Age and Second Language Acquisition Essay

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Age and Second Language Acquisition

For over sixty years scientists and linguists have been doing the researches about the second language acquisition and bilingualism among children. It has been discovered that second language acquisition is a parallel of the first language acquisition but also there are a lot of differences. At the beginning it must be said what the bilingualism and second language acquisition are. SLA (Second Language Acquisition) refers to the process by which people learn second language that means that they know one language and then start learning the other one. On the other hand, bilingualism refers to the ability to use two languages with equal fluency. But some scientists believes that even though those abilities are nearly equal, one language will always dominate above the other. There are three types of bilingualism: * Simultaneous: learning both languages as the first one. So a new born child who does not speak any languages goes directly to the phase that it speaks two languages;

* Receptive: it means that children are able to understand two languages but express themselves only in one; * Sequential: refers to the acquisition of the second language after establishing the first one. As for the second language acquisition, there is main theory elaborated by the psycholinguist, Stephen Krashen, which consist of the five hypothesis: 1. The Acquisition-learning hypothesis. There are two independent systems: the acquired system and the learning system. Acquisition is the product of subconscious process, needs natural conversation in which speaker is focused on the communicative act, not on the form. It can be compared with the acquisition of the mother tongue by the child. Learning, on the other hand, is the product of formal instructions, so it is the conscious process. This is represented by the norms grammar, vocabulary and so on. It demands effort and attention. Krashen emphasizes that acquisition is more important than learning.

2. The Monitor hypothesis. This hypothesis explains the relation between acquisition and learning. As the acquisition is the initiator of the utterance, the learning is the editor. The function of monitor is, according to Krashen, to correct “deviations from normal speech and to give speech a more polished appearance”. 3. The Natural Order hypothesis. It is based on the claim that the acquisition of grammatical structures follows a natural order that can be predictable. It is also said that some grammatical structures are learnt earlier and some later and they seem to be depended on the learner’s age.

4. The Input hypothesis. This hypothesis explains, according to Krashen, how the second language is acquired. It explains only the acquisition not learning. This hypothesis shows that the learner processes along the natural order when one receives second language input that is beyond one’s current stage of linguistic competence. 5. The Affective Filter hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, there are some affective variables that are facilitative in second language acquisition. These are for example motivation, anxiety and self-confidence. It was claimed that learners with high motivation and self-confidence and low level of the anxiety are better “equipped” for success in second language acquisition. From the beginning of life, babies acquire their first language due to the same pattern. All children go through the same phases. These are:

* bubbling,
* one-word utterance,
* two-word phrases,
* full sentences,
* complex grammar.

As it is generally said, children acquire second language faster than adults. Children who are younger than 6 years old learn two languages as one. As one of the Harvard professors, Patton Tabors, in his book One Child, Two Languages: A guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language (1997, p. 12) noticed that “For these children, then, second-language acquisition is not a process of discovering what language is, but rather of discovering what this language is”. It means that all new elements of the language are developed as the acquisition of the first language. In the age of 6-7 children start to recognize and separate two languages. They learn the second language rather than acquire due to the way that the language is taught. Also it is worth noticing that some of the sounds of second language can be weird for child and not always he or she is capable to pronounce words properly. It results with foreign accent.

According to Stephen Krashen, child acquires a second language by receiving input in the target language which is a little bit above their current level of acquired understanding. What is more, according to Krashen’s Affective Filter hypothesis, high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety play great role in the second language acquisition among children. Children learn also by the imitation of adults. What is more SLA depends on the quantity of input, so the quantity of the parents speech. The more child hears, the more efficiently and faster he or she acquires. As I have mentioned, the second language acquisition makes a parallel of the first language acquisition but is slightly different. In 1983, Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in their book The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the classroom (1983) distinguished five stages of second language acquisition among children.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in United States organized them and listed. These are: 1. The Silent/Receptive or Preproduction Stage: The stage lasts from 10 hours to six months. During this time students know up to 500 words which they understand but do not feel comfortable to use them. This period is often called as silent because students may not speak but respond with simple gesture or with the simple answers like “yes” or “no”. In this stage they can also understand new words that are made comprehensible to them. 2. The Early Production Stage: this stage can last more less six months until students learn approximately 1000 which they can understand and use. This stage is similar to the phases of one-word utterance and two-word phrases. Students are able to ask some Wh-questions and use simple negatives and of course “yes” and “no” answers. 3. The Speech Emergence Stage: this stage lasts another year.

