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Language Acquisition vs Language Learning – What is the difference?

Language Acquisition Vs Language Learning

Last Updated on April 18, 2024 by Bilingual Kidspot

Language Acquisition vs Language Learning

What is the different between Language Acquisition and Language Learning? This is such a common question.

You will often see language acquisition and / or language learning used rather interchangeably in many contexts.

Many people do not make the distinction between acquisition and learning. But these two words are not equivalent.

There is at the very least one fundamental difference between the two.

Let’s dive into the differences between the two concepts: language acquisition vs language learning. Find below:

  • What is language acquisition?
  • How do children acquire languages?
  • What is language learning?
  • How do children learn languages?
  • The differences between language acquisition and language learning

Language Acquisition vs Language Learning Infographic

Language Learning vs Language Acquisition Infographic

What is language acquisition?

Children usually acquire language in a naturalistic, informal, subconscious way.

During their infancy and childhood, they are mostly unaware of grammar rules and ‘simply’ need a source of communication in order to acquire that language.

We do not teach our children their first language(s), we simply interact with them. We do not explain grammar rules while speaking. We listen, repeat, induce meaning, interact, etc. This all happens in a natural way. This is called language acquisition.

In the case of bilingual children, they often can acquire more than language this way, simply by interacting with a caregiver.

When people mention language acquisition, first language acquisition is often implied as this is when language is mostly acquired informally and subconsciously.

How do children acquire languages (Language acquisition theories)?

There are, of course, many language acquisition theories. These are all controversial in some way in the linguistics field.

These do not always compete against each other though. They often complement each other and add to our overall understanding of language acquisition.

Here you can find the four major theories in the field.

1. Behaviourist theories (based on work by Skinner)

Children basically imitate adults. Their correct sentences/words are reinforced when they get what they want or are praised (positive reinforcement). Whilst there must be some truth to this theory, there are also a lot of criticisms.

For example, languages contain many rules that cannot be worked out simply by imitating. Take a child who says “I drinked the water.” This child is over-applying a rule, theory s/he has somehow acquired. No adult would use this form of the verb.

2. Innateness (based on work by Chomsky)

Chomsky and others believe that children are born with an innate faculty for language acquisition.

According to him, all children are born with a universal set of language principles. Thanks to interaction, they will learn what rules apply to the language(s) they are actively acquiring.

One major criticism of Chomsky’s work is that he was only interested in grammar and rules. He never really studied real children. This theory of language has since evolved to include more real life examples and principles.

3. Cognitive theories (based on work by Piaget)

Initially developed by Piaget, this theory takes into account the cognitive developmental stage of a child. He argues that a child needs to be able to understand a concept in order to be able to acquire the language form to express that concept.

For example, a child needs to be able to rank objects by size before they can express words like ‘smaller’ or ‘tallest’. Some studies criticize this theory by showing, for example, that some children who are abnormally developing mentally can still use normal age-related language.

4. Interaction theories (based on work by Bruner)

Input or interactionist theories, as opposed to Chomsky’s work, claim that language can only be acquired in the context of interaction.

Early childhood work shows that the turn-taking structure of conversation is developed through games and non-verbal communication long before actual words are uttered. Yet, children in all cultures and languages pass through similar stages of development.

What is language learning?

Language learning, as opposed to language acquisition, is the learning of a language in a more formal setting, usually with direct instruction.

Learning requires a conscious and deliberate effort from the part of the child/student and the educator uses formal teaching methodologies to teach that language and facilitate the understanding of its rules.

Learning a language involves more explanation of grammar rules and less natural communication than language acquisition.

Language learning is often used to talk about the learning of a second or subsequent language, so the learner is often older.

How do children learn languages (language learning theories)?

Once again, there are many different ways in which research has tried to explain language learning, and in particular second language learning.

Each of these theories are inspired or based on those we have mentioned above. Different linguistic areas can explain different aspects of language learning. They do not necessarily compete with each other. Let’s take a look at four major theories (though there are countless more).

1. Universal Grammar approach (Innateness)

Much like for language acquisition, Universal Grammar states that a set of innate principles rule language acquisition.

When it comes to learning another language, how different that language is from the first one matters.

A child/person may have to ‘reset’ the parameters they acquired originally and unlearn what they knew as universal.

2. Cognitive approaches (Information Process theory)

Learning a new language is an active process that involves building upon schemas and utilizing specific learning strategies to enhance comprehension and retain information.

 A good example of this in practice would be for a learner to work on detecting, noticing patterns and then utilizing the information to figure out the grammar rules by themselves (thus better retaining it).

3. Interaction theories

The Interaction hypothesis is a theory of second-language learning which states that the development of language proficiency is promoted by face-to-face interaction and communication.

Learning a language is made easier if the interlocutor adjusts their speech to make it comprehensible to the learner thus facilitating their learning (comprehensible input).

4. Variationist theories

Variationist theories of language learning focus on explaining the variations in success or process. Variationism has been concerned with confronting the linguistic stereotypes of non-standard varieties by serious scientific study.

Recent studies have shown, for example, that classrooms are clearly not the place for most informal language varieties suitable to the home or the street, especially when it comes to teenager and their language.

The difference between Language Acquisition vs Language Learning

From a neurolinguistic point of view, learning and acquiring happen in two different parts of the brain.

 A study conducted in New York with the help of 12 bilingual volunteers revealed that children who learn a second language early on store it together with their native language, while in adult learners it is saved in a different area of the brain.

This suggests that the brain accommodates languages separately at different points of the subject’s lifespan, which means the structures involved in language acquisition and processing are not fixed, but change, undergoing cortical adaptation when a new language is added.

Language learning and language acquisition may therefore be, at least partly, differentiated in terms of age of the learner.

What about second language acquisition?

The scientific literature is full of the term second language acquisition (abbreviated as SLA).

Unfortunately, this is technically incorrect terminology, as much of the research is actually looking at children or students learning a language rather than acquiring it in a natural, inexplicit way, or at the very least, a mixture of learning and acquiring for the younger age groups.

Stephen Krashen, in the 1970s, was one of the first researchers who explained the difference between second language learning and second language acquisition.

While many researchers agree on the differences, the word second language acquisition is too often used to mean learning.

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