Educational Talks

Why is Second Language Acquisition is Fundamentally Different from First Language Acquisition?

Posted in ESL/EFL Teaching and Learning by Abidin on March 15, 2011

This paper explores issues of first and second language learning in particular the fundamental differences between first language (L1) and second language (L2) acquisition. The first part of the chapter provides an overview of the general issues related to the L1 and L2 acquisition and language teaching beliefs. Afterward, the paper critically reviews the possible types of comparison embroiled in contrasting L1 and L2 acquisition. In the next section, it examines a number of studies delineating the fundamental differences between L1 and L2 acquisition subsequently followed by conclusion.

A. An Overview on L1 and L2 Acquisition

It has been widely accepted that the second language acquisition (SLA) might refer to language learning in which the target language being learned is used as the major communication aid in the community where the language learning takes place. The term acquisition, however, might be differently interpreted that often leads to difficulty in making comparison of one SLA study with others. Acquisition might be broadly regarded as the process of acquiring a language through exposure which mostly happens subconsciously (Krashen, 1981 as cited in Ellis, 1994). Nevertheless, the problem emerges as researchers disagree with the language products or samples used as evidence of acquisition. SLA is a multifaceted process and, therefore, it is imperative to consider the different settings (whether naturalistic or instructional), focus of the study (whether examining linguistic or communicative performances) and the available language samples when carrying the investigation. A number of issues addressed in SLA research generally focuses on questions of what the student acquire in their language learning, how they acquire it, what learning approaches that a different individual uses and what contributions the instruction might serve in students’ language learning (Ellis, 1994).

In addressing these issues, researchers are working by largely considering the various natures and concepts which usually appear and are involved in SLA process that include settings or contexts, language, learners and learning process (Ellis, 1994). SLA might take place in both naturalistic and instructional context. Even though there is no specific evidence of how settings can influence SLA, but contexts significantly contribute to the amount and types of language exposure, available time and feedback received during the language learning (Lightbown and Spada, 1999). Dealing with the language learned in SLA, Scrivener (2002) categorized it into two; the language systems (phonology, lexis, grammar and language functions) and the language skills (four macro skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing). As in language, learner also has been an indispensable element in SLA. The learners’ individual characteristics such as motivation, personality and age are also important in underpinning both research and language learning. The learning process, on one side, deals with the learners’ mental process as well as learners’ strategies used in acquiring language systems and skills of the target language learned (Ellis, 1994).

In first language acquisition, meanwhile, researchers are still in controversy in delineating how children acquire their first language (Brown, 1994). In spite of their shortcomings, the existing approaches and theories of first language acquisition have given invaluable insights to a clearer picture of L1 acquisition. Behaviourist approach, firstly introduced by Skinner (1957), has considered language as an indispensable part of human behaviour (Ellis, 1994). Accordingly, L1 acquisition is viewed more effective as it is delivered through repetition, imitation or reinforcement. The theory speculates that external stimuli or environment determines the learning process since it controls the children’s verbal behaviour (language) important for language acquisition. However, the nativists, Chomsky and Lenneberg (as cited in Ellis, 1994) criticised and contended that L1 acquisition is largely determined by the innate properties or ability represented in the little black box renowned as a language acquisition device (LAD). Consequently, in L1 acquisition children are very likely to be creative beings who proceed and produce utterances that might never been spoken by or heard from others. However, Bloom (1971), representing the functional theory, has challenged the nativism as it mainly emphasizes on the language itself and does not involve perception, meaning and emotion that together account for the function of language. According to this theory, L1 acquisition requires more than superficial word order as suggested by nativists, instead it needs elaboration of both cognitive, affective domain including children’s linguistic experiences.

The fast development of research in first language acquisition around 60s and 70s has inevitably brought new spirit for educators especially those engage in language teaching and learning. The implication of L1 acquisition theories as outlined above is widespread worldwide that noticeably impacts on language teaching and learning practices especially L2 learning. Although, it has been intensively criticized by some linguists such as Vroman (1994) and Brown (2000), the fact that acquiring L1 is always easy and successful has inspired L2 teachers to learn and even adopt L1 learning principles in their pedagogical practices. Today it may be very common and accepted that the studies of L1 acquisition has been a best model for second language learning as well.

