Factors Affecting Second Language Learning and Development
In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the Factors Affecting Second Language Learning and Development. Looking at existing bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition literature, we will understand some of the factors that affect second language learning. For example, some key factors are learner’s age, intelligence, language learning aptitude, social setting, motivation, etc.
Such a study and analysis helps us recognize the potential areas of language learning difficulty for a second language learner. It also gives us a better control at designing learner specific language resources and teaching methods.
1. Similarities and Differences between L1 and L2
The term second language learning itself implies that the language learner has already acquired a first language. Learners who know one language can master another language with native-like proficiency. At the same time, there is enough evidence that this process gets affected by their first language.
According to the Contrastive Error Hypothesis, a ‘transfer’ happens from learner’s first language to the second language. This transfer can be positive or negative, depending upon whether it aids or hinders second language learning.
Amongst other aspects of language learning, L2 learners generally have a foreign accent that distinguishes them from the native speakers. The differences between L1 and L2 can tell us possible challenges to the L2 learner (Lightbown & Spada, 2013).
Some researchers of Second Language Acquisition link language learner’s intelligence and his or her ability of learning a second language. In other words, they say that the learners who perform well in certain IQ tasks have greater success of learning a second language. The criticism against such a claim is that tests that measure intelligence are limited in their scope. And, well, the students with weak academic background can also master a second language given the right opportunity.
Moreover, these tests more often measure metalinguistic abilities than communicative competence. Hence, this relationship only applies to certain aspects of language learning. Some of these are more related to rule generalization and language analysis, as in reading, learning rules of grammar and vocabulary, etc. However, there is no direct correlation really between communicative aspects of language, such as phonology and conversational fluency.
3. Language Learning Aptitude
There are cases where students who are very good in academics struggle a lot while learning a foreign language. And this is why some researchers suggest that ‘Language Learning Aptitude’ of the learner is better correlated with the learner’s second language learning skills than his or her performance in certain IQ tests.
The tests such as MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test) aim at measuring learner’s ability to identify and memorize sounds of target language, deduct rules of syntax and function of words from a given language sample, etc. This, in a way, gets more related to language learning than traditional IQ tests.
4. Learning Style
The ‘learning style’ of the learner and his or her success in second language learning are also related. Generally, learning style can be classified as visual, auditory or perceptual. One can also differentiate between field independent and field dependent learners.
It is difficult to measure personality of an individual and empirically test for its correlation with second language learning. However, there is some research suggesting that individuals with an extrovert personality are better at second language learning.
There is little controversy in the claim that young learners are better at learning a second language, that too with native-like proficiency, as compared to their adult counterparts. According to the Critical Period Hypothesis, there is an age, roughly before puberty, up till which any second language can be acquired. That too, with great ease and competence. And after this age, certain aspects of language learning are generally compromised.
Even if we do not link the occurrence of this critical period with our innate structures or a biological clock, we can say that the way in which language learning occurs before and after this critical period is definitely different. Older learners use general learning abilities while learning a language. And this might not be effective for learning all aspects of the language. However, young learners deploy innate capacities and complex strategies to achieve this goal.
7. Social Setting/ Environment
Social features can be classified as micro-social and macro-social. The features that relate to the immediate classroom setting of the learner where the second language is communicated as in produced, comprehended and even negotiated are collectively referred to as a micro-social context.
Various factors like the presence of native and non-native speakers, amount of language variation, gender division, etc. impact the nature of input and interaction and, thus, have a role to play in L2 learning. Macro-social features, on the other hand, relate Second Language learning with a broader political, cultural and ethnic perspective (Saville-Troike, 2012).
The social and educational setting of the language learner are important for successful second language learning. If a learner does not feel as a valued partner in a conversation, their language acquisition will be compromised. This often happens with some immigrant and minority groups.
Masgoret and Gardener have suggested that the attitude of the learner towards the language and language community often plays a key role in shaping the learner’s willingness to learn that language, indirectly determining the success at second language learning.
9. Motivation in the Classroom
If a speaker is distracted, it can inevitably drop his motivation to study in the class, making him a disengaged learner to his teachers. Some studies suggest that if a learner shows interest and enthusiasm in whatever is taught in the classroom, asks questions and participates actively in discussions, the chances of his or her success are higher than a disengaged, silent learner.
10. Identity and Ethnic Group Affiliation
The linguistic identity and ethnic background of the learner impact second language learning. This is because often the power dynamics between the learner’s first language and the target language decide the learner’s attitude and motivation towards learning of the target language. However, this is not that simple. While motivation for learning a language that is associated with power and prestige is presumably higher, a learner with a completely different linguistic identity might feel isolated and nervous in the classroom, leading to poor performance. You may read Lightbown & Spada, How Languages are Learned, 2013 for more details on this.
To look into an example case of second language acquisition, check out how native Spanish speakers learn English language by following along the link.
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