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Concourse 2

First and Second Language Acquisition Theories


What's the relevance of First Language Acquisition to teaching an additional or second language?

Good question.  There are a number of reasons we should know a little about First Language Acquisition (FLA, in the trade):

  1. It provides a kind of benchmark for theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA).  The theories are parallel in many ways.
  2. A good deal of methodology in SLA has been premised on the theory that we will acquire a second or additional language in the same way we acquired our first language(s).
  3. The way the human brain operates in language learning is not radically different (so some theories assert) whether we are learning our first or additional language(s).

At each stage in what follows, we'll be considering how theories of first language acquisition are relevant to teachers of additional languages.

Some Major Theories of First Language Acquisition


Innateness: language is in our genes

You were not born with the ability to speak, ride a bicycle, play the piano, type, play chess, walk or dive for pearls.  What concerns us here are the abilities you naturally develop as opposed to those which you are taught.

Some of this is quite easy.  Divide this list into learned (i.e., taught or self-taught) abilities and those which naturally develop in all normal children:
Click on the table when you have done that.


It is clear that some behaviours, such as the ability to grasp objects or walk are biologically determined because all children, regardless of their culture, learn to do it pretty much at the same stage in their development.  For example, most babies learn to sit, then roll over, then crawl and finally walk between the first 9 to 12 months of life (some take a bit longer and some skip the crawling bit, preferring a bottom shuffle).  None, however, has to be taught the skill.
Babies in all cultures learn to talk between 18 and 28 months of life.
Some behaviours are never naturally acquired so if you never learn to ride a bicycle or play a decent game of chess, you will not magically develop the ability to do so, no matter how long you live.

The question for this guide is whether using language to communicate is in the same category as walking or the same category as playing the piano.
This has fairly profound implications but don't expect the definitive answer here.

biologically controlled behaviours

Aitchison (1989:67 et seq.), drawing on Lenneberg, suggest there are 6 characteristics of biologically determined behaviour.  As you look through the list, ask yourself whether speaking meets the criterion.
Then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

The behaviour emerges before it is necessary
eye open
Children use language before they need it.
Children are fed, clothed and looked after well into life (sometimes until well after puberty).  Children do not need language to survive.
What is surprising is that language develops at more or less the same stage in life regardless of the culture.
The behaviour appears without the individual making a conscious decision
eye open
A child does not, it seems clear, suddenly decide to learn a language.
Individuals may decide to learn other skills, such as bricklaying or playing the flute, but these skills are clearly of a different order from speech.
The emergence of the behaviour is not triggered by external events (although the environment needs to be sufficiently rich for it to develop)
eye open
Children begin to talk even when their immediate environment is unchanging.  They live in the same place with the same people.
The trigger, if there is one, seems to be something internal in the child's development.  And that can only be a development in the brain because, physically, there is no reason why a six-month-old baby shouldn't be able to talk perfectly well.
On the other hand, however, as the tragic tales of feral children or those brought up isolated from other people demonstrate, language cannot adequately develop without a rich environment with plenty of data for the child's brain to work on.
Direct teaching and intensive practice have relatively little effect
eye open
If you are learning to lay bricks or play the oboe, it is quite likely that the amount of teaching and practice you get will be directly related to your eventual skills level.
Not so with language, it seems.  Although carers often make explicit efforts to correct children's language production, the evidence is that it has almost no measurable effect.
The pointlessness of overt correction has been noted by numerous researchers.
(Aitchison 1989:69)
Practice, too, as we shall see, is not a determining factor in first-language acquisition.
There is a regular series of milestones as the behaviour develops, and these can usually be correlated with age and other aspects of development
eye open
All children seem to develop speech in the same way, reaching certain milestones at approximately the same age.  For example, in English, children develop word inflexions at around two years of age, and questions and negatives slightly later.  Mature speech is generally achieved by around 10 years of age.
Moreover, there is a documented and researched order to which items in a language are acquired.  For example, in English, it appears that, with minor variations, the progressive -ing structure, the plural -s and articles are acquired before the 3rd person -s, the regular past-tense endings and contracted verbs such as "she's a teacher".
There may be a critical period for the acquisition of the behaviour
eye open
Again, some of the evidence for a critical period for language acquisition (often cited as between 2 and 13 years of age) comes from tragic cases of brain damaged or isolated / feral children.  In such cases, it has been noted that language development proceeds much more slowly and may never result in fully formed language skills.
This is, you should note, a very controversial area of research and theorising and has been for decades.


