Foreign Language Acquisition and Learning

En este material se abordan las diferentes maneras en que se puede aprender el idioma inglés, y los factores que están en juego durante su enseñanza y aprendizaje.
Close your eyes now (metaphorically because you’re reading).

Remember your first lessons in English? What did you first learn? Let us guess: the verb to be? The Present Continuous? The Simple Present? And, did your teacher draw endless charts on the blackboard? Did you have a textbook that systematised these tenses? Did you recite the conjugation, «I am...», «you are...», «he is…». Did you have all these blackboard charts safely copied in your notebook? Did your teacher ask you to turn sentences into the negative and the interrogative? Did you copy these long lists of sentences for home study? Were you told to study the verb to be? Did you have to repeat sentences, phrases, words? Chorally, in groups? Individually?

You can open your eyes now.

How did you feel about these techniques? Were you happy you were making progress? How much did all that help you use the verb ‘to be’, the Simple Present, the Present Continuous? Surely it was useful if you were old enough to take advantage of it. Did you really? Take two minutes to write down your reflections on this.

In other words, when did the teaching you had consider the communicative aspects of language use? In what respect/s was your learning process taken into account? Were you allowed to put «two and two together» communicative language use and your own acquisition and learning processes?

What we are trying to say is that fluency in a (foreign) language does not necessarily depend on grammar practice but on meaningful input. Grammar and phonology practice are certainly necessary, as we will see, but later on, when learners focus on accuracy work.

What does this mean? Language –first, second, foreign– is developed along similar parameters. If you look at babies, they spend about one year and a half or two before they actually produce language as such. This fact is recurrent and can be transposed to second and foreign language learning. In the classroom as well, no doubt.

But a number of conditions must be met.

  1. For one thing some previous knowledge of the topic being discussed orally or in writing seems to be essential to be able to predict what the content will be about. The more I know about the text before reading or listening to it, the less I will have to rely on linguistic cues.
  2. For an immature learner with little knowledge of the language system there’s also the need for them to be able to draw knowledge from contextual clues. In a written piece pictures, photos, headlines, graphs and the like are essential.
  3. A third aspect as important as the other two is how the learner feels about the topic. Interest is essential for the learner to be willing to make the effort.

If we focus on these three conditions in the classroom, our work will enhance exposure –input– which will often result in intake, defined as the subconscious incorporation of linguistic material, material that was not actually taught explicitly.

In this light, then, input is a necessary prerequisite for any kind of production. All humans have a receptive repertoire that is much much wider than their productive repertoire. This means that reception antecedes production and is much wider than what we can produce.

Imagine an iceberg floating on the sea. How much can you see of it? Just a part of it. Just the tip. Well, that represents our productive repertoire, which is grounded in the other parts, which are submerged. That’s our receptive repertoire.

Just like the tip of the iceberg. We humans go about in the world comprehending a lot and producing comparatively much less. Why should foreign language learning be any different?

Because input goes to the brain, and the brain, together with the person’s overall affective apparatus, processes information. It is as if it said, «This I want, this I don’t want. Out it goes.»

How is this manifested in the classroom?

The first thing is to provide learners with a lot of planned, organised input. This can be done through talking to them in English as much as possible, choosing expression that is clear to them. With gesture, transparent words, and demonstration.

As we say above, this input can be offered through texts that are anchored in content learners can handle and which they would like to explore further. In turn this implies inspecting their worlds, getting to know about them, capturing their pre-adolescent aspirations, changing and contradictory as they might be.

But such is a fact of life.

Does all this mean that we won’t be teaching the verb to be, the Simple Present, The Present Continuous? That there will be no repetition? No charts on the blackboard? No correction of errors? No, no. Much on the contrary. All that will be present, as part of conscious learning.

Meaning that reflection and systematisation, when they’re functional and useful, are necessary tools for a better learning. So here comes the grammar, and the pronunciation and correction.

These learners can do it. They’re old enough. They’ve been at school long enough to have developed strategies of different kinds: communication strategies, learning strategies, survival strategies. Take advantage of them.

One interesting activity you might carry out in class is bringing a text in Spanish and asking learners a few questions like the following:

  • Look at the text. Don’t read it yet. What do you think it will be about? (Write down your learners’ predictions on the blackboard)
  • Now apply some reading strategies, like the following: circle "important" words, words that tell you about the content of the text; read the first and the last sentence; find names of people involved in the text.
  • How do you know? What clues did the text give you?
  • Now, read the text and check if your predictions were correct.
  • Are there any words in the text you don’t know the meaning of? Which are they?
  • Try to guess the meaning of each. Go back to the text and write down a possible definition for each.
  • Now let’s compare notes. (Carry a class-as-a-whole activity to allow learners to confront predicted meanings. If necessary, ask them to look up words in the dictionary.)
  • So, what is the text about?
  • Next get them to summarise, give opinions, criticise the text, among other strategies.
  • Use the text to motivate other discussions. You may ask your learners to write a text derived or derived from the text listened to or read.

You will have to take account of the fact that some learners work better on their own, while others will require pair or group assistance and interaction. Learning styles are crucial at secondary education. Check them out and bear them in mind when preparing your lessons.

But more about this in our next chapter.

Explain to learners this same procedure can be applied when dealing with a text in English, that they will be working together in this direction, that the dictionary will be the last resort to get at the meaning of a word.

To sum up so far: language development is similar in many respects, whether it is first, second or foreign, but foreign language learning requires attention, especially with pre-adolescents and adolescents.


ELLIS, R. (1995). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Publicado: 20 de enero de 2015
Última modificación: 27 de febrero de 2015


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