SLA Topics   Vivian Cook 

Note: a more recent comparison is available at The relationship between L1 and L2 revisited 2008 and an overview in L1 & L2

 First and second language learning

V.J. Cook, J. Long and S. McDonough

In G.E. Perren (ed.), The Mother Tongue and Other Languages in Education, CILTR, 1979

First of all it is necessary to draw attention to some general factors involved in the comparison of L1 and L2 learning. One factor is that the settings of L1 learning may be rather different from those of L2 learning. An aspect of this is the number of people the learner meets; while the native child is limited to parents, family. and friends, the L2 learner may encounter one native speaker or teacher at a time or several. Consequently the kinds of relationship the L2 learner has with the people he meets may be wider than those of the L1 learner. Also the type of exposure to the language will vary; in L2 learning it may range from accidental or even random to highly structured, while in L1 learning it is limited by the ways in which children are brought up in a particular culture and by the adult's beliefs about how they should talk to children. This exposure may vary also in density; in the first language exposure is fairly constant, in the second language it can vary from occasional to regular (but widely spaced) to 'immersion'. In short then, the settings in which L2 learning takes place are more varied than for L1 learning.

It is a common assumption in work on L1 learning that the child's language system is a system in its own right rather than an incomplete version of the adult system. The child does not as it were, choose bits out of the adult system and add the bits together till he has the complete system; rather he has a system of his own whose bits do not necessarily correspond to the bits of the adult system, even though the system as a whole evolves into it. L1 learning is not so much a matter of adding parts of the adult system one at a time as of developing more and more complex systems that gradually grow to resemble the adult's. So the child seems to have his own grammatical rules (Braine, 1976; Brown, 1973), his own set of language functions (Halliday, 1975) and his own semantic meanings (Clark, 1973), all of which change ultimately into the adult system; it has, however, been questioned whether this is true of phonology (Smith, 1973).

Nevertheless there has been a large amount of research of varying quality into the problem of the order of acquisition of language items in English as a second language and other languages, most of it supporting the idea of a constant order among learners. If this proves to be true. the most cautious implication for language teaching is that teaching sequences should be avoided that go counter to the order of acquisition that has been discovered. If the learner is going to pass through the same stages almost regardless of the order in which we present the language to him, we might as well accommodate our order of presentation to his order of acquisition rather than the kind of ordering that has been used so far based either on some notion of linguistic complexity or some arbitrary division and sequencing of the target the learner is aiming at we need grading and sequencing based on the actual progression of the learner; indeed some attempts have already been made to base order of acquisition on the errors that learners made.

The child learns to adapt its language use to particular situations

Much research has been directed at establishing how a child learns the grammar and functions of a first language (Brown, 1973). Only recently, however, has an attempt been made to find out how and when the child learns to adapt his language to particular situations (Berko-Gleason, 1973). The situations of concern here are primarily social and involve communication with different audiences, such as other children and adults.

Adult language is itself flexible. Formality of address between adults is an obvious example, in which factors such as relative social status. employment and income may all be influential (Ervin- Tripp, 1973). Further, adult speech addressed to children rather than to other adults tends to have simpler syntax, with few or no embedded or conjoined clauses, to be slower with different patterns of pausing, to use a restricted vocabulary and to contain few mistakes or ungrammatical turns of phrase (Farwell. 1973).

Research suggests the child acquires a similar - albeit initially crude - flexibility. Very small children, for example, babble to parents and siblings but not to strangers (Berko-Gleason. 1973). Likewise, whining - a repetitive, insistent sing-song demand or complaint - may be reserved for parents. Flexibility increases as children grow older. Reports indicate that children of four years and above modify their speech to younger children in contrast to peers or adults, by omitting verbs, and increasing one word utterances. repetitions and attention-getting words, such as the child's name and 'Look’ (Gelman and Shatz, 1972). Elsewhere it has been shown that they address babies with short repetitious utterances, while they address children of their own age with sounds but no endearments (Berko-Gleason). Children often address their youngers in the socialising code of the parents; indicating what should be done and how ('Don't run!'; 'You share them!'). Children may also treat strangers formally in terms of greetings and politeness (Bates. 1974). In general. although the flexibility of the child's speech code is very limited below the age of five years, there is a considerable Increase by the age of ten.

At present there is little agreement about what determines the speed at which the child learns to adapt its language for others. Some suppose that taking another's perspective is incompatible with the basically ego-centric nature of the young child and must therefore await later development. Others suppose that making allowances for others requires some mental capacity and is possible at all stages of development for the child, providing its mental resources are not exceeded by competing demands (Krauss and Glucksberg, 1973).

There is even less research on the L2 learner's adaptation of language to particular situations than on the child's. However, since the audience in the classroom is largely restricted to the teacher and fellow learners, it is reasonable to assume that initially at least there is less encouragement for the L2 learner to acquire flexible language. Indeed, it might be argued that the often formal nature of the classroom interactions produces an essentially inflexible language: which only considerable exposure to the target language culture is able to break down, Even when modified by long exposure, the resultant 'informal' language may not itself be much more flexible. Even advanced learners tend to import informal expressions into tasks in which they are not appropriate – for example in the summary and recall of a speech made at the European Parliament (Long and Harding-Esch, 1977).

