Language learning vs language acquisition


Say you are for the first time in Spain. You walk along the street in the morning and people look at you and say ‘hola’. You don’t know what it means when you hear it the first time, but the second and other times you start to guess, it could be ‘hi’, ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’. This is language acquisition: you pick up from the context. The next day you look at people and say ‘hola’ before they say ‘hola’ because you pushed that word to long term memory. So, retention took place.

Let us take a second case. You sign up for a Spanish class. The teacher teaches the letters, the words, explains the meaning, grammar rules, and asks you to do some worksheets. This is learning.

With the acquisition, it may be hard in the beginning, but you will acquire the language faster, and retain it for a long time. On the other hand, learning from the class or books looks easy to start with, but you don’t remember much after the test.

As experts suggest, there is an innate ability in every human being to acquire languages that distinguish him from animals. For us, communication is not simply the ability to make others understand our intentions and feelings using signals or sounds, but rather the ability to combine various sounds to produce meaningful words and phrases. Linguists, however, differentiate between the way we acquire and the way we learn languages. Mostly it is the mother tongue that is acquired while learning second languages. What is the difference between the two methods and why do linguists prefer to have their students acquire rather than try to learn languages? Let’s find out.

According to linguists, there is an important distinction between language acquisition and language learning. As you may have noticed, children acquire their mother tongue through interaction with their parents and the environment around them. Their need to communicate paves the way for language acquisition. When a child is five years old, they are able to express their ideas clearly and almost perfectly from a linguistic and grammatical point of view. Even though parents never sit down with children to explain to them how the language works, their speeches show a remarkable mastery of rules that would drive an adult crazy if he or she tried to memorize them and use them precisely. This suggests that it is through exposure to language and meaningful communication that a first language is acquired, without the need for systematic studies of any kind. When it comes to learning the second language in children, you will notice that this is done almost identically to the acquisition of the first language. And even teachers focus more on the communicative aspect of the language than on rules and patterns to repeat and memorize for children. To acquire the language, the pupil needs a natural source of communication.

Unfortunately, when it comes to adult learners, a quick look at the methodologies and language courses currently available clearly shows that communication is set aside, neglected or even ignored. In almost all cases, the courses revolve around grammar, patterns, repetitions, exercises and shift memorization without even a human interlocutor to interact with. How can you be expected to communicate if you are never given the opportunity to speak with a real person? Language without real communication is as useless as Mother’s Day without mothers.

In some other scenarios, where there is a teacher, the work done in class is mostly grammatically oriented: timing, rules, multiple-choice exercises and so on. Is it similar to the way a child “acquires a language”? Absolutely not. No wonder so many people can’t acquire a second language in a natural way. Simply because whatever they are doing is highly 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 teaching of the rules of language. And it is certainly not an age-appropriate activity for young learners – as it is not for adults either. In language learning, students have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about this knowledge; they can fill in the blanks in a page of grammar. Research has shown, however, that knowing the grammatical rules does not necessarily lead to speaking or writing well. A student who has memorized the rules of the language can succeed in a standardized English language test, but may not be able to speak or write correctly.

For this reason, teachers should ensure that students learn languages and not just learn them.

Here are the main differences between acquisition and learning.

Language acquisition
Language acquisition is the subconscious development of language that occurs as a result of interactions and inputs. It is an unintentional process.

The method of language acquisition is the one by which every child learns his or her mother tongue. Children learn language through a subconscious process in which they know nothing about grammatical rules, but intuitively know what is right and what is wrong because there is constant meaningful communication. Constant communication is what makes learning the mother tongue easier for children.

Children learn the language because communication is a must for their survival. In this effort, they are greatly helped by the innate ability of human beings to acquire a language. Although parents never explain the concepts of grammar, the child learns them and masters them by himself with the help of daily exposure to communication in the language. The basic tool needed for language acquisition is a natural source of communication.

Language learning
Language learning is the result of direct instruction in the rules, structures or vocabulary of the language. It is an intentional process.

There are four types of learning:

– Passive learning: it can be described as the participation of learners in elements of the course that exclusively include the acquisition of information. Examples of this are reading, listing a lesson, watching a video and observing images. Students learn on a level by considering the information presented.

– Active learning: students actively process information when they are involved in something that is happening. For example, they ask questions or answer questions, participate in a discussion, make a presentation and so on.

– Intentional learning: can be defined as intentionally motivated and goal-oriented learning. It is achieved as a result of a targeted effort.

– Accidental learning: it is unplanned or unintended learning.

Language learning is the formal teaching methodology that can be seen in the form of instructions explaining the rules of the language. Here the emphasis is on the form of the language rather than the text and teachers are seen to be busy explaining the grammatical rules to students. However, it can be seen that knowing the grammar rules is no guarantee of a good command of the spoken language, although the student could qualify the language tests which are standardised. Unfortunately, most adult language learning is based on this method of teaching, which is based on form rather than text and gives too much importance to grammar rules.

As you can see, language acquisition and language learning are very different. The acquisition is subconscious, while learning is conscious and deliberate. Language acquisition requires meaningful communication in the language, which is also called natural communication, while language learning is based on less communication and more explanation of grammatical rules.

Despite these differences, both language learning and language acquisition are necessary to convey the study of the language. This is based largely on the idea that we learn some things better implicit learning and other things we learn better through explicit learning and focusing on the language.

As for you and your language exchange friends, were you aware of this important distinction? Do you learn a foreign language mainly through learning or acquisition? Let us know in the comments!

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer

Leave a Reply