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Language Acquisition vs Language Learning

According to linguists (i.e. scientists who engage in the scientific study of human language) there is an
important distinction between language acquisition and language learning.
As you may well have noticed, children acquire their mother tongue through interaction with their parents
and the environment that surrounds them. Their need to communicate paves the way for language
acquisition to take place. As experts suggest, there is an innate capacity in every human being to acquire
By the time a child is five years old, s/he can express ideas clearly and almost perfectly from the point of
view of language and grammar. Although parents never sit with children to explain to them the workings of
the language, their utterances show a superb command of intricate rules and patterns that would drive an
adult crazy if s/he tried to memorize them and use them accurately. This suggests that it is through
exposure to the language and meaningful communication that a first language is acquired, without the need
of systematic studies of any kind. When it comes to second language learning in children, you will notice
that this happens almost identically to their first language acquisition. And even teachers focus more on the
communicative aspects of the language rather than on just rules and patterns for the children to repeat and
memorize. In order to acquire language, the learner needs a source of natural communication.
The emphasis is on the text of the communication and not on the form. Young students who are in the
process of acquiring a second language get plenty of "on the job" practice. They readily acquire the
language to communicate with classmates.
In short, we see this tendency in which second language teachers are quite aware of the importance of
communication in young learners and their inability to memorize rules consciously (although they will
definitely acquire them through a hands-on approach just as they did with their mother tongue).
Unfortunately, when it comes to adult students, a quick look at the current methodologies and language
courses available clearly shows that communication is set aside, neglected or even disregarded. In almost
all cases, courses revolve around grammar, patterns, repetitions, drillings and rote memorization without
even a human interlocutor to interact with.
The very same courses that promise you language independence and the ability to communicate upon
completion of the courses do NOT offer you a single chance to engage in meaningful conversations. How
many times have you bought or read about "the ultimate language course on CD" in which the learner
simply has to sit in front of a computer to listen to and repeat words and phrases time and again. That is not
communication. That is the way you train a parrot! The animal will definitely learn and repeat a few
phrases and amuse you and your friends, but it will never ever be able to communicate effectively.
How could you be expected to communicate if you are never given the chance to speak with a real person?
Language without real communication is as useless as Saint Valentine's day without lovers or Children's
day without kids.
In some other scenarios, in which there is a teacher, the work done in class is mostly grammatically
oriented: tenses, rules, multiple choice exercises and so on and so forth. Is this similar to the way in which
a child "acquires a language?" Definitely not. No wonder why so many people fail in acquiring a second
language naturally. Simply because whatever they are doing is highly unnatural and devoid of meaning to
them. This is the field of language learning.

Language learning as seen today is not communicative. It is the result of direct instruction in the rules of
language. And it certainly is not an age-appropriate activity for your young learners - as it is not for adults
either. In language learning, students have conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about
that knowledge.
They can fill in the blanks on a grammar page. Research has shown, however, that knowing grammar rules
does not necessarily result in good speaking or writing. A student who has memorized the rules of the
language may be able to succeed on a standardized test of English language but may not be able to speak or
write correctly.
As teachers, it is our duty to make sure that our students "acquire" rather than "learn" the language.
Julio Foppoli, Teacher of English as a Second Language, Teacher of Spanish as a Second Language,
Creator and owner of, an online educational website with a technological edge,
specialized in the teaching of Spanish as second language via audio-conference to native speakers of
English from all over the world. The website offers free listening comprehension activities with Spanish
from all of the Spanish speaking world.
What Is Brain Lateralization?
Brain lateralization is the idea that the left and right sides of the brain carry out and regulate a variety of
different functions and behaviors. Each of the two hemispheres is responsible for a distinct set of duties in
brain lateralization; the left side handles analytical, logical, and verbal thought processes while the right
oversees more sensitive processes, like feelings, intuition, and sensory matters. The duties of the two
hemispheres are reversed in left-handed individuals. The thought that the two hemispheres manage these
brain functions and behaviors for the overall operation of the individual and can be utilized as a situation
demands is the theory behind brain lateralization.
On a biological level, the brain is separated into its left and right sides by the corpus callosum, a cluster of
neural fibers situated along the longitudinal fissure. The corpus callosum contains more than 200 fibers that
relay messages back and forth between the two hemispheres, maintaining communication that ensures
healthy brain functioning. The left and right sides of the brain are physically identical, and each side
resembles a mirror image of the other. In the practice of brain mapping, neurology experts in the 1940s
discovered that one hemisphere of the brain, when stimulated with electrical current, evoked muscle
reaction in the opposite side of the body; thus it was deduced that the left brain controls the right side of the
body and the right brain controls the left.
What is Aphasia?
Aphasia is a neurological disorder caused by damage to the portions of the brain that are responsible for
language. Primary signs of the disorder include difficulty in expressing oneself when speaking, trouble
understanding speech, and difficulty with reading and writing. Aphasia is not a disease, but a symptom of
brain damage. Most commonly seen in adults who have suffered a stroke, aphasia can also result from a
brain tumor, infection, head injury, or dementia that damages the brain. It is estimated that about 1 million
people in the United States today suffer from aphasia. The type and severity of language dysfunction
depends on the precise location and extent of the damaged brain tissue. Generally, aphasia can be divided
into four broad categories: (1) Expressive aphasia involves difficulty in conveying thoughts through speech
or writing. The patient knows what he wants to say, but cannot find the words he needs. (2) Receptive
aphasia involves difficulty understanding spoken or written language. The patient hears the voice or sees
the print but cannot make sense of the words. (3) Patients with anomic or amnesia aphasia, the least severe
form of aphasia, have difficulty in using the correct names for particular objects, people, places, or events.

