From Little Things Big Things Grow

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Reflecting on my own experiences as a non-English speaking immigrant, I endevour to explore the issues of learning in a second language. Students' ontology, language and cultural backgrounds impact on lifelong learning, and the finality of formal schooling (Year 12/13) is far from ultimate potential, particularly in ESL students. ESL students strengths frequently appear to be in the mathematics and science fields however in their venevular, language rich subjects may have been their strong point. Thus the strengths evident in native language may not be evident until well into the students' adult lives.


The students referred to in this article are those where most if not all of primary schooling has been achieved in their native language before being thrust into westernised English speaking education. This article also refers to Indigenous students whose first spoken language is their vernacular and who have an ontology and cultural background vastly different from the dominant culture. Culture, in this article, refers to Saville-Troike's definition where behaviour, enabling the individual to be a functional member of their community, (pg6) is recognisable and evidenced .by a set of codes and rules,

First language acquisition is a given in the healthy, hearing child. The child does not need instruction to grasp the vernacular grammar rules and pronunciation and by the age of three is generally able to speak in short sentences.

In order to make sense of the first look at language acquisition, then impact on adolescent and adult then time it takes to become fluent...if ever

Positive attitudes and motivation are related not only to learning in the first language but have an even bigger impact on learning in a second language and thesecond language acquisition (Gardner in Lightbown pg 56). This is supported by Kraschen who believes in the affective filter hypothesis which referes to motivation, needs, attitudes and emotional states (Lightbown pg 39). This may explain why Kenneth Hale, an expert on Walpiri language group in the Tanami Desert, highlighted the fact that when the Walpiri language group in the Tanami Desert seem to struggle with numerical concepts except where the use money is involved (Dixon p 108).

Young children usually donot feel nervous about attempting the new target language even with limited proficiency, however adolescents and adults find it stressful and frequently avoid expressing themselves (Lightbown pg 33). Learning conditions also frequently differ for older learners, with younger learners' silences accepted as part of learning. In the classroom and work environment for the young adult, this period of grace, is not normally accommodated.

Stephen Krashen (1982*2004) believes that adolescent and adult second language learners develop knowledge of the target language through acquisition and learning. Krashen theorises that learners acquire when exposed to samples of the second language they understand ***mathematics, numbers etc and learn through conscious effort and study. Krashen also believes that only acquired language is available for natural, fluent communication. Krashen hypothesises that acquired language can only be attained through exposure to comprehensible input again numeracy Lightbown pg 38-39)

Even when students seem fluent...their comprehension often still lags due to lack of acquisition and contextual differences.

Communicative competence (Sav Troike p21)

Language is best understood when all the other customs, rituals, gestures and philosophies, embodied in that language, are understood. Thus for Australia's Indigenous people, the pleasantries of good morning, hello and words such as teacher, are non-existent **** find reference in notes whilst in other populations, greetings carry vital information identifying speaker relationship (Sav Troi p11). Salutations are deemed superfluous in a culture where all members of a traditionally nomadic community are forever present just as periods of silence are Numeracy in Indigenous populations does not hold the same esteem as societies where money and bartering of goods with assumed equal value occurs.

Communicative competence includes linguistic comprehension, interaction proficiency and cultural knowledge. It is the last of these, cultural knowledge, embedded from an early age, that affects the individual **** Teachers may observe linguistic and grammatical competence as having achieved the target language, however without sociolinguistic competence, students remain in a state of limbo, speaking English, without adaptive cultural competence awareness lacking. appropriate negotiation skills are essential for optimal academic achievement in the target language Liu 2001.

Evidence from papers



  1. Dixon, RMW, 1980, The languages of Australia, (Cambridge Language Surveys0(allen, W.s. ed., Cambridge University Press.
  2. Gardner RC and Lambert WE 1972 Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House
  3. Lightbown, Patsy, Spada, Nina, 2008, How Languages are Learned, second edition Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street Oxford OX26DP
  4. Liu, Jun 2001, Asian Students' Classroom Communication Patterns in U.S. Universities: An Emic Perspective Westport, CT :Ablex.