Reviewing First and Second Language Acquisition:

A Comparison between Young and Adult Learners


                                                          Hiromi Hadley

                                                                        Niigata Studies in Foreign Languages and Cultures,

                                                                        No. 8:  37-48 (December 2002).



1.  Introduction

As an English language teacher in Japan, I am often asked by language learners or their parents if there is a way to acquire English just as they acquired Japanese so effortlessly and well when they were little.  Especially the parents of young children genuinely hope to give them a head start on their learning, because the parents themselves experienced the helpless feeling of failing to acquire what is now a de facto international language.  They seem to know instinctively that the traditional language education they received was not very effective.  After so much time and effort spent in class, they found themselves unable to carry out a simple everyday conversation with a native speaker of English. 


In order to adequately provide an educated answer to this heartfelt question, this paper will attempt to shed light on some of the important differences in learning a first language and learning a language in the classroom.  Of particular interest will be the issue of language input as an external factor and the learner’s age as an internal factor.  I will then discuss their implications for English language learning in the classrooms in Japan.  It is hoped that these findings will encourage second language learners and parents, as well as practicing teachers, to reflect upon their own learning and teaching strategies.


2. Variables in Comparison and Contrast

Before weighing the differences between learning an L1 and learning an L2 in the classroom, however, there is at least another variable that needs to be addressed.  Considering the cognitive and affective differences between children and adults (Brown, 1994: 51), it is simpler to compare young children learning an L1 and young children learning an L2 in the classroom.  Nevertheless, this paper will attempt to undertake the comparison of children learning an L1 and adults learning an L2 in classroom settings, in order to relate to the current situation here in Japan where most people start receiving their formal English language education in junior high school.  Although it is debatable as to where one may draw the line between childhood and adulthood, it is generally agreed that the distinction should reasonably be made before and after puberty (Brown, 1994: 51).   Based on the above premise, the two types of learning will be compared and contrasted by referring to literature on first and second language acquisitions, and my own learning, teaching, and interactional experiences as a student, teacher of the English language, and spouse of a native speaker of English. 


3.  Input as an External Factor

One of the noticeable differences in learning an L1 in a natural setting and learning an L2 in the classroom seems to be the quantity and quality of the target language input the learner receives in her learning environment.  Let us first consider the more obvious one of the two; the quantitative aspect of the learner input.    


3.1  Quantity of the Learner Input

Babies and young children typically receive a vast amount of language of various kinds day after day, whereas, in comparison, the amount of language input is quite limited in the language classroom except in an immersion class.  This distinction is even more marked in an EFL environment such as Japan, where a typical class meets for 50 minutes, three to five times a week in junior and senior high schools, and for 90 minutes, once a week at universities.  Moreover, within these limited class hours of traditional, teacher-fronted classrooms, the Japanese language is frequently used to conduct the lesson.


3.1.1  Connectionism

The connectionist approach to learning has seen a remarkable advancement with the development of computer technology, and recently been applied to L2 learning.  It argues that the human brain functions like a computer. The brain unconsciously analyzes incoming data and makes connections between them.  These data connections become strengthened as the associations keep recurring.  As the number of connections increases, the brain makes generalizations from the input, and creates larger neural networks (Mitchell and Myles, 1998: 79).


In terms of language learning, according to this model, what the language learner needs to know is available in the language he is exposed to.  Thus, language input is the principal source of linguistic knowledge.  When the brain hears recurring language items in a specific context, it searches for associations between the elements, and create connections between them.  These connections become stronger as the learner comes in frequent contact with the language items in the same context.  On the other hand, the connections weaken when the input is infrequent  (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 22 and 42).


Connectionism, however, has its share of criticism.  It is accused of being purely environmentalistic, in that it does not consider innate faculty nor cognitive processing for language acquisition, and that it might imply a return to behaviourist stimulus-response practice (Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 250-251).  In addition, since connectionist research on second language acquisition has so far dealt only with simple morphemes in highly controlled laboratories, it may be premature at this point to decide from these experiments what might be understood about the process of learning natural languages in the ‘real world’ (Mitchell and Myles, 1998: 84).


