Applied Linguistics

Difference between first and second language acquisition Similarities

First Language Acquisition

First language acquisition (FLA) actually refers to infants’ acquisition of their native language. They acquire language through a subconscious process and are unaware of grammar rules. Children do usually not require explicit instruction to learn their first language (FL). They just pick up the language, the same way they learn how to roll over, crawl, and walk.

Moreover, children may acquire more than one (FL). For example, children who grow up in a house where parents speak only the English language will acquire only English. However, children who grow up in a bilingual household (say French and English) will learn both languages.

Theories of (FLA)

There are several theories of LA, all of them describing how a child learns a language. In the Behaviorist approach, which was mainly expounded by B.F. Skinner, LA is a process of experience and language is a conditioned behavior – a production of correct responses to stimuli. According to this theory, children learn language step by step: imitation – repetition – memorization – controlled drilling – reinforcement. However, limitations of this behaviorist approach led to the development of Nativist or Innateness theory, which states that children are born with an innate capacity to learn a language.

Noam Chomsky, the main figure in this theory, originally theorized that children are born with a LAD  in their brains. He later modified this theory to include the theory of Universal Grammar, a set of innate principles common to all languages. According to this theory, the LAD in children’s brains allows them to deduce the structure of their native language through exposure to the language.

Cognitive theory is another theory explaining LA. According to this approach, LA must be viewed in the context of children’s intellectual development and environment. This also focuses on exploring the relationship between the stages of cognitive development and language skills.

Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

(SLA) is learning a second language after the first language is already learned. Anyone can learn a second language, but children usually find it easier. In fact, this is a process of learning; learning occurs actively and consciously through explicit instruction and education.

Moreover, according to the linguist Stephen Krashen, SLA occurs in five stages: preproduction (silent phase), early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency.

Preproduction – At this stage, learners learn terms of the new language and practice them.

Early Production – Learners can speak in short phrases of one or two phrases. They also collect new words.

Speech Emergence – At this stage, learners know thousands of words and can communicate using simple questions and phrases.

Immediate Fluency – Learners have an advanced vocabulary and can use more complicated sentence structures. They can also share their opinions and thoughts.

Advanced Fluency – By this stage, learners will finally have several years of experience, and can function at a level close of native speakers.

Differences vs Similarities

We know that humans acquire their first language based on the instinct of needing to communicate with others. In contrast, humans acquire a second language through a conscious effort to learn. This basic difference leads to other differences between the two processes. Let’s look at the differences first, then move on to the similarities.

This chart we have here for you on your screen gives you an overview of the basic differences between first and second language acquisition. We include an example to illustrate each difference, using Charlie and Carlos as models.

First Language Second Language Example
It begins with a telegraphic speech Can start with complete sentences Charlie says ‘I want water‘ while Carlos learns to say ‘I want water’.
It is a natural part of daily life. It is a new aspect in the student’s life. Charlie just lives a life in English, while Carlos has it as part of his school day.
It is based on universal grammar itself. It has a base in the grammar of the first language. Charlie learns grammatical patterns without knowing it, while Carlos remembers Spanish adjectives while his English teacher gives him a list of English adjectives.
Does not require conscious effort Requires conscious effort Charlie just follows his instinct to communicate, while Carlos struggles to learn pronunciation, use correct grammar, etc.
It is based on listening as a first resort It is based on content that involves technical knowledge of the language. Charlie listens to his mom all day, while Carlos receives material developed specifically for language learning.
no instruction required requires instruction Charlie’s mother certainly doesn’t teach him grammar, while Carlos has a specialized English teaching professional to provide instruction.

At this point, we might be thinking that Carlos is certainly at a disadvantage because his process of learning English requires a lot of work. However, there are some similarities between first language acquisition (FLA) and second language acquisition (SLA).

Similarities Between FLA And SLA Example
Learning stages are predictable Charlie begins to associate words with situations, begins to make sounds, goes into telegraphic language, etc. Carlos begins to say and understand basic words and sentences, moves on to reading and writing, etc.
Mistakes are part of the process Charlie says things like ‘I want to eat’ and Carlos says things like ‘He doesn’t know’.
There is use of signals, context, etc. Charlie discovers that the word ‘dog‘ refers to the furry thing that moves. Carlos clearly understands the word “dog” when his teacher shows him a picture.
interaction is basic Charlie couldn’t learn to talk if he didn’t have other people to talk to. Similarly, Carlos’s learning depends on the opportunities he has to practice with others.
Speaking can be more challenging than understanding Charlie understands when his mother says “I want you to shut up”, but he couldn’t respond with that structure. The same thing happens to Carlos.
Competence is developed with instruction Charlie’s language skills will increase through future instruction and so will Carlos’s ability.
Prior knowledge helps Charlie doesn’t have a problem once at school because, at home, his mom reads with him and he already knows the vocabulary that others don’t. Similarly, Carlos is not afraid of grammar issues because Spanish grammar was part of his education at his home.


LA is the process through which humans gain the ability to be aware of language and to understand it as well as to produce and use words and sentences to communicate. FLA is children’s acquisition of their native language, while SLA is learning a language after acquiring the FL. Moreover, FLA is a subconscious process, while SLA is an active and conscious process. This is the main difference between FL and SLA

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