the evolution of the ability to process language

There is, unsurprisingly, some debate among evolutionary biologists concerning how such a mechanism may have evolved.  Recent genetical research is pointing to a set of genes including one called FOXP2 (pictured).

It would be a gross oversimplification to dub this 'the language gene' as much else, including the interactions between this gene and a range of others, is involved in the ability to process language.  However, the gene appears to be central to our ability to process and produce language and people who lack it or in whom it is mutated or inactive cannot handle language.
Incidentally, this gene has been identified in the DNA extracted from Neanderthal bones (and it also occurs in echolocating bats and songbirds).

the U-shaped learning curve

This refers to a phenomenon which has been frequently observed and researched.
English exhibits a number of irregularities in inflexions, notably the changing of the middle vowel or consonant to make a past tense form (as in make-made, buy-bought rather than *maked, buyed etc.) and in irregular plurals (such as child-children, mouse-mice etc.)
Children often acquire the irregular form and then revert to an inaccurate regular form before once more acquiring the irregular form.  So, for example, a child may produce The mice ran up the clock, then begin to say The mouses runned up the clock before settling on the correct version later.
If this is true, the importance is obvious: it means that language cannot be being acquired by simple imitation and practice.  If it were, children would never produce something like *comed instead of came for the simple reason that they would never hear it.  In other words:

There is not a shred of evidence supporting a view that progress towards adult norms of grammar arises merely from practice in overt imitation of adult sentences.
Ervin, (1964:172) cited in Aitchison (1989:74)

relevance to (English) language teaching

There are a number of implications for ELT professionals, of course.  They come down to the assertion that we should not assume that a second or subsequent language can be acquired using wholly different mental processes from the ones used to acquire one's first language.  It is not, after all, as if human mental processes are fundamentally altered in any way as we grow up.

teaching children
If the innateness theories are right, then what is required is simple exposure at the right time to a rich linguistic environment rather than explicit instruction.  Instruction may, in fact, be counterproductive.
Teachers of children should also bear the acquisition order in mind and not expect or try to demand production of certain forms before the child is 'ready' to learn them.
Practice and correction, too, are pointless.
teaching older children and adults
Again, if the theories are right, especially concerning the critical period hypotheses, then we should not expect adults to acquire language simply by exposure.
We should also expect them never to acquire wholly native-like production if instruction is carried out after the critical period.  There is, indeed, some evidence to suggest that in pronunciation especially, older learners never acquire native-like production skills.

The influence of innateness theories is readily seen in some methodological approaches which rely on rich input and exposure to language alongside the abjuring of formal practice and instruction.
For more in this area, see the guides to Krashen and the Natural Approach and Chomsky.


Imitation theory: I speak what I hear

This theory rests on the fact that children speak the language(s) in which they were raised.  A child taken from an English-speaking environment at an early age and raised in an Urdu-speaking environment will acquire Urdu as its first language just as indigenous children will.  The child's genetic background is wholly irrelevant.
The theory is that imitation must have a role to play because the connection between a word's sound and form and its meaning is arbitrary: you cannot infer the meaning of a word from its form so you must hear it spoken in a clear context to be able to imitate its use.

