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Language Acquisition vs Language Learning
According to linguists (ie scientists who are involved in the scientific study of human language) there is an important distinction between language acquisition and language learning.
As you may well have noticed, children acquire their mother tongue by interacting with their parents and the environment that surrounds them. Their need to communicate opens the way to language acquisition. As experts suggest, there is an innate ability in every person to acquire a language. When a child is five years old, he can clearly and almost perfectly express ideas from the point of view of language and grammar. Although parents never sit down with children to explain to them how language works, their utterances show an excellent command of complicated rules and patterns that would drive a grown man crazy if he tried to memorize them and use them accurately. This suggests that it is through exposure to the language and meaningful communication that a first language is acquired, without the need for systematic studies of any kind.
When it comes to second language learning in children, you will notice that this happens almost identically to their first language acquisition. And even teachers focus more on the communicative aspect of the language rather than just rules and patterns for the children to repeat and memorize. To acquire a language, the learner needs a source of natural communication.
The emphasis is on the text of the communication and not on the form. Young students who are in the process of acquiring a second language get a lot of “on the job” practice. They easily acquire the language to communicate with classmates.
In short, we see this trend in which second language teachers are quite aware of the importance of communication with young learners and their inability to memorize rules consciously (although they will certainly acquire them through a practical approach just as they did with their mother tongue)
Unfortunately, when it comes to adult students, a quick look at the current methodologies and language courses available clearly shows that communication is sidelined, neglected or even ignored. In almost all cases, courses revolve around grammar, patterns, repetitions, drills and rote memorization without even a human interlocutor to interact with.
The same courses that promise you language independence and the ability to communicate after completing the courses do NOT offer you a single opportunity to have meaningful conversations. How many times have you bought or read about “the ultimate language course on CD” in which the student simply has to sit in front of a computer to listen and repeat words and phrases over and over again. That is not communication. This is how you train a parrot! The animal will certainly learn and repeat a few phrases and amuse you and your friends, but it will never be able to communicate effectively.
How could you be expected to communicate if you are never given the opportunity to talk to a real person? Language without true communication is as useless as Valentine’s Day without lovers or Children’s Day without children.
In some other scenarios where there is a teacher, the work done in class is mostly grammar oriented: tenses, rules, multiple choice exercises and so on and so forth. Is this similar to the way a child “acquires language?” Absolutely not. No wonder why so many people fail to acquire a second language naturally. Simply because whatever they do is very unnatural and meaningless to them. This is the field of language learning.
Language learning as seen today is not communicative. It is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. And it’s definitely not an age-appropriate activity for your young learners – just like it’s not for adults. In language learning, students have conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge.
They can fill in the blanks on a grammar page. Research has shown, however, that knowing grammar rules does not necessarily result in good speaking or writing. A student who has memorized the rules of the language may succeed in a standardized English language test but may not be able to speak or write correctly.
As teachers, it is our duty to ensure that our students “get” rather than “learn” the language. What can we do to achieve this higher goal? In our next mini-article we will explore simple effective and highly innovative ways to transform our learning environment into real language acquisition.
Read the article in detail.
What do you think is more desirable, acquiring a language or learning a language?
What differences between acquiring and learning a language could you distinguish?
In your personal experience, do you feel that you have acquired or learned a language? Or maybe both? Explain your reasons.
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