Comparing and Contrasting First and Second Language Acquisition


Types of Comparison and Contrast

The Critical Period Hypothesis

In the Classroom: The Audiolingual Method

The increased pace of research on first language acquisition in the 60s and 70s attracted the attention not only of linguists of all kinds but also of educators in various language-related fields. Today the applications of research findings in first language acquisition are widespread. In language arts education, for example, it is not uncommon to find teacher trainess studying first language acquisition, particularly acquisition after age 5, in order to improve their understanding of the task of teaching language speaker to native speakers. In foreign language education most standard text and curricula now include some introductory material in first language acquisition. The reason for this are clear: We have all observed children acquiring their first language easily and well, yet the learning of second language, particularly in an education setting, often meets with great difficulty and sometimes failure. We should therefore able to learn something from a systematic study of that first language learning experience.
The purpose of this chapter is to set forth explicity some of the paramters for comparing and contrasting the two types of language acquisition.
The first step in that interpretation process might be to dispel some myths about the relationship between first and second language acquisition. H.H. Stern(1970:57-58) summarized some common arguments that cropped up from time to time to recommend a second language teaching method or procedure on the basis of first language acquisition:

  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 seperate sounds, then words, the 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 or write. Reading and writing are advanced stages of language development. The natural order for first and second language learning is listening, speaking, reading, 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 a formal grammar. You don't tell him about verbs and nouns. Yet he learns language prefectly. It is equally unnecessary to use grammatical conceptualization in teaching a foreign language.

The statements tend to represent the views of those who were dominated by a behavioristic theory of language in which the first language acquisition process is viewed as consisting of rote practice, habit formation, shaping, overlearning, reinforcement, conditioning, association, stimulus and response, and who therefore assumed that the second language learning process involves the same constructs. There are flaws in each view. Sometimes the flaw is in the assumption behind the statement about first language learning and sometimes it is in the analogy or implication that is drawn; sometimes it is in both.

Types of Comparison and Contrast

At the very least, one needs to approach comparison procedure by first considering the differences between children and adults. It is, in one sense, rather illogical to compare the first language acquisition of child with the second language acquisition of an adult. It is much more logical to compare first and second language learning in children or to compare second language learning in children and adults. It is reasonable, therefore, to view the latter type of comparison within a matrix of possible comparisons. Figure 3-1 represents four possible categories to compare, defined by age and type of acquisition. Note that the vertical shaded line between the "child" and "adult" is "fuzzy" to allow for varying definitions of adulthood.


Cell A1 is clearly representative of an abnormal situation. There have been few recorded instances of an adult acquiring a first language. Accounts of "wolf children" and other instances of severe retardation fall into this category. Since it is not imperative at this time to deal with abnormal or pathological cases of language acquisition, we can ignore category A1.
That leaves three possible type of comparisons:

  1. first and second language acquisition in children (C1-C2), holding age constant.
  2. second language acquisition in children and adults (C2-A2), holding second language constant.
  3. first language acquisition in children and second language acquisition in adults (C1-A2).

In the first type of comparison, holding age constant, one is manipulating the language variable. It is important to remember, however, that a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old - both children by definition - exhibit vast cognitive, affective and physical differences, and that comparisons of all three types must be treated with caution when varying ages of children are being considered. In the second type of comparison one is manipulating the differences between children and adults. such comparisons are, for obvious reasons, the most fruitful in yielding analogies for adult second language classroom instruction. In the third type of comparison, of course, both variables are being manipulated. Most of traditional comparisons have been of type 3, and such comparisons are difficult to make because of the emormous cognitive, affective, and physical differences between children and adults. That is not to say that type 3 comparisons ought to be avoided entirely; some valuable insights are to be gained from such comparisons.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

A biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired. The critical period hypothesis claims that there is such a biological timetable. Initially, the notion of a critical period was connected only to first language acquisition. Pathological studies of children who acquired their first language, or aspects thereof, became fuel for arguments of biologically determined predispositions, timed for release, which would wane if the correct environmental stimuli were not present at the crucial stage.
The "classic" argument is that a critical point for second language acquisition occurs around puberty, beyond which people seem to be relatively incapable of acquiring a nativelike accent of the second language. This has led some to assume, incorrectly, that by the age of 12 or 13 you are "over the hill" when it comes to the possibility of successful second language learning. In order to examine these issues we will look at neurological and psychomotor considerations first; these will then followed by an examination of cognitive, affective, and linguistic considerations.

Neurological Considerations

One of the most interesting areas of inquiry in second language acquisition has been study of the function of the brain in the process of acquisition. There is evidence in neurological research that as the human brain matures certain functions are assigned - or "lateralized" - to the left hemisphere of the brain and certain other functions to the right hemisphere. Intellectual, logical, and analytical functions appear to be largely located in the left hemisphere while the right hemisphere controls functions related to emotional and social needs. Language function appear to be controlled mainly in the left hemisphere, though there is a good deal of conflicting evidence.

