Final Take-Home Exam
Language acquisition, as its name suggests, is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use a language to communicate and understand. This capacity involves acquiring diverse aspects of language such as syntax, phonetics and a vast vocabulary. The process can be further divided into two categories: first language acquisition (FLA) which studies infants’ acquisition of their native language, and second language acquisition (SLA) which deals with how children and adults acquire additional languages. Both areas of study are still very hypothetical and subject to a lot of study and dispute. In this essay I will introduce how these two fields relate to each other and what are their basic differences.
The basic way in which humans acquire language is the same for both FLA and SLA. The learner actively constructs abstract rules for the language being acquired and tries them out. With time, these rules are modified to fit new evidence perceived by the learner. This could be defined as a method of trial and error. In SLA these rules are different from both the L1 and L2 and are collectively called interlanguage. Despite this, the L2 learner’s language will always be influenced by its L1, and the route and speed of acquisition will be to a certain extent affected by this language transfer. For instance, a native speaker of Russian would have no problem understanding the case system in Greek as most of it overlaps with his or her L1. In contrast, a native speaker of English would most likely have trouble with cases in general. From this it can also be inferred that the route of acquisition in SLA is prone to much more variability, because in FLA the phenomenon of language transfer is not present. Evidence has also shown that language is acquired in stages. This applies equally for both FLA and SLA. This means that certain structures are acquired before others and the same order is seemingly present in both forms of language acquisition. For example, an infant exposed to English is likely to go through a stage in which it fails to form questions correctly and use forms like Why you here?. In the same way, an adult learning English as an L2 would commit the same error at a similar stage. A major difference between FLA and SLA in this regard is the speed of acquisition. While a young child of the age of 5 has a working knowledge of their L1 grammar under normal circumstances, an adult could have studied the language far longer and still not reach this level. Furthermore, it is very possible and common that SLA is unsuccessful. This contrasting rate of success is one crucial difference between both fields of language acquisition. It is also worth noting that the stages outlined by research are not true for all learners. They are simply a general trend that most learners seem to follow. For a long time it was generally accepted that language was learned as any other habit such as driving and writing, through association and stimulus-response chains. This is referred to as the empiricist view. However, with the advent in the 1960s of Noam Chomsky’s work, there has been a lot of controversy over this and the study of linguistics has become somewhat polarized. He suggests that language is an innate ability of humans and we are simply genetically programmed to acquire language. Despite this, the exact mental processes involved in FLA are still somewhat a mystery and several questions have been left unanswered. Chomsky poses the existence of a “language acquisition device” (LAD), a part of the human brain which enables language learning. In the study of FLA, the LAD would be the infant’s ignition engine that sparks the acquisition process and it would contain language-specific capacities. On the other hand, during the process of SLA, it is generally thought that input is the trigger to activate the LAD; nonetheless it has been hypothesized that the LAD atrophies around...
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