ഹലോ! Sæll! Welcome to Adventures in Language. In this article, we’re going to explore 4 key differences between first and second language learning (L1 and L2 learning).
There’s a good chance that you have tried your hand at learning an L2 at some point in your life. Maybe you took Spanish classes in middle school, studied German on a trip abroad in Berlin, or used a language app to learn some Italian for a bucket-list trip to Rome. You very well might be living and working in a country or region where your second language is spoken. There are many ways to learn new languages, many reasons for doing so… and many different outcomes! However, it’s probably safe to say that you learned your L1 fairly easily, speak (or sign!) it very well...and have never really given it much thought.
So what’s the deal? The “content” of a language — the sounds, words, grammar, conversational norms, etc — are the same regardless of whether it’s learned as an L1 or L2. But aside from some extreme cases, pretty much everyone successfully and relatively effortlessly learns their first language(s). Now, that’s not to say that there is no variability in L1 proficiency — even native speakers differ in their language abilities. But these differences tend to be smaller and much less noticeable than the vast differences found among L2 learners.
Differences in L1 abilities tend to be smaller and much less noticeable than the vast differences found among L2 learners.
In this article, we’ll introduce 4 key differences between L1 and L2 learning. These are not the only differences, but they demonstrate a fundamental distinction between L1 and L2 learning. That is, that the process of L1 learning is fairly consistent across learners, whereas variability enters the equation in nearly every facet of L2 learning. And that variability is translated into different outcomes. Whether you’re a teacher, learner, or simply someone who interacts with speakers with different language experiences, understanding this variability can help you become attuned to the struggles and successes of language learners.
Variability enters the equation in nearly every facet of L2 learning.
[Psst! If you’re not familiar with the terms “first language (L1)” and “second language (L2),” check out this article.]
1. Age of Acquisition
By definition, the first key difference between L1 and L2 learning is variability in what researchers refer to as age of acquisition (AoA). That’s simply how old someone is when they start learning a language. AoA has been shown to have a clear and significant impact on language learning outcomes. Specifically, the older you are when you start learning a language, the less proficient you are likely to become in that language.
The younger you are when you start learning a language, the more likely you are to become highly proficient in that language. Learners who start out older are likely to have lower language abilities. Figure adapted from Johnson & Newport (1989).
Now, there is a lot of debate and some conflicting evidence about specific age ranges and cutoffs when it comes to these so-called “age effects” on language learning. Some researchers argue that learners can’t become native-like in a language if they start learning after a certain age. You may have heard this referred to as the Critical Period Hypothesis — we’ll have an entire article dedicated to this topic. But there’s a pretty clear consensus that people who begin learning a language in early childhood are likely to be very highly proficient, or “native-like,” in their language abilities, and these abilities decrease as AoA increases… that is, until adulthood, where age is less important than other factors, like language aptitude and motivation.
So, we know that AoA affects language learning outcomes. We also know that AoA is much more variable in L2 learning, compared to L1 learning. By definition, the range of AoA for L1 acquisition is, at most, about 4 years. And these are early years, where language learning outcomes are similar. But an individual could start learning an L2 at age 4… or 14… or 24… or 34… or 84… You get the idea. It’s a much wider range. And in general — not always, but in general — L2 learners who start learning around age 6 are very likely to end up more proficient than those who start at age 16, who will in turn probably be more proficient than those who start learning at 60.
While perhaps most fundamental to the discussion, age is only one of many highly interrelated factors that account for the high variability in L2 compared to L1 outcomes.
2. Learning Context
While there may be some differences across cultures and individuals, there is pretty much only one way to learn an L1. Babies are immersed in the languages they’re learning, pick up regularities in the speech stream around them, and interact with their caregivers. L2 learning contexts, on the other hand, vary widely.
Many L2 learners do learn in immersive contexts while studying abroad or working in a region where their L2 is spoken. But L2 learners also take language classes, study with language apps and online tutors, watch movies, memorize flashcards… All of these learning contexts and approaches are likely to result in different learning outcomes! For example, learners in immersion settings likely have to — and often choose to — interact frequently with native speakers, which results in more fluent speech. Learners who watch movies or listen to music may have very strong comprehension skills and large vocabularies. Classroom-taught learners tend to have a better grasp of challenging grammatical concepts, though they aren’t always able to put them to use in spontaneous conversation.