There are over 3000 words developed. In this stage students are able to use simple sentences, dialogues and they can ask simple questions and answer them. Longer sentences are produced but often with grammatical mistakes. 4. The Intermediate Language Proficiency Stage: it is next year after the speech emergence. Students developed up to 6000 words and make clear and correct statements. They can share their opinions and thoughts and speak at greater length. 5. The Advanced Language Proficiency Stage: it takes about five to seven years to speak second language fluently and without any grammar mistakes. By this stage students have developed some specialized vocabulary which is more less the same level as native speakers. Of course, the case of each student is different. Some can acquire second language faster and do not feel “blocked” from speaking.

It all depends on the student’s will and involvement. It is said that adults are not able to acquire second language as quick as children but it can be misleading. Firstly, it has to be noticed that if children acquire second language it is mostly in the natural setting where they have natural contact with the language and can acquire all aspects of language and it is not only to say about grammar rules but also proverbs, phrasal verbs, vulgarisms and slang. On the other hand, adults mostly learn second language in classroom with other beginners and level of given lessons is adjusted to the student with the lowest level. In such conditions it is obvious that the second language acquisition takes more time than the SLA among children. In adult age, even though we understood and we are able to use correctly grammar rules, it is hard to acquire natural way of talking, it is the authentic, native-speaker pronunciation, which often determines the level of second language acquisition. It can be said that adults can exceed children in all aspects of SLA except the accent.

For example, it is said that adults who learn Chinese or any other Far-East language will not ever acquire the language pronunciation properly. Of course any children who learn those language will acquire it not only properly but also without any traces of foreign accent. It happens because children can “shape” their vocal cords to pronounce words properly and it is impossible for adults whose vocal cords are already shaped. There are several linguists that had been doing the researches on the adult and children second language acquisition. I would like to present some of the results of those researches. Cartherine Snow, Bradford Marshall and Stefka Marinova-Todd say that the age does not constrict the acquisition of second language to achieve the native-speaker level. They argue that the speed of language acquisition and misattribution of age are the generalized misconceptions. On the other hand, Jean-Marc Dewaele demonstrates the need for the inclusion of emotional communication factor. He says that the competence will help learners in faster second language acquisition.

However, other linguist, David Singleton, believes that only learners who are exposed to the second language early in life have chance to acquire completely second language. Children easily acquire the language and reach high level of success, while adults become fossilized on account of neurobiological assumptions. What is more, the wrong interpretation of the children’s acquisition speed misled to belief that children can absorb a language within months. Researches made in 70’s proved the opposite. Adults in the first stages were more efficient and absorbed language faster than children. It was explained by the neuroscientist who indicated that the localization of the languages in children’s and adults’ brain is different. Results made in 1990’s showed that two adjacent centers of activation in Broca’s area, which is responsible for the speech, were activated in adult learners whereas in children’s brains there was no separation of this area.

Although, the others scientists argue that brain is plastic and “flexible” so children can acquire more. With puberty people lose it. It leads us to the Critical Period Hypothesis which was presented by the American linguist, Eric Lanneberg. He argued that if the second language is not absorbed completely before the certain age, its total acquisition will not ever be possible. In so called critical period we can absorb second language by means of the Language Acquisition Device which includes the rules of the common grammar. According to other linguist, Noam Chomsky, all languages in the world have the same common grammar rules and what is more they are inborn and do not have to taught. It can be illustrated by the example of Genie, a feral girl, who in her early years, until she was 13, was tortured by her father and isolated from the society.

Scientists could observe in which way she was absorbing the language. And as a result, she never acquired language completely. On the other hand, the world is full of people who acquired second language perfectly after the critical period. For example pope John Paul II who spoke eight languages fluently or Ioannis Ikonomou, who works in European Commission, who speaks fluently in thirty two languages. Summing up, there is the great disagreement between scientist if the early ages helps or rather slows down the second language acquisition. Also the arguments about Genie, who could not absorb any language completely due to the vanished language acquisition device or about Ioannis Ikonomou who fluently speaks thirty two languages do not help to prove it completely. It all depends on personal ability of each person.

1. Genesee Fred, Neuropsychology and Second Language Acquisition, New York, 1988. 2. Gitsaki Christina, Second Language Acquisition Theories:
Overview and Evaluation, Journal of Communication and International Studies, volume 4, 1998, p. 89-98, retrieved from Internet at, last revised on November 27th 2012. 3. Grisel Aloin, Child-Adult differences in Second Language Acquisition. Part 1, 2010, retrived from Internet at, last revised on December 1st 2012. 4. Grisel Aloin, Child-Adult differences in Second Language Acquisition. Part 2, 2010, retrived from Internet at, last revised on December 1st 2012. 5. Krashen Stephen and Terrell Tracy, The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the classroom, Michigan, 1983. 6. Schütz Ricardo, Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition, retrieved from Internet at, last revised on November 28th 2012. 7. Tabors Patton, One child, two languages, Baltimore, 1997, p. 12. 8. Website of the European Commission, retrieved from Internet at, last revised on December 2nd 2012.

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