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Can We Learn a Second Language Like We Learned Our First?

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Learning a language is a complex, time-intensive task that requires dedication, persistence, and hard work. If you’re reading this, then you probably already know that

What you might not know is that there are strategies that can help you study more effectively, so that you make the most of your time and energy. This handout first explains some of the key principles that guide effective language learning, and then describes activities that can help you put these principles into practice. Use these tools to create a strategic study plan that helps your language skills grow.

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Perhaps no-one has looked at the question more closely than the linguist Stephen Krashen, who has introduced some of the most influential concepts to the study of second-language acquisition. In his input hypothesis, first proposed in an article published in 1977, and expanded upon in later years, he makes the distinction between learning: the conscious, traditional grammar-based process in the classroom; and acquisition: essentially how we, as children, pick up our first language. He says that our mistake is trying to teach languages in the same way we teach science, history and mathematics

Instead, he believes that learners should acquire second languages in the same way children learn their first. Krashen sums up the idea in a famous documentary on the subject called A child's guide to learning languages, produced by BBC Horizon in 1983. In the documentary, he says that acquisition is 'where the action is'. In other words, in every successful example of language-learning – an infant mastering a first language, an adult learner of English scoring a band 9 on the IELTS test – the reason for their success is that they have 'acquired' rather than 'learned' the language. So, how do children and proficient adult learners perform the seemingly magical trick of mastering a language, and what can teachers learn from this? Krashen offers the following ideas: We acquire languages when we can understand messages. Learners need to be exposed to what Krashen calls 'comprehensible input' – that is, exposure to interesting and understandable listening and reading material. In Krashen's view, we acquire languages when we understand messages. He stipulates that the emphasis should be on meaningful interactions and not on form. When parents speak to their children, for example, the emphasis is on meaning rather than the correct use of grammar. If the child says, 'Daddy fish water!', the parent is likely to respond, 'Yes, you're right, there's a fish in the river', rather than by correcting the child's grammar. The theory here is that exposure to sufficient quantities of comprehensible input always results in acquisition.

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For instance, a child begins with a limited set of functions linguistically, which are characterized by intonation contours and a narrowed class of words of expression. A study on conversational proficiency has shown that children use language for their social interplay, and such neither happens simultaneously nor through uncoordinated monologues (Wagner, 2006, p. 1). The second language learner, on the other hand, is unlikely to embrace the emotional effect of language, unless it is engineered by close associates. The educational purpose dominates the acquisition of the second language, in which case the learner acquires a new set of skills work with, and gains a global outlook linguistically. His linguistic competency is therefore depended on his needs, interests, tastes and preferences. Although, the acquisition of a second language is multi-faceted, it shares some rich resemblance to the acquisition of the first language, as relates to the relevance of the acquired language. In both cases the zeal of the learner in language acquisition largely depends on the function of the language befitting the learner in the future (Thurston, 2010, p. 1)

This underscores the indispensable utility value of language in all human interactions.

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As can be seen, a first language and a second language both have their effects on each other

However, as we have learned that the first language is natural and has a solid base in a person’s intellectual and psychological development, the first language is not affected by the second language as much as the second language is affected by the first language. Finally, we can say that the relationship and the differences between a first and a second language are complex but constant.

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Thurston, P. (2010). Evolutionary Acquisition strategies and spiral development process. Web.

Vivian, C. (1979). First and second language learning. Web.

Wagner, J. (2006). Second Language Acquisition and Age. Web.

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