Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

Theories In First Language Acquisition English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2200 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

Reference this

Since, the second language is an additional language after we acquire the first language, the L2 learning process can be influenced by the L1 learning process This essay will demonstrate the similarities and differences in L1 and L2 acquisition by discussing various theories. Then, draw a conclusion based on the evidence provided and my own experience.


First Language Acquisition

‘First Language Acquisition’ or also known as the ‘Child Language Acquisition’ is a process whereby children from infancy through early school years acquire their first languages (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). The term ‘First Language Acquisition’ or ‘FLA’ can be referred to the field that investigates the process by which children develop to use words and sentences in their first language, to communicate with other people (Dictionary of Sociolinguistics, 2004).

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

Second Language Acquisition

According to a Dictionary of Sociolinguistics (2004), the term ‘Second Language Acquisition’ or ‘SLA’ can be referred to the academic discipline that investigate the process of human when learning second language (L2) or additional languages other than the first language. It involves the ability of people to use and develop ‘a complex system of sound, word, sentence structure, and meaning of any non-native language’ (Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, 2005). It also tries to understand factors such as environment, individual differences, and social aspect which can be crucial factors underlining the acquire of second language (Ortega, 2009).

Theories in First Language Acquisition

Various theories and approaches have been developed over the past years attempting to study and analyze how do children acquire their mother tongue. This essay will identify two main theories that explain the learning process of the child’s first language: “Behaviourism” and “Nativist or Innateness theory”.


The behaviorism theory assumes how do children speak that children imitate what they hear, and then continue with positive support, children learn language through conditioning and habit formation (Ellis, 2008).

According to B.F. Skinner and his colleagues (Gass & Larry, 2008), learning or a change of behaviour on the part of the learner, is brought about by a process known as ‘operant conditioning’ which is the result of repeated training. Operant means ‘voluntary behaviour’ which is the result of learner’s own free-will and is not forced by any outsider or thing (Ortega, 2009). The learner will demonstrate the new behaviour first as a response to a system of a reward or punishment, and finally it will become an automatic response.

Behaviourists believe that learning a language is no different from learning anything else. It becomes a habit by the stimulus-response-reinforcement-repetition process (Cook, 2001). The behaviourists also claim that we learn by imitation and by association (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). However, psycholinguists argue that imitation is not enough because it is not only the mechanical repetition but also natural exposure that children acquire language (Cook, 2001).

Therefore, from the behaviourist approach, language acquisition can be seen as a stimulus-response process. Children learn language by immitation and analogy. The roles of imitation, repetition, reinforcement, and motivation are essential in learning the language. The First Language Acquisition is thus the result of nature which based on practicing.

Nativist or Innateness theory

Unlike the behaviourist approach that does not take into consideration the child’s own cognitive processes, the ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky supports the idea that language acquisition has a biological foundation (Ortega, 2009). He claims that children learn their first languages through cognitive learning and acquires them by natural exposure (Ortega, 2009). That means both nature and nurture influence the acquisition of language in children. He hypothesized that children are born with a specific innate ability to discover for themselves the underlying rules of a language system on the basis of the samples of a natural language they are exposed to (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). This innate endowment was seen as a sort of template, containing the principles that are universal to all human beings. This is called Universal Grammar (UG). As defined by Chomsky (1976, as cited by Cook, 2001 pp181-182) Universal Grammar is “the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages … the essence of human language”. According to Chomsky, there are principles, which allow or prevent a specific structure from occurring in all human languages, and parameters, which govern ways in which human languages differ, usually expressed as a limited choice between two options (Cook, 2001). These principles and parameters are built in the human mind. In other words, children have an innate faculty that instructs them while learning of language (Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 33). Chomsky also introduced the ‘Language Acquisition Device’ or ‘LAD’ to explain that there is some innate mental capacity which help the children to process all the languages they hear since they were born (Cook, 2001).

Thus, from the innatist approach, language is an innate or in-born process. Children learn language by application. It argued that language learning is not a behavior but a specific mental process and emphasized on the important role of exposure to language.

Theories in Second Language Acquisition


Behaviourism gave birth to a stimulus-response (S-R) theory which sees language as a set of structures and acquisition as a matter of habit formation (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). By ignoring any internal mechanisms, it takes into account the linguistic environment and the stimuli it produces. It is suggested that learning is an observable behaviour which is automatically acquired by means of stimulus and response in the form of mechanical repetition. Thus, to acquire a language is to acquire automatic linguistic habits. According to Johnson (2004), “[B]ehaviorism undermined the role of mental processes and viewed learning as the ability to inductively discover patterns of rule-governed behavior from the examples provided to the learner by his or her environment”. Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) consider that S-R models offer “little promises as explanations of SLA, except for perhaps pronunciation and the rote-memorization of formulae”. This view of language learning emerged research on contrastive analysis, especially error analysis (Ortega, 2009) . It has the main focus of which is the interference of one’s first language in the target language. According to Ellis (2008), an important reaction to behaviourism was the interlanguage studies, as the simple comparison between first and second language neither explained nor described the language produced by L2 learners. In this essay, interlanguage studies will be excluded as the concern of the area has been mainly with the acquisition of grammatical morphemes or specific language structures.