(4) Global aphasia results from severe and extensive damage to the language areas of the brain. Patients
lose almost all language function, both comprehension and expression. They cannot speak or understand
speech, nor can they read or write.
Is there any treatment?
In some instances, an individual will completely recover from aphasia without treatment. In most cases,
however, language therapy should begin as soon as possible and be tailored to the individual needs of the
patient. Rehabilitation with a speech pathologist involves extensive exercises in which patients read, write,
follow directions, and repeat what they hear. Computer-aided therapy may supplement standard language
What is the prognosis?
The outcome of aphasia is difficult to predict given the wide range of variability of the condition.
Generally, people who are younger or have less extensive brain damage fare better. The location of the
injury is also important and is another clue to prognosis. In general, patients tend to recover skills in
language comprehension more completely than those skills involving expression.
What Is Neurolinguistics About?

Where in your brain is a word that you've learned? If you know two languages, are they stored in two
different parts of your brain? Is the left side of your brain really the language side? If you lose the ability to
talk because of a stroke, can you learn to talk again?
Do people who read languages written from left to right (like English) think differently from people who
read languages written from right to left (like Hebrew and Arabic)? What about if you read a language that
is written using some other kind of symbols, like Chinese or Japanese? If you're dyslexic, is your brain
different from the brain of someone who has no trouble reading?
All of these questions and more are what neurolinguistics is about. Techniques like Functional Magnetic
Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and event-related potential (ERP) are used to study language in the brain, and
they are constantly being improved. We can see finer and finer details of the brain's constantly changing
blood flowwhere the blood flows fastest, the brain is most active. We can see more and more accurate
traces of our electrical brain waves and understand more about how they reflect our responses to statements
that are true or false, ungrammatical or nonsense, and how the brain's electrical activity varies depending
on whether we are listening to nouns or verbs, words about colors, or words about numbers. New
information about neurolinguistics is regularly covered in national news sources.
Where Is Language in the Brain?

Brain activity is like the activity of a huge city. A city is organized so that people who live in it can get
what they need to live on, but you can't say that a complex activity, like manufacturing a product, is 'in' one
place. Raw materials have to arrive, subcontractors are needed, the product must be shipped out in various
directions. It's the same with our brains. We can't say that all of language is 'in' a particular part of the
brain; it's not even true that a particular word is 'in' just one spot in a person's brain. But we can say that
listening, understanding, talking, and reading each involve activities in certain parts of the brain much more
than other parts.
Most of these parts are in the left side of your brain, the left hemisphere, regardless of what language you
read and how it is written. We know this because aphasia (language loss due to brain damage) is almost
always due to left hemisphere injury in people who speak and read Hebrew, English, Chinese, or Japanese,

and also in people who are illiterate. But areas in the right side are essential for communicating effectively
and for understanding the point of what people are saying. If you are bilingual, your right hemisphere may
be somewhat more involved in your second language than it is in your first language.
Are All Human Brains Organized in the Same Way?

