In the ELL field, the terms “language acquisition” and “language learning” are often used interchangeably.
Despite sounding similar, these terms have very different meanings. Understanding the difference between how language is acquired and learned can help you to be a better ESL/EFL teacher.
Let’s break down the differences.
What Is Language Acquisition?
Language acquisition is the process through which we each acquired our native language, the one that we learned from our parents or caregivers as infants.
Language acquisition takes place naturally and subconsciously. Young children become aware of the sounds and patterns of their first language by hearing it all around them and internalize those sounds and patterns for later use. They will actively build their own language by repeating words until others are able to understand them. By six or seven years old, a child will have acquired all the structural features of his/her native language. Those lucky enough to grow up in a multilingual home will get to experience the acquisition of multiple languages this way.
Because this process is subconscious, parents don’t need to “teach” a first language to their children. Instead, they simply “transmit” their own language to their children by using it in their presence.
What Is Language Learning?
Language learning is a term that describes formal study of a language, such as the experience most of us remember from classes we took at school as children. This is typically a highly structured process, in which students memorize vocabulary lists, rules of grammar, and sentence structure.
In most cases, language learning is a far longer path to effective communication than language acquisition. In fact, you can learn a language for years without ever being able to speak it. That’s because language learning focuses on the theoretical aspects of language, while language acquisition is more practical. Through language learning, you may master grammar rules and sentence structure; however, this does not provide the skills you need to communicate naturally as you can with your native language.
Some scholars go so far as to say that it’s impossible for a language learner to acquire a language. Formal study allows them to learn the language, but not to have conversations with confidence.
An overview of the differences
Here is a quick recap of the differences between language acquisition and language learning.
- Occurs naturally.
- Does not include learning sentence patterns and grammar rules.
- The learner is in control of his/her own learning.
- Starts in infancy.
English language learning can start at any time and occurs intentionally, typically including all language skills, including reading, writing, and grammar. For the most part, the teacher controls the learning environment depending on whether a Teacher-Centered or Student-Centered approach is employed. See our article An introduction to Teacher-Centered and Student-Centered learning for more information.
As you can see, language acquisition and language learning are very different. However, with the right strategy, you can incorporate some of the benefits of first language acquisition into the acquisition of English as a second (or third or fourth) language for your students.