Language Acquisition vs Language Learning

- - Language acquisition vs language learning


Julio Foppoli argues that as teachers, it is our duty to make sure that our students "acquire" rather than "learn" the language.



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 language.

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 aspect 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 www.esaudio.net, 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.



Comments

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Akchich on 5 February 2006

The old dichotomy of acquisition vs learning needs to be scientifically proved as nobody knows where the bounds between acquisition and learning are. Assuming acquisition is the right model to follow in FL teaching would create an immense void in language accuracy and vice versa in regard to Learning which would create specialists in language rules with no communicative competence.

As experience has shown me the two should go hand in hand with a slight emphasis on acquisition. Nevertheless, the teacher should be left to decide to take the right decision as to what best suits his/her students.

Faith on 5 February 2006

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. I have taught English to German adults for many years and their problem is that they think they should be learning the way rightly described here as ineffective - and they protest if a different tack is taken, because they think there's only one way to learn and that is devoid of any imagination or contribution by them. They think they can learn rules and apply them to make comprehensible language, but when asked what they would like to say they are unable to think of anything outside the box. When I ask them to say something in German first, they often can't do that either. The problem is that they think learning a foreign language will automatically increase their speech powers! "Let's have a conversation", they might suggest if I haven't done so (because I know it's futile). I then usually say "Good. What shall we talk about?" Ah well, maybe not today.... I've tried so many tactics. One of my favourites is talking for one minute on a favourite book, film, animal, food, place, whatever - chosen by them, of course. It's always so difficult to get any real communication going. These same people have often learnt English in various adult courses for years and years. They come along with a word scribbled down somewhere and say they don't understand it. Can I tell them what it means? What is the context? Oh, I just wanted the word. I try to explain that a dictionary can translate words, but meanings are interwoven with context.

But I should mention that school education - at least in Germany - is done on the "take it through" principle. Directly translated from "durchnehmen", in language that means doing some point of grammar or syntax, doing a test on it, then moving on and probably forgetting it. The teaching is not joined-up. Neither are the learners taught to join things up themselves. The result is that most of the school material is forgotten. So they want to learn it again as they did at school. Only they didn't learn it. And adult education books are for the most part on the same system. Very few beginners' books have any kind of joined-up text. Just sentences using whatever grammar is available. Just like the CDs. I could go on...

Cathy on 5 February 2006

I think language should be learned through the most natural method we have -through communication. After all isn't that why we learn a language in the first place. The problem in our day and age is that there are so many exams that test grammar proficiency instead of the ability to communicate that teaching tends to veer in that direction.

Ben on 5 February 2006

I agree with this article. Although learning of the basic structure of a language is important, learning grammar by rote accomplishes little. Children learn to speak purely through natural communication. Once they have acquired general fluency in their own language, their mastery of it is fine-tuned when they attend school and learn the rules. Often adults want to learn grammar and this helps them to write properly. However, even though these same people can write with a certain amount of competency and even cite grammar rules accurately, they often have very big problems applying this knowledge in conversation. We should not minimize the importance of acquisition vs learning. They are both necessary, but acquisition should be the larger part of the mix. It works!

Bruce on 5 February 2006

An excellent article! Yes, acquisition is the way and to acquire language the learning process needs to be broadened - not by rote! Cultural and related dimensions plus practical application are relevant to the process.

Try the QUESTIA on-line library where targeted reading will give support to the acquisition emphasis.

Linda on 5 February 2006

It is true that instruction alone is rarely, if ever, enough to allow adults to use a language for communication. But - let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. I have known adults who have failed to either acquire or learn the language of the country they have lived in for ten or more years through exposure alone. They need instruction as well. As a language teacher I see my job as providing whatever it needs to help my students acquire/learn the language for their purposes - be they communicative, academic, or whatever else. My teaching repertoire has to include sufficient variety and flexibility to do that.

Trudy on 6 February 2006

This is an interesting debate, but I do feel that what hasn't been mentioned is the fact that young children's brains appear to learn differently and be more flexible than an adult's brain... and I think that this means that an entirely communicative approach may not be completely successful in teaching adults. My husband, for example, learned German in this way, but when it comes to reading or writing it, or even translating words or phrases (in context) he has difficulty. It's fine if it's just for speaking purposes, but even native speakers of English need to learn some formal language structures later after they have learned to speak fluently, e.g. for university studies, etc.

A combination does seem ideal, with an emphasis on the communicative side. By the way, my experience teaching German business people English was entirely different... I had some amazingly good conversations with them, often focusing on current affairs and some fairly deep philosophical discussions... perhaps I was just fortunate with my students.

Ryan on 6 February 2006

My favourite way to learn a language is to listen. Particularly I treasure moments sat in bars and cafes LISTENING to people talk, getting comfortable with the rhythms and picking out the odd words and phrases that I *do* know until I can make general sense of what is being said.