While question about how language is lateralized in the brain are interesting indeed, a more crucial question for second language researchers has centered on when lateralization takes place, and how that lateralaziation process affects language acquisition. Eric Lenneberg(1967) and others suggested that lateralization is a slow process that begins around the age of 2 and is completed around poberty. During this time the child is neurologically assigning functions little by little to one side of the brain or the other; included in these functions, of course, is language. And it has been found that children up to the age of puberty who suffer injury to the left hemisphere are able to relocalize linguistic functions to the right hemisphere, to "relearn" their first language with relatively little impairment. Thomas Scovel(1969) extended these findings to propose a relationship between lateralization and second langauge acquisition. He suggested that the plasticity of the brain prior to puberty enables children to acquire not only their first language but also a second language, and the possibilty it is the very accomplishment of lateralziation that makes it difficult for people to be able ever again to easily acquire fluent control of a second language, or at least to acquire it with Alexander Guiora et al.(1972a) call "authentic" (nativelike) pronunciation.

While Lenneberg(1976) contended that lateralization is complete around puberty, Norman Geschwind(1970), among others, suggested a much earlier age. Stephen Krashen(1973) believed that the development of lateralization may be complete around age 5. Krashen's suggestion does not grossly conflict with research on first language acquisition if one considers "fluency" in the first language to be achieved by age 5. Scovel(1984:1) cautioned against asssuming with Krashen, that lateralization is complete by age 5. "One must be careful to distinguish between 'emergence' of lateralization (at birth, but quite evident at 5) and 'completion' (only evident at about puberty)." If lateralization is not completed until puberty, then one can still construct arguments for a critical period based on lateralization.

Obler (1981:58) notes that in second language learning there is significant right hemisphere participation and that "this participation is particularly active during the early stages of learning the second language."
Genesee(1982:321) concluded that "there may be greater right hemisphere involvement in language processing in bilinguals who acquire their second language late relative to their first language and in bilinguals who learn it in informal contexts."

Psychomotor Considerations

An issue closely related to strictly neurological considerations is the role of the psychomotor coordination of the "speech muscles" in second language acquisition, or, more commonly, accent. We can appreciate the fact that given the existence of several hunderd muscles that are used in the articulation of human speech (throat, larynx, mouth, lips, tongue, and other muscles), a tremendous degree of muscular control is required to achieve the fluency of a native speaker of a langauge.
At birth the speech muscles are developed only to the extent that the larynx control sustained cries. These speech muscles gradually develop, and control of some complex sounds in certain languages (in English the r and l typical) sometimes is not achieved until after age 5, though virtually complete phonemic control is present in most 5-year-old children. Children who acquired a second language after the age of 5 may have a physical advantage in that phonemic control of second language is physically possible yet that mysterious plasticity is still present.

It is important to remeber in all these considerations that pronunciation of a language is not by any means the sole criterion for acquisition, nor is it really the most important one. I like to call this the "Hennry Kissinger effect" in honor of the former U.S. Secretary of State whose German accent was so noticeable yet who was clearly more eloquent than the large majority of native speakers of American English. The acquisition of the communicative and functional purposes of language is far more important. Scovek(1988:186) captures the spirit of this way of looking at second language acquisition:

For me, the acquisition of a new language will remain a phenomenon of natural fascination and mystery, not simply because it is a special skill of such incrediable complexity that it remains one of the greatest achievements of the human mind, but because it also is a testimony of how much we can accomplish within the limitations that nature has placed upon us. We among all animals possess the gift of tongues because we have a time to speak.

Cognitive Considerations

Human cognition develpes rapidly throughout the first 16 years of life and less rapidly after adulthood. Some of these changes are critical, others are more gradual and difficult to detect. Jean Piaget outlines the course of intellectual development in a child through various stages:

  • The sensorimotor stage from ages 0 to 2
  • The preoperational stage from ages 2 to 7
  • The operational stage from ages 7 to 16

these stages with a crucial change from the concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage around the age of 11. The most critical stage for a consideration of first and second language acquisition appears to occur, in Piaget's outline, at puberty. It is here that a person becomes capable of abstraction, of formal thinking which transcends concrete experience and direct perception.
Ellen Rosansky(1975:96) offers an explanation noting that initial language acquisition takes place when the child is highly "centered" : "He is not only egocentric at this time, but when faced with a problem he can focus (and then only fleetingly) on one dimension at a time.

The lateralization hypothesis may provide another key to cognitive differences between child and adult language acquisition. As the child matures into adulthood, the left hemisphere(which controls the analytical and intellectual functions)becomes more dominant than the right hemisphere(which controls the emotional functions).
Another construct that should be considered in examining the cognitive domain is the Piagetian notion of equilibration. Equilibration is defined as "progressive interior organization of knowledge in a stepwise fashion"(Sullivan 1967:12), and is related to the concept of equilibrium. That is, cognition developes as a process of moving from the states of doubt and uncertainty (disequilibrium) to stages of resolution and certainly (equilibrium) and then back to further doubt that is, in time, also resolved. And so the cycle continues. It is conceivable that disequilibrium may provide the key motivation for language acquisition: language interacts with cognition to achieve equilibrium.