Unfortunately, however, Imitation Theory explains little else of what we know about language acquisition.
Bergman et al (2007:315)

They go on to explain three major problems with Imitation Theory.  From reading what has been said above, what are they?  Click here when you have an answer.

relevance to (English) language teaching

A number of approaches to and techniques in teaching languages appear to be based on the assumption that people learn language by a process of imitation of a model.
Behaviourist-based approaches in particular, such as Total Physical Response, Situational Language Teaching and audiolingualism emphasise the need for learners to repeat (and be rewarded for) correct models set in a clear context.
Why do you drill in a classroom if you don't believe imitation and repetition are effective?
If the aim is to reflect how a person's first language is acquired and Imitation Theory is so flawed, then any methodology based on it will be similarly imperfect.


Reinforcement Theory: praise, correction and reward

The theory claims that children learn to produce correct language because they are praised and rewarded (by adult approval) when they do and are corrected when they don't.
It has, of course, close connections with Imitation Theory (because correction demands imitation, for one thing) and with behaviourist theories of learning.  Behaviourist theories assert that learning takes place by the alteration of habitual behaviour.  Here's a very brief summary:


  1. The process starts with a stimulus, say, a question from a carer such as Who did you see? put to the organism (in this case, a child).  The stimulus can elicit a variety of responses but only the 'right' one will be reinforced.
  2. So, for example, if the child responds with I seed Tom the carer will negatively reinforce it with No, say I saw Tom.
  3. If, eventually, the carer can persuade the child to produce a correct utterance, the response will be rewarded (i.e., reinforced) with something like Oh! That's lovely! and the child will learn the form.
  4. Enough Stimulus > Response > Reinforcement cycles will see the habit instilled and the language acquired.

There are three fundamental problems with the theory.  From what has already been said, what are they?
Click here when you have an answer.

relevance to (English) language teaching

Much that is recommended in classrooms in terms of praising learners and error correction is based (even implicitly) on this kind of behaviourist theorising.  It is a short step from asserting that all learners respond positively to praise and that praise motivates them to perform better to suggesting that reinforcing acceptable language will lead to the instilling of correct language habits.
In other words, a teacher wedded to a cognitivist view of learning may be using the praise to motivate while one coming from a behaviourist direction will be using praise to reinforce a response.  You can't tell by watching and it may be the case that the learner is responding in one way, another way or both ways.


Active Construction of a Grammar Theory

This theory "holds that children actually invent the rules of grammar themselves"
Bergman et al (op cit.:316)

The theory is allied to Innateness theory insofar as the ability to develop rules is presumed innate but the rules themselves will depend on the structure of the language which children hear around them.
It has been compared to a kind of switchboard effect which operates on the data the child hears.  So, for example, a French child will notice that in the language it hears, the adjective normally follows the noun (un évènement fantastique) and the switch for noun-adjective ordering will be thrown.  A child in an English-speaking environment will hear, by contrast, a fantastic event and throw the switch the other way (for an adjective-noun language).  Enough exposure will result in the switch becoming permanently fixed but French and English children will still have to be aware of the restriction to the rule in order to be able to produce un petit problème and the people responsible correctly.
Such hypothesising about language form neatly explains the U-shaped learning curve described in this guide.  When first acquired, the rule is applied indiscriminately and then it is later amended to account for exceptions.

relevance to (English) language teaching

If learners (of whatever age) of a second or subsequent language are applying this kind of cognitive rule-forming behaviour to the language they encounter then concepts such as noticing and the positive role of error in the refinement of language theory in the minds of learners become even more important.  See the guides to noticing and to error for more.


Connectionist Theory

We'll take a problem for the Active Construction of Grammar Theory as the starting point.  That theory explains the production of false items such as feets, He showeds me or mouses as evidence that learner is making overgeneralisations from rules imperfectly acquired in terms of their restrictions.
Anecdotally, you may be able to think of the same phenomenon occurring with learners of English as an additional or second language.
However, when children are asked to make past tenses or plurals from nonsense words which resemble real but irregular forms, they do not, apparently, apply the grammar rules but respond in terms of statistical likelihood!
For example (again, from Bergman et al), when asked to form the past tense of fring, many children will suggest frang or frought (by analogy with ring and bring etc. respectively) rather than the structurally predictable fringed.
Hence, too, one might encounter a suggestion that the plural of frouse would (or might well) be frice not frouses and it is true that many native speakers of English will prefer handkerchieves as the plural of handkerchief by analogy with wolf-wolves etc. and the status of roof-roofs/rooves is unclear.
It has been suggested here that humans make neural connections in the brain based on the frequency of what they hear rather than making rules based on the structure of what they hear.