Stern (1970, as cited in Brown, 2000) outlined some common beliefs that for a long time have been cropped up to mistakenly advocate the L2 teaching procedures on the basis of first language acquisition principles:

  1. In language teaching, we must practice and practice, again and again. Just watch a small child learning his mother tongue. He repeats things over and over again. During the language-learning stage he practices all the time. This is what we must also do when we learn a foreign language.
  2. Language learning is mainly a matter of imitation. You must be a mimic. Just like a small child. He imitates everything.
  3. First, we practice the separate sounds, then words, the sentences. That is the natural order and is therefore right for learning a foreign language.
  4. Watch a small child’s speech development. First he listens, and then he speaks. Understanding always precedes speaking. Therefore, this must be the right order of presenting the skills in a foreign language.
  5. A small child listens and speaks and no one would dream of making him read or write. Reading and writing are advanced stages of language development. The natural order for first and second language learning is listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
  6. 6.You did not have to translate when you were small. If you were able to learn your own language without translation, you should be able to learn a foreign language in the same way.
  7. A small child simply uses language. He does not learn a formal grammar. You don’t tell him about verbs and nouns. Yet he learns language perfectly. It is equally unnecessary to use grammatical conceptualization in teaching a foreign language (p. 50).

If the above analogies are intensely considered, it is clear that they are very much influenced by the behavioristic theory of language where L1 acquisition process is viewed as consisting of memorising practices, habit formation, reinforcement, conditioning and stimulus and response that are different from those actually occurring in L2 learning process. In regard to this issue, Vroman (1994) has strongly alerted that research has indicated that there have been principal differences between L1 and L2 acquisition theories and approaches and, therefore, the current practices of L2 learning should be reconsidered for better students’ learning outcomes.

B.Types of Comparison in L1 and L2 Acquisition

For years, a number of studies on language learning have considered and used contrastive or comparative approach between L1 and L2 as trustworthy method of solving any language teaching and learning problems as well as generating conclusion. It is very often, however, that they are not based upon clear and comprehensive approach of comparison. Brown (2000) has alerted that in SLA research inappropriate comparison among contributing factors or elements might lead to unreliable results, illogical analogies and false conclusion. 

In comparing L1 and L2 acquisition, Brown (2000) further explained that there are two different factors or participants involved, they are child (in L1) and adult (in L2). From the outset, it seems illogical to compare the L1 acquisition of child with the L2 acquisition of an adult. But, It is will be more logical to compare L1 and L2 learning in children or to compare L2 learning in children and adults as indicated in the following figure.

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The above matrix of possible comparison represents four possible categories to compare which are defined by age (in vertical) and type of acquisition (in horizontal) line. It is also important to note that the vertical dash line between the child and adult is hazy in order to allow for varying definitions of adulthood.

Area A1 represents an abnormal situation of L1 language development for adult. There have been few recorded cases of an adult acquiring a first language. Abnormality and language disability that hinder L1 acquisition might be fallen into this category. Since this category can be easily recognised and rarely used, it can be eliminated from discussion. Accordingly, there have been three possible types of comparison (Brown, 2000) as follow: 

1. L1 and L2 acquisition in children (C1-C2), holding age constant.
2. L2 acquisition in children and adults (C2-A2), holding second language constant.
3. L1 acquisition in children and L2 acquisition in adults (C1-A2).

In the first type of comparison where the age is constant, one seems manipulating the language variable (L1 and L2). However, Brown (2000) further added that it is important to remember that both a 3 years old and a 9 years old display vast cognitive, affective and physical differences, and that comparisons of all three types must be treated with caution when varying ages of children are being considered. In the second type of comparison where the L2 is constant, it appears that one is manipulating the differences between children and adults. This type of comparison, for obvious reasons, is the most illogical and rewarding in producing analogies for adult L2 acquisition and instruction.

The last type of comparison, meanwhile, clearly indicates that both variables are being manipulated. Most of traditional research resulting in illogical comparisons is fallen into this category. Comparisons in this type are difficult to interpret because of the huge and complex cognitive, affective, and physical differences between children and adults. With careful efforts some valuable insights might be yielded from this type of comparison, but it is not highly recommended as the result of its complexity.

