Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners (Part 2)

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By Julio Foppoli

Summary

Second Language acquisition both in children and adults arises out of an innate capacity to acquire language present in all human beings. Of course, the environment plays an equally decisive role that is as important as the former. However, adults are not simply mature children; adults and children do learn differently. This article will show us some ways in which adults learn a second language.

 

Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners (Part 2) 

In our previous article entitled “Second Language Acquisition in Adult Learners” we mentioned that one of the main reasons why adults fail to acquire the language effectively is because they are presented almost exclusively with unnatural samples of language devoid of meaning or communicative goals. They are forced to repeat grammar patters, vocabulary drills and similar kinds of exercises which give them the false belief that they have a good command of the language.

Most language programs present tons of rules and patterns in such a way that resemble the many different pieces of a puzzle. All this in the hope that one day the students will "magically" be able to put all the pieces pieces together and start to speak Spanish like pros. Although there is a definite place for grammar, drills, and reading activities in the classroom, without real conversational situations the "magic" will never happen.
Most language programs present tons of rules and patterns in such a way that resemble the many different pieces of a puzzle. All this in the hope that one day the students will “magically” be able to put all the pieces pieces together and start to speak Spanish like pros. Although there is a definite place for grammar, drills, and reading activities in the classroom, without real conversational situations the “magic” will never happen.

However, when faced with a real situation, most adult learners working like this simply dry up and fail to communicate or_ in the best of cases, they have several problems to both to understand and to get their message across. After all, this is not the way in which first language acquisition takes place. (For more details on this, please read “Acquiring a First Language,” by Julio Foppoli)

For second language acquisition to take place the adult student (and children too!)must be surrounded by meaningful language all the time. Students need contact, interaction, real situations to participate in, to make use of their language and work out how the language is use through a hands on approach, not just reading a grammar book and filling out the gaps.

Students interacting actively not only will be engaged but they will also be making LOTS of mistakes! And that is really awesome! After all, language is acquired through a trial and error process. By making mistakes they gradually come to realize how the language works, just as it happens with a child.

Having said this, it is also important to point out that adults are not simply mature children; adults and children do learn differently.

So should adults try to learn a language in the same way as children do? No Way!
So should adults try to learn a language in the same way as children do? No Way!

According to recent studies (for more info on this read Dorothy Mackeracher’s Making Sense of Adult Learning), unlike children, adults have extensive pragmatic life experiences that tend to structure and limit new learning. Learning focuses largely on transforming or extending the meanings, values, skills, and strategies acquired in previous experience. They also experience major pressures for change from factors related to social and work roles and expectations, and from personal needs for continuing productivity and self-definition.

In addition, adults have the capacity for using generalized, abstract thought and they are likely to express their own needs and describe their own learning processes through verbal activities which allow them to negotiate and collaborate in planning their own learning programs. Adults have an organized and consistent self-concept and self-esteem which allows them to participate as a self separate from other selves and capable of acting independently of others.

A student’s self-esteem is also an important consideration for teachers to keep in mind. There are many things a teacher can do to facilitate the continued development of students’ self-esteem. Among these are offering positive verbal and non-verbal reinforcement EVEN when a student makes mistakes.

Unfotunately, this is not always the case since mistakes are penalized in most cases! Imagine the impact of a given student when the only thing a teacher does is to correct him or her every time s/he tries to say something. Teachers should imitate parents while raising a child acquiring a first language. They just correct meaning, not rules or patterns. The latter will eventually fall into place without much effort.

Although there are some important differences between children and adult language acquisition, the underlying principle behind every single course either for children or adults is that natural communication is the fuel that keeps the wheels of any language turning.
Although there are some important differences between children and adult language acquisition, the underlying principle behind every single course either for children or adults is that natural communication is the fuel that keeps the wheels of any language turning.

In conclusion, it is obvious that adults and children do NOT have the same cognitive and mental abilities, and that a Second Language program for either group must be radically different so as to contemplate their differences. However, the underlying principle behind every single course either for children or adults is that natural communication is the fuel that keeps the wheels of any language turning. Without it, no matter how much you try, you will remain in the same place, after all, you cannot drive a car without wheels and you cannot learn a language without real communication.

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