Although scientists are still hotly debating the relative importance of nature and nurture in human development, there is a growing agreement that both of them are critical and they work together to shape the way babies acquire languages—first languages, to be specific.
How do children acquire second languages?
This is another one-million dollar question. (Yes, another one. Last one is How babies acquire languages?) And I am sure this one has long intrigued linguists, biologist, psychologists, educators and alike as well.
It turns out second language acquisition shows parallels but also a lot of differences to first language acquisition. And second language acquisition theories were developed along the lines of first language acquisition theories.
(One of the most well-known theories of second language acquisition is Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Model, which consists of five main hypotheses. For more information, please visit http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html)
Young children, especially under age 6-7, appear to learn two langauges as one (it is Never too early to learn second tongue, isn’t it?). “For these children, then, second-language acquisition is not a process of discovering what language is, but rather of discovering what this language is” (Tabors, 1997, p. 12).
The elements of a new language, such as vocabulary, negating phrases, phonological components, and grammatical structures, are developed similar to the learning stages that babies go through when acquiring the first language: babbling (bababa), vocabulary (milk then later milk drink), negation (no play), and question forming (where she go).
At about 6-7 years of age and beyond, children begin to separate the two languages. Compared to first language acquisition, the process of second language acquisition is not linear: it is more like a zigzag path.
For these children, second languages are rather learned than acquired. In most cases, second languages are taught via formal instruction and are learned via a conscious process which results into “knowing about language” (Krashen, 1982:10).
In addition, interference from children’s native phonology, morphology, and syntax influences their second languages and creates difficulties. They may find it hard to recognize some of the sounds of a new language, or move their mouths and tongues in unfamiliar ways (resulting in a foreign accent).
Furthermore, the self-consciousness and learner motivation felt by second language learners when they attempt to new languages may also make the acquiring process problematic.
Therefore, to achieve acquisition, children have to be consistently exposed to the correct use of second languages in many different linguistic contexts that are meaningful to them. Besides, this kind of acquisition occurs gradually over time.
As to how second language acquisition actually takes place, researcher Stephen Krashen explains that children acquire a second language by receiving input in the target language that is just slightly above their current level of acquired understanding.
That is mouthful, isn’t? To make it simple, let’s use the illustration i + 1. If a learner is at a stage “i”, then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to “comprehensible input” that belongs to level “i + 1”(Krashen, 1985).
For example, language programs (level “i + 1”), which contain higher level of comprehensible input than the current level of children’s textbooks (stage “i”), help facilitate their acquisition of second languages.
Similar to first language acquisition, positive variables, such as high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety, play a facilitative, but non-causal, role in children’s second language acquisition.
Christina Gitsaki (1998): Second Language Acquisition Theories: Overview and Evaluation. Journal of Communication and International Studies, Volume 4, (2), 89-98.
Elizabeth Coelho & Dyanne Rivers (2003): Adding English: a guide to teaching in multilingual classrooms, Pippin Publishing, October.
Ricardo Schütz: Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition (last revised on July 2, 2007). Retrieved from World Wide Web at http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html
Tabors, P. (1997). One child, two languages. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. (ERIC Document No. ED405987)
Stages of baby’s language acquisition
How babies acquire languages?
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Being bilingual boosts brain power
Never too early to learn second tongue
Pre- and perinatal education
Parents: child’s life-time teachers