C.Fundamental Differences between L1 and L2 Acquisition

Until recently, there has been a controversial concern on SLA issues whether the fundamental principles of acquiring L1 and l2 is similar and whether the language acquisition device which is claimed by mentalists to account for L1 acquisition is also available for L2 acquisition. The Identity Hypothesis also referred to L1=L2 hypothesis has been the major theory underpinning the arguments that the L1 acquisition process is the same as its L2 counterpart. The research has revealed that the arguments under this premise are relevant for the L1 and L2 acquisition process that occurs in the early stage of development such as similarities of the use of formulas and structural and semantic simplification in the silent period of language learning. However, along with the vast growth of SLA research in this issue there has been clear evidence of their differences as well (Ellis, 1994). 

The enormous and conflicting results regarding to comparison study of L1 and L2 acquisition have yielded a rich body of knowledge and theories that weakens the Identity Hypothesis propositions. One of the very early findings scrutinizing the differences between L1 and L2 acquisition is based on the work of Dulay and Burt (1974) that focused on the acquisition of grammatical morphemes (as cited in Nunan, 1999). In this research, they investigate the mental process used to learn and use the target language referred to Psycholinguistic Mechanism. Based on the findings, they conclude that the propositions contending the similarities between L1 and L2 acquisition are no longer relevant. Instead, they reveal that there have been fundamental distinctions in terms of: 1) age; 2) cognitive development and 3) language learning experience, which altogether contribute to the differences of language learning process and strategies used in L1 and L2 acquisition (Dulay and Burt, 1974 as cited in Nunan, 1999; Bellingham, 2004). The following table summarizes the findings of the research.

(Table cannot be displayed)

Table 1: Differences between L1 and L2 acquisition based on Dulay and Burt (1974, as
cited in Nunan, 1999)

The contribution of age to L1 and L2 acquisition is still widely debated among linguists, but Ellis (1985 as cited in Nunan 1999) asserts that the manifestation of age in SLA can be examined in three dimensions or aspects of SLA: the route, rate and ultimate attainment. Route of SLA can be defined as the developmental path learners follow when acquiring the L2, while Rate of SLA might refer to the speed at which learners acquire the L2. Meanwhile, Ultimate Attainment is directed to the level of proficiency attained by learners. Within these three scopes, the contribution of age to SLA can be summarized as follow:

  1. Starting age does not affect the route of SLA. Although there might be differences in the acquisitional order, these are not the result of age.
  2. Starting age affects the rate of learning. When grammar and vocabulary are concerned, adolescent learners do better than either children or adults, when length of exposure is held constant. When pronunciation is concerned, there is no appreciable difference.
  3. Both number of years exposure and starting age affect the level of success. The number of years’ exposure contributes greatly to the overall communicative fluency of the learners, but starting age determines the level of accuracy achieved, particularly in pronunciation (Ellis, 1985, p. 106 as cited in Nunan, 1999, p. 41).

The variant influence of age to SLA, represented in the rate of learning, can be explained by considering the Critical Period Hypothesis. Brown (2000, pp. 53-54) defined critical period as “a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily and beyond which time language is increasingly difficult to acquire.” According to this belief, he added, “the brain around puberty result in the left and right hemispheres of the brain operating independently and once this change has occurred language acquisition is extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Although this hypothesis is likely possible, however some methodological problems with studies into the critical period that it was carried out not in the field of SLA might call on more comprehensive research to support their hypothesis (Nunan, 1999; Myer, 2006).

The discussion of cognitive development, on the other hand, has been associated with intelligence psychology, Jean Piaget, who argues that the most critical stage for a consideration of L1 and L2 acquisition appears to occur at puberty. At this point, a person becomes capable of abstraction, of formal thinking which transcends concrete experience and direct perception (Brown, 2000). Another theory relevant to the issue of cognitive differences between child and adult language acquisition is the lateralization hypothesis. The hypothesis asserts that as the child matures into adulthood, the left hemisphere which controls the analytical and intellectual functions becomes more dominant than the right hemisphere which controls the emotional functions. At this stage, the language learning can be more enhanced accordingly (Lenneberg,1967, as cited in Myer, 2006 and Brown, 2000).

