‘Applied Linguistics’ – 1st & 2nd Language Acquisition

We’re here using the term ‘Applied Linguistics’ in scare quotes because it relates to a very narrow way of defining ‘applied’, which in this context means ‘research into or applications of language learning or teaching’. In its wider definition, of course, the term can be used to refer to any form of linguistics that isn’t explicitly theoretical. We’ll begin our disussion with a look at the acquisition of a first language and will then compare that to how further languages are learnt, generally later on in life.

1st Language (L1) Acquisition

You may already have noticed in the last sentence above that I made reference to two related, but yet distinct, concepts, those of acquisition and learning. Researchers here generally draw a distinction between a more or less unconscious and effortless form of developing the relevant skills required to use (a) language (acquisition), and a more conscious and controlled process of achieving the same (learning). The apparent effortlessness of acquiring a first language has lead some scholars, most notably Chomsky, to posit the existence of a language acquisition device (LAD) and the claim that the ability to acquire a first language is innate, i.e. something every human is born with. Claims like this have led to a hitherto unresolved debate about nature vs. nurture.

At least part of the reason for why the debate remains unresolved is due to the fact that, while there are certainly physiological reasons that dispose humans towards language use (e.g. the shape of the larynx, etc.), it is very difficult to prove what a child will acquire purely automatically and how much of the acquisition process is based on a necessary amount of input. That language acquisition cannot be purely automatic and progress without any input or some form of socialisation has been demonstrated through cases like that of Genie, a girl who, up to the age of 13, had been kept locked up in a room with very little exposure to any human language, and whose communicative ability later never developed beyond a relatively basic level, at least as far as her syntactic complexity was concerned, although she apparently managed to acquire and use a relatively high number of words, once given opportunities to communicate.

The case of Genie also seems to partially support the hypothesis that there is a critical period (around the onset of puberty) in the acquisition of a first language, a period after which effortlessly acquiring a language becomes at the very least far more difficult than before. In general, it’s possible to recognise specific stages in at least the early development of the language faculty in children, which is what we’ll discuss next. These stages, however, are clearly not to be seen as absolute, as there is considerable variation between children, and especially multilingual children frequently tend to start speaking later than other children, although they often develop better language skills than other children later.

From Sounds to Phrases

  1. cooing (3-6 months): velar (oral) plosives & high vowels
  2. babbling (6-12 months): more individual phonemes & simple CV syllables
  3. one-word (holophrastic) stage (12-18 months): single words serve as (referring) phrases, often accompanied by overextension, where a word like dog may refer to all animals, ball to all round and shiny objects, etc.
  4. two-word stage (18-24 months): generally subject + verb, subject + location, subject + adjective combinations
  5. telegraphic speech (2-3 years): subject + verb + object

Other Stages of L1 Acquisition

The stages in the development of morphology and extended syntax of children don’t seem to correspond exactly to any of the above time periods, so we’ll discuss them separately here. Regarding the former, there seems to be a relatively clear ordering in the acquisition of inflectional morphemes, starting with {-ing} (presumably because children start observing ongoing processes?), via regular plural morphemes {-s} and irregular plural forms, but with some degree of overgeneralisation (e.g. mans or even mens, etc.), possessive {’s} and suppletive forms of be, irregular past tense forms, regular past tense forms in {-ed} (again with possible overgeneralisation (e.g. wented), to finally the apperance of the 3rd person singular marker {-s}.

In terms of syntactic development, research has established relatively clear stages (though sometimes with overlap) in the development of question formation and negation:

  1. 18-26 months; questions formed by adding wh-word to simple structures or using rising intonation; simple negation marker (no or not) always initial.
  2. 22-30 months; more wh-forms in questions, continued rising intonation; additional negation markers don’t and can’t appear, with negation frequently in front of verb.
  3. 24-40 months; S-V inversion appears, but not everywhere required, e.g. not with all possible wh-questions; additional negation options appear.


  1. If you have any experience observing little children acquiring language around you (either English or any other language), think about whether you may have observed similar features/stages in their development.
  2. Which of the above stages do you think may be universal, and which ones language (family) specific?

2nd Language (L2) Acquisition & Learning

What is generally referred to as L2 acquisition, unless the second language is acquired in a bi- or tri-lingual context, tends to be rather different from L1 acquisition, and could often more aptly be referred to as L2 learning because it usually proceeds in a more conscious fashion. Here, we can essentially distinguish between two types that are characterised by different modes of exposure, as well as frequently also the degree and type of motivation.

Classroom-based Language Learning

The first, and perhaps more common, kind of L2 acquisition takes place in the language learning classroom. It’s essentially characterised by explicit instruction, usually based on a clear syllabus or specific communicative objectives to be achieved. More and more, though, these days learners are often also encouraged to develop independent means of developing language awareness through specific awareness-raising activities. The overall aims of this type of learning tend to be highly instrumental, i.e. designed to provide the learner with a specific skill or set of skills, rather than aiming at general communicative competence in all contexts.

Migration-motivated Language Learning

This type of language learning, where learners try to develop communicative skills in a new language in order to settle and survive in a different country, may in fact be more similar to L1 acquisition. Here, although there may also be some instrumental reasons, there is frequently also an integrative dimension because the learner not only needs to survive, but also wants to become a member of a new society and therefore needs to adapt to social roles and circumstances, just like a child growing up in that society. Unlike in the language classroom, where there’s severly limited exposure to (real-life) language, the learner can furthermore benefit from immersion, i.e. be exposed to the target language for much, or even most, of the day.

Important Concepts & Approaches in L2 Learning & Teaching

Perhaps one of the most important observations that researchers have made when investigating L2 learning is that learners often develop their own particular grammars that may or may not be influenced by transfer or interference from the learner’s L1. As these grammars, that usually keep on developing with the learning progress, are generally neither equivalent to those of the target language, nor the L1, these individual stages are usually referred to by the term interlanguage. When a learner’s language stops developing before reaching the target model, we speak of fossilisation at a particular stage.

Another important concept is that, at least to a certain extent, learners are aware of their own competence in a target language and may consciously try to evaluate it. This is generally referred to as the ‘monitor theory’ because learners are assumed to keep track of what they say and evaluate their language production on-the-fly, which also allows them to self-correct if necessary.

The following list is designed to briefly introduce some of the most important teaching methods and their rough characteristics to you. These are essentially listed in chronological order of their development, starting from the most traditional to the most recent one.

Although the above list seems to suggest a rather clear separation of teaching styles, in practice we can often encounter a mix of different approaches.


  1. Which teaching method(s) do you think your teachers in school were using in teaching you in the language-learning classroom?
  2. Do you think the methods your teachers employed were right for you or, based on your own language-learning aptitude, would you have preferred?

Sources & Further Reading:

Cook, V. (2008). Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (2nd ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford: OUP.

Klein, W. (1986). Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP.

Yule, G. (1996). The Study of Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge: CUP.