Learning a second language has become practically inevitable in the context of the contemporary multicultural environment. Because of the increasingly high levels of diversity, the need to learn a second language has become crucial to successful communication (Verhagen & Leseman, 2016). One might assume that, given the ease with which most people learn their native language, acquiring the skills of speaking a second one should not be that difficult. However, there is a massive gap between first (FLA) and second (SLA) language acquisition. Because of the nature of learning (intrinsic vs. motivated), the speed of the process and the extent to which one can master a second language is typically much lower than those of the FLA process.
Theories of Language Acquisition
The phenomenon under analysis can be explained from the viewpoint of several theories. There are numerous theories that explain SLA and FLA. The fact that the notions under analysis cannot be scrutinized with the help of a particular theoretical framework already serves as the proof of FLA being strikingly different from SLA.
First Language Acquisition
The proponents of the behaviorist approach suggest that learning occurs similarly to any other learning behavior (Larsen‐Freeman, 2018). Put differently, the process is conditioned by external factors. The identified theoretical framework allows understanding the mechanics of FLA, yet it does not shed enough light on the sociocultural factors that shape the process of language acquisition. In addition, cognitive processes associated with FLA need to be studied closer.
The cognitive framework offers to view FLA as part and parcel of cognitive development. While the specified theory helps to gain a deeper insight into the nature of FLA, it still does not encompass the sociocultural aspects thereof (Rowe, 2015). As a result, it does not give a chance to study every facet of FLA.
Social Interactionist Theory
Shifting the focus to the realm of interpersonal communication, the theory gives a chance to evaluate the significance of interactions in the FLA process. In addition, the theory implies that the process of FLA is linked directly to a range of other aspects of a child’s growth (Dammeyer, Nielsen, Strøm, Hendar, & Eiríksdóttir, 2015). Consequently, the model serves as a shorthand for rendering the concept of sociocultural development.
Second Language Acquisition
Developed in the 1970s-1980s, the Interlanguage Theory (IT) helps to understand how a language evolves and, thus, sheds light on how it is understood and learned (Ortega, 2014). According to the existing definition, the concept of the interlanguage can be translated as the set of notions, ideas, and images that one develops when learning a second language to bridge the gap between FL and SL (Fauziati & Maftuhin, 2016). The resulting ability to use the background knowledge of the FL when learning the SL creates a positive setting for building the skills that will be needed for the further development of respective abilities, including speaking, reading, and writing (Rana, Sohail, & Naz, 2016). Despite having been in existence for a while, the Interlanguage Theory remains a compelling method of looking at some of the crucial stages of acquiring linguistic skills.
Placing a powerful emphasis on sociocultural aspects of language learning, the Acculturation Theory (AT) provides a deep insight into how an intuitive understanding of a language is developed. The significance of sociocultural and psychological factors affecting learners’ motivation to acquire language skills is emphasized extensively in the identified model. The Acquisition Model suggests that the process of developing language skills requires immersing into the realm of the culture to which the said language belongs (Owu-Ewie & Williams, 2017). Therefore, the specified theory is instrumental to the understanding of how a language is acquired, including the development of FL and SL alike.
Characteristics That Set FLA Apart from SLA
Extrinsic vs. Motivated Learning
There are a lot of differences between how the FLA and SLA processes occur, the perception of the process being the key one. Unlike a child, who is guided by an intrinsic need to acquire linguistic skills, second language learners are fully aware of their motifs. The specified dichotomy is known as the intrinsic vs. motivated learning (Rehman, Bilal, Sheikh, Bibi, & Nawaz, 2014). Particularly, when being conditioned to acquire language skills, a child learns their first language extrinsically, i.e., based on the external factors. The intrinsic learning process, in turn, occurs when learners are fully aware thereof. It could also be argued that extrinsic learning takes place once students are motivated to study, hence the name of the process.
The identified characteristic of FLA and SLA conditions another difference between the two. Particularly, the age at which a first and a second language are acquired can be seen as one of the primary distinctions between FLA and SLA. Indeed, according to the existing theories, even though people acquire new language skills on a regular basis throughout their entire lives, there is a point in their early childhood development when vocabulary and speaking prowess, as well as a deep understanding how a language works, in general, is built (Tan, Ismail, & Ooi, 2016). Therefore, the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation defines the gap between FLA and SLA.
In addition, several types of motivation can be distilled when considering the process of language learning. Particularly, the difference between the instrumental and integrative motivation types needs to be mentioned. According to the existing definition, instrumental motivation occurs when a learner pursues a practical goal such as learning a language to pass the exam (Ng & Ng, 2015). Integrative motivation, in turn, can be observed in the scenarios that involve a student’s willingness to become proficient in a particular language due to a strong connection to its culture, people, etc. (Ghanizadeh & Jahedizadeh, 2017). It should be borne in mind, however, that both of the identified types of leaning can be regarded as a conscious attempt at acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge. In other words, when using the previously described taxonomy, each of the suggested types falls under the category of intrinsic, or motivated, learning. Thus, the proposed approach fails to shed more light on the issue of intrinsic motivation.
