Factors that Influence Second Language Acquisition

Parents should be aware of the factors that influence bilingualism and language acquisition in their children. When it comes to languages, there are two sets of parents. There is the parent that wants their child to be bilingual or learn another language. And there is the parent that wonders if learning another language matters, or may think that learning another language might damage their child somehow. 

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Which parent are you? I am hoping that you are the parent that wants their child to be bilingual or, even better, multilingual. Where ever you stand as a parent, this post is for you because it will provide you with a breakdown of how different factors influence language acquisition for kids.

Acquisition Stages

One important contribution to the bilingualism field is what researchers Dr. Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrella made clear many years ago. They came up with the 5 stages of second language acquisition that children experience when they learn an additional language. Krashen’s (1983) stages of SLA are pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency. To learn more about the stages of second language acquisition, you can visit one of my most visited posts here.

The stages of second language acquisition define language learners’ or bilingual children’s trajectory as they learn an additional language. This includes what a learner is able to do at each stage. Everyone experiences these stages at some point. What changes among learners, is the amount of time it takes to acquire a language, depending on the below factors that influence language acquisition.

Researchers are constantly investigating the effects of bilingualism and language acquisition. Some children are born in bilingual environments, but others may only be exposed to one language. No matter what your child’s environment may be, what truly matters is that as parents we can support language acquisition. What researchers investigate relates to how either environment can influence language acquisition. Some of these factors include age, aptitude, native language characteristics, learning and language environment, motivation, and cognitive abilities.   

Age

The age of acquisition is one of the most important factors that influence language development. The critical period hypothesis helps explain the influence of age in second language acquisition. Hartshorne and colleagues (2018) refer to the critical period as the time when adults’ ability to acquire a language diminishes. They found that children who begin to learn a language before the ages of 10-12 were able to acquire the language better than older peers.

One aspect that relates to the age of acquisition is language accent. Hartshorne and colleagues (2018) also note that the older the child, the stronger the accent may be in the second or third language. An accent is often the one factor that many adults mostly care about. Some people believe that having an accent is a sign of multilingualism. Others sometimes feel discouraged about learning other languages because of an accent. What is clear is that having an accent is a sign of multilingualism that many celebrate in today’s age because we all have accents.

Native Language Characteristics

Language development is also influenced by native language characteristics. Native language characteristics refer to the similarities and differences that exist between a native language and the language they are trying to learn.

For instance, Spanish-English speakers have lots of similarities in English and Spanish. This is because they share similarities like the alphabet and other language factors. However, a Japanese speaker may not have as many similarities to the English language. As a result, similarities and differences in language characteristics contribute to how easy or difficult language learning may be. 

When it comes to native language characteristics, another factor to consider is a person’s native language proficiency. For example, strong native language proficiency refers to a person’s ability to read and write their native language. Language proficiency in a first language determines language learning in additional languages. The stronger the native language, the easier it is to acquire an additional language.

Learning Environment

The language learning environment can influence language acquisition in two different forms. Home and school environments are key components of language development. 

Home Environment

Pearson (2007) highlights “quantity of input” p.400 as one of the factors parents can control the most. In language, input refers to the amount of language a child is exposed to in a community or at home. The more a parent uses the language with the child, the more the child is prompted to use the language.

Less input of a language can also contribute to language loss. When parents choose to only speak “English” at home, kids are less likely to use the other language. When children hear and see a language used in their community can also positively influence language learning. Another way parents can influence language acquisition is through reading exposure.

Through reading, children learn vocabulary that is often not used in everyday conversations. Reading in any language can also increase reading skills in multiple languages because reading skills transfer from one language to the other. Parents show the importance of bilingualism when they monitor and expose children to different languages in their homes. 

School Environment

Another factor that influences language acquisition is the quality and quantity that kids are exposed to in schools. In schools, exposure refers to the quality and quantity of grade-level instruction and instructional programming.

Grade-level instruction refers to the curriculum used to teach the target language. The use of grade-level materials allows teachers to differentiate language instruction by meeting kids where they are in the language development process to increase their language growth. This also challenges a child’s learning environment, fostering academic learning by considering a child’s individual differences. 

Instructional programming refers to how a school provides the child the language instruction. Students in dual-language immersion programs have been shown to acquire higher levels of proficiency, sometimes a proficiency very similar to monolingual children. In dual-language programs, the language of instruction will switch from English to another language. In their study, Pearson (2007) shows how dual-language immersion programs positively benefit all children.

The next strongest instructional program is co-teaching. In co-teaching, teachers use grade-level materials to provide small or large group instruction at the student level. When it comes to instructional programming, pull-out is the less effective way to teach a language. However, pull-out is sometimes necessary to help accelerate language learning.  

Motivation

A child’s motivation to learn a language can often support or hinder language acquisition. This is because motivation drives a person’s interest, influencing how much effort is put into learning a language. Dörnyei (2019) suggests that a classroom that excels in student engagement influences a student learning experience, increasing motivation.

Teachers and parents can foster motivation in children. In my house, for example, language learning and bilingualism are celebrated and highly talked about. Parents can influence a child’s motivation by exposing them to multiple languages on a regular basis. One way to do this is by discussing the benefits that come with being bilingual. 

Cognitive Abilities

Cognitive abilities may sometimes define a person’s academic ability. A person’s cognitive ability or learning disability may sometimes influence their ability to learn another language.

It takes specific intentional and unintentional functions of the brain to acquire language. In 2019, Woumans and colleagues found that higher performance in specific executive functions of the brain contributes to higher vocabulary knowledge in a second language. In their study, they note, that some indirect cognitive functions of the brain influence language development. 

Wilkinson and colleagues (2006) categorized MLLs with “disabilities and educational needs” p.131, who need specialized instruction to acquire a second language and to learn academic content. Kids with cognitive disabilities benefit from a second language as well. In children with cognitive disabilities, language acquisition may look different but is often possible when given specialized instruction at their level.

Aptitude

Wikipedia defines aptitude as a component of a competence to do a certain kind of work at a certain level. In language acquisition, a child’s competence to learn influences their ability to acquire a language. The higher their competence in learning, the higher the chances of learning a language. However, the lower their competence level in learning, the lower the chances of learning a language.  

Conclusion

Parents benefit from considering the factors that influence language acquisition. Understanding each factor can help engage children in a learning environment at home that would foster language acquisition. A positive learning environment, higher motivation, and effective instruction and programming all play an important role in language development for children.

Sources:

  • Dörnyei, Z. (2019). Towards a better understanding of the L2 Learning Experience, the Cinderella of the L2 Motivational Self System. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching9(1), 19-30.
  • Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition177, 263-277.
  • Pearson, B. Z. (2007). Social factors in childhood bilingualism in the United States. Applied psycholinguistics28(3), 399-410.
  • Wilkinson, C. Y., Ortiz, A. A., Robertson, P. M., & Kushner, M. I. (2006). English language learners with reading-related LD: Linking data from multiple sources to make eligibility determinations. Journal of Learning Disabilities39(2), 129-141.
  • Woumans, E., Ameloot, S., Keuleers, E., & Van Assche, E. (2019). The relationship between second language acquisition and nonverbal cognitive abilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General148(7), 1169.

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