Factors Affecting Second Language Acquisition

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  • 0:00 Second Language Acquisition
  • 0:43 Individual Factors
  • 3:17 Academic Factors
  • 4:12 Sociopolitical Factors
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Carla Dash

Carla Dash has a BA in English and a MA in teaching. She has taught middle-school ESL and science as well as college-level sociology.

Many factors impact second language acquisition. In this lesson, you will learn about some of the individual, academic, and sociopolitical forces acting on second language learners.

Second Language Acquisition

Let's say you wanted to learn how to draw a penguin. Are materials and determination all that you need to succeed? Does it matter what you ate for breakfast? How much sleep you got last night? How steady your hands are? How good your memory is? If other people will see your drawing? Your reason for learning? All these factors influence how long it will be before you're sketching penguin masterpieces, and the same is true for students learning a second language. Individual, academic, and sociopolitical factors play a role in both the speed and depth of their language acquisition.

Individual Factors

Let's look at some of the individual factors affecting second language acquisition.

First, there is age. The earlier a learner is exposed to a second language, the greater proficiency the learner is able to achieve. Older learners have greater cognitive ability and are able to employ learning strategies more effectively. As a result, they pass through the initial stages of language learning more quickly. However, in the long run, learners that are exposed to a second language at an earlier age surpass older learners in native-like proficiency.

Another factor is language transfer and interference. Students whose first language resembles the second have an easier time learning the new language. This is because they are able to transfer knowledge from their first language and apply it to the new one. For instance, it's easier for a Spanish speaker to learn English vocabulary, which shares many cognates with Spanish, such as penguin and pingüino, than a Chinese speaker, whose language shares very few. Penguin and qì'é? Who can remember that? If the languages are too dissimilar, carrying over knowledge from the first language can lead to mistakes in or interference with the second language. So a student whose first language does not inflect verbs to indicate tense may consistently say things like, 'The penguin eat the fish yesterday.'

If a learner has intrinsic motivation for a task, they are driven by their own desires and rewards, they are more likely to work hard at the task. Students who have an authentic need to learn a second language, such as being immersed in a community that primarily speaks that language, have an impetus to acquire the language quickly. However, if a learner has extrinsic motivation, they are learning due to external pressure or rewards, they are less likely to try as hard. If a student is able to communicate at home and in their community in their first language and only needs to use the second at school to get good grades, they have less motivation to master the second language.

Attitude is another factor. Just as you would be more likely to persevere in drawing penguins if you found drawing them fun and less likely to if you found it frustrating, a student who has a positive attitude about a language (for example, if it is useful for their future) is more persistent than a student that resents having to learn a second language, feels that it is unimportant, or has a negative opinion of the culture that speaks it.

Academic Factors

The greatest factor that contributes to a student's ability to acquire a second language is exposure to the language. Therefore, abundant examples of high-quality, native-level input in the target language is imperative for learners to hear on a regular basis.

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