The final consideration in the cognitive domain is the distinction that Ausbel makes between rote and meaningful learning. Ausbel notes that people of all ages have little need for rote, mechanistic learning that is not related to existing knowledge and experience. Rather most items are acquired by meaningful learning, by anchoring and relating new items and experiences to knowledge that exists in the cognitive framework. It is myth to contend that children are good rote learners, that they make good use of meaningless repetition and mimicking.
We may conclude that the foreign language classroom should not become the locus of excessive rote activity - rote drills, pattern practice without context, reciting rules, and other activities that are not in the context of meaningful communication.

Affective Considerations

Human beings are emotional creatures. At the heart of all thought and meaning ana action is emotion. As "intellectual" as we would like to think we are, we are influenced by our emotions.

The affective domain includes many factors: empathy, self-esteem, extroversion, inhibition, imitation, anxiety, attitudes. Some of these may seem at first rather far removed from language learning, but when you consider the pervasive nature of language, any affective factor can conceivably be relevant to second language learning.

A case in point is the role of egocentricity in human development. Very young children are totally egocentric. The world revolves about them, and they see all events as focusing on themselves. Small babies at first do not even distinguish a seperation between themselves and the world around them. A rattle held in baby's hand, for example, is simply an inseperable extension of the baby as long as it is grasped; when the baby drops it or loses sight of it, it ceases to exist. As children grow older they become more aware of themselves, more self-conscious as they seek both to define and understand their self identity. In preadolescence children develope an acute consciousness of themselves as seperate and identifiable entities but ones which, in their still-wavering insecurity, need protecting. They therefore develope inhibitions about this self-identity, fearing to expose to much self-doubt.

Alexander Guiora, a researcher in the study of personality variables in second language learning, proposed what he calle the language ego (Guiora et al. 1972b)to account for the identity of a person develops in reference to the language he or she speaks. Guiora suggested that the language ego may account for the difficulties that adults have in learning a second language. The child's ego is dynamic and this stage does not pose a substantial "threat" or inhibition to the ego and adaptation is made relatively easily as long as there are not undue confounding sociocultural factors such as, for example, a damaging attitude toward language or language group at a young age. However, the simultaneous physical, emotional, and cognitive changes of puberty give rise to a defensive mechanism in which the language ego becomes protective and defensive.

It is no wonder, then, that the acquisition of a new language ego is an enormous undertaking, not only for young adolescents but also for an adult who has grown comfortable and secure in his or her own identity and who possesses inhibitions that serve as a wall of defensive protection arount the ego.
In type 1 comparisonsof first and second language acquisition, ego development and identification may be relevant factors. Type 2 and 3 comparisons are of course highly relevant. These inhibitions surface in modern language classes where the learner's attempts to speak in a foreign language are often fraught with embarrassment.

Another affectively related variable deserves are the role of attitudes in language learning. From the growing body of literature on attitudes, it seems clear that negative attitudes can affect success in learning language. Very young children, however, who are not develped enough cognitively to possess "attitudes" toward races, cultures, ethnic groups, classes of people, and languages are unaffected.

Finally, peer pressure is a particularly important variable in Type 2 and Type 3 comparisons. The peer pressure children encounter in language learning is quite unlike what the adult experiences. Children usually have strong constraints upon them to conform. They are told in words, thoughts, and actions that they had better "be like the rest of the kids." Adults tend to tolerate linguistic differences more than children, and therefore errors in speech are more easily excused.

Linguistic Considerations

It is clear that children learning two languages simultaneously acquire them by the use of similar strategies. Ther are, in essence, learning two languages, and the key to success is in distinguishing separate contexts for two languages. (People who learn second language in such separate context are referred to as coordinate bilinguals; they have two meaning systems, as opposed to compound bilingual who have one meaning system from which both languages operate.)
One could refer to children who are acquiring a second language soon after they have begun to learn their first language(say at age 3 or 4), or as late as age 10. For the most part, research confirms that the linguisitic and cognitive processes of second language learning in children are general similar to first language processes.

Adults, more cognitively secure, appear to operate from the solid foundation of the first language and thus manifest more interference. But it was pointed out earlier that adults, too, manifest errors not unlike some of the errors children make, the result of creative perception of the second language and an attempt to discover its rules apart from the rules of first language. The first language, however, may be more readily used to bridge gaps that the adult learner cannot fill by generalization within the second language. In this case wedo well to remember that the first language can be facilitating factor, and not just an interfering factor.

In The Classroom: The Audiolingual Method

In the first half of this century, the Direct Method did not take hold in United States the way it did in Europe. The highly influential Coleman Report of 1929 (Coleman 1929) had persuaded foreign language teachers that it was impractical to teach oral skills, and that reading should become the focus. Thus schools returned in the 1930s and 1940s to Grammar translation, "the handmaiden if reading" (Bowen et al. 1985).
Then World War II broke out and suddenly the United States was thrust into a worldwide conflict, heightening the need Americans to become orally proficient in the languages of both their allies and their enemies. The time was ripe for a language teaching revolution. The U.S. military provided the impetus with funding for special, intensive language courses that focused on the aural/oral skills; these courses came to be known as the Army Specialized Training Program(ASTP), or, more colloquially, the "Army Method".

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