‘Mother tongue’, ‘first language’, or ‘L1’ is the language that the child usually learns first by the process of interacting with the parents, family members and the society. This language is usually not acquired by the process of formal education. It is passed on from one generation to another by the process of interaction and communication. It is important to know that the first language of the individual need not always be the dominant language. For example, if the family relocates from one place to another, then there would automatically be a shift in the dominant language of the child, as the language for social communication would also change. Suppose a child has very good skills at learning the first language, automatically the skills for learning the second language would be good, as it suggests various cognitive functions required for learning the language (such as thinking, memory, etc). On the other hand, if the child develops poor skills at learning the first language, automatically he/she would find it difficult to learn the second language and even others (Clark, 2000).
‘Second language’ or ‘L2’ is a language that is different from the first language and is usually acquired by the process of formal education in school. Usually, the second language is a language other than the first language or the mother tongue. As in several parts of the world, a greater amount of importance is given to English, which has been the basis for international communication. A lot of research is being conducted to determine the manner in which the second language could be acquired, learnt and retained. In some parts of the world, the second language is beginning to dominate the first language. This is because of the greater amount of use of the second language in international communication, corporate sector and as a medium of instruction. The term second language was given as it initially suggested the level of comprehension, understanding and the fluency of an individual with that particular language in comparison with the first language (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994). Hylenstam (1992) conducted a lot of research to determine the manner in which the second language and the first language skills were acquired and retained.
He found that after the age of 7 years, the child often found it difficult to learn a second language and obtain the skills required as good as that of the first language. The individual frequently demonstrated a lot of grammatical errors whilst using the second language, after it was acquired following the age of 7 years (Clark, 2000). However, research conducted by Hylenstam and Abrahamsson (2003) also found that that there was no exact cut-off period at which an individual would find it difficult to learn the second language, and term it as good as the first language. Even during adulthood, the second language skills could be acquired as good as before the age of 7 provided the individual made an effort and was motivated to learn and acquire the second language (Clark, 2000).
Usually, in each and every nation of the world, the child would be learning two languages. The United States is one of the few nations in which the children would be usually learning one language that is English. According to Cummins, learning a second language did not affect the development of the child. However, social interactions helped in development. Studies based on cognitive functioning and learning abilities have demonstrated that during the phase of mental growth and development, there was no negative effect if the child learnt one language or two. Children were able to learn a second language easily and utilise it in the same manner as the first language for communication, questioning, thinking and socialising. All the knowledge gained from the first language could easily be transferred and utilised in the second language by the child (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
Children cannot learn a second language within a definite period of time. Strong evidence is currently not available to suggest that children can learn a second language within a short period of time. Evidence is also currently not available to demonstrate that children would be learning a second language faster than the adults (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
During the process of learning a second language, the child may experience several problems including improper pronunciation, not able to use grammar appropriately or poor comprehending capability. It is important to note that several factors such as environmental, learning facilities, educational, ability to socialise, age, sex, motivation, personality type etc, play an important role in the second language development of the child. It is for this reason that some children learn second language faster, whilst others take a longer time (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
One of the important factors that need to be considered for acquiring a second language is the age of learning. This plays an important role compared to several other factors including motivation, cultural circumstances, opportunities etc. The child should also get a positive response from others whilst learning the second language. In the native home, some children may find it difficult to learn a second language. Children whilst learning the first and the second language usually have similar attitudes. In learning the first language, the child would usually do so at a younger age, and hence the complications and the fear of making mistakes are lesser. The second language learning age is usually higher than the first language, and hence the complications and the fear of making mistakes are usually present. Children tend to use the native pattern of pronouncing words (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
In 1995, Collier was able to demonstrate that even adolescents and adults had some amount of competence in learning a second language. Children do have the cognitive competence of learning languages and this would enable them to learn and retain a language better than an adult. A few researchers have contradicting views about the second language learning. They feel that once a second language is learnt within a very short period of time and at a very young age, then the skills initially acquired of the first language is lost (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994). Some of these researchers hence feel that the second language should not be introduced at a very young age to children and hence both the first and the second language need to be imparted (McLaughlin, 1973).
Once the first or the second language is learnt, the outcome is usually different. For example, once the first language is learnt, due to the interactions between the society, parents and family, the fluency and the comprehension improves compared to the second language. It may be equally difficult for learning either the first language or the second language, but the role of variables is even greater for the second language (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
For learning the first and the second language, it is very important that an environment conducive for learning exists. Communication between the parents, family, friends and society is very important. The cognitive ability can be developed and the language skills could be improved through positive interactions in the language. The child should be allowed to express themselves freely with the parents. The language learning process should be enabled through positive interactions between the parents and the child. The existent language base and real-life situations play an important role. The child should be able to use the language at the school, home or in social settings. The child should be able to use and develop both the languages equally. For example, some children may not be able to use the second language at home due to inability of the family members to understand it.
Besides, some children may also find it difficult to use the first language in school, as they may have another language as a medium of instruction. This may hamper the learning process. It is important that the child uses the languages in many instances as possible so as to develop the skill and the knowledge required. Whilst learning the first and the second language, formal education would only be playing a passive role. The main ingredient for the success at developing skill in a new language is positive interactions and usage of that language (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
Some children may find learning a second language a very tedious task. Especially those children, who have problems in learning the first language, often develop similar problems in learning the second language. For learning the language, such problems frequently develop as it is very important that the child develops strong relationships with the parents so that such problems can overcome patiently and gradually. The use of the second language at home should in no manner affect the cognitive development and the learning process.
New experiences with the second language and the use of new ideas would definitely help in improving the cognitive processes. It is frequently seen that once the cognitive development has occurred with the first language, the same skills could be utilized in attaining the skills required for the second language. Frequently, children who have developed tremendous skills with the first language (due to the cognitive advancement) may find it very easy to learn a second language. Studies have even demonstrated that children able to excel in the first language may do equally well with the second language (Clark, 2000 & Ellis, 1994).
Reading is another area in which the child should develop a habit in order to gain competence of the second language. It helps to improve comprehension, understanding, thinking, flow of ideas, creative expressions, memory etc. Usually, the first language is learnt through day-to-day communication and the second language is learnt through reading. However, both communication and constant reading are required to develop skills in learning the language.
Thus it can be said that development of the first language would in fact supplement the learning of the second language. Positive interactions with family, parents, friends and society would help in developing skills with the second language. Besides, reading would also aid in language development. The manner in which the first and the second language is learnt is much similar to one another. It need not always be that the first language dominates the second language. The dominating language usually depends on the culture the child is exposed to. In children below the age of 7 years, the process of learning the second language is much easier. In adults and adolescents, motivation plays a very important role in second language acquisition.
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Ellis (1994). Differences between L1 and L2 acquisition. [Online], Available: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/SLA/L1%20and%20L2.htm, [Accessed: 2007, December 31].
Klein, W., & Jankowski, B. (1986), Second Language Acquisition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
NWREL (2003). Overview of Second Language Acquisition Theory. [Online], Available: http://www.nwrel.org/request/2003may/overview.html, [Accessed: 2007, December 31].