Eliza Killpack


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To what extent does first language acquisition differ to second language acquisition?

I'm doing a project under the question: to what extent does first language acquisition differ to second language acquisition?

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

My project focuses on the different processes that may be at work in the minds of children and adults as they go about learning their first and second (or third, or fourth...) languages. Is there really a 'critical age' after which we cannot effectively learn languages? What can explain the remarkable rate of child language acquisition in comparison with the relative failure of adults attempting to do the same thing?

I've talked about Chomsky's 'LAD', the 'critical age', and quality and quantity of input from carers/teachers; does anyone have any further, interesting speculations? I'd be interested to discover what people think; this really is a hot topic, especially with the emergence of English as a global language. I'm also interested about what happens when bilingualism comes into play. Does anyone have any curious, humorous or otherwise interesting personal experiences with first/second language learning?

  • Dec 5 2011: Eliza
    I think your question is an interesting one. Language acquisition does differ between adults and children. I learned (at least fairly well) another language as an adult. My children grew up bilingual.

    I believe adult learners need a combination of traditional classroom method, mixed with specific everyday life practice. The people whom I saw learn another language did so because they did both things. Adults are pre-programmed through years of education to need the classroom for some sort of structure. Actually getting in the street or in everyday life and practicing however is also needed. There has to be I think the structure upon which to construct the everyday vocabulary and grammar. It is hard work.

    My children learned Spanish in life. For them language acquisition was not a theoretical exercise, but a means of communication. My former wife and I marveled at the fact that after only four months our two year old + daughter spoke better Spanish than we did. Our son, because he was in Day Care, said agua before he said water. Neither of them ever spoke to us in Spanish because English was how you communicated with parents. Both of them have far better accents and knowledge of street Spanish than I do (some words I don’t want to necessarily know) but I have a much better vocabulary and grammatical structure.

    It is funny that evidently former students told stories about my Spanish mistakes for years. As someone who is considering a life change and teaching ESL outside of the US I will be interested to see your results.
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    Dec 4 2011: I think there is a critical age for ease of learning other languages, and it must be something to do with the formative period of brain development when there is a high intensity of neural connections being made.

    Bearing that in mind, if children and teenagers are living in an environment where being multi-lingual is the family or educational norm, it becomes second nature and easy. An adult living in a similar environment may also become multi-lingual, but it will be much more difficult and take longer.

    I think the acquisition of computer literacy is similar, which is possibly why so many adults either do not go anywhere near a computer at all, or struggle with it (it is effectively a 'different language'). Younger people are very competent and just seem to deal with computer language and procedures almost without thinking about it.
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    Dec 31 2011: Hello all,

    Thank you for all your helpful insights - I will be sure to incorporate what I can to my project. I hope to follow up on your suggestions soon. Andrew I will take a look at your website, sounds great.

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    Dec 30 2011: Hi Eliza,
    I am in the process of writing a book where this will be explored in full. Essentially as adults we have added "complications" because of our developments of our intellect and emotions as adults as well as the education we have had. All this had added layersbut essentially we can still access our learning powers of infants. Essentially the people who are "talented" language learners are the ones who do.
    My main website http://www.stratgeiesinlanguagelearning.com explores these differences and similarities in a way that any language learner can understand. You might be interested in it.