Comparing First and Second Language Acquisition Theories Essay (Critical Writing)


First language acquisition refers to the way in which the native language (mother tongue) is acquired, internalized, used and propagated. Second language acquisition on the other hand refers to the manner in which any other language is acquired, internalized, used and propagated.

This paper explores the similarities and difference exhibited by first and second language acquisition theories such as; the innateness, cognitive, interaction and behaviourist theories of language acquisition. It centres on the proficiency and effectiveness of each theory with respect to the mode of language acquisition, reliability and retention of such acquired language.

A Critical Exposition Comparing First and Second Language Acquisition

First language acquisition is multifaceted; occurring naturally at birth – for even the cry of a baby can to some extend be considered a mode of verbal communication, a skill which is governed by an inherent program and calling for little or no intervention from external agents. The child is basically autonomous in the invention of language; they are born with the Universal Grammar programmed into their cognitive domain and thus are capable of acquiring and inventing their native language with ease.

For instance, when a child listen to mature people, he unconsciously recognizes the kind of language at hand and in the same note he would set parameters by setting his grammar to the most appealing one. It is as though a certain approach to language were given him at birth, which he relates to what is transpiring in his vicinity. He can intuitively note those words which depict nouns, verbs and the grammatical order of the phrase or sentence. This information is merely given – not formally taught.

It is as though the child was initially equipped with the necessary language acquisition tools. Thus, the native language can only be acquired but not learnt, as it is the case with second language acquisition. This assertion does not discredit the language acquisition support system, which holds that external agents such as the family members and group mates are of paramount importance in the language acquisition of a child.

At best the learning of language by a child during the ego development stage of early childhood can be described as the child’s play, for even the discovery and the enrichment of the language is such a wonder to children. This has been proven to be an emblem for the necessary approaches for first language acquisition (Brown, 2000, p. 23).

The child does not just receive the native language, but rather synthesizes it afresh. While the acquisition of first language is naturally spontaneous, a reduced number of second language learners find it almost virtually impossible to internalize the second language.

First language acquisition is therefore marked with a greater degree of success than it is the case with second language learning. In addition, though there is minimal discrepancy in the in the final proficiency for first language acquisition, there is a wide variation of the extent to which people acquire a second language.

The formal scenario of second language acquisition which normally takes place in a classroom is more organized and systematic; stressing on what should be taught and when it should be taught. It is characterized by minimal concern on how learners should be perfected in internalizing and owning the language.

Due to the utilitarian nature of language, second language acquisition proves to be of an inestimable worth at the national, regional and global level. This arises from the fact that a person’s first language is not universal and thus second languages which are generally dominant find their place in connecting people of different cultures, races, nations and ethnic groups.

The second language thus does provide the best channel for social interactions, formal instruction in learning institutions and official purposes. Language attrition is one main challenge posed by second language acquisition, immigrants are more prone to this challenge because of a change of their language environment, and they are likely to lose the taste of their first language (Wanner, 1980, p. 57).

Language acquisition is depended on the exposure availed to the learner. The settings under which the first language is acquired are narrow and limited as compared to those under which a second language is acquired. Whereas the first language learner is only exposed to the family members who are culturally limited in their interaction with the learner, the second language learner has a wide exposure, interacting with a varied broad spectrum of acquaintances either accidentally or in a highly structured setting.

The intensity of this exposure is relatively constant for the first language learner, as compared to the deep exposure for second language learner favoured by the good interactive environment at his/her disposal.

The wide range of age difference between first language acquisition and the second language acquisition is another distinguishing factor. Obvious as it may seem, age deviation affects the learner’s attitudes, preferences, and motivations, cognitive and mental stamina. Thirst for knowledge and the drive of inquiry involves the first language learner in a proactive search for thorough comprehension of linguistic necessities.

The first language learner finds excitement in probing, synthesizing and recreating his/her native language, thus developing an ownership of the language in which he/she is best at home. Teenagers and adults have a more developed mental and cognitive strength than the intuitive reasoning of children and are better placed in making rational and informed choices on the kind of linguistic devices they need to master.

The fact that second language learners are already equipped with the first language may be a hindrance to their proficiency in acquiring the second language unless they are under pressure to internalize it; this is because it may encourage linguistic complacency which is detrimental to linguistic prosperity (Bowen, 1998, p. 1).

Language acquisition theories are compared hereafter, based on the evidence of psycholinguistic researches. The premises explored below in comparing the first and second language acquisition, is aimed at guiding educational policy makers in the language domain to draw informed instructional policies at the national level.