3.1.2  Implications of Connectionism

Although it is still unclear how far the findings can apply to the complexities of natural language learning situations, connectionism may at least explain the acquisition of basic vocabulary and grammatical items in the target language (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 26 and 42).  If the language learning process depends on the input frequency and regularity, as the connectionist model implies, L1 learners have a greater advantage over L2 learners.  By constantly receiving a vast amount of language input in a specific, recurring and meaningful situational context, children are likely to daily develop stronger neurological connections.  Connectionism might also explain part of the reasons why most Japanese learners of English often fail to maintain a short conversation with a native speaker even after years of the formal language learning.  It is possible that their neurological networks have not sufficiently developed because of the sporadic input they receive in their classrooms.


Connectionism seems to clarify the importance of the amount of the language input that the learner receives, but it also highlights the significance of input quality in terms of frequency and regularity.  What other qualities of the input, then, are observed in children’s acquisition of their L1?  How different are they from the input that adult L2 learners typically receive in the classroom?


3.2  Quality of the Learner Input

The need for controlled input was also advocated by Krashen as comprehensible input, albeit from a different perspective.  He asserts that the learner acquires the target language when the input she receives is slightly beyond her current level of competence; i +1 (Krashen, 1987: 20-21).  One of the many controversial aspects of this hypothesis is that the +1 cannot be clearly defined, which makes it difficult to substantiate the hypothesis by research (Brown, 1994: 282, and Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 39).  Most researchers, however, agree that comprehensible input is one of the necessary conditions for language acquisition (Cummins, 1988: 157, and Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 142), although extensive input alone may not provide learners with enough information about what is not possible in the target language (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 132).


Long (1983, cited in Ellis, 1997: 47-48) supports the importance of comprehensible input, but places emphasis on learner interaction.  Through the negotiation of meaning, he argues, the input is further modified adequately for the level of the learner.  Another perspective on the role of interaction in language learning has been drawn from Vygotsky’s (1978, cited in Ellis, 1997: 48) zone of proximal development theory.  He maintains that children solve problems with the guidance of caretakers, who provide scaffolding; children then internalize these solutions.


3.2.1  Child-Directed Speech vs. Teacher Talk

In general, young L1 learners and adult L2 learners in the classroom are both provided with the input adjusted to their levels of comprehension.  Child-directed speech and teacher talk share similar traits which involve a slower rate of speech, basic vocabulary, shorter and simpler sentences, repetition, and restating (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 24, 34 and 177).  What then seems to be the difference between child-directed speech and teacher talk?


3.2.2  Meaningful Input

In child-directed speech, the topic first comes from the child’s immediate ‘here and now’ surroundings (Krashen, 1987:23).  Later on it can include things the child did (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 24).  These egocentric topics enable the child to associate the language with the specific context at hand.  Emerging from the child herself and her environment, they are naturally important and interesting to her, and make the association easily transferable to other similar recurring situations.  On the other hand, in a language classroom, it is quite difficult for the teacher to always come up with something so interesting or so relevant that every student wants to find out more about it (Macnamara, 1975: 88).  In a traditional Japanese EFL classroom, it has been my experience that the topic is seldom generated by the students themselves.  When the given topic is so far removed from their own cultural experiences, even those cognitively matured adult learners could face difficulty in comprehending the meaning at the onset.


3.2.3  Differences in Additional Input Provided through Interaction

In an L1 learning situation, the child’s response to modified speech triggers additional, even better adjusted input from the caretaker through intimate, supportive, personal interaction.  The child supplies content words, and the caretaker empathetically constructs them into a sentence with the grammatical items missing in the child’s utterance, and also expands the original sentence into a situationally meaningful form for the child (Cook, 1969: 213-214). 


In the case of such cultures as Western Samoa and Guatemala, where caretakers do not use modified speech, children still receive not only modifications of ‘interactional structure’ (Long, 1980, cited in Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 142) of conversation, which may include repetitions, clarification requests, comprehension checks, expansions, from their caretaker (Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 142), but also simplified input from their older siblings and other children as well (Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 24).


In contrast, in most language classrooms, it is often impossible for the teacher to interact with each student on a person-to-person basis for a length of time.  Even when the learner’s utterance triggers additional input from the teacher, it still tends to be, in the case of many Japanese EFL classes, not an expansion of the meaning, but grammatical error correction, just as Cook (1969: 214) pointed out over thirty years ago.


