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Doing Students Justice: How First Language Acquisition Influences Second Language Acquisition

Lauren A. Kenny Barrington Middle SchoolPrairie Campus Barrington, IL

students learning a second language, teachers need to ask themselves if they are providing the appropriate tools necessary for students to become proficient. For students acquiring a new language, a well-developed vocabulary is the foundation for language acquisition.

Language Acquisition

First Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is the way humans develop language naturally, without instruction (Brown, 2000; Levine & McCloskey, 2009). Children make up their own language by listening and repeating the language around them, which is done in order to communicate with others. Children are immersed in language from the time they are born, allowing them to successfully communicate with their peers without having even a single grammar lesson. While immersion is important when acquiring a language, several other factors also play an important role. Language acquisition occurs when children are active and exposed to social environments. As they move around and explore their environment, they continue to acquire language by babbling and cooing. Parents and caretakers are constantly speaking and using modified language as they interact with children. This interaction helps the children to understand and eventually begin to imitate language (Brown, 2000; Levine & McCloskey, 2009). According to Levine and McCloskey (2009), The language acquisition environment is an emotional environment for children . . . one where language is not separated from learning about the way the world operates (p. 8). When children become emotionally connected to a language, they are more responsive and eager to learn. This is also true when students have a holistic experience with language such as children exploring their new environments and continuously asking what everything is, rather than learning specific grammar rules and verb
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Even though most high schools and institutions require at least two introductory semesters of a foreign language in order to graduate, the United States continues to fall even farther behind other countries with respect to students who can speak a second language (Beale, 2010). Teachers need to move away from teaching grammar through structured activities and focus more on providing students with opportunities to practice authentic communication. Students are spending several years learning how to speak a second language; however, if prompted in conversation with a native speaker, many students would not be able to carry on a conversation. This issue is quite disconcerting for both teachers and students. According to the most recent research done by a Modern Language Association study in 2006, the top languages learned by students were the following: Spanish, 822,985; French, 206,426; German, 94,264; American Sign Language, 78,829; and Italian, 78,368 (Furman, Goldberg, & Lusin, 2007). With so many



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tenses (Levine & McCloskey, 2009). Based on this research regarding how learning takes place in a first language, how might this influence students who are learning a second language?

The Importance of Vocabulary

It may seem obvious that increasing ones vocabulary would be a necessity for acquiring a language, but what about grammar? Krashen and Terrell (2000) believe that Grammarbased approaches to language teaching deliberately limit vocabulary in order to concentrate on syntax. We are suggesting that vocabulary should not be avoided: with more vocabulary, there will be more comprehension and with more comprehension, there will be more acquisition! (p. 55). According to research, many people believe that grammar, not vocabulary, leads to comprehension; however, the opposite is truewithout vocabulary, comprehension is not possible (Allen, 2007). Krashen and Terrell (2000) support this: We acquire morphology and syntax because we understand the meaning of utterances. . . . [T]hus, acquisition will not take place without comprehension of vocabulary (p. 155). So, technically, humans would not be able to acquire other words and syntax without initially understanding vocabulary.

Second Language Acquisition

Krashen (1995) states that acquisition alone can lead to impressive levels of competence in a second language (p. 23). Research has proven that many students are successfully able to acquire a second language (or target language) just as easily as their first: According to research in second language acquisition, it is thought that acquisition can take place only when people understand messages in the target language (Krashen & Terrell, 2000, p. 19). Students are likely to acquire language when more attention is put on what is communicated rather than how it is communicated, in addition to students speaking naturally (Krashen & Terrell, 2000). When students attempt to communicate using the second language, as long as their message is conveyed and understood, grammatical errors can be overlooked. In other words, a second language is acquired by picking up the language from conversations with others or immersion rather than learned through teacher instruction in a classroom. Several components are necessary in order for second language acquisition to take place. The students must be open to learning the new language because if the process is not exciting to the students, then the language will be difficult for them to acquire. Students must also have a positive relationship with their teacher and feel that the classroom is a safe place to speak a new language. If students are stressed, they will lack self-confidence, disabling them from successfully acquiring language (Krashen & Terrell, 2000). Creating a comfortable learning atmosphere and a positive classroom environment are key to student success.

