually some of these points labeled as 'myths' by Stern have some degree of truth) have been spread among people. Below are the most important of these myths about the relationship between first and second language acquisition which must be taken into account with great care by educational linguists (Stern, 1970: 57-58):

1. In language teaching, we must practice and practice, again and again. Just watch a small child learning his mother tongue. He repeats things over and over again. During the language-learning stage he practices all the time. This is what we must also do when we learn a foreign language.

2. Language learning is mainly a matter of imitation. You must be a mimic just like a small child. He imitates everything.

3. First, we practice the separate sounds, then words, then sentences. That is the natural order and is therefore right for learning a foreign language.

4. Watch a small child's speech development. First he listens, then he speaks. Understanding always precedes speaking. Therefore, this must be the right order of presenting the skills in a foreign language.

5. A small child listens and speaks and no one would dream of making him read and write at an early stage. Reading and writing are advanced stages of language development. The natural order for first and second language learning is listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

6. You did not have to translate when you were small. If you were able to learn your own language without translation, you should be able to learn a foreign language in the same way.

7. A small child simply uses language. He does not learn formal grammar. You do not tell him about verbs and nouns. Yet he learns the language perfectly. It is equally unnecessary to use grammatical conceptualization in teaching a foreign language.

Most of the views cited above are those of the behavioristic approach to language acquisition. In comparing both acquisition processes, one very important point to bear in mind is the 'age factor'. The cognitive, neurological, psychological and physiological properties of a new-born baby or a small child are very different from those of an adolescent or an adult. Also, the conditions of the environment in which language acquisition takes place are very different. In FLA, everything the child sees or hears helps the acquisition process, and the acquisition is at work every minute the baby is awake. There is no language interference for the child as well and the child has no negative attitudes to his mother tongue. But the case is not the same for SLA. In some cases where the target language is a 'second language', the learner may have some negative attitudes to the target language, and the time acquisition takes place for him does not consist of all his waking hours. At home, when he is with his family, he does not speak or hear the second language (except for watching TV or listening to the radio) and his mother tongue may have some sort of negative effect on his acquisition of the second language. If the situation is a foreign language situation, then the amount of time the learner is exposed to the target language is very little. Actually, the learner does not use or come across the foreign language outside the classroom (there are very few exceptions); therefore, the analogy between first and foreign language acquisition would be very far-stretched.

Brown and Gonzo (1995) identify three basic areas of distinction between first and second language acquisition: environmental conditions, motivational factors by the learner and the cognitive development of the learner. They further state that FLA is a unique process in human development which takes place under conditions that cannot be duplicated later in life. The child is motivated for it by a cognitive drive of extreme intensity, and brings inborn dispositions with him for mastering the language that is spoken to him. For the child, communication, cognition, and using his language are one indivisible whole.

SLA is largely determined by environmental conditions and by the objectives of the learner. It is generally the case that second language learners are not always in the environment where the target language is constantly used. The learner usually does not live in the world of the language he is trying to master; he is not surrounded by it. The second language learning environment is most often restricted to the classroom. Since the student already has a first language with which to communicate and think, the motivation has to be external for SLA. Adult second language learners also have prior knowledge, skills and tactics that may aid in more rapid acquisition than first language learners, but they may face problems due to mother tongue interference, a situation that is never experienced by a first language learner (Brown and Gonzo, 1995; Wilson, 2001).

There are some other differences between FLA and SLA. First of all, the second language learner does not have concrete referents for most of the words he/she learns in the classroom, so this causes a hindrance for mastering vocabulary as much and/or as rapidly as a first language learner. The child almost always acquires his words in real, authentic contexts with a lot of concrete referents around him. Another difference is that the baby goes through a silent period before he/she begins to speak. But a second language learner is mostly expected to speak before he/she is really ready. Furthermore, the second language learner is confronted with cultural differences the new language brings.

The first claim cited in Stern's summary is the continuous practice to learn a language. There is no doubt that a certain amount of practice is necessary in language learning, but for second language learning cases, motivation is a much more important factor. If practice means rote learning full of mechanical drills, the language learners get easily bored, which causes a negative effect on learner motivation and hinders the learning process. Besides, it is commonly observed that children do not repeat their utterances without any meaning. Rather, they repeat what they learn with different meanings in different contexts.