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Universal grammar theory

According to Cook (2001), as a counterpoint to the environmental perspective, Chomsky’s followers try to understand SLA in the light of his universal grammar (UG) theory, a human innate endowment. Chomsky is interested in the nature of language and sees language as a mirror of the mind (Gass & Selinker, 2008). Although he is not concerned with SLA, his work has been influencing studies in this area. According to his theory, it can be seen that every human being is biologically endowed with the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), which is responsible for the initial state of language development. The UG theory considers that the input from the environment is insufficient to account for language acquisition. In the same perspective, White (2003:22) says that “[I]f it turns out that the L2 learner acquires abstract properties that could not have been induced from the input, this is strongly indicative that principles of UG constrain interlanguage grammars, parallel to the situation of L1 acquisition”. As Mitchel and Myles (2004:94) remind us, “The universal Grammar approach is only interested in the learner as a processor of a mind that contains language” and not as a social being.

Comprehension hypothesis

Influenced by Chomsky’s assumptions on language as an innate faculty, Krashen developed an influential proposal to explain SLA which he first named as monitor model with emphasis on the contrast between learning and acquisition, then called it the input hypothesis (Krashen 1978, cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006). It focuses on the data which feed acquisition, and more recently, comprehension hypothesis emphasizing the mental process as responsible for acquisition (Ellis, 2008). According to Krashen (2004:1), ” [T]he Comprehension Hypothesis is closely related to other hypotheses. The Comprehension Hypothesis refers to subconscious acquisition, not conscious learning. The result of providing acquirers with comprehensible input is the emergence of grammatical structure in a predictable order.” A strong affective filter, such as high anxiety, will prevent input from reaching those parts of the brain that promote language acquisition (Cook, 2001). According to Lightbown and Spada (2006), Krashen’s model views acquisition in a linear perspective which not only establishes a cause and effect relationship between input and acquisition but also states that the grammatical structure is acquired in a predictable order. Nonetheless, like in the other theories discussed so far, his theory does not go beyond the acquisition of grammatical structures. Krashen’s model lacks research evidence. As Cook (2001) points out “it makes sense in its own terms but is not verifiable”.

Interaction theory

Other attempts to explain SLA are the different versions of the interaction hypothesis defended by Hatch (1978) and by Long (1981, 1996), who did not accept Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. Both Hatch and Long consider that input alone is not sufficient to explain SLA. Hatch disagrees that learners first learn structures and then use them in discourse. Hatch considers the reverse possibility. “One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed (Harch, 1978 p. 404)”. Based on an empirical study, Long (1981) observed that in conversations between native and non-native speakers, there are more modifications in interaction than in the input provided by the native speakers. Long does not reject the positive role of modified input, but claims that modifications in interactions are consistently found in successful SLA. Long (1996) suggests that negotiation for meaning, especially negotiation work that triggers interactional adjustments by the NS or more competent interlocutor, facilitates acquisition because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selective attention, and output in productiveways.

However, Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) argue that the interactionist views are more powerful than other theories “because they invoke both innate and environmental factors to explain language learning”.

Similarities and Differences between FLA and SLA

Age: a key factor differentiate L1 from L2

Age can be regarded as another key factor displaying the differences between L1 and L2 acquisition. Since, in the L1 acquisition, children normally complete the process by four to six years old, while the age range in acquiring the L2 can be varied wildly (Ortega, 2009). Moreover, according to Ellis (2008), age is recognized as being important owing to the assumption that older learners tend to be less successful in regard to SLA than younger learners, which may be owing to the fact that target-language norms do not pose as much of a threat to younger learners’ identities.

However, there are two issues that many theorists have been arguing about the relationship between age and L2 acquisition. That the age effect can be approached from biological explanations or from non-biological explanations (Ortega, 2009). From the biological perspective (Gass & Selinker, 2008), there is the Critical Period Hypothesis in L2 learning which is proposed by Penfield and Roberts (1959) and Lenneberg (1967). On the other hand, from the non-biological perspective, some researchers have emphasized on the influence of ‘socio-educational and affective-motivational forces’ (Ortega, 2009).


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: