L1 and L2 acquisition: Hints for teachers
Friday, August 31, 2018
This is a continuation of the article "Why L2 teaching should mirror L1 acquisition."
The process of first language acquisition (called L1 acquisition) has been studied extensively, and the process is important for the theories of second language acquisition (called L2 acquisition).
According to Stephen D. Krashen’s "Fundamentals of Language Education," "Language acquisition is a subconscious process. We are not aware it is happening."
The process involves the innate ability of humans to acquire language (called language acquisition device or LAD).
Language learning, in contrast, per Krashen, is a conscious process. "Language learning is what we did in school. It is a conscious process; when we are learning, we know we are learning."
Adults and children have different strengths when learning L2.
As a 2014 MIT study wrote, "Adults excel at absorbing the vocabulary needed to navigate a grocery store or order food in a restaurant, but children have an uncanny ability to pick up on subtle nuances of language that often elude adults. Within months of living in a foreign country, a young child may speak a second language like a native speaker. The differences are connected to brain structure. Children’s brains can analyze sounds and build sets of rules for morphology and syntax from the spoken language around them. They lose this ability when they get older. Children learn languages naturally by being in the environment, and processing input and speaking."
Things that cause difficulty for adults learning L2, such as case endings and irregular verbs, come naturally to children. In contrast, adults use their cognitive skills and try to learn the language rather than acquire as children do.
Per the MIT study, "Adults have a much more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children, and they tend to throw all of that brainpower at learning a second language. This high-powered processing may actually interfere with certain elements of learning language."
Children go through several stages in acquiring L1, unlike adults who actively study the language forms, such as irregular verbs vocabulary and rules of subordination, and commit them to memory.
As I wrote in the first part of this article, "Language acquisition comes under the field of psycholinguistics: Children learn L1 without any active intervention. It is a natural process."
But what happens to people who are adopted as babies by foster parents who speak a different language? Do they lose all traces of L1?
A study last year published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "...people who were adopted as babies suggests that infants younger than 6 months may grasp crucial abstract information about their native tongue. What's more, they seem to store this information for years even if they don't hear their native language in the interim."
Even young babies can detect the sound patterns of the language around them indicating that they have abstract phonological knowledge (How babies retain their early exposure to foreign languages).
Adapting L1 learning to L2 teaching
Children learning their home language proceed through a series of stages and often make errors as they try to model their speech to the language around them. They are attempting to communicate real needs.
Likewise, L2 learners try to communicate real needs as they master the new language.
ProLiteracy’s 2013 book, "Teaching Adults: An ESL Resource Book," said, "The important thing for most beginning level language students is successful communication-not whether the language they use is correct. These students are not focusing on grammar or pronunciation issues but on meeting their basic everyday needs, such as asking for directions or mailing a package as the post office."
L2 learning is a similar process as the students progress through the various stages of acquisition. They focus on words that are in their immediate environment such as food items, classroom materials or household objects. For example, students whose main interest is sports will focus on sporting terms such as team, goal, ball, foul and so on.
The attempts by L2 students resemble the steps a child takes in learning the home language.
Per ProLiteracy, "The situation is similar to that of a child who is learning to speak. The child successfully communicates the fact that he or she is thirsty by saying the word juice. Neither the child nor the mother is concerned at this stage with the child’s inability to correctly say, ‘May I have a cup of juice, please?’"
Teachers should encourage students, even if the students are low level and make many errors.Later, as students progress to intermediate and advanced levels, error correction becomes important to prevent fossilization (18).
Grammar: Note the following
“The evidence then indicates that children do, in fact, absorb a massive number of sentences and phrases but rather than parrot them back, they abstract rules from them and create their own grammar which they then apply to create new utterances they have never heard before. Over the years from 2-7, when language is mastered, children constantly adjust their grammar until it matches that of the adult speaker population,” a 2006 Alphadictionary article stated.
One should always be positive and upbeat continuing to encourage learners to communicate in English even if they make mistakes.
ProLiteracy’s 2013 book said, "Be patient and understand that beginning ESL students move from zero ability to near native-fluency in stages clearly marked by a gradual progression from imprecise to accurate levels of English."
This variable progress is particularly true in ABE/ESOL programs where classes may not meet every day and the instruction is more survival and vocational in nature rather than intensive as in an IEP. Students in these programs may be in the "silent phase" of L2 acquisition where they are internalizing the language without feeling competent enough to speak. In this stage, the ESL student may seem unresponsive as if not learning anything.
As in the case of first language acquisition, the learner is (hopefully) beginning to process the stream of information and break it down into manageable parts. This stage is also called the pre-productive or comprehension stage. The next stage is early speech or a one-word stage which is followed by "speech emergence" where learners produce sentences.
Writing and reading
Reading plays an important role. Reading is active and interactive, not just a mechanical exercise. Meaningful activities contribute to reading skill development and language acquisition.
The written language is an important component of acquisition and should not be neglected.
William Bright wrote, "Written language is associated with political and economic power, admired literature, and educational institutions, all of which lend it high prestige. In literate societies, people often come to think of their written language as basic; they may regard speech as inferior. Nevertheless, writing can be perceived as colder or more impersonal than speech."
Students going on to academics or business will need intensive instruction in academic reading and writing if they are to succeed.
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