Though some language theories and methods (Behavioristic Theory and Audiolingual Method) claim that language learning is mainly habit formation achieved mostly by imitation, the same way infants and young children learn, this is not the real case in FLA. Infants and young children do imitate, but not like a parrot. As Brown (2007:43-44) explains, in the first stages of language acquisition, there is surface imitation, which means that the baby imitates whatever he/she hears because he/she does not have the necessary semantic categories to assign 'meaning' to utterances. But as children perceive the importance of the semantic level of language, they attend to a greater extent to that meaningful semantic level--the deep structure of language. They engage in deep-structure imitation. In fact, the imitation of the deep structure of language can literally block their attention to the surface structure so that they become, on the face of it, poor imitators. Consider the following conversation as recorded by McNeill (1966:69).

Child: Nobody don't like me.

Mother: No, say "nobody likes me".

Child : Nobody don't like me. (eight repetitions of this dialogue)

Mother: No, now listen carefully; say "nobody likes me".

Child: Oh! Nobody don't likes me.

In this example, the mother was attending to the surface grammatical distinction, but the child sought to derive some meaning value.

Research has shown that children, when explicitly asked to repeat a sentence in a test situation, will often repeat the correct underlying deep structure with a change in the surface rendition. For example, sentences such as "The ball that is rolling down the hill is black" and "The boy who's in the sandbox is wearing a red shirt," tend to be repeated by preschool children as "The black ball is rolling down the hill" and "The red boy is in the sandbox" (Brown and Hanlon, 1970). Children are excellent imitators. It is simply a matter of understanding exactly what it is that they are imitating (Brown, 2007: 45).

In Stern's summary of myths about FLA, it is also stated that understanding always comes before production for children and that the order for learning a second language should also be the same (first listening, then speaking). This view has been adopted by some language teaching methods (Natural Approach, Total Physical Response) and it has been claimed that speech 'emerges' after a certain silent period of comprehension and input. There is not a complete consensus on this issue. In the suggestions section of this article, a mediating view will be presented. In the same summary, it has also been claimed that reading and writing are advanced levels of language, and children are not asked to do such tasks in the process of language learning. Therefore, in second language learning, students should not be asked to read or write. The false analogy here at this point is so obvious. Second language learners are not generally 3 or 4 year-old children and from the point of view of their goal of learning a second language, they generally need to learn how to read and write efficiently. It has also been expressed that children do not have to translate when they acquire their first language and that second language learners should not use translation. This idea is mostly true in the sense that if translation is used excessively in teaching, it may damage creativity and lead to false parallels between two languages. The so-called 'chicken translations' might prevail. But there are many instances where, if used properly and at the suitable level, translation might be a very good technique (not a whole method) which enriches the teaching process. Especially in trying to teach abstract concepts (e.g. wisdom, spirituality, illusion, conscience), translation both saves time and increases comprehension.

The claim that grammar conceptualization is totally unnecessary in second language teaching is far from reality. Needless to say, the students do not have to learn every grammatical and syntactical term, but grammar teaching is an essential component of second language teaching with regard to its many formal goals. In FLA, infants acquire the grammar of their native language and then develop a "feel for correctness" (Krashen, 1987:10). But due to many reasons cited above, including lack of extensive exposure, second language learners cannot have this feeling for correctness in its complete sense. So, a certain amount of grammar teaching is essential in second and foreign language learning.

Below is a chart which shows some differences between the two acquisition processes:
Table 1.
Differences between FLA and SLA

 L2 (second/foreign language)
Feature LI acquisition acquisition

Overall children normally adult L2 learners are
success achieve perfect L1 unlikely to achieve perfect
 mastery L2 mastery

General failure success guaranteed complete success rare

Variation little variation in L2 learners vary in overall
 degree of success success and route
 or route

Goals Target language L2 learners may be content
 competence with less than target
 language competence or more
 concerned with fluency than

Fossilization unknown common, plus backsliding
 (i.e. return to earlier
 stages of development)

Intuitions children develop L2 learners are often
 clear intuitions unable to form clear
 about correctness grammatical judgments

Instruction not needed helpful or necessary

Negative evidence correction not correction generally
 found and not helpful or necessary

Affective factors not involved play a major role in
 determining success

Ellis 1994 (based on Bley-Vroman 1988).

The Similarities between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

Besides the differences explained above, there are certain similarities worth consideration. Some studies have been carried out stating the following hypothesis: If the second language (L2) stages are also followed by first language (L1) children, both groups are probably using the same learning process. Brown (1972) found that the L2 sequence for English grammatical morphemes was similar, though not identical, to that found in L1 acquisition. In another study, the morpheme sequence was found similar, with the greatest differences identified as the irregular past tense (broke), articles (the), copula and auxiliaries (Dulay et al., 1982). Other similar sequences of syntactic acquisition have been found in L1 and L2 learning. L2 learners, like L1 learners, start by believing that John is the subject of please in both John is easy to please and John is eager to please and only go on to discover it is the object in John is easy to please after some time (Cook, 1973; d'Anglejan and Tucker, 1975). Some L2 learners, like L1 children, at first put negative elements at the beginning of the sentence No the sun shining and then progress to negation within the sentence That's no ready (Wode, 1981). These studies, of course, do not completely show that the two processes are very close to each other; rather, they indicate that there are some similarities between them.

