Second Language acquisition is often a daunting task for even the best among us. So tedious can this endeavor be, that few of us are able to master the goal with any true fluency, and fewer yet are those individuals who are able to speak three or more languages. However, the skill or ability of speaking two languages, or ‘bilingualism’, has existed since man created language for himself. However, it has only been in modern times that it has been studied and analyzed to see how this ability is acquired. This analysis has shown that there are various factors that can influence or impede the acquisition of a second language, some of which to be discuss here in this paper is the impact of modern technology, age, the political environment, and the learners self-esteem. These factors are but a few of the many that can influence the path of a learner but they are important in the understanding of how a learner navigates this complex task known as second language acquisition.
Technology can often be overwhelming to both student and teacher alike and where computers are concerned, it can be an imposing instrument. The complexity of the computer, not to mention the vast choice of possibilities, can put students and teachers off as they loose time grappling with how to use the computer. Yet, the learning curve aside, computers can be valuable assets in the classroom. Computers being used as a tool to further a learning goal is not an entirely new phenomenon in our society. Although, their use in the classroom as a tool for second language acquisition can be said to be a fairly recent occurrence and thus deserves to be looked at as a factor in promoting the learning of a second language. Computers are wonderful instruments and can complement other learning tools in the classroom such as textbooks, VCR’s, blackboards, etc. But we need to be careful that the computer itself doesn’t become the center of the attention, rather that it is used in promoting learning in ways other technology can not. For some tasks, computers can provide distinct advantages over more traditional approaches. The use of a computer for listening exercises often provides not only sound, but also visual input providing students with more contextual clues, which can be invaluable to the second language learner. More over, they can also provide interactivity with students in ways that no other technology can currently compete. Students interacting with a computer can improve motor-skills such as typing and clicking which give a physical context to the learning process, which in turn, can help seed the phonetics, spelling and context of the vocabulary being learned. Computers can also greatly help in the area of pronunciation as most language software can record students voices and compare their recorded voice signature to that of the correct pronunciation of the word or words. This task can be repeated endlessly until the student is satisfied with their own performance rather than having to deal with the human limitations of a teacher who may be tired or distracted by other events. Other common tools within the computers realm is that of spell checking which can provide the learning with continual reinforcement of correct spelling and grammar usage. Computer software can also support and reinforce language learning in that specific software can provide specific vocabulary to the learner. For example, technical glossaries can provide the advanced learners with vocabulary not regularly spoken in everyday conversation. However, probably the strongest argument for the use of the computer in the classroom environment is that of student self-pacing. Students are allowed more control over their own learning process as they can decide when to repeat questions, exercises or sequences based on their own self paced progress. In this way, student needs and individual issues are highlighted and given the attention needed, as it is the student making decisions for themselves rather than the teacher.
In addition to technology, age is another factor that can influence the acquisition of a second language. In the past it has been a common held belief that younger children learn language better and faster than adults. However, in recent years, surprising and often contradicting information has been found to be true. This data has revealed two basic things about age and the language acquisition process. Mainly, that adults and older children can and often do learn a second language faster than younger children. Still, children ultimately become more proficient in the second language than adults and adolescents for various reasons. Research seems to indicate that there is a critical period for learning a second language where it will enable the learner to have native-like or near native-like proficiency, and that age also affects this rate of acquisition. The differences between younger and older learners has been explained in terms of various secondary factors within the age factor. These are biological factors, cognitive factors, affective factors, and the environment of the learner. On the biological front some researchers have tried to explain the differences in language acquisition between children and adults by examining the use of the brain during the process. It is known that language use and development is carried out in the left hemisphere of the brain. Interestingly, examination has shown that when children learn a language at a young age both the first language and the second language share exactly the same designated area of the brain in this left hemisphere. In contrast, older learners use the same general location of the brain, but different designated areas, thus the brain is required to rewire new parts of itself in order to use the second language. So thus it can be said, that language development along with the interrelated functions of logic, analysis and intellect are said to be related to the left side of the brain. The assumption made in relation to age is that the assigning of functions or lateralization as it is called, takes place around the age of puberty. If the learner is not exposed to the new language prior to the lateralization, native-like proficiency is rarely achieved. However, it is important to note that most of the studies of this nature focus on pronunciation and not communicative proficiency. Children tend to have more flexible and pliable muscles than adults and to many researchers, the idea of muscle plasticity is a more plausible explanation for accent than that of lateralization. The second factor related to age is the learner’s cognitive ability. One interesting difference between child and adult language learners is that adults seem to respond better to the teaching of grammar and rules. This has been attributed the level of cognitive development of learner. Jean Piaget refers to the stage reached near puberty as the formal operational stage which accounts for a person's ability to deal with the abstract in contrast to the concrete or directly perceived of the younger learner. It is assumed that this physical development in the learner allows them to comprehend, perceive and mentally picture the rules that apply to the syntax of language. Thirdly, is the affective factor as related to age. Adults and adolescents are in general, more self-conscious than children. Consequently, there is a higher level of filter and self-esteem issues and thus less acquisition. Also, because of the level of cognitive development, adults and adolescents are able to imagine what other people might be thinking about them at a given moment. This egoism makes them more like to wonder how others are perceiving them and with an innate inner desire not to be embarrassed they become less willing to take risks that would make them better language learners. Children on the other hand, are much less self-conscious and much more likely to try new things without concern for their self-image. Finally, we have the environmental factor as it is related to age and how it affects language acquisition. When adults address children, they tend to modify their speech to such an extent as to simplify their language. Ironically, people often do this when talking to someone who is trying to communicate in a second language (and seems to be doing so with some difficulty). People use simpler structures and vocabulary so that a child or foreigner can understand. There is also a tendency to talk about concepts that are easily visualized and concrete (the here-and-now). However, the adult often does not always have this advantage simply because they are older and are expected to be treated as such. So the kind of language directed at them is usually more complex in structure and in vocabulary. Conversely, one advantage that adults do have is that they are better at indicating to the other person that they do not understand.