As far as language input is concerned, children learning the L1 seem to have an advantage.  Is it, then, enough to automatically transfer the L1 learning environment and strategies of children to the L2 classroom in order to facilitate adult learners’ language learning?  This leads us to the question of learner age.


4. Learner Age as an Internal Factor

With regard to children’s apparent superiority in language learning, Pinker (1994: 316) declares it is largely due to ‘sheer age’.  Although the existence of bilinguals and polyglots who acquire native-like competence in their adulthood (Sorenson, 1967, cited in Brown, 1994: 56) puts his statement into question, learner age, in general, seems to play a considerable role in language learning.


4.1 Critical Period Hypothesis

The notion of a critical period was first brought to the field of L1 acquisition from biology (Genesee, 1988: 97).  In order to account for the hypothesis, Penfield and Roberts (1959, cited in Genesee, 1988: 98) placed emphasis on neural plasticity, which is the capacity of a young child’s brain to flexibly transfer a function from one area to another (Scovel, 1988: 128 and Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 164).  Lenneberg (1967, cited in Genesee, 1988: 98) then developed this concept by suggesting the lateralization of brain functions.  Applied to L2 acquisition, this hypothesis states that L2 competence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve some time around or after puberty (Brown, 1994: 52-53).  The research findings, however, have not yet been conclusive:  Long (1990), for instance, presents a number of findings in support of this hypothesis not only in phonology but also in morphology and syntax.  These findings are also supported by Skehan (1998: 222-235).  However, Genesee (1988: 100-103) provides contradictory findings from studies such as in one case where older learners achieved higher levels of L2 proficiency than younger learners, at least in the initial stage of their learning.  Nevertheless, it seems logical to examine age-related differences in language learning, because virtually every learner undergoes significant physical, cognitive, and emotional changes at puberty.


4.2 Physical Development

 With regard to the controversial issues surrounding neural plasticity and the lateralization of brain functions, researchers caution practicing teachers against the careless application of ongoing neurolinguistic research to language teaching (Genesee, 1988, and Scovel, 1988: 181-182).  Although the research now suggests that the majority of language functions seems to be located in the left hemisphere of the brain, it does not lead to any conclusions as to how languages are actually learned (Scovel, 1988: 182).  


Instead of cerebral development, according to Brown (1994: 56-58), the development of the learner’s speech muscles may be a larger contributing factor to the attainment of native-like pronunciation.  Since human speech involves hundreds of muscles, children’s muscular plasticity gives them advantages over adult learners, as in the cases of most great athletes starting their training at a very young age.  Complex sounds such as ‘r’ and ‘l’ in English are typically acquired at around the age of five, when plasticity is still present.


For the successful acquisition of a language, Skehan (1998: 234) also points out the importance of the learner’s memory capacity, which generally goes into a decline after a certain age. 


4.3 Cognitive Development

At puberty, cognitive maturation from the concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage (Piaget, 1929, cited in Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 163) also takes place.  The ability to abstract, classify and generalize gives adult learners an advantage to systematically solve problems.  According to Skehan (1998), adult language learners rely on their cognitive activities of general information processing, as a Language Acquisition Device gradually becomes unavailable for them.  Cognitively developed learners, therefore, may benefit from deductive learning of language structures and grammar in the classroom, and meaningfulness in such learning is possibly far more important for those learners than for children (Ausubel, 1964). 


For adults, furthermore, their L1 may exert not only a debilitating effect as a source of error and overproduction, but also a facilitating effect on their cognitive activities in second language learning, acting as an internal input for them to form an interlanguage (Brown, 1994: 64-66, Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 96-107, and Ellis, 1997: 51-53).


4.4 Affective Development

It is not uncommon to observe an adult language learner, with a normal level of cognitive ability, and in an apparently ideal environment, turn out to be unsuccessful.  One of the explanations for this may lie in the affective side of the learner, particularly in a classroom setting.     


4.4.1  Language Ego and Second Identity

Children, who are totally egocentric in nature, gradually become aware of the world around them as they grow older.  Most of them go through an identity crisis at the same time as they experience significant changes in their physical and cognitive domains.  Although it may not be clearly noticed in daily life in a mostly monolingual society as Japan, the learner’s identity is developed in close relation to the language he speaks, which is called language ego (Brown, 1994: 62).  It is maintained in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Brown, 1994: 186) that one’s language actually shapes one’s view of the world.  Although the hypothesis is criticized by many, including Pinker (1994: 49-59), empirically it seems to speak truth to some extent:  it has been a common experience of many Japanese learners of English that they feel at a loss or even frustrated when they cannot find the English equivalent to a word such as “natsukashii”, an adjective expressing a feeling of complex and fond memories in the past. The concept would then have to be either elaborately explained or, more frequently, simply abandoned in the course of expressing themselves in the target language. 


Once this language ego is established, the learner experiences inhibitions when he feels frustrated or threatened in the struggle of learning a different language (Brown, 1994: 63).  In the classroom, in particular, when forced to perfectly produce an often complex sentence, the learner feels afraid that she might make a complete fool of herself in the audience of the teacher and fellow learners.  The learner may also feel greatly frustrated, for being only able to express their highly complex ideas at a discourse level of an elementary school pupil.  In order to become a successful learner, therefore, adult learners must overcome these inhibitions and frustrations, and cross the bridge to acquire a second identity (Brown, 1994: 63), or emphatic capacity (Guiora, et al., 1972: 113), in the new language. 


4.4.2  Attitudes and Motivation

Children learn their first language to fulfill their cognitive and communicative needs as developing individuals.  Adults, on the other hand, need to be somehow motivated to learn a second language particularly in an EFL situation. Research shows that interests in language in general or in the target language correlate positively with achievement (Pimsleur, et al., 1962, cited in Guiora, 1972: 114).


Gardner and Lambert (1972, cited in Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 56) define two types of motivation in L2 learning: integrative motivation and instrumental motivation.  It is argued that positive attitudes towards the community of the target language foster integrative motivation, which encourage the learner to acquire the new language in order to become closer to and/or to identify themselves with the speakers of the target language.  Instrumentally motivated learners, on the other hand, try to acquire proficiency for such practical purposes as becoming a translator, doing further research and aiming for promotion in their career.


It is this instrumental motivation that has urged many of the oppressed people in the world, such as the case of Japanese occupied Taiwan, to successfully learn the enemy language.  In his concept of social distance, Schumann (1976, cited in Holland and Shortall, 1997: 85) places such colonial situations into his category of dominance-subordination, where people learn the language of the colonial power in spite of the fact that an adverse effect on the learners’ motivation is expected.     


In a classroom setting, the adult learner’s motivation may also be increased by pedagogical techniques.  Among them, according to educational psychology, are preparing the learner for the upcoming lesson, presenting various activities, and using co-operative activities instead of competitive ones (Crookes and Schmidt, 1991, cited in Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 57).


Skehan (1989, cited in Lightbown and Spada, 1999: 56) rightly points out that it is debatable whether the learner is successful because he is highly motivated, or he is highly motivated because he is successful.  Although it is not always the case that high motivation leads to high achievement, it seems reasonable to say that motivation is nevertheless important for adult learners because, without motivation, it is difficult for them to continue the tedious and sometimes embarrassing task of learning a new language.


It is mostly because of these differences that adult learners must employ different learning strategies from young children’s.  How then can traditional L2 classes be improved in Japan?  Some suggestions for better learning strategies for in-class adult learners of the L2 will now be provided.


5. For Better Acquisition of a Second Language in the Classroom: Implications for Japanese ELT Classrooms


Let us first consider a number of external changes that might be needed for the betterment of the Japanese EFL classrooms.


5.1  Learning Environment

In order to create a facilitating environment for language learners in a traditional Japanese classroom, there seems to be an urgent need for much more input than the learners are currently receiving.  Learners should be placed in a class appropriate for their level of comprehension, in order that the level of the input they receive may be closely monitored in terms of frequency and regularity, and so that learners can be provided with the language items necessary for learning.  It follows that the use of authentic texts might not be advisable, at least for the beginning to intermediate levels of learners.  