Once in the second language culture, the learner's flexibility might be expected to improve, Firstly, the types of different audience are likely to increase, including both native and non-native speakers but of a different language. Secondly, the learner is likely to possess considerable flexibility in a first language which may transfer to a second as linguistic proficiency increases. Not all types of adaptation, however, should be interpreted in terms of code-switching flexibility. Pressure to communicate with native target language speakers may lead to avoidance strategies by which complex syntactic forms are not used (Schachter, 1974) or to simple language systems (pidgins) (Schumann, 1975). Neither necessarily involves sensitivity to different social situations Speaking with less proficient non-native speakers with a different first language, however, might be expected to elicit those typical strategies of foreigner talk to be discussed below.

One implication for second language teaching is that, as the learner becomes more proficient, he should be encouraged to transfer the knowledge already possessed concerning the need for situational flexibility to the second language, through techniques such as role-playing. In addition the learner should be made aware of the possibility of being flexible even at early stages of language acquisition through such processes as simplification. In general, except at an advanced level, the classroom has treated language as unvarying and has not encouraged the learner to appreciate the varieties of language that make up the native speaker's communicative competence. The classroom needs to present a greater variety of language so that the learner's flexibility can be developed, rather than a single variety of classroom language.  

Adults adapt their speech in systematic ways when talking to children

The characteristics of speech addressed to children by mothers arid others. Including older children, has been divided into elements of simplification and clarification (Sachs and Devin, 1976). Simplification strategies include: shorter mean length of utterance; restriction of tenses; restriction of number of elements before the verb; less subordination. Clarification strategies include naming, repetition (mother repeating herself and repeating child's words); frequent questions; frequent imperatives; exaggerated intonation. A small proportion of 'motherese', as it is now often called, appears to include linguistic guidance (e.g. recasting sentences).

While it is reasonably clear that people do modify their language when speaking to young children, it is not obvious what role this plays in the child's acquisition process. It might be a necessary part of the process, but so far no reports have been able to contrast language learning situations where motherese occurs with those where it doesn't. Presumably this type of language modification is a product of the mothers' conception of communication strategies and is quite strongly determined by what the children can or wish to say. However, there is no evidence that children use mothers as a L2 learner might use a teacher or native speaker (e.g. for explanations of language structure) except to ask for names. Some children's learning strategies and their mothers' interaction patterns may be mismatched, thus causing learning to be delayed (Nelson, 1973). If motherese was clear, it might be evidence for refuting the transformationalists' claim that the language children were exposed to was too deformed to be usable as data for grammar construction by a child who was not equipped with innate knowledge of language structure. The evidence is, however, not conclusive.

It is not clear how far clarification strategies have reinforcing effects. Indications of partial success in communication may reward the child but evidence to support this is scarce. The utility of viewing motherese as analogous to school instruction seems rather small, as there is as yet no evidence showing the lasting effects of these strategies on the language product.

In relating this statement to the L2 situation, the 'adult' 'translates' as the native speaker or teacher, and the 'child', as the learner. Outside the classroom, native speakers do use 'foreigner talk', that is to say. adapt their speech in systematic ways when talking to foreign learners, and compensate for the learner's poor expression by using many strategies for maintaining the conversation and for eliciting the meaning the non-native speaker is trying to express. Popularly, both adopt the strategy of talking loudly and slowly, but there are many more subtle strategies of repair of lost contact, repetition of key words, simplification of syntax, and use of words that are believed international such as 'savvy', many of which seem similar to those used by adults to children (Ferguson, 1975; Hatch). It is not clear however whether foreigner talk is something that native speakers believe they do rather than actually do; an experiment in which a foreigner asked natives for directions did not reveal much use of foreigner talk (Stocker-Edel, 1977). Whether these alleged foreigner talk strategies are really analogous to the verbal strategies used when speaking to children is not certain - and neither is their role in the learner's developing competence. In the classroom, while teachers typically control their use of the language to relate it to the level of attainment of their pupils, frequently principles of teaching methods are used to govern this control, such as requiring only 'full' sentences or grammatically accurate ones.

As with the previous statement, the implication is that the classroom needs to present a greater variety of language and to use techniques in which pupils and teachers adopt a variety of roles. For example. if the pupils are never allowed to initiate questions or give orders in the second language, they cannot be expected to learn to do so. Also, if it is true that L2 learners profit from conversational interaction as L1 learners do, then a way needs to be found of bringing opportunities for such interactions into the classroom. As always this should be qualified with the reminder that at present we still need to find out exactly what types of interaction already take place in language classrooms before we can advocate particular changes (Fanselow. 1977). While this implication is speculative, it can hardly be denied that the principles of simplification that have governed the choice of classroom language have little connection with the principles underlying foreigner talk or motherese; if these simplified varieties play a part in the learning process, then classroom language will have to move in the direction of these simplified forms that are sometimes addressed to learners.

To conclude this paper, it is evident that the vital question the teacher must decide is the extent to which he should modify the classroom situation to be more like that found in 'natural' language learning. If he believes that L2 learning in a classroom is entirely different from language learning outside a classroom, we will feel no need to modify the classroom in this way. If, however, he believes that language learning is language learning wherever it occurs, as we would claim the evidence suggests, then he will have to bring many features of 'natural' learning into the classroom, always bearing in mind that some of them may not permit transfer. Some of these features have been mentioned during the argument. Perhaps to sum up it might be said that the classroom that takes them into account is likely to be a freer, more spontaneous, place with less direction by the teacher and less control of the language but at the same time provide a greater wealth of activities and interactions.


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