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The Role of Native Language in Second Language Acquisition

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the various schools of thought surrounding the use of native language in second-language education, ranging from using it often to not using it at all.

Learning a New Language

Learning a second language can be a fun but frustrating experience. It can open up new doors in life and a career, such as allowing you to speak to neighbors from a foreign country or giving you the inside track on a bilingual position in your company. For all its benefits, few people ever learn a second language, because truly mastering one can be quite difficult. There are many reasons for this difficulty, but in this lesson we will discuss one of the more contentious subjects in second language education: the role of a student's native language, or the language the student grew up speaking.

There are various schools of thought as to the best way to acquire knowledge of a second language, and one of the major differences of opinion centers on whether or not the student's native language should be used. The battle between those who support its use and those who oppose it is actually rather fierce. In the following sections, we will break down the the current landscape and talk about when a student's native language is used extensively, sparingly, or not at all.

Native Language Used Often

Many older language learning systems allow the use of the native language extensively. Indeed, many encourage it, especially those systems which teach grammar first and foremost. It allows for the explanation of complex grammatical concepts, especially ones which don't exist in the speaker's native language (such as feminine or masculine words for English speakers) in terms which the student can readily understand.

Proponents of these systems also think students gain a quicker ability to read and write in their second language when they are taught using their native language. As the student's education is more focused on grammar and language concepts, proponents claim students grasp the language's inherent structure quicker and are able to effectively read and write in their second language sooner than if they are not allowed to use their native language.

Furthermore, studies that espouse the use of the native language often encourage the use of translation and claim that frequent translation from a student's native language to their second language and vice versa helps a student recognize similar root words and make key connections. This, in turn, leads to a more in-depth investigation of the parts of speech in each language and a better understanding of how each language works. Understanding important parts of speech and root words aids the student later when beginning to speak in their second language.

No Use of Native Language

In contrast with older ones, more recent language learning systems do not allow students to speak their native language at all. These include so-called immersion systems which, as the name suggests, teach a second language through forcing students to read, learn, and speak in their second language only. In some countries, such as Canada, entire schools exist where all of the students' work and classroom instruction is done in their second language.

Contrary to claims made by those who encourage the use of native language, proponents of limiting native language use claim students learn to read and write quicker when not allowed to use their native language. This is because forcing a student to do all their work in their second language naturally makes them learn and understand how the new language works in order to complete their work.

According to its proponents, not allowing the student to speak at all in their native language allows them to make important cognitive connections in their second language and learn new words by creating word associations between other words and definitions in their new language, rather than relying on translation. This not only increases their vocabulary but also aids their comfort level in their new language. Additionally, students in language immersion systems often learn to speak their second language before they learn proper grammar, meaning they continue to learn to correct their speech as they go, not always learning why it is correct. This is very similar to how we learn a first language.

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