By Kamil Wiśniewski July 26th, 2007
The second language acquisition process differs from the first language acquisition in most cases. Apart from the situations in which a child is raised by parents using two different languages on everyday basis, or in a country in which there are two languages in common use, the most usual situation is learning a second language not from infancy, but at school, or even later. therefore, the very circumstances of language acquisition are different, and thus the process itself shows certain distinctive features.
In applied linguistics and language methodology various manners of second language learning/acquisition are acknowledged. Therefore, if a person learns a language in a community that uses a different mother tongue, then the process is called foreign language learning, so a German child learning English in a school in Germany learns it as a foreign language, because English is not usually used on everyday basis outside the classroom. However, if a German child living in Britain in a German-speaking community learns English the process is called learning English as a second language, since English is not foreign in Britain.
Moreover, linguists and language teachers distinguish between learning and acquisition. Hence, the term learning is used to describe a conscious process that includes thorough explanation of grammar rules, practice of those rules, as well as memorizing lists of vocabulary. Learning is what we usually experience during classroom lessons. Acquisition, on the other hand, is an unconscious process which does not involve tutelage and is more dependent on the amount of exposure to language and interaction.
There are numerous factors affecting the process of second language acquisition. It most frequently occurs in a classroom situation, which means fewer hours in which learners are exposed to language comparing to first language acquisition. Moreover, there are many things happening in classes that disturb the process, such as embarrassment and fear of making mistakes, lack of motivation to learn or unwillingness to sound foreign because of lack of sympathy towards the target language culture. When factors such as stress or self-consciousness also occur linguists tend to talk of affective factors which influence the entire process.
What is characteristic of second language acquisition, but not of the first language acquisition process is so called transfer. This term denotes the act of trying to apply the pronunciation, word order, vocabulary or some expression form the mother tongue to the target language learnt at the moment. When the transfer is successful, for example a word from the learners’ native language has been used while using the target language and such a word indeed exists in the target language (either with different pronunciation, or not) the learner has benefited from a positive transfer. However, when in a similar attempt the learner tries to use a structure, or a word from the native language, but such a word, or structure does not exist in the target language the learner makes use of the negative transfer.
When students learn some foreign language they do it gradually. They start with simple words and grammar constructions and proceed to more complex structures. The methods that are most frequently used to teach foreign languages stress that certain factors in the process resemble the process of the first language acquisition. Therefore, errors are often perceived as natural indication that the process of the second language acquisition occurs. As in the first language acquisition certain errors are predictable and determined by the current level of proficiency. However, there is also a large number of errors that cannot be accounted for as negative transfer, because the forms used do not exist in learners’ mother tongue, but also do not exist in the target language. That supports the idea that learners create a sort of in-between system of their own while learning a foreign language called interlanguage.
Studies show that the earlier the process of second language acquisition begins the better the results will be. Although there are some exceptions to this rule usually people who started learning second language as young children have better linguistic competence. Most of the people learning a foreign language reach a certain level of fluency, or use some phrases that would not be used by the native users of the target language. Thus it is said that learners’ interlanguage fossilizes, which means that it does not improve anymore. Fossilization is most likely to occur in pronunciation as after puberty it is difficult to learn to sound like a native speaker.