A sub-theme underlying several of the questions discussed here is that FLA is completely successful, second language learning (SLL; used synonymously with SLA in this article) is not. Two representative quotations: "Very few L2 learners appear to be fully successful in the way that native speakers are." (Towell and Hawkins, 1994:14) and "Unfortunately, language mastery often is not the outcome of SLA." (Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991:153) express this idea. The evidence for this deficiency is held to be the lack of completeness of L2 grammars (Schachter, 1988) or the fossilization in L2 learning where the learner cannot progress beyond some particular stage (Selinker, 1992), both familiar 'facts' in some sense. Part of the interest in SLA research is explaining why L2 learners are usually unsuccessful.

In short, the answer to the question of how similar the two types of learning are is far from settled. While there are many similarities between FLA and SLA, the variation in situation and other factors also produces many differences. One difficulty is filtering out differences that are accidental rather than inevitable. L1 children mostly acquire language in different settings with different exposure to language than L2 learners, and they are at different stages of mental and social maturity (Cook, 1969). It may be inherently impossible to compare equivalent L1 and L2 learners. A more precise version of this question asks whether adults still have access to Universal Grammar in the mind (Cook, 2000: 35).

The relevance of all the similarities and differences to second/foreign language teaching is the conclusions that can be drawn from them. Below are some suggestions and implications of the comparison of FLA and SLA to teaching a foreign language.

Implications and Suggestions

It is not possible to draw one-to-one conclusions about the parallels between first and second foreign language acquisition. However, language teachers can make informed and cautious inferences and translate them into classroom practices in second/foreign language teaching. The stages of first language acquisition and the acquisition processes children follow have a lot to say to foreign language teachers:

a) Children listen for a long while (i.e. the babbling stage) with almost no 'real' speech production and then after a while, they begin to produce--first sounds and then words. As an implication of this, foreign language learners should not be expected nor pressured to speak before they feel ready. This is not to say that no speaking practice should be done at the elementary stages, but rather it implies that language teachers should be patient and tolerant on the part of the students when they ask them to produce language. One thing that can be done at beginner level is to use TPR (Total Physical Response) Method to teach the students a good deal of vocabulary and fixed expressions through physical movements directed by the imperatives used by the teacher. Through this method, the students can reach a certain level without even being expected to speak a word in the target language. They just follow the orders of the teacher and act out the actions the teacher demonstrates. The teacher demonstrates actions (e.g. Stand up; Sit down; Go to the door; Go to the door and turn around; Go to the door, open it, turn around and come back) starting with one action and going to a sequence of actions. The students do not speak at all, just act out the actions and write the commands later when the teacher puts them down on the board after a good deal of kinesthetic practice (Larsen-Freeman, 2000: 109). For elementary stages (when the students reach a certain level of proficiency), the teacher again uses lots of visuals, realia, pictures, demos, and the like to make comprehension easy. As the Natural Approach suggests, during the first levels of foreign language acquisition, students should not be forced to speak or write. This practice is in line with the concept of 'Silent Period' mentioned in Krashen's theory (1987). During this silent period students are not passive but actively processing the input and developing their acquired competence. If they are asked to give answers to the teacher's questions, they are required to give one word or short answers or at times even some gestures or bodily movements which show that they have understood the question, in the same way that infants and young children would do. Shatz (1978) has shown that young children often respond to complex speech by using a simple, action-based comprehension strategy. In time, they are gradually asked to speak (or in Krashen's terms 'speech emerges'). During all these periods, the teacher speaks a lot (just the way parents and caregivers do with children) in the classroom and plays the role of 'comprehensible input provider'.

b) The first words babies learn are all related to objects and actions in their close surroundings. They all have concrete referents, and infants are repeatedly exposed to these words, both orally and visually (actually they frequently touch, bite, smell, and even taste (!) these objects). Foreign language teachers should also provide their students with a lot of referents (realia, visuals, demos, etc.) to facilitate the acquisition process. Using realia, pictures and all sorts of visuals, a great number of words can be taught in an effective way. Where possible, the use of computers and internet will facilitate this process to a great extent.