Speed of Language Acquisition
The age at which the FLA occurs defines the speed with which it takes place. As a result, the first language is acquired much faster than a second one (Sundberg & Cardoso, 2015). However, at this point, it should be noted that, similarly to SLA, the process of FLA continues after childhood into adulthood and, in fact, does not stop until one is capable of using their cognitive skills (Park & Warschauer, 2016). Therefore, arguably, both FL and SL can be acquired for a continuous and unspecified amount of time. Nevertheless, the primary stage of the FLA process, which occurs at approximately the age of three to ten years, and which is known as the critical age, cannot possibly be imitated in the future (Meyer, Huettig, & Levelt, 2016). Marked to an intensifying speed of language learning and a sharp increase in the size of a child’s vocabulary, the identified period cannot be replicated and occurs only once (Jang, Wood, & Khan, 2017). Herein lies the primary difference between FLA and SLA; no matter how intricate and intense the process of learning might be, it will never approximate the rate at which one acquires FL skills at the age of early childhood.
Degree of Proficiency
Finally, one must keep in mind that learning the second language will never lead to mastering it completely, i.e., to the same extent as one can acquire the native language skills. The specified phenomenon can be explained by the fact that the lack of the cultural context and certain gaps in vocabulary, as well as the absence of intuitive knowledge of the language, define the quality of learning. However, when considering the factors that prevent one from mastering the SL in its entirety, one must refer specifically to the critical age mentioned above. Because of the absence of a powerful catalyst that the critical age represents, one cannot possibly embrace the wide array of layers and details that the SL has.
Some might argue that the existence of bilingual people subverts the specified statement. Indeed, the phenomenon of bilingualism, by definition, implies the mastery of two languages as native ones and, therefore, being able to use them correspondingly (MacIntyre & Vincze, 2017). However, it should be noted that there are restrictions regarding the SLA even in potentially bilingual children in case the SL studying does not occur before the age of six (Rabow, Serano, & Yazdanfar, 2017). Specifically, the research pointed to the fact that, at the specified mark, the involvement of the right hemisphere of the brain in the process is restricted significantly, whereas, in the opposite scenario, both left and right hemispheres are extraordinarily active during the acquisition of language skills:
In terms of AoA of L2, a recent meta-analytic review also found that bilinguals who acquired both languages by 6 years of age demonstrated bilateral hemispheric involvement for both languages, whereas those who acquired their second language after age 6 showed left hemisphere dominance for both languages. (Wei et al., 2015, p. 38)
Therefore, when studying SL at a comparatively mature age, one is most likely to fail to develop the same degree of proficiency as one may have in their native language. For instance, it is going to be very difficult to intuit specific details of the SL compared to the ease with which one chooses the means of expression in their FL. Predetermined by the unique physiological condition and mental development that a child undergoes at the critical age, the process of developing FL skills cannot be replicated at the later stages of an individual’s life, which means that the required degree of proficiency is practically unattainable.
Similarities: What Connects FLA and SLA
It would be wrong to claim, however, that the FLA and SLA processes are entirely different in their nature. Although there is a massive gap between the two, there are certain points of contact. Quite the contrary, there is a plethora of common characteristics that make the processes similar. For example, the use of the Universal Grammar, which implies that there is a specific set of grammar principles that are easily understood by most people no matter what their cultural background may be, plays a huge role in the skills acquisition process (Ramos, Perna, & Molsing, 2015). The specified principle allows developing an in-depth understanding of the language, even if it cannot be achieved completely in the SLA process.
Arguably, the use of prior knowledge as the foundation on which the FLA and SLA take place can also be regarded as one of the characteristics that make SLA similar to FLA. Although in SLA, the process of building new knowledge on the platform of the previous one is more evident due to the control that a learner has over it, FLA also implies using prior knowledge as the tool for acquiring crucial language skills. For instance, the sensory experiences coupled with the verbal information that children subsequently receive from their parents can serve as the foundation for building the prior knowledge that will help acquire FL skills (Sullivan, Mundy, & Mastergeorg, 2015). Therefore, there are several points of contact between FLA and SLA.
Conclusion: Why FLA and SLA Are So Different
The combination of biological and cultural factors that lead to the successful acquisition of the first language cannot possibly be replicated. Therefore, SLA is going to be significantly different from FLA. As a result, the quality of learning will not be the same in each context. When considering the primary differences between the processes of acquiring language skills in each case, one must mention the fact that FLA includes a stage that occurs at a very young age and cannot be replicated at the later stages of an individual’s development. Therefore, setting the environment that mirrors the FLA process completely is currently impossible, which creates a gap between FLA and SLA. Even though there are major similarities between the processes of FLA and SLA, there is a large gap between them due to the lack of the critical stage by which FLA is marked.
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