For me grammar comes later...

Pati on 6 February 2006

From personal experience I know that the way to learn a language is to live the language. I studied Spanish throughout high school and into college but it was not until I had lived in Mexico that I was able to actually speak the language. I do believe that learning the grammar and vocabulary is necessary as these tools give you the background to understand what you hear in communication. I am sure the education I had in school accelerated my ability to communicate in Spanish. So I guess I have to say both language learning and language acquisition are necessary to communicate but I do believe the acquisition is more important. A person can learn to speak without the grammar but one who has studied the grammar does not necessarily speak.

Bev on 6 February 2006

I have to say I don't altogether agree with this article. Of course language learning has to be communicative and interactive, but to believe adults can learn language in just the same way very young children (pre-school age) acquire their first language, I believe is wrong. Small children are in a language learning window that begins to close (some say) as early as six. Around this time children begin to lose their ability to reproduce sounds exactly as they hear them. By adolescence it may have gone altogether. I know there are many words of foreign languages that I will never pronounce correctly. It isn't only pronunciation that begins to diminish in childhood. I once knew a child of 21 months who was fluent in two very different languages (English and Cantonese). Presumably she knew little or no language at one year, so to acquire two languages so quickly and without effort, beggars belief. Obviously she was an exception, but could any adult do it? Even an average three to four year old can be fluent in three languages, given the appropriate exposure, e.g. from mother/father/ environment. I don't believe even a gifted adult could manage that in such a short time and certainly not without enormous effort. When you consider what a child knows about language at three or four years, it doesn't fit with their coginitive ability at that age. Generally they know the rules for plurals, past tense, subject/object, word order, verbal agreement and have an enormous vocabulary. Certainly they make mistakes but those mistake drop out quite quickly given exposure to the correct way. It is interesting to compare the immersion program in Canada, where I understand children learn all their lessons in French from age five or six. They become fluent in French but the grammatical mistakes do not drop out the way they do with younger children acquiring their first language before age five. Language acquisition (in early childhood) does not seem to depend on what other learning depends on, e.g. aptitude, motivation and the teacher. Language learning (in late childhood and adulthood) does depend on those issues. There are many failures.

Another difference between language acquisition and learning is the order in which the skills are mastered. Children learn listening first. Even before they can speak, they can understand more. Reading obviously comes last. For adults the opposite is true. Reading is usually the first and easiest skill to acquire, while listening is the hardest and last. Even students who know most of the words of a conversation (when they see them written) still can't pick up any in conversation in full flow.

Most experts agree people don't have instinctive behaviour, save simple reflexes. Animals have instincts, people have language. If language is not an instinct, then it is very close to it. We can say that an instinct is essential for survival, universal to a species, there are no failures and it happens naturally without effort or even encouragement. Of course I mean spoken language. Not every human society has developed written language and there are many failures in the ones that have. There are no failures to become fluent in our first language unless there is serious brain damage or profound deafness. Supporters of universal grammar believe we all inherit a pre-wired language onto which we only need to place our own vocabulary and rules during that critical early childhood period. Historically it has been essential for our survival and as easy and natural as a bird learning to fly. It needs only practice.

Certainly, as I said before, language learning needs to be communicative and interactive, in an environment where students feel free to experiment and take risks, but many students like to learn grammar as well. Given the choice they will ask for it and learn better that way. I think it's necessary to be aware of the differences between the way adults and small children learn.

Julie on 6 February 2006

This is the stupidest article I have read! Acquisition takes place up until a certain age (Chomsky, the person who first presented the theory that people have the innate capacity for language learning). There are several examples of children, who through absent or abusive parents, have been brought up in isolation. If Foppoli's argument holds true, then these children should have been able to acquire their mother languages when placed in proper care. However, this has not been the case at all. They have experienced huge difficulties in grasping the languages, despite being immersed in them. Many linguists set the age by which one can naturally acquire a language at 13.

I am an ESOL lecturer and have learned 6 other languages besides English. When living overseas in Japan, my speed-learning did definitely not come through acquisition, but through formal learning. From the grammar that I had instilled in me, I was able to communicate out of that. I have seen teachers try the 'acquisition' method and students have always come away frustrated and confused, because as adults we do not learn language like children do, we are able to reason and learn patterns, which in turn generate new sentences with meaning;

A good lesson is based on presentation (language rules to be learned), practice (trying out the new language learned, error and correction stage), and production (fluency practice where students focus on communication). In the production stage, students have the opportunity to use the language in as natural a context as possible, for example suggestion language with Aunt Agatha columns, problem solving and the like.

I'm sure that if any of you were to learn a language and have it all thrown at you without any explanation of structure, you would be completely confused, and turn to a language book for help to understand the structure.

