Do we acquire OR learn our first language? | Daily News

Do we acquire OR learn our first language?

Learning a language can be fun.
Learning a language can be fun.

In the last three articles, we talked about some features that characterize language such as spontaneity, arbitrariness, displacement, redundancy, structure dependency, productivity, semanticity and reflexivity. I hope that this discussion served to have a better understanding of what language is and does to establish a sound foundation for the ideas discussed in the articles to come. Now, it is right time for us to start talking about the ideas associated with the process of acquiring a language by us at a very young age as children. First of all, we need to understand the difference between learning and acquisition of a language. We will start with that.

Acquisition vs. learning of a language

Learning something is a conscious process while acquisition of something is a subconscious or unconscious process. Learning subjects such as mathematics, science, etc. in school involves a conscious process. For instance, as we know, we consciously learn and memorise the rules, formulars, equations, theories, etc. that we apply in the derivations in mathematics or drawing conclusions in sciences. That is “learning”.

As opposed to learning subjects such as mathematics or science, the process involved for children being able to talk is a subconscious process or an instinct. That is, however much our parents or adults claim that they taught us to speak, that is not true. We rather acquire the language that we are exposed to as our first language. For instance, if we are exposed to English as our mother tongue, when people around us speak in English, we subconsciously acquire the underlying grammar rules/patterns of the English language. At the same time, we either acquire or learn words of the English language. Thus, as kids, we acquire the patterns and words of a language and put these patterns and words together to speak the language. Thus, we say that we acquire that language that we are exposed to.

If we are exposed to two languages at the same time at an early age as 2 to 5 years, we acquire both the languages at the same time. People who are competent in two languages are called bilinguals and people who acquire two languages at the same time are called simultaneous bilinguals. This process is actually different from the process involved in learning a second language at a later age in our lives. When we attempt to gain the ability to speak a second language at a later age such as 7 or 20, it is mostly a conscious process that is involved. In other words, it is mostly “learning” that takes place. For example, if we learn English as our second language, we consciously learn or memorise the sentence structures/grammar patterns of the English language. We also consciously learn or memorise the words in the English language. Thus, we say that we “learn” a second language.

However, this is not to say that subconscious acquisition also happens in learning a second language at a later age. For example, when we are learning a second language like English, the language teachers advise us to read newspapers in English, to watch news in English and to be involved in conversations with those who speak English. All these activities promote acquisition of sentence structures/patterns new words, etc. rather than learning of sentence structures/patterns new words consciously. For instance, what happens when we are listening to news in a second language such as English that we are learning is similar to the process involved in a child acquiring her first language listening to peers/parents/adults around her speaking. A second language learner when listening to the speakers of the language subconsciously save the sentence rules/patterns of the language as well as the words of the language in her memory. Thus, it is a combination of both learning and acquisition that is involved in learning a second language at a later age. Those who learn a second language at a later age and are competent in both the languages are called late bilinguals.

However, it is hard to claim that it is 100% acquisition that takes place when it comes to the first language of a speaker. It is hard to deny that there are instances of conscious learning that happens when gaining the competence of a first language by a child. For example, at least towards later stages of language development (let’s say around the age of 4 or 5), a child might consciously learn some grammar rules when forced by adults. Consider following conversation.

Child: I don’t have no books, daddy.

Father: You don’t have any books!

Child: Can you say I don’t have ANY books?

Father: It’s wrong to say I don’t have NO books.

Child: Is ANY like NO?

Father: I am not sure. But we don’t say I don’t have NO books! We only say I don’t have ANY books!

Child: Ok, daddy, I don’t have ANY books! Can you get me any books?

The child might make the same mistake again, but with two or three instances of correction, the child might learn the grammar rule. Besides, children also might consciously learn new words in the language. Consider the following scenario.

Scenario: Ana and Maria are two children. Ana is 5-years-old and Maria is 7-years-old. They are reading a picture book together and Ana sees a picture of a tree that she has not seen before. Ana asks:

Ana: What’s this tree?

Maria: It’s a coconut tree.

Child: What’s a coconut tree?

Maria: It’s a tree that grows in other countries. It has a thin trunk like this, big fruits like this and long leaves like this.

Ana: Ok, now I know what a coconut tree is. When I see it, I will call it “coconut” tree.

There are also instances of grey areas where it is hard to define whether to call it acquisition or learning when it comes to gaining competence our first language. For example, consider the following scenario.

Scenario: Mary and her mother are in their garden. Mary is 4-years-old. The mother sees a racoon and tells Maria.

Mother: Don’t go near the racoon.

Mary: What’s that?

Mother: That’s a racoon.

Mary: Ok, I don’t go there racoon.

In the above, conversation, it’s hard to determine whether it’s conscious learning or subconscious aquation of the word racoon that happens there.

Thus, the conclusion we can arrive at from the above discussion is that we as children mostly acquire our first language/s. We as late bilinguals mostly learn our second language.

In today’s article, we talked about the difference between acquisition and learning of a language by a speaker of the language. That gave us insights as to what kinds of processes are involved when we gain competence of our first language and a second language. In the next article, we will discuss different approaches to the acquisition/learning of a language such as behaviouristic approach (behaviourism) and innatist (innatism). This will help us understand the nature of processes involved in the acquisition/learning of a language.

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(The writer is a Senior Lecturer, Department of

English and Linguistics, University of

Sri Jayewardenepura)