BTR-TESOL Unit 4A - Understanding Basic Principles of Second Language Acquisition



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

the components of language

comprehensive questions


contrastive analysis: the effect of the first language

variables that affect second language acquisition

sound clips

reflection and responses

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



As a teacher of language learners, you need to understand what is going on inside your students' heads when they try to learn a new language. That is a complicated psycholinguistic and cognitive process. This unit will introduce you to some of the basics.

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Scenario: Thinking about the puzzle of second language acquisition

Mike is currently enjoying his first English teaching experiences in China. At the moment, he is teaching two English classes--one to Chinese school children during the day and another to Chinese adults in the evening. After the first week, he has noticed that there are some differences in the way the students in these two classes are learning and that these differences greatly affect the way he is planning his lessons. He had always heard that children learn quicker than adults but he doesn’t understand if that’s true or why that would be the case. He begins to think deeply about the subject of second language acquisition, something he hadn’t thought about much before, but he feels it’s important to understand the differences in the ways his students learn.

As he ponders further, his mind goes back to when he had previously taught English classes to adults in Korea, and he can think of differences in the language difficulties of the Chinese and Korean adults. For example, the Chinese adults seem to have less of a problem with word order but they have different pronunciation problems than the Koreans did. He also notices differences in learning styles but he is not sure how to describe them or what they mean. All of these things make him ponder how second language acquisition takes place and what the key issues that guide its development are.

  • How do you think a second language is learned?
  • What are the key principles that guide the development of second language acquisition?
  • How can knowledge of such principles be beneficial to you as a teacher?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After you work through this unit you will be able to describe:

    1. The components of language to be learned.
    2. Some processes that occur when people learn a new language.
    3. The effects of…
      A. Age
      B. Language background
      C. Other factors (such as personality) on second language acquisition
    4. How to apply this knowledge in the classroom.

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    The least you should know

    The study of second language acquisition has produced much knowledge. The focus of this unit will be some basic principles that many researchers agree on.

    1. What is learned—the components of language
    2. What happens when something is learned--Interlanguage
    3. How the learner’s first language affects their learning of another language
    4. What characteristics of the learners have an effect on their learning and how.

    The remainder of this section will discuss these topics.

    1. The components of language

    When someone learns a second language, what exactly is learned? The components of any language can be divided into five main categories: sound system, word structure, vocabulary, sentence structure, and sentence organization. The components of each of these are listed below. You may be surprised by how much there is to learn.

    Sound system (Phonology)

    • Speech sounds that make a difference in meaning (phonemes)
    • Possible combinations of consonants and vowels (syllable structure)
    • Intonation patterns (rising, falling, stress, pitch, duration, tone)
    • Rhythmic patterns (pauses and stops in speech and conversation)

    Word structure (Morphology)

    • Parts of words that have meaning (morphemes)
    • Additions to a word that affect grammar (i.e. plural s)
    • Prefixes and suffixes that may be added to change the meaning of words (pre-, post-, etc.)

    Vocabulary (Lexicon)

    • Word meaning
    • Pronunciation and spelling
    • Part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.)
    • Possible occurrences of vocabulary in combination with other words

    Grammar (Sentence structure)

    • Word order
    • Agreement between parts of sentences (i.e. agreement between subject and verb)
    • Ways to form questions and to communicate meaning

    Sentence organization (ways to connect and organize sentences in paragraphs or longer passages)

    • Structures for writing, telling stories, engaging in conversations, etc.
    • Roles for interacting with others in different situations.

    Although this is a long list, hopefully it doesn’t overwhelm you or your learners. Keep in mind that language learning is a gradual process and that all of these components emerge simultaneously.

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    Comprehension and reflection questions

  • Which of these components of language were you already familiar with?
  • Which of these components of language were you not already familiar with?
  • Were you surprised by how many components there are?
  • 2. Interlanguage

    A principle that reinforces the fact that learning a language is a gradual process is the principle of interlanguage. This principle attempts to explain what happens while someone is attempting to move from fluency in a first language (L1) to fluency in a second language (L2). It refers to the intermediate states that one encounters in this process.

    Some advertisements claim that their product will help people to speak a language instantly, but there is little that is instant about real long-term language acquisition. It is a gradual process and learners will experience intermediate (or middle) states of language along the way as they move from their L1 to their L2. According to many researchers, this process is the interaction of a person’s thinking processes with the type and amount of contact they have with the language. Contact could be any time they are exposed to the language, whether inside or outside a classroom. It is influenced by the learner’s knowledge of their first language (L1) and by the contact with the language to be learned (L2). To be practical, the interlanguage can be considered a third language, sharing characteristics with both the L1 and L2 without being entirely the same as either.

    How can this be applied?

    In teaching, one can be aware that the language a learner produces will have characteristics of both the L1 and the L2. It's important to help learners recognize the differences between the two languages so that their language can continue to become closer to the L2. It's also important to be patient with the learners and guide them along as this process takes place. Do not expect learners to be perfect at first but always encourage them to try. Their language will develop gradually as they go through these intermediate states and it is the teacher’s responsibility and opportunity to guide them.

    3. Contrastive Analysis: The effect of the first language

    One of the most important factors about second language acquisition is the difference between the first, or native, language of the learners (L1) and the target language to be learned (L2). This field of study is known as contrastive analysis. It involves predicting and explaining learner problems based on similarities and differences between the L1 and the L2. In its simplest form, the theory states that the easiest things for learners to learn in the L2 are the things that are most similar to the L1. For example, if the L1 has similar sounds to the L2, the learner should be able to make the sounds correctly. The opposite is also true--the things that are the most different in the two languages will be the hardest to learn. For example, if the L1 and L2 have very different grammar, this will likely be something that is hard to learn and can be the cause of many mistakes. This principle can also explain the differences in difficulties between the Chinese and Korean adults in “The Case of Mike” or any group of English learners who have different native languages. The learners may have different problems because their different native languages have different influences on their learning of English.

    How can this be applied?

    Perhaps the most important thing one can learn from contrastive analysis is that there are reasons why learners have specific language problems and that these problems can be influenced by their L1. With knowledge of the learners’ L1, you can predict the errors they will make and better understand why they make them. With this knowledge, you will be better able to help them understand the differences between their L1 and L2, so they won't repeat the same mistakes.

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    4. Variables that affect second language acquisition

    Age and time of acquisition

    Many people believe that the best time for people to acquire a second language is when they are children, although this is not necessarily the case. Support for this idea is often explained by the principle of the critical period and the principle of fossilization. The critical period idea refers to the idea that children have only a limited number of years (or critical period) during which they can achieve native or near-native ability in an L2. After that, a process known as fossilization is more likely to occur. Fossilization refers to a state in which L2 learners stop being able to learn a language effectively before they reach complete ability with the L2. Essentially, this means they are no longer advancing in their L2 learning, despite continued study and practice in the L2. These two principles underlie the main disadvantages of older learners and are the reason why many people think that it is harder for them to learn a language than younger learners. Additional evidence, however, shows there are advantages for both older and younger learners:

    Advantages of Younger Learners.

    The following are qualities that younger learners generally have:

    Less analytical--It is partly because children are generally seen as being less analytical that it seems they learn more naturally and with less effort. Instead of thinking about and analyzing what they are learning, they try to absorb it in the situations it is presented in. Games and hands-on activities are effective for children because they provide a fun way for them to learn.

    Fewer inhibitions—Younger learners are generally seen as having less inhibitions, although this is not always the case. However, it has been shown that the extent to which learners are willing to take risks and avoid self-conscious behavior the more quickly their learning can occur. For learners of any age, it is important to try to get them outside their comfort zone and actively participate as much as possible.

    More years to learn the language before ultimate ability is judged—People marvel at the ability of young children to learn any language they are presented with. According to the critical period idea, younger brains can have a greater ability for second language acquisition in some areas. However, it’s important to remember that their learning of a language takes place over the course of at least several years before they gain any kind of fluency. On the other hand, adult learners’ ability can be assessed daily in a classroom and ultimate ability can be judged after just a few weeks of instruction. Therefore, be patient with older learners and remember that they do have some advantages over younger learners, which may account for these expectations of quicker results.

    Older learners generally have an advantage in learning capacity, analytic ability, practical skills, greater knowledge of their L1, and greater real-world knowledge. Furthermore, it is possible for older learners to achieve near-native ability in an L2, although not as likely for them as it is for younger learners.

    Advantages of Older Learners

    Learning capacity—Because many older learners have more practice and experience learning, they may have more capacity for learning than do younger learners.

    Analytical ability—This is a big advantage of older learners. Unlike younger learners, they can be more directly taught about the way a language works, including the rules of a language and why, when, and how to learn certain language components. A teacher shouldn’t have to worry as much about them not understanding more difficult concepts.

    Practical skills and real-world knowledge—Simply put, older learners have more life experience and more experience to tie their learning to so they should more readily understand why something is being taught and how it can be used.

    Greater knowledge of their L1—It is possible that older learners have a greater knowledge of their L1, which can aid in the acquisition of the L2. Once again, they will have a better understanding of what needs to be learned and why.

    Why is this important?

    This knowledge is important for two main reasons. First, it is important to realize the strengths of older and younger learners. Older learners do have advantages in some areas. Second, lessons should be designed for the strengths of the age group being taught. For example, children can benefit more from simple games, role-plays, and hands-on activities. Adult lessons can include more difficult concepts (as well as games) and should include practical situations and topics that occur in adult life as well.

    Other important differences among learners

    Regardless of age, other learner differences can come into play that effect the way learners learn and how successful they are.

    Ability: Learners differ in the ability to process language, identify patterns, and store information about a language in memory. Simply put, some learners may be better at doing the things that are required to learn a language.

    Motivation: Motivation largely determines the level of effort which learners put forth at different stages in their L2 development and is often a key to the ultimate ability level they achieve. You will find that some learners are more motivated than others and this can have an effect on their learning. As a teacher, it is important to motivate students as much as possible and to encourage their self-motivation.

    Instruction: Quality of instruction is important in all settings although there doesn't seem to be a proven instructional method that works better than all the others. Type of instruction should be designed for the students' individual needs and learning styles. Keep in mind that how well a teacher prepares and presents the lessons does affect how well and how quickly the learners learn.

    Personality and learning style: There is no clear advantage for any particular personality or learning style, including whether a learner is introverted or extroverted. Positive characteristics associated with extroverted people are being self-confident, adventurous, and risk-taking. Positive characteristics of introverted people are being imaginative, empathetic, and tolerant of ambiguity. Regardless of personality or learning style, the most important factor is that students pay attention and are actively engaged in their learning. That is something that has proven to be effective for all learners.

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    Sound clips

    Here are several sound clips to demonstrate the effects of the first language on second language pronunciation. There are two sets of recordings of speakers from different language backgrounds. As you listen, pay attention to the differences between the pronunciation patterns of the speakers. Then answer the questions below. Many of the differences between the speakers are a direct result of their L1.
    Children-Speaker A.mp3
    Children-Speaker B.mp3
    Children-Speaker C.mp3
    Children-Speaker D.mp3

    Cultures-Speaker A.mp3
    Cultures-Speaker B.mp3
    Cultures-Speaker C.mp3
    Cultures-Speaker D.mp3

    Reflection and Responses

    1. Did you notice specific differences in the pronunciation of the speakers?
    2. If so, what specific differences did you notice? For example, were there particular sounds      or words that the speakers had trouble pronouncing?
    3. Did you notice any two speakers having similar problems?
    4. Based on what you heard, can you guess which language backgrounds they are from?
    Hint: The languages represented are Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

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    Video examples

    The first video clip takes place in an elementary school in Thailand. The teacher sets up a crossword puzzle on the board with pictures of fruit next to the puzzle. It is the learners’ job to recall the name of the fruit and make it fit into the crossword puzzle. Click here to view video.

    The second video takes place in a university in China. The teacher is leading a discussion with Chinese engineering students. The topic is an earthquake that had recently occurred there but soon turns to the quality of the structures that were damaged and how to make buildings more earthquake proof. Click here to view video.


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    Reflection and Responses

    Think about each of the following questions related to the videos you just watched. Write a sentence or two in response to each one.

    1. What are the main differences between the formats of the two classes?
    2. Based on the videos, in what way did each group of students learn?
    3. What was the role of the teacher in each of the videos?
    4. Compare these teaching experiences to your own.

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    Where to go to learn more

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit.

    • Unit 5A: Understanding, respecting, and appreciating adult ESL learners.

    • Unit 5B: Working with young English language learners.

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    Online and other electronic resources

    CAL homepage This is part of the online resources provided by the Center for Applied Linguistics. It is an article that discusses the individual, social, and societal factors that affect students’ learning of a second language.

    wikipedia image This is from the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. It discusses many of the variables related to second language discussed in the unit as well as many others.

    cambridge website image These are online booklets provided by Cambridge online. The one related to second language acquisition is entitled “Moving Beyond the Plateau” by Jack C. Richards. It deals with the problems that second language learners encounter in moving from the intermediate to advanced levels of language ability.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    Here are some published books that have proven to be helpful resources for learning about second language acquisition.

    H. Douglas Brown. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Pearson ESL, 2006. “…the classic second language acquisition text used by teacher education programs worldwide. It introduces key concepts through definitions of terms, thought-provoking questions, and charts. The "Classroom Connections" section encourages students to consider the implications of research for classroom teaching”. ISBN 0131991280.

    Patsy Lightbown & Nina Spada. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press, 2006. “Presents the main theories of language acquisition considering their bearing on language teaching. It discusses the effects of factors such as intelligence, personality, and age and helps teachers assess the merits of different methods and textbooks.” ISBN 0194422240.

    Muriel Saville-Troike. Introducing second language acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. “Written for students encountering the topic for the first time, this introduction explains in non-technical language how a second language is acquired; what the second language learner needs to know; and why some learners are more successful than others. The textbook logically introduces a range of fundamental concepts.” ISBN 0521794072.

    Susan M. Gass & Larry Selinker. Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Routledge, 2008. “A comprehensive overview of the field of second language acquisition in an easy-to-read, accessible style. It introduces students to current issues in the field, as well as provides an historical overview. ISBN 0805854983.

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    Additional References

    Coming soon.

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