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Let’s Talk SLA: Can one learn a Second Language the same way as the first?

By January 26, 2021News

Written by Emma Bricker

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about second language acquisition; what we know, what we don’t know, how to be most effective, grammar instruction vs proficiency-based teaching, and perhaps most importantly, can we learn a second (or third or fourth) language the same way we learned our first? If the answer is yes, what implications does this hold for classroom implementation?


We all want to do the best for our students, to support them on their journey to second language acquisition, and too often get tangled in the multitude of teaching methods available. But, let’s go back to the original question: Can we learn a second language the same way we learned our first? When we were learning our first language, the major motivator by those around us who were talking to us, ie. ‘teaching’ us the language, was to communicate a message that we could understand. The idea was not to teach us about the language with rules and accurate grammar, but to communicate, to express meaning and messages. They were, knowingly or not, helping us to build what Bill Van Patten calls, mental representation of language. 


In its simplest terms, mental representation of language helps to explain what is possible, or not possible, in a language, and forms the ‘underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s mind/brian’. (VanPattern & Benati, 2010, p. 107) It is what happens when someone says ‘food’, for example, and what springs to mind as a result: eats, restaurant, pizza, to drink, plates, fork, homecooked, kitchen etc. It is the mental mind map that subconsciously helps us to develop our language and the interconnected pieces that allow us to do something with the input. He suggests that this content exists ‘outside of awareness: speakers may know they have mental representation for language but they generally do not know the content of the representation.’ (Van Patten, B. (2010). The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies, 10(1))  So what does this mean in regards to classroom implementation?


In a proficiency-based classroom, the fundamental goal is expressing and comprehending meaning. If we follow the supposition that the mind map is built through input of information that is relevant to the learner, it becomes clear that to follow a textbook’s prescribed rules and vocabulary is counter to how we would naturally acquire language. In the ideal proficiency environment, we offer students the opportunity to actually do something with the language. As with a baby learning its first language, single words come first followed by chunks of language which lead to phrases and then to stringing these together to create more and more complex sentences. By modeling language, both spoken and written, teachers demonstrate what is possible and what is not possible in the language, as well as exposing learners to rich and relevant input, thus implicitly creating the mind map of the linguistic system with their students. We then are reactive to what they notice and encourage learning by doing. Not all learners will progress at the same rate. That is ok and expected. While the order of acquiring morphemes and inflections will not change regardless of the language being learned (VanPatten), the time spent in each stage of the process is student dependent. Our job is to meet our students where they are, offer them opportunities to negotiate meaning and provide constant and consistent exposure to input.


Because the classroom is an artificial second language environment, we do the best we can to keep it filled with compelling, relevant input. Keeping in mind that we want our students to communicate; a message, a story, a feeling, anything to show negotiation of meaning, we need to listen to what they can do, what they can communicate, then facilitate the building of the mind map by supporting their curiosity. We can do this by pulling on the threads that arise in their conversations, even when those conversations are through drawing, acting or using circumlocution to create meaning. They are still demonstrating understanding and message making. The more exposure learners have to input that is meaningful to them as well as comprehensible, the easier it becomes for them to communicate in an unrehearsed situation, the true measure of proficiency.


With this in mind, let’s meet students where they are and help them to continue to expand their mind maps. Alongside this, we can listen to what is important and relevant to them, then offer opportunities for them to play with the language using their newly acquired skills. Language learning can, I believe, be fun.  With a lot of rich input and a learning environment as stress-free as possible, see how far your students can progress!