The organization of your brain is similar to other peoples' because we almost all move, hear, see, and so on
in essentially the same way. But our individual experiences and training also affect the organization of our
brainsfor example, deaf people understand sign language using just about the same parts of their brains
that hearing people do for spoken language.
Aphasia and Dyslexia

What is aphasia like? Is losing language the reverse of learning it? People who have lost some or most of
their language because of brain damage are not like children. Using language involves many kinds of
knowledge and skill; some can be badly damaged while others remain in fair condition. People with
aphasia have different combinations of things they can still do in an adult-like way plus things that they
now do clumsily or not at all. Therapy can help them to regain lost skills and make the best use of
remaining abilities. Adults who have had brain damage and become aphasic recover more slowly than
children who have had the same kind of damage, but they continue to improve over decades if they have
good language stimulation.
What about dyslexia, and children who have trouble learning to talk even though they can hear normally?
There probably are brain differences that account for their difficulties, and research in this area is moving
rapidly. Since brains can change with training much more than we used to think, there is renewed hope for
effective therapy for people with disorders of reading and language.

Creating a language
Want to create a language? It can take a lot of work to make it presentable, but the results can be amazing.
To make your own, decide what sounds you want, create words, and hold it all together with a grammar.
(Not necessarily in that order.)
1. Decide the phonology (sounds in the language)
1. What sounds are meaning changing? English: B/P is (bat and pat) and in korean p and p h is
(put/phut) while b and p is the same
2. What sounds correspond to the same meaning? Many see the and de as the same and free
and three when it comes to pronounciation
2. Decide on phonotactics; which consonants go togather and which don't? In English you can say
"Spanish," but in Spanish the letter S cannot begin a word when followed by a consonant so it
becomes "Espanish." Can you have consonants at the end of syllables? Not in Hawai'ian.
3. Create words and/or roots
1. If you're also creating a conculture, think of what's important to them. There will probably
be many words about it.
2. How are roots derived? Semitic languages get the word for 'read' from 'blood.'

4. Construct a grammar, how is it all put together in a flow? (May be done at the end)
1. Is it agglutinating, isolating, fusional or polysynthetic
2. If not isolating, what is its morphosyntactic alignment?
3. Is it heavily inflected?
1. Are verbs conjugated?
2. Do the nouns decline?
4. Are there different voices? moods? aspects? tenses (can be more than past, present, future)?
5. Does it have nouns? adjectives? verbs? adverbs? particles? articles?
5. How are things expressed? (English: "I am eating" and "I eat" is the same in spanish and swedish)
Use the input text below to start the creation of your language.
Differences between L1 and L2 acquisition
Ellis 94 (based on Bley-Vroman 1988); updated in Cook (2009, click above link)

L1 acquisition

L2 (foreign language)

VC's objections

1. Overall children normally adult L2 learners are unlikely

success achieve perfect
to achieve perfect L2 mastery
L1 mastery
All implicitly see 'success'
in the sense of what a
mono-lingual native
speaker does, not an L2



complete success rare


little variation in
degree of
success or route

L2 learners vary in overall

success and route

4. Goals

target language

L2 learners may be content

with less than target language
competence or more
concerned with fluency than



common, plus backsliding (i.e.

return to earlier stages of

And L2 users too have L1


L2 learners are often unable to

form clear grammaticality

But bilingual children are

better at this than

6.Intuition children develop

clear intuitions


not needed

helpful or necessary

All depends!


correction not
found and not

correction generally helpful or


Recasts are in fact based

on L1 acquisition ideas

not involved

play a major role determining


Again measured against



Cook, V.J., Long, J., & McDonough, S. (1979), First and second language learning, in G.E. Perren
(ed.) The Mother Tongue and Other Languages in Education, CILTR, 7-22 online here


The childs language is a system in its own right rather than being a small fragment of the adult system
The learning of a first language has many sides and is not simply a matter of learning syntax and vocabulary
The use of the first language goes hand in hand with the childs needs and interests
Wherever there is a relationship between cognition and language development, language depends on cognition
The childs use and learning of language is partly determined by mental capacity
There are particular stages of development through which all children progress, even if the rate of progression varies
The child learns to adapt its language use to particular situations
Adults adapt their speech in systematic ways when talking to children