As for Faith's entry, 'let's have a conversation' may not be exactly an appetising approach to generating student interest in the task. Having a topic that they are interested in and a goal for students to work towards is more motivating, e.g. for opinion language, agreeing and disagreeing - as a class or in small groups students need to debate topics such as 'men and women can never really be equal', 'there needs to be more censorship in music videos on TV', or whatever students are interested in.

Faith on 6 February 2006

I agree with the arguments here. I particularly want to comment on what Trudy wrote. Of course, there are exceptions. I've had many a good conversation with German students, but they remain the exception to the rule. Business students are more likely to cope if they've had experience with clients etc and get around a lot - and because they are desperate to be good at English. If they are not, it often puts their jobs at risk. Wherever possible I use no German at all (unless it's a horrendous grammar problem) during lessons with people who understand enough to get started, even if their English is not yet really fluent. We cope with grammar as it crops up and try to personalize what they are saying through a form of repetition of the things they want to say. That also improves pronunciation and is good fun if done in a humorous way. But there are other elements in language learning/acquisition which should not be underestimated. For instance, someone with a "musical ear" can pick up - and imitate - language much faster than other people. Small children learn by imitation, which is why they sometimes say the right things in the wrong places and vice versa! Their timing is unbeatable. The brain has completed its main development by the time a child is 3 and so has the assimilation of grammar and structures in its own native language(s). The Helen Doron method of starting virtually at birth is on the right track there. When adults are prepared to dive in at the deep end, they learn better and faster. Finally, I rather think that in the end the two terms used are in themselves problematical. Could one not replace them with active vs passive?

Charlie on 6 February 2006

This is the ever present debate, isn't it.  I think the original article started off interestingly enough and then turned into a diatribe about the communicative method. This to be followed by a diatribe on the PPP method.

I went from speaking 0 Japanese to getting by in one year when I was 25. Now I am completely fluent in written and spoken Japanese. It was part immersion, part grammar and completely getting whatever I could get. I had a grammar tape that I listened to constantly until it exploded on me, I worked through the accompanying tapescript regularly; translating words and checking theories that I had created on words meanings through my listening. Communicative lessons were good fun and removed a lot of the stress of real life situations, but having a grammatical explanation was really helpful. After all grammar is just a description of the way in which a language operates, so it just offers a short cut to nutting it all out for ourselves. I see my 5 year old son trying to nut the right rules out, and the cute mistakes he makes in expressing what he wants to say.

I think the particular presentation style is less important than just the volume. I know that while I was listening to the tapes, I was getting as much exposure to the language; written, spoken, whatever and trying to assimilate whatever I could. It was just fun. I know that the PPP style often has the outcome that students are "protected" from being exposed to grammar they haven't done in previous classes with the end result that the teachers talk in a strange pigeon English using only simple present, simple past and future with going to and even the teachers sound like they are a few buns short of a dozen.

Just to end my own diatribe, I found that having a sympathetic teacher or conversation partner who was happy and interesting and willing to forgive me my poor language and correct me was much more important than the actual material they were teaching me. I bore the responsibility of writing down new words and patterns and am now a fluent speaker. Now I just have to find an employer who gives a damn that I have advanced Japanese.

Bruce on 9 February 2006

Dear me... we are acquiring a barrage of verbiosity! Pick up, learn and acquire a language. Avanti! Viva la difference!

Jane on 11 February 2006

I fully agree with what you say about acquisition versus learning. I teach English to adults in Switzerland, and I try to engage them in natural conversation as much as possible - even at lower levels. I discourage them also from translating into their mother tongue, preferring to give a simple explanation of the word or concept in English.

I find that once students accept this reasoning or method, they are happy and willing to go along, despite initial difficulties and tendencies to translate. The ones who insist on translation or speaking to me in their mother tongue are the slowest to learn...

I recently wrote an article in a teaching journal in which I more or less "killed" language course books, for the very reasons you stated in your article. Using language course books is somewhat like reading a manual about cars: it may teach you the names and functions of all parts of the car, but it certainly won't teach you to drive!

I keep telling my students (in English) "if you want to speak English - the only way is to speak! If you want to improve your listening skills, the only way is to listen!" Many students at beginning levels have the odd idea that if they read a translation of a listening (at the same time), they will improve their listening. I then ask them: do you want to improve your Italian reading skills or your English listening skills? Teachers are often forced (by the schools) to use language books in their classes, but there is a way around this - adapt the exercises to make them more 'communicative'. It takes more preparation and effort on the part of the teacher but it's worth in the end (happy, successful students - what more could a teacher want??).

Delia on 5 March 2006

Dear Julio,
I have just come back from Britain where my son is living. He learnt the English he knows now with me as a teacher. I completely agree with you. It is essential that the students are able to communicate orally in the language they are learning. What I have just read encourages me to use different approaches according to the different teaching situations. I have noticed that many people in London, even those living there, find it difficult to communicate properly.