The second research investigating the differences between L1 and L2 acquisition is done by Bley-Vroman (1988) who delineated and described nine essential features that strongly advocate that “child language development and foreign language learning are in fact fundamentally different. The domain-specific acquisition system does not have the role in addressing the logical problem of foreign language learning that it has in child learning” (p. 42). In this research, he focuses his intention on the possible differences language learning and acquisition between L1 and adults’ foreign learning. He summarizes systematically his findings as outlined in the following table (Vroman, 1988 as cited in Ellis, 1994).

(Table cannot be displayed)

Table 2: Differences between L1 and L2 acquisition based on Bley-Vroman (1988)

Al though it is still difficult get clear boundaries and categorisations among these emerging features, the above comparison between L1 and L2 acquisition has informed us that there has been a specific condition that is not present in the L2 acquisition which usually happens in the later age (adult) and vice versa.

The latest study in the same field was carried out by Lightbown and Spada (1999) who drew their attention to the acquisition of syntax that is the grammatical arrangements of words in a sentence. The research is based upon the Chomsky’s theory which advocates that all humans are born with the innate ability to acquire their first language renowned as Innateness Hyphothesis. They give an analogy that:

“every child will learn to walk as long as adequate nourishment and reasonable freedom of movement are provided. The child does not have to be taught. Most children learn to walk at about the same age, and walking is essentially the same in all normal human beings. For Chomsky, language acquisition is very similar. The environment makes a basic contribution – in this case, the availability of people who speak to the child. The child, or rather, the child’s biological endowment, will do the rest” (Lightbown and Spada, 1999, p. 15). 

This ability represented in the Innateness hypothesis actually refers to Language Acquisition Device (LAD) or Universal Grammar (UG) which consists of important innate linguistic properties. One major implication derived from this finding is that under normal conditions everyone is able to acquire native proficiency in their L1. However, this is not applicable to second language acquisition. This suggests that there is a different overall success in L1 and L2 acquisition in which most of L2 learners will never acquire native like proficiency in their L2 learning (Nunan, 1999). This conclusion is in accordance with and supports the proposition offered by Vroman (1988) as outlined in the table 2.


A number of studies on SLA have suggested that L1 and L2 acquisition might share its similarities in the process of acquiring the being-learned language. However, it should be acknowledged that several fundamental differences do appear both in theories underpinning language learning and pedagogical practices. The current assumption that L2 acquisition can be treated exactly in the same way as in L1 acquisition process seems to be emphasized overly. Accordingly, many people are unable to see reality that in some respect the process of L1 and L2 acquisition clearly requires different approaches and strategies. Educators particularly language teachers should be conscious that these false beliefs might lead them to inappropriate language teaching and learning practices resulting in ineffective students’ outcomes. The complex process of comparison might also important to consider since numerous studies might be unable to aptly use it in their methodological procedures that invite us to be more critical and selective in adopting any theories and beliefs. Finally, a number of fundamental differences between L1 and L2 acquisition presented in this paper including age and the concept of critical period hypothesis, cognitive development and lateralization, affective contribution and language learning experiences may be valuable to consider to offer a greater opportunity for language learning success particularly in second language learning.
Bellingham, L. (2004). Is There Language Acquisition After 40? Older Learners Speak Up. In P. Benson and D. Nunan (Eds.), Learners’ Stories: Difference and Diversity in Language Learning (pp. 56-68).
Brown, H. D. (1994). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition), Chapter 2, First Language Acquisition.

Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (4th Edition). New York: Pearson Education.

Dulay, H., & Burt, M. (1974). Natural Sequences in Child Second Language Acquisition. Language Learning, 24.

Ellis, R. (1994). The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Chapter 1, Second Language Acquisition Research: An Overview, pp. 9-17.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (1999). How Languages are Learned (2nd Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Myer-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple Voices: An Introduction to Bilingualism, Chapter 11, Age of Acquisition and Success with a Second Language.

Nunan, D. (1999). Second Language Teaching and Learning. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Scrivener, J. (2002). Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.

(For detail figure and tables, you may email me at

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