3. Amount of Input
All of these differences between learning contexts have direct implications for the 3rd key difference between L1 and L2 learning, which is the amount of input that learners receive. Input is the target language that a learner is exposed to, though reading, listening, and viewing (for signed languages). Language learners need lots of rich input from a variety of sources. As we just established, babies aren’t learning their first languages in a whole lot of different ways. Now that’s not to say that everyone gets the same amount of L1 input. There is absolutely variability in the amount of L1 input young children receive, stemming from things like cultural norms, the number of L1s being spoken, family dynamics and personalities, and socioeconomic variables…though recent research suggests that some of these differences may have been exaggerated in the past. These differences in L1 input can and do affect things like language abilities and academic performance, but not to the same extent that L2 input differences do.
Somewhat similarly to babies learning their L1s, learners who live in a place where their L2 is spoken will encounter that language in everyday interactions — going shopping, taking transportation, conversing with locals… And even listening to local radio or watching local television stations. This amounts to a lot more input than, say, that of learners taking a Russian class at a university that meets three times a week. Moreover, the extent to which these Russian students do their homework, review class material, and seek out additional ways to engage with the language is likely to vary widely. And let’s be honest — even learners in immersion settings will differ in how much they integrate with the local community. So even within the same group, the amount of input can be highly variable among L2 learners. And so there’s a huge range of input when it comes to second language learning.
It’s important to keep in mind that it's not just the amount of input that's important, but also the quality and diversity of input. High quality input from many different sources comes fairly naturally in immersive settings, but it can be made available in other settings. For example, at Mango, we have original recordings of multiple native speakers for each language, as well as different contexts and modalities, like reading passages, podcast-style recordings, and dialogues. And of course, learners can reread and listen to the language over and over again to increase their input.
4. Affective Factors
Unlike learning context and input, which are external factors in the learner’s environment, affective factors are internal to the individual. Affective factors are things like anxiety, motivation, inhibition, and self-esteem, that might help or hinder language learning. Once again, we can relate this back to age. Young children are generally less inhibited and have less anxiety when it comes to learning their languages. They don’t really worry about making mistakes — and they do make plenty of them! L2 learners, on the other hand, are older and more self-aware, and therefore tend to have more anxiety, especially when it comes to speaking and making mistakes in front of others. However, not all learners have the same levels of anxiety and inhibition, and so the extent to which these factors influence learning differs widely across individuals. Context can interact with affective factors, too!
For example, Mango users have ample opportunities to practice speaking in low-pressure environments, like in the privacy of their own homes, which can reduce anxiety and improve learning. And visual indicators of performance and progress can boost learners’ motivation.
Regarding motivation, L1 learners share the instinct to connect with their caregivers and community through language, known by linguists and psychologists as “integrative motivation.”
According to linguist John Schumann, L2 learners may have integrative motivation, as well as “instrumental motivation,” or language learning for practical purposes — things like a job, travel, or even a grade on an exam. Instincts, like integrative motivation in L1 learners, don’t vary much among individuals. But L2 learners have highly variable amounts of both integrative and instrumental motivation which — you guessed it! — contributes to variability in language abilities. For example, a learner who is taking a Japanese class solely to fulfill a course requirement has a relatively low-stakes instrumental motivation, and might also have little desire to interact with other speakers. Another learner in that same class may be enamored by East Asian culture and hoping to teach English in Japan after college and develop friendships with locals. Research suggests that, all else being equal, the latter student will develop stronger language skills in that Japanese class...not to mention the likelihood of increased proficiency with all of the input and immersive learning that comes with living abroad! When it comes to recently settled immigrants or refugees, their livelihoods may depend on their L2 skills, which may contribute to very high integrative and instrumental motivation.
Well, there you have it — 4 key differences between first and second language learning.
There are several other factors that have been shown to influence language learning, like individual differences in cognitive abilities and how similar a learner’s L2 is to their L1. We’ll get to those in later articles! But the 4 factors that we discussed today — age of acquisition, learning context, amount of language input, and affective factors like anxiety and motivation — differ widely across L2 learners but very little among L1 learners. We hope this article has made it clear why these differences in variability help explain why L1 learning is a relatively effortless and uniform process across learners, whereas L2 learning can happen in many different ways, resulting in a range of language abilities.