Teresita on 11 March 2006

I agree. If you, as a teacher, try to integrate the grammar with the main topic of the lesson, the better it is for your students because they learn grammar in context.

Uttam on 26 March 2006

I agree that Language without real communication is as useless as Saint Valentine's day without lovers or Children's day without kids. So we must try our best - as teachers - to make the situation as real as possible. We must take time and do a lot of homework and think about how we are going to make the children feel that they are not 'learning' but 'doing something real'.

Puguh on 24 July 2006

Wow, terrific. What an article! This article is kind of a way out to me. I do agree that today's language learning is not effective anymore. Children are to sit in the class and listen to the teacher who is speaking in front of them, of course s/he only focuses on the grammatical rule of the language being spoken. Since languages are spoken, the most effective way in learning or acquiring them is to speak and talk. A real situation will lead into a good achievement of one's language learning.

I suggest an activity-based learning to overcome the problem. Show your kids the real situation, ask them to dive under the reality to enhance their language acquisition. Thanks

Anonymous on 5 November 2006

This is an interesting article 'Learning vs Acquisition' and it has demonstrated to me the reality of teaching a second language. As a Master student in Learning a Second Language the theory I read at times is tedious and overwhelming. These articles give insight as to what actually goes on in a classroom and more importantly what works best in teaching a second language. I will refer to this site frequently and use it as a reality check. Thank you.

Bell on 30 January 2007

As for acquisition of a new language at adult age just think of those adults who live in a country and acquire its language without a teacher. Those I know, mostly learn this language very incorrectly. What is your experience and opinion? Is it possible for adults to learn a language well without a teacher?

Mac2 on 1 July 2008

I do agree with the article being presented by Julio Foppoli that the capacity of human beings in acquiring language is an innate gift. The language that we know in our childhood is what we're building up, it is our first tongue and this we acquire from imitation, association, and reinforcement. But as we grow up and study language, we focus on the things which will help us use the language effectively and effeciently for better communication.

Tony on 7 November 2008

Adults need linguistic competence to get to be communicative. Yes, language learning is conscious learning, but we as adult learners need to know about language form: grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary to later develop high level activities; such as listening, speaking, reading and writing. Automatization.

Ahu on 11 December 2008

Learning vs acquisition is the wellknown theory of Stephen Krashen and already it has been questioned and therefore no longer used by most writers, because of the problems inherent in demostrating the difference independently of the underlying definitions. However, I personally agree with his ideas to a point. Adults, in their second language learning process could acquire the language they are expose to without any awareness of the grammar rules, the nature of the language, and learn them subconsiously just like a child gains its first language. Discovery of the nature of the language could be done by the student himself. This is what natural learning is. However, somewhere in this learning process I think that this student may need grammatical help to make his discoveries concreate. Both approaches could be introduced to these learners with an appropriate teaching method.

Roseline on 12 January 2009

One can learn language without a teacher or being taught by somebody he/she acquires through adaptation. But as adult learners we need to know about language form which is grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary to develop skills such as listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Alan on 18 January 2009

Like my grandfather, an accomplished amateur linguist who spoke nine languages, I learn best by the grammar-translation method. I become very frustrated by teaching materials that give me plenty of vocabulary and examples of conversations, but no explanation of how the language is constructed. I always turn to the back of the book hoping for a reference grammar section. Just as it is useless to be an expert in the grammar of a language without acquiring good pronunciation, so it is useless to acquire a battery of model sentences (which is how schoolchildren are taught by the 'communicative method'), while having no idea how to frame original sentences because you don't know the grammar.

Hammani Mohamed on 21 September 2009

Every normal human being is endowed with certain innate abilities. Once a child is exposed to his society, his/her input data is activated and triggered. Then he/she can generate a set of sentences that have not been heard before. A child acquires L1 unconsciously; without being aware of the process of acquiring. Unlike acquisition, learning is a conscious process. A child, for example, learns language in a formal setting; like a class room.

Carlos on 2 October 2009

Good debate...
But with it come these questions:
How is it that not a single expert in language acquisition has come forward with a list of individuals that they themselves (meaning the researchers and experts) have helped become fluent? How about any foreign language teacher out there? I'm still waiting for a single self- proclaimed amazing foreign language teacher who has produced a fluent student. But please don't give me the name of that linguistically gifted student we all get every year---the one we always call upon when Mr. Principal or Mrs. foreign language liason comes to observe you... I guess my point is this...
We all can talk about language acquisition and language learning until we drop dead, but none of us will ever produce a single fluent student in our foreign language classroom (again, if you have produced one please send me his/her name). The best we can do is try to replicate the second language natural environment in our foreign language classrooms and hope for the best!


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