Role of Vocabulary
Before students are able to speak, all of their focus is on vocabulary recognition, trying to interpret and make sense of what the teacher is saying: Our experience has shown that children participating in [these] sorts of Natural Approach activities can acquire, for recognition (interpretive) purposes, about 15 to 25 new lexical items per hour (Krashen & Terrell, 2000, p. 156). New lexical items are simply new vocabulary words. Students need to acquire a large vocabulary in order to help them communicate not only in the classroom, but also with native speakers. When students are able to recognize words without relying on the surrounding context, these words become internalized into the students personal vocabulary and allow them to learn new words (Krashen & Terrell, 2000). The more vocabulary words the students know,



the more successful they will be not only in listening and comprehending others, but when speaking themselves. While students are able to acquire vocabulary on their own, much of their knowledge stems from the classroom.

Pre-Teaching/Teaching Vocabulary
The teachers role in the classroom is to provide students with numerous meaningful and authentic learning experiences. Teachers should present students with multiple exposures to new vocabulary words in a variety of contexts, with several opportunities to process new words, and with a variety of visual aids as support (Townsend, 2009). Activities should aim to help students continue to comprehend new vocabulary through communication (Krashen & Terrell, 2000). Teachers are sometimes faced with limited time, so in order for students to acquire new vocabulary, teachers find themselves using the drill and kill method just to get through the material. Krashen and Terrell (2000) explain the effect of this approach:
It appears to be the case that memorized or drilled vocabulary does not stick; words learned by rote or drill do not enter permanent memory storage. True vocabulary acquisition with long-term retention occurs only with meaningful exposure in situations in which real communication takes place. (p. 156)

words to the students so that a lack of knowledge of some words will not hold the students back from comprehension: Such pre-teaching may or may not lead to the acquisition of the specific words presented. It will, however, help to make the activity itself more comprehensible and thus help acquisition of other items and/or structures (Krashen & Terrell, 2000, p. 157). Ultimately, an expanded vocabulary will assist students in becoming more confident when speaking.

Teaching Strategies
Lesson planning is not an easy task for teachers, especially those who are teaching students a second language. Because so many crucial elements are involved in a lesson, it is important for teachers to not lose sight of the goal. Not all students learn the same way, so teachers must incorporate as many different teaching styles into their lessons as possible to help reach the needs of all their students. Four key ingredients that should be incorporated to ensure a successful recipe for second language learning are (1)making a connection to the first language, (2) transition words, (3) visual representation, and (4) authentic experiences.

Connection to First Language

It is only natural that students are going to be apprehensive when expected to learn a second language. They are barely comfortable with all the grammar rules and vocabulary in their first language and then have to face this same challenge in a second language. Using the students first language to help identify vocabulary can be very comforting to students while also highly effective (Freeman & Freeman, 2001; Wallace, 2007). According to August et al. (2005), Cognates are defined as vocabulary items in two different languages that are similar both orthographically and semantically (as cited in Wallace, 2007, p. 190). In other
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While this approach may not be as effective as teachers may think, sometimes opportunities present themselves for which students need to know certain vocabulary in order to comprehend the material. This can be done by frontloading a lesson with vocabulary. Starting class by introducing the necessary vocabulary for the lesson will help students prepare for what they will be learning. In other words, if students are going to have an authentic experience and listen to the radio during class, it would be important for the teacher to present some new vocabulary



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words, cognates are sometimes spelled the same (orthographically) and have the same meaning (semantically). Students will gain a larger vocabulary if they are able to recognize cognates. One way teachers help students to become acquainted with cognates is to make note of the similarities with their first language. In essence, the words will not only look similar but are spelled similarly. Classroom cognate walls can be used to visually illustrate this (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2009). Students can write both words on separate note cards and place them next to each other on the wall, which they can use for future reference. In a Spanish classroom, one example would be that the note card in the first language would have the word important written on one side and the second note card in the target language would have importante written on one side. These note cards would then be placed up on the wall next to each other so the similarities between them could be noticed. This same strategy can be utilized by students individually by using their notebooks to assemble their own lists of cognates. Students will realize that by identifying cognates, their vocabulary will quickly expand.