Although politics in and of itself does not directly influence the ability of the learner to learn a second language, it does indirectly influence its acceptability and the accessibility of resources and funding for language programs. Recently, there has been a backlash towards bilingual education in America that has reached our highest institution of Congress. Bob Dole, senator from Kansas puts forth this attitude in his statement, "Alternative language education should stop and English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States. Schools should provide the language classes our immigrants and their families need, as long as their purpose is the teaching of English . . . But we must stop the practice of multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as therapy for low self -esteem or out of elitist guilt over a culture built on the traditions of the West." Dole is not alone with his condemnation of bilingual education. In addition there are 17 co-sponsors of a bill sponsored by Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) which requires that all government business be conducted in English and all public documents be in English with exceptions for public health and safety services and some judicial proceedings. However, the reality of the situation shows that increased multilingualism is evident all around the country. As of 1993, in New York City schools more than 185 different languages were spoken. In merely one Los Angeles school 60 different languages were spoken in the homes of students. And in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia a full 187 different tongues were spoken. Nationally, the number of limited English speakers grew from 70% from 1984 to 1993 with 2.7 million students. About three-quarters are native Spanish-speakers, according to a 1994 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. And thus begins our dilemma. How can the language learner learn new concepts and ideas if it is not taught to him in the language he is academically strongest in. The failure of many to understand this principle is at the heart of the anti-bilingual attitude in America. Americans complain of an uneducated immigrant population, yet denies them the ability to become an educated populous in their native language, which research has shown is the best way. It is important that immigrants should be required to learn the English language but they must be given the time needed to do so. If we force them to learn science, math, history and other content areas in a language they can barely read or speak, can we actually assume they will learn? All this controversy has its affect on the learner. It puts them at a disadvantage for resources as well putting them in the center of a heated debate where they could be the victim of prejudice and isolation.
This leads us to our final factor on language acquisition, and that is the issue of self-esteem. Playing with sounds. Experimenting with words. Building sentences with words they know. These are all natural ways that a learner breaks into the new territory of a second language. But learners whose first languages are not English face a very real dilemma: To learn English, their English-speaking peers must socially accept them, but to be socially accepted, they need to speak English. This “catch 22” can wear on a person who is desperately trying to fit in, and can thus undermine their confidence in themselves and their ability to learn, especially in children. When a learner, be it a child or an adult, feels they have become an outcast they can and often do shutdown or chose to eliminate the source of the problem, in this case, the language. This “turning off” prevents almost any meaningful language acquisition. Not only do they perceive themselves as a rejected member of society by their peers, but may interpret this rejection as possible ammunition to be taunted by others if they can not speak properly while attempting to learn the language. So, instead of taking the risk of being made fun of they simply chose not to try. It is very important that anyone in a learning situation is free to make mistakes without ridicule and this is even more important when there is self-esteem issue involved. There are ways to counter self-esteem problems in individuals such as focusing on things they do well and commenting on positive aspects about the individual. However, these are solutions for anyone with self-esteem problems and not just for language learners with self-esteem problems. For them, highlighting proper pronunciation, proper syntax and just even trying to speak or read will encourage repeated behavior. For the language learner it goes back to the basics of Maslow hierarchy of needs. They need to feel safe and comfortable in their learning environment in order to achieve the goals we set for them.
I have discussed various factors that influence a second language learner in this paper but as I mentioned in the beginning there are many that I have not touched upon. Learning a second language, like learning anything, requires varying processes on the part of the learner, and the more modalities that are reached during this learning process the faster the learner will acquire. From my personal experience in trying to learn French, I found that being put in real situations that forced me to speak was the best tool of all for language acquisition. But this is often impractical in the instructional setting, so tools like the computer can be a great asset. The computer can be a vehicle that can put the student in a world that is only occupied by them and this can greatly reduce affective filters that may exist. Additionally, I agree with Collier and Baker that language can be learned at any age and I feel it’s a matter of personal conviction on the part of an older learner to become proficient. But for the young adolescent, I believe that self-esteem can play a larger role in their willingness to engage in learning. Bilingualism is an issue that will continue to be on the forefront of the American scene and an ever growing and controversial topic of concern however, with understanding and mutual respect I think we will find there is room for all languages.
Baker, Colin (1996). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 2nd Edition. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Collier, Virginia P. (1995). Promoting academic success for ESL students. Elizabeth, New Jersey: NJTESOL-BE, Inc.
Collier, Virginia P and Ovando Carlos, J. (1985). Bilingual and ESL Classrooms. McGraw-Hill, Inc..
Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 23rd Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037 English Plus Information Clearinghouse, 227 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20003
National Association for Bilingual Education, 1220 L Street, N.W., Suite 605, Washington, D.C. 200