Innateness versus cognitive theory: The learning of a first language is multi-faceted and is not merely an issue of learning vocabulary and syntax

The acquisition of the first language by a child is accompanied by many other peripheral developmental structures, such as emotions, psyche, social relationships and play. Intertwined with first language acquisition, all these developmental structures are depended on and promote first language acquisition.

For instance, a child begins with a limited set of functions linguistically, which are characterized by intonation contours and a narrowed class of words of expression. A study on conversational proficiency has shown that children use language for their social interplay, and such neither happens simultaneously nor through uncoordinated monologues (Wagner, 2006, p. 1).

The second language learner, on the other hand, is unlikely to embrace the emotional effect of language, unless it is engineered by close associates. The educational purpose dominates the acquisition of the second language, in which case the learner acquires a new set of skills work with, and gains a global outlook linguistically. His linguistic competency is therefore depended on his needs, interests, tastes and preferences.

Although, the acquisition of a second language is multi-faceted, it shares some rich resemblance to the acquisition of the first language, as relates to the relevance of the acquired language. In both cases the zeal of the learner in language acquisition largely depends on the function of the language befitting the learner in the future (Thurston, 2010, p. 1). This underscores the indispensable utility value of language in all human interactions.

Cognitive versus interaction theory: The child’s mental capacity somewhat determines his/her language acquisition potential and the extend of using such a language

Recent research has shown that psychological processes such as memory, attention, organization and retention are more developed for a second language learner than those for a first language learner (Vivian, 1979, p. 1). For instance, an adult is better equipped in directing and sustaining their attention in language acquisition than does a child.

Mental strategies of organization and correlation are essential boosters of memory and a child is disadvantaged in this area of retaining the acquired language because of their limited psychological faculties. Children basically have a shorter span of instant memory due to a reduced number of mental slots and a limited information processing ability as compared to the fully developed mental strength of adults.

Nonetheless, if the linguistic task at hand is more calling than the learner’s optimal mental capacity, the second learner’s linguistic competency is as limited as the first learner’s.

Moreover, engagements with reduced linguistic necessities such as deductive reasoning and the certification of order relations may be carried out almost in the same way for a second language as in a first. In these immediate linguistic barriers, the range of age deviation is of little effect, in both cases the learner’s initial contact with the language is marked with similar uncertainties and difficulties.

A striking deviation is however noticed in the spontaneous conscious involvement of the second learner in the language acquisition process as evidenced by his/her active strategies of self- evaluation (Heather, 2010, p. 1). Second language acquisition is mostly identified by the learner’s special interest in grammatical rules and a mastery of word structures, the conscious keen observance of linguistic devices ensures a logically structured encoding mechanism enhancing linguistic memory.

It is therefore imperative that in teaching the second language, the various forms of mental handicaps be taken into consideration. For instance, the linguistic devices presented to the learner should match the learner’s mental span. In addition, the spontaneous linguistic strategy for first language acquisition should not be overlooked in re-inventing the second language.

These include association of related words and phrases, clustering of vocabulary in the memory, correlation of intertwined literal concepts and drawing inferences in the language acquisition process (Pinker, 2009, p. 1).

Innateness versus interaction theory: The acquisition of the first language is autonomous and complete on its own. It does not constitute the second system of language acquisition.

This theory is build upon the hypothesis that the child’s language system in first language acquisition is a fully fledged complete system on its own; it is not merely a portion of the second language system. The child does not follow the logical sequences of programmed language acquisition evident in the adult system, rather he has an inherent system of his own whose approach whose dealings are entirely different to the adult’s, although with time it eventually crystallized to the adult’s.

This theory asserts that a child is born with an inherent universal grammar within its cognitive domain. Thus, the nature of language acquisition is autonomous and is characterized by the child’s personal grammatical rules, set of language functions and semantic meanings. Though there has been a question as to whether the same is true of phonologically (Ohta, 2010, p. 34).

This hypothesis has found its application in second language acquisition, and has been the pillar of inter-language mode of instruction has been built. The inter-language is like the child’s system, which is a system of its own. It goes through a gradual process of change developing towards the targeted language.

Nevertheless, unlike the child, the second language learner falls short of realizing the targeted language –the scope of which scope is broad. Barriers along the process of second language acquisition, may to some extent, pose the challenge of linguistic paralysis to the learner hence ‘fossilizing’ the second language.