Visual Representation
Visual representations help students make connections with their first language. If students are unaware of a particular vocabulary word but can see the word in pictures, they will start to formulate meaning (Blaz, 2006; Cloud et al., 2009; Wallace, 2007). Teachers can help students by posting pictures next to vocabulary words on handouts and worksheets. Common classroom objects can be labeled by students as they learn new words. Students can also use flashcards as a means of writing down a new vocabulary word and can place a picture on the opposite side as a visual representation. Yet another practice is to have the students go on a word scavenger hunt. This activity is designed for students to make realworld connections with new vocabulary words (Allen, 2007). They are given a chart with the new vocabulary words in one column and room to write down where the object was discovered and its meaning. This experience allows students to find the objects and make the correlation between the vocabulary word and its visual representation.

Transition Words
Introducing basic transition words will allow students to speak fluidly. Fragmented sentences will quickly be eliminated by providing them with these important words. If students are able to recognize transition words, they will have an easier time comprehending what others say. Such common transition words are used to combine or elaborate ideas. Students should be encouraged to recognize and use words such as first, next, then, because, although, however, etc., to help them understand and form more complex sentences (Blaz, 2006).

Authentic Experiences
Students need to have authentic experiences in order to be invested in learning a new language. If students cannot relate to the new culture, they will have a difficult time communicating. Students need to feel that what they are doing has purpose. Participation is likely to occur if they understand the idea that an experience will be meaningful. One way teachers can bring authentic experiences to the classroom is through pen pal letter exchanges with students from a country where the second language is spoken (Barksdale, Watson, & Park, 2007). This exchange will allow students to connect with others while expressing themselves in a low-pressure setting. Students may look forward to hearing



back from their pen pals, encouraging a written response. Many times they want to inform their pen pal about certain aspects of their lives; however, they are unfamiliar with the necessary vocabulary words (Barksdale et al., 2007). This encourages students to pursue and expand their vocabulary.

With an increased demand for a second language requirement by both high school and college institutions, it is crucial that students be fully immersed in a second language. By providing students with effective vocabulary strategies, they will be able to acquire language with ease. Rather than focusing on rote recitation of grammar rules, teachers should help students make connections to their first language by recognizing cognates, providing the necessary transition words to form and comprehend complex sentences, using visuals to help make a connection to first language vocabulary, and allowing opportunities for students to have authentic language experiences. All of these strategies will provide students with the necessary support to acquire language, enabling students to become proficient second language learners.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy instruction for English language learners: A teachers guide to research-based practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2001). Between worlds: Access to second language acquisition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Furman, N., Goldberg, D., & Lusin, N. (2007, November 13). Enrollments in languages other than English in United States institutions of higher education, fall 2006. Retrieved from The Modern Language Association of America website: Krashen, S. D. (1995). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (2000). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. London: Prentice Hall Europe. Levine, L. N., & McCloskey, M. L. (2009). Teaching learners of English in mainstream classrooms (K-8): One class, many paths. Boston: Pearson Education. Townsend, D. (2009). Building academic vocabulary in after-school settings: Games for growth with middle school English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(3), 242-251. Wallace, C. (2007). Vocabulary: The key to teaching English language learners to read. Reading Improvement, 44(4), 189-193.

About the Author

Lauren A. Kenny currently teaches 6th- through 8th-grade Spanish at Barrington Middle SchoolPrairie Campus in Barrington, Illinois. While implementing these strategies, her students have enthusiastically acquired a second language. Lauren graduated from Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, with a Master of Education in Literacy degree. She can be reached at

Allen, J. (2007). Inside words: Tools for teaching academic vocabulary, grades 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Barksdale, M. A., Watson, C., & Park, E. S. (2007). Pen pal letter exchange: Taking first steps toward developing cultural understandings. The Reading Teacher, 61(1), 58-68. Beale, L. (2010, May 17). U.S. students hurting in foreign languages. Miller-McCune. Retrieved July 11, 2011, from Blaz, D. (2006). Differentiated instruction: A guide for foreign language teachers. Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education. Brown, D. H. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.



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