c) Baby talk (also called 'motherese', or 'caregiver talk') is a very important element in FLA. The features of baby talk, namely, a higher pitch than usual, an exaggerated intonation, a slow and clear speech with frequent repetitions, short and simple sentences including special baby vocabulary like doggy, kitty, and din-din, a high proportion of questions, stress on key words and paraphrase (Lightbown and Spada, 2006:21) can all be modeled by foreign language teachers in language classrooms to promote the understanding of their students (with the exception of the 'baby words'). Needless to say, the level of these adjustments should be determined according to the age and proficiency level of the students.

d) Brown and Hanlon (1970) found that the frequency of occurrence of a linguistic item in the speech of mothers was an overwhelmingly strong predictor of the order of emergence of that item in their children's speech. In relation to this finding, foreign language teachers might select the vocabulary items that their learners most need and form a list of words to be acquired first. The next step, then, would be to prepare teaching materials in which the students will be exposed to those vocabulary items frequently. The teacher will also use these same words frequently and emphatically during his/her classes. A syllabus which is recyclic in nature with regards to these target words will also help students revise and consolidate them.

e) Children are constantly exposed to massive amounts of language in their very first years and this has a crucial role in FLA. Foreign and second language learners, similarly, should be 'surrounded' with language input. One important point here is that the language input babies receive is simplified and adjusted to their level with baby talk. Thus, language teachers should not think that their only task is to provide input, but also bear in mind that they should make that input comprehensible (as stated in Krashen's Monitor Theory (1987)) and adjusted to the level of the students. One major way of providing this comprehensible input is extensive reading and listening. To make up for the extensive amount of input babies receive for years in all their waking hours, foreign language learners should be encouraged to read and listen extensively and in large amounts. Teachers should help them select the reading and listening materials appropriate to their level and monitor their progress.

f) Parents almost never correct their children's grammar mistakes. When they correct them, those corrected are the pragmatic errors, which may cause socially inappropriate linguistic behavior. Parents rarely comment on grammatical errors made by very young children, being more likely to correct lapses in politeness or wrong word choice (Lightbown and Spada, 2006: 162). Carroll (2001:231) too mentions the same point: "A small but important body of research has claimed that children do not get explicit correction about abstract structural properties of grammar, in particular about syntactic mistakes ... [N]onetheless, erroneous choice of vocabulary is systematically corrected. Thus, caretakers enrich the input, serving to establish lexical sound-meaning correspondences." With the same analogy, teachers are advised by some language teaching methods (like the Natural Approach) to neglect grammar mistakes and provide the students with language input which will in the long run lead to the elimination of those errors. The debate on whether this analogy is completely true for SLA is still unresolved, but language teachers should, at least, not try to correct every grammar mistake and should focus more on errors related to meaning and communication. When at times error correction is needed (as in some writing activities), the feedback given to students should not make them focus solely on grammatical features of the language and should be somewhat motivating, rather than inhibiting and causing anxiety.

g) An important aspect of early speech behavior of caregivers and parents is that they encourage infants to participate in conversations (Carroll, 2008:253). Foreign language teachers should also encourage their students to participate in conversations. This is not a contradiction with the 'Silent Period' as it has been explained in item 'a'. Teaching a foreign language will be most effective when students are provided with a relaxing classroom atmosphere where they feel comfortable about engaging in conversations.

h) The phonological characteristics of child-directed speech (baby talk) are most pronounced when mothers are using a word for the first time to an infant. In contrast, repeated words tend to be shorter, quieter, lower pitched, and less variable in pitch than first-mentioned words (Fisher and Tokura, 1995). The implication of this property is that foreign language teachers should repeat the new words more emphatically when teaching them for the first time and then return back to their normal pitch when they feel the pronunciation has been learned well.


First language acquisition, with all its magnificent and miraculous features, is a unique process and cannot be repeated after childhood. On the other hand, second language learning is a long and time consuming process which needs great effort and patience, resulting almost always in less than perfect results. Language teachers, language learners and researchers have always wondered whether people could learn a second language after childhood in more or less the same pace and efficiency as their first language. Though this seems highly unlikely due to motivational, environmental and cognitive factors, a number of analogies can be made between FLA and SLA and used in language pedagogy. One word of caution goes to language teachers at this point. They should be careful while trying to use the suggestions above and incorporate their own experience, intuitions, and language teaching conditions as well. It is hoped that these suggestions will contribute to second language learning and teaching processes.

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Author:Karaata, Cemal
Publication:Civilacademy Journal of Social Sciences
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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