Learning A Language: How Language Acquisition Works

Linguists distinguish between the acquisition of a language which happens unconsciously and the conscious, controlled learning of a language which typically takes place in our schools.

  1. You learned (or better: you acquired) your mother tongue or your first language as a child without formal teaching. You memorized sound and grammar so deeply, that you master the language automatically. When children acquire two languages they are "simultaneous bilinguals", generally known as bilingual kids.
  2. A foreign language is a language that is not your mother tongue and you study it consciously and intentionally.
  3. Language acquisition (of a first or a second language) happens apparently effortless, whereas learning is a conscious and controlled process.

Why does this difference matter?

If you know about it, you can use it to your advantage.


Child language acquisition

What matters most: Environment or Biology?

What is innate and what depends on the environment?

Although there are still many things unknown about how children acquire languages, all experts seem to agree upon these basic facts:

  • The basic ability to acquire language is innate to the child.
  • The concrete language it acquires depends upon the surroundings the child is exposed to. 

So the child acquires the language of his environment. Therefore, when children are deprived of language in their surrounding, they simply do not begin to speak spontaneously.  

This also means: The language a child acquires does not depend

  • on his race.
  • on his genes.
  • on his intelligence.

So all children are equally capable of acquiring any language regardless of individual differences in intelligence. If a child is exposed to language, it acquires it naturally without deliberate efforts of teaching or learning.

Does that mean that if you want to learn a new language as an adult you just have to be exposed to it, relax and the rest will care for itself?

I think we can apply some things from child language acquisition, but it is wise to consider the difference between the way a child acquires a language and the way an adult learns a foreign language.

Let’s see…

Can adults learn languages as well as children? The brain of an adult is still shapeable and new neurons can develop beyond adolescence.

Scientists don’t agree to what extend the ability to learn a language perfectly is limited by age. There seems to be a natural decrease in this ability.

For example, only very small children are able to distinguish between all the different speech sounds (phonemes) of the 7.105 living languages of the world. From the age of one year on, this capacity declines because they begin to concentrate on the typical sounds of the language that surrounds them.

“So learning any language is r e a l l y   s i m p l e… unless you are more than six years old!”

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