It may also be the case that both Connectionist and Active Construction of Grammar strategies are being deployed simultaneously.

relevance to (English) language teaching

If the two approaches are being combined, in fact, by mature learners as well as children, there are some implications especially for how language is presented and which language is selected for presentation.

  1. Connectionist theories clearly have a good fit with approaches such as The Lexical Approach and focuses on collocation and colligation.  If it is true that learners (of whatever age) are applying some kind of statistical analysis to the language data they are exposed to, then it makes sense to design materials which contain statistically likely rather than unlikely combinations of words and structures.
  2. Chunking of language, too, is important because chunks such as air conditioning + unit, steering + committee / wheel etc. lend themselves to the formation of neural pathways in the brain.
  3. Getting learners to notice connections in terms of colligation will also be effective if connectionist theories hold water.  The acquisition of, e.g., I allowed him to go, Mary permitted him to come, I forbade him to speak etc. will be facilitated if they are presented together and frequently encountered but presenting them alongside I made him go, I let him speak etc. will be positively counterproductive.  The same consideration would apply to all compare-and-contrast rather than notice-the-similarity approaches.

social interaction

Social Interaction Theory

This theory places great emphasis on the kinds of social interaction in which people encounter language.  The argument is that it may be combined with both Connectionist and Active Construction of Grammar theories to explain how the richness, or otherwise, of the data the learners encounter will be exploited.
It seeks also to explain how it is that children slowly develop the ability not only to use language accurately but also appropriately.
Theoreticians in this area focus a good deal of attention on what is called child-directed speech.  Such speech tends to be delivered with excessive intonation range and pitch and to be simplified and repeated for comprehension.  From it, the child learns to de-code its meaning before going on to be able to comprehend and produce more complex and appropriate adult-to-adult language.

relevance to (English) language teaching

Clearly, much of Communicative Language Teaching lays great stress on natural and appropriate language as the target of instruction and this theory sits well with such an approach.  The procedure of introducing simplified language and then refining it for appropriate and accurate communicative effect lies at the heart of such an approach.

adult child meet

Are adults and children all that different?

Well, it depends on the theory you accept, doesn't it?

It seems clear that concepts such as critical period only apply to children (and the evidence is there to suggest that adult learners have far more trouble learning an additional language than children do).  Methodologies which purport, therefore, to be based on how a child learns and that such an approach is applicable to adults and more mature children should be handled with care and some scepticism because there is evidence that children and adults learn differently, not least because of their very different experiential backgrounds and because all normal adults have already acquired a perfect knowledge of their own language.

Other theories, such as Imitation and Reinforcement theories (the basis of drilling and repetition and much else) as well as Active Construction of Grammar, Connectionism and Social Interaction theory may be just as applicable to mature learners of an additional language as they are to immature learners of first languages.
The argument here is that we do not abandon or lose access to our cognitive abilities as we mature.  We may use the abilities differently, some might argue more effectively, as adults.
If so, there are obvious consequences for the design of materials, classroom procedures, error correction techniques and much else.

Related guides
second-language acquisition for a guide to some current theories
how learning happens for a fairly simple guide to the area
types of languages for a guide which sets out the structural ways in which languages differ

There's a simple matching test on this area.

References and other sources:
An enormous amount of research, some of it focusing very narrowly on the acquisition of particular structures, is available to one who looks for it in the discussion of first-language acquisition.  Not all of it is relevant to ELT.
Aitchison, J, 1989, The Articulate Mammal, London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.
Bergmann, A, Hall, K & Ross, S (Eds.), 2007, Language files: Materials for an introduction to language and linguistics, Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press
Ellis, R, 1994, The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press