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First Language vs. Second Language Acquisition

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  • 0:04 Conscious vs Instinct
  • 1:04 Differences vs Similarities
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

As an ESL teaching candidate, knowing the similarities and differences between first language vs. second language acquisition is very important. This topic can be a basis for many teaching approaches. Let's review similarities and differences.

Conscious vs. Instinct

To understand the basic similarities and differences between first language and second language acquisition, let's quickly think of the last time you were around a toddler. Say the toddler is a year old and his name is Charlie. He begins to make noises that are clear intents to articulate words. Sometimes Charlie imitates the adults around him as they talk. Little by little, Charlie is able to say short phrases, words to indicate what he wants, etc.

Now let's think of Carlos. He's a Spanish speaker who just moved to the U.S. a month ago and is now attending third grade in an English speaking school. Carlos is lost. Due to his age, the new environment, plus the fact he knows he would sound different if he tried to articulate English terms, Carlos will have to go through a conscious process of learning English. This is the opposite of Charlie, who acts based on instinct.

With this basic difference, let's go ahead and explore more similarities and differences between first language and second language acquisition.

Differences vs. Similarities

We know that humans acquire their first language based on the instinct of needing to communicate with others. Conversely, humans acquire a second language through a conscious effort to learn. This basic difference leads to other differences between the two processes. Let's look at differences first, then move on to the similarities.

This chart we have here for you on your screen gives you an overview of the basic differences between first language and second language acquisition. We include an example to illustrate each difference, taking Charlie and Carlos as models.

First Language Second Language Example
Begins with telegraphic speech Can begin with full sentences Charlie says 'want water' while Carlos learns to say 'I would like some water.'
Is a natural part of daily life Is a new aspect in the learner's life Charlie simply lives a life in English while Carlos has it as a part of his school day.
Is based in universal grammar by itself Has a basis in first language grammar Charlie learns grammar patterns without knowing it whereas Carlos remembers adjectives in Spanish while his English teacher gives him a list of English adjectives.
Doesn't require conscious effort Requires conscious effort Charlie simply follows his instinct to communicate whereas Carlos tries hard to learn to pronounce, use correct grammar, etc.
Is based in listening as a first resource Is based in content that involves technical knowledge of the language Charlie listens all day to his mom, whereas Carlos receives material specifically developed for language learning purposes.
Doesn't require instruction Requires instruction Charlie's mom certainly doesn't teach him any grammar whereas Carlos has a specialized English teaching professional to provide instruction.

By now, we might be thinking Carlos is certainly at a disadvantage because his process to learn English requires hard work. However, there are some similarities between first language acquisition (FLA) and second language acquisition (SLA).

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