The actual teaching of the second language is however not limited the inter-language hypothesis. Upon the integration of inter-language in the instruction of the second language, the learner learns the language bit by bit. For example, in teaching English as the second language, the instructor should proceed from that which is known to the learner to the unknown, from simple to complex and from the familiar to the unfamiliar with respect to grammar, syntax, and phonology.

In spite of this, the learner is not exposed to developing a more complex system of tenses as does a native. Thus, the second learner acquires just a fragment of the native language, limiting his/her competence in the language.

Behaviourist versus cognitive theory: The utility value of the first language is basically depended on the learner/child’s preferences, tastes and wants.

The child’s perception of the world around him is best illustrated by the way in which the child uses his first language; thus the first language acts as the child’s key of unlocking the immerse social interactive wealth. The second language learner also does enjoy this functional value of language acquisition, particularly when it takes place in unconventional areas (outside the classroom). The necessity of the use of the second acquired language can also be illustrated by immigrants who have to use the second language in its native setting.

The importance of the functional approach to the teaching of languages cannot be underestimated, for it embraces the learner’s future needs and interests than the immediate ones. It is evidently different from the first language acquisition, in which language learning is aimed at addressing current needs (Long, 2003, p. 1). Presumably, language teachers should take note of the learner’s psychological and social needs, thus exploiting exhaustively both the integrative and instrumental motivations of the learner.

Innateness versus cognitive theory: Though language development is somehow independent of cognition, it is to some measure affected by cognition.

While some aspects of language development are autonomous, in rare occasions prior possession of certain cognitive faculties is a boost to language development. It is therefore apparent that mental ability is the epicentre of language development, though language development is not limited to it. Piaget has shown that the development of language is connected to the child’s phases of cognitive development.

During the early sensory- motor stage the child acquires a developing cognitive schema necessary for language acquisition (Birdsong, 1999, p. 21). At seven years, the child is normally conservative, but during the formal operational stage in the youth it becomes apparent that speech development is the cause other than the effect of cognitive development. The second language learner is at a higher stage of cognitive development than the child and hence has a greater cognitive maturity.

This impact of mental strength to language acquisition explains the marked difference in the ease of language acquisition ion between a first language learner and a second language learner. The order of language acquisition is therefore relatively easy and quick for the second learner than for the first learner, because of his mature cognitive faculties

Behaviourist versus interaction theory: Mature people are reserved and develop a simple logical way of addressing the young ones.

Family members, in their interaction with the young ones, are more reserved and carefully opt for a clear and simple way of talking. Such simplification strategies include; short utterances, restriction of tenses, repetition, exaggerated intonation, recasting sentences (motherese). In some cases, the child’s learning strategy and the mother’s interaction may deviate, thus causing learning to be delayed (Clark, 2003, p. 45).

In formal instruction institutions, care should be taken to strike a balance between the conventional requirement of language acquisition and the ardent need of interactive exposure in language acquisition. It is therefore, necessary for the instructor to establish the degree to which he needs to design the formal learning situation to be akin to that in the informal language learning settings.

This would make the classroom experience of language acquisition more dynamic and flexible with reduced teacher participation, yet availing a great wealth of interactive language acquisition activities (Mason, 2010, p. 1).

Behaviourist versus interaction theory: The social demand compels the child to integrate the acquired language to diverse social scenarios.

Recent research has attempted to demystify the manner in which a child and a mature person integrate language to diverse social scenarios, especially when they speak with a certain group audience. It has thus been noted that adult language is dynamic (Vivian, 1979, p. 1). For instance, adult language behaviour is carefully selected to fit perfectly to varied social contexts; it is formal when attending to official functions or in interacting with the mature, and considerately simple when speaking to the little ones.

Research asserts that a child exhibits the same flexibility. Toddlers, for instance often keep mum in the presence of visitors, but are quite free to express themselves in the absence of the visitors. Humbled formal politeness is exhibited by young ones when interacting with visitors. Generally, the flexibility of a child’s speech code is minimal below the age of five years, but it is gradually heightened after this age to a fully fledged dynamism at maturity (Vivian, 1979, p. 1).

Second language learner adaptation of language to particular situations has been under explored by researchers as compared to the child’s. Nonetheless it is worth mentioning that, due to confinement in the classroom situation coupled with the formal nature of classroom interactions, the end result is a rigid language.


In a nutshell, language acquisition is multi-faceted and it is defined by converging as well as diverging objectives, varied modes of acquisition, different stages of development, alternating depths of acquisition and it can be evaluated by the extent of its success.


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