Furthermore, since the input should be meaningful to the learners, learners may gradually be encouraged to generate topics for themselves where possible, so that they may become more independent and apply what they studied in class to a similar situation that takes place in their lives.  In order to take advantage of the negotiation of meaning through interactions, besides using pair work and group work activities, the class size should be made small enough for a teacher to spend more time interacting with each learner, and for giving them more constructive feedback rather than cursory error corrections.  This can be accomplished by empathetically expanding learner-produced sentences in terms of meaning, and by supplying them with the necessary grammar items.


For cognitively developed learners, their ability to learn deductively may fully be exploited for faster learning, by encouraging them to pay conscious attention to grammatical features.  L2 classes in Japan, however, would do better if they rely less on mechanical pattern practice.  It is frequently observed, unfortunately, that Japanese high school students forget a vast number of English lexical and grammatical items that they painstakingly memorized by rote without any contextual support, once they finish taking the university entrance examinations and are accepted for enrollment.  In the same way, unless what learners practice in the classroom carries meaning for them, it seems less likely to be applied to real life situations outside the classroom.    


Focusing now on the learner, what affective needs does the Japanese learner have for successful L2 learning?


5.2  Learner as a Person

Investigating how language is learned leads us to deal with mysteries of inner beings of learners.  Almost all classroom learners, to one degree or another, hide and protect their fragile ego when learning a new language.  It therefore seems pedagogically appropriate first to provide an unthreatening and supportive classroom environment for them.  In this way, each student can experience a sense of success from time to time.  The cultural background and interests of the learners should be taken into consideration, and integrated into the lesson plan.


In English language education, it seems also helpful if learners view English as a world language.  It would help alleviate the unhealthy complex toward Anglo-American people and culture, which could, though not frequently, eventually produce a defensive and ethnocentric attitude in the learners.  Since pronunciation is considered to be most closely tied with language ego (Guiora, et al., 1972: 112-113), it might also help decrease the stress level of learners if they are presented with examples of competent world figures for whom English is not their first language, such as President Mubarak and Henry Kissinger.  Although both of them possess an Egyptian and a German accent respectively, when they speak, they speak with confidence and the whole world listens.


Many Japanese learners of English seem to entertain an idea that to be able to speak English fluently is fashionable.  However, many lack concrete motivation, either integrative or instrumental, to acquire the language.  These learners should be encouraged to set short-term, attainable goals for themselves. So long as the institution permits, evaluations should be based on their achievement toward the goals set by each learner.  Such success can lead to higher motivation, which in turn would produce better results.


Finally, for those parents of young children, it would seem more promising if they start their children’s second language education early, should they think attaining a native-like fluency is of importance.  A careful consideration, however, as to how their young children should be taught must be in order.  Since, for instance, younger learners are cognitively not fully developed, they are likely to experience difficulties in a classroom setting if the target language is taught in an abstract and decontextualized manner (Genesee, 1988: 104).  The problem of continuity in formal education from primary through tertiary schools should be another factor that needs to be investigated.


6. Conclusion

This paper has sought to highlight the following points: the differences in terms of quantity and quality of external input between children learning an L1 and adults learning an L2 in the classroom, and the learner’s physical, cognitive and affective development as an internal factor.  Following the discussion, some suggestions for improving Japanese ELT classrooms were provided, based on the above points of reference.


Although the issue of learner output is equally of a great interest for language acquisition, it was beyond the scope of this paper.  It is hoped, however, that this research has revealed the importance of an integrated understanding of why learning an L2 in the classroom seems to impose difficulties on adult learners.  Recognizing that there are substantial differences between high jumping and language teaching, Scovel (1988: 170-173) nevertheless illustrates the importance of theory for language teaching through a sports analogy:


…theoretical concerns can be extremely important because in this specific sport, for example, they have provided insights that have successively improved methods over the decades and have successfully raised the world record to the now unbelievable height of almost 8 feet.  … it is vital that ESL/EFL teachers devote a great deal of time and attention to theory and research in linguistics, sociology, psychology, etc., because they, like athletic coaches, must keep abreast of theoretical developments in order to do an effective job of teaching and in order to assess and develop new methods and curricula.


It is also hoped that, through this research, L2 learners and teachers alike will be encouraged to investigate their learning environment and further improve their own language learning and teaching strategies.




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