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Emanuel Navarro

The acquisition – learning distinction.

Along history there has been an extensive debate between psychologists, linguists
and educators as regards the acquisition- learning distinction when it comes to first
and especially second language, since many people take both terms as synonyms,
while others intend to make a clear line that clarifies their meaning. Moreover, that
debate has led to a myriad of opposing or complementary theories and approaches
related to the explanation of the intricacies of acquisition and learning. Being fully
conversant with the distinction of both concepts is of utmost importance for anyone
concerned in the educational system and in the process of SLA, since the manner
in which teachers conceive those terms will have a dire implication in their teaching

From the behaviorist perspective, no clear distinction is made, for learning is only
seen as “the building of a system of habits acquired through stimulus-response.”,
which in daily teaching implies endless drills repetition, trial and error-correction,
praising and “controlled processes”(Segalowitz ;2005:292) carried out by students;
learning is mainly “explicit” (DeKeyser, 2005: 241) and no room is left to the learners’
creative use of the language. Contrary to the behaviorist view of language learning,
Chomsky endorses the idea that humans have an innate capacity to acquire a
language due to the LAD “that analyses the input it encounters to construct a
generative grammar” (as cited in Morgavi, 2015).Based on those two
aforementioned approaches, it could be asserted that the difference among
acquisition and learning lies in the processes involved in each of them; the former
occurs in a natural stress-free environment, where the learner is constantly exposed
to external inputs that are gradually modified as the learner incorporates the
language, and produces appropriate output. The latter refers to a less flexible
process in which the learner is immersed in a non-natural context, such as school or
a language institute, and the learner has to activate a series of mental mechanisms
to incorporate the language, for example, conscious memorization and repetition of
vocabulary items, focusing attention, or applying any other cognitive strategy that
serves the purpose of learning.

Being knowledgeable about those differences is highly advantageous for any SL

teacher, since their understanding can contribute to make a telling amelioration in
their practice and reflect on their teaching methods. Nonetheless, that knowledge is
useless if it is not properly applied and combined with other elements that favor the
incorporation of a language, like motivation, or the design of activities that suit
students’ linguistic background (schemata), their learning styles or educational
needs. Having said that, the difference among learning and acquiring a language
takes a step further, since the previously mentioned factors altogether create a
context that determines whether learners are acquiring or learning a second
Generally, it is thought that second language learning takes place at a formal
institution and acquisition occurs at home or in a real-life situation; however,
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depending on the context, acquisition can be attained at school or vice versa; the
key and most decisive factor is whether context is “naturalistic or instructed.
Naturalistic learning happens within a non-instructional community, in which the
learner is exposed to the target language at work or in social interaction, or at school
where instruction is directed at native speakers […] On the other hand, instructed
learning normally happens in a language classroom, although with the new
technologies, new ways of learning are becoming more accessible, allowing for
autonomous learning.” (Morgavi, 2015:9)

In addition to the type of context in which second language learners are immersed,
the subjects involved in that process play an essential role; both teachers and
students contribute to the constant exchange of information, each of them using their
own tools to process and produce linguistic content. In the case of students, O’Malley
and Chamot (in Cook 1993: 113) remark that they apply learning strategies, which
can be defined as “the special thoughts or bahaviours (sic) that individuals use to
help them comprehend, learn, or retain new information”. Also, acquisition or
learning can be attained if the students have a positive attitude towards the target
language and feel intrinsic or extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000). As regards
teachers, they act as providers of input and mediators between knowledge and
students; their role is to create a fructiferous environment in which the students can
develop their linguistic abilities, become self-constructors of meaning and

In conclusion, there is a subtle line that distinguishes SL learning from acquisition as

it was substantiated paragraphs above, both processes do not work independently,
but are part of a harmonious interconnection of factors that lead to the incorporation
a certain second language. In my opinion, acquisition and learning are not antonyms,
but they are two faces of the same coin, they do coexist and can be perfectly
orchestrated within a suitable context designed to meet the specific needs of any
learner; they can and should be induced and enhanced one after the other. To
illustrate that point, in my personal experience, when I teach at any level I start a
theme unit by introducing vocabulary and using teaching strategies that involve
repetition, vocabulary recognