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An Overview of Second Language Acquisition

Second language acquisition is the phrase used to describe the process that people go through
when confronted by a need to use a language other than their native one for communication.
People acquire their first and second languages differently. Some of the issues and processes
involved in language acquisition include the idea of innateness (Is language ability determined
genetically?), the relevance of the language input the language learner receives, and the nature
of early (developmental) grammars (O'Grady, 299).

The linguistic development of children depends upon the linguistic experiences of childhood
and the language and language structures that children encounter. Therefore, the burden of
language exposure falls upon children's parents and caretakers. A common approach among
the caretakers of children (and the teachers of adults, too) is to "dumb-down" the language
used or to speak "baby-talk" with the language learners. Some research suggests that this
altering of normal speech leaves learners with an "impoverished stimulus" and may actually
interfere with or delay the learners' language acquisition.

Much of the literature on ESL instruction suggests that natural environment or "language
immersion" courses will provide students with the most opportunities for learning and greatest
success. To some extent, though, a traditional English classroom may prove equally as
beneficial for some students, particularly when the objective is learning structured (versus
non-structured) communication tasks that are predictable. An advantage of a natural
environment or language immersion classroom, in which tasks and conversations center on
real language use and the learning of needed terms and concepts is that teachers are less
inclined to "dumb down" their talk and speak "teacher-ese" or "foreigner-talk." The richer the
stimulus and the more real the language, the better chance learners of a second language have
to become fluent speakers of that language (O'Grady, 301).

There are differences between language learning and language acquisition. It is generally
believed that the younger the person, the easier natural language acquisition is for him/ her;
this idea includes the Critical Period Hypothesis, which suggests that there is a chronological
cut-off point in adolescence after which a language learner cannot attain fluency. Language
acquisition ability, however, does not disappear in adulthood; it instead combines with a
conscious learning function, against which natural language use is verified. For this
verification, adults usually require a certain amount of time, the reduction of excessive stress
(in order to be able to think about correctness), and sufficient understanding of the rules of the
language being studied.

The differences between language acquisition and learning can be summarized as follows
(Krashen, 27):

Acquisition Learning

similar to child's first language acquisition formal knowledge of language

"picking up" a language "knowing about" a language

subconscious conscious
implicit knowledge explicit knowledge

formal teaching does not help formal teaching helps

Although second language teaching is typically directed at learning and not acquisition, it is
still possible to encourage acquisition very effectively in the classroom. It is useful to know
that several studies agree that there is a remarkable similarity in the order in which learners of
English as a second language (adults and children alike) acquire common grammatical forms
or morphemes.

Krashen (27) also suggests the following is the common order of acquisition of grammatical
morphemes for learners of English as a Second Language (adults and children alike):

I. Progressive (-ing)
Verb "to be"
II. Auxiliary verbs
Articles (a, an, the)
III. Irregular past
IV. Regular past
Third person singular (-s)

Many people (teachers included) think that an ESL teacher should speak another language,
particularly that of her/his students; however, native language literacy instruction is a separate
endeavor. Initial literacy instruction in a student's native language may provide the most
effective entry point into adult education for some learners, particularly those with minimal
literacy skills in the first language (Gillespie, 2). On the other hand, in a typical ESL
classroom, speaking to students in a second (or third) language will not necessarily help with
the improvement of their English.

Use of a student's first language is not bad. Nonetheless, teachers and students should carefully
weigh how, when, and why the first language should be used. Communicating in another
language may be a useful community building skill to be taken advantage of during breaks, for
translation or explanation, or perhaps when a student wishes to discuss a difficult matter
privately (Auerbach, 94). Communicative competence and not a recitable understanding of the
rules of English is the goal; therefore, facilitators of learning should seek to offer content-
based learning and cultivate opportunities for cooperative learning through peer interaction
and rich participant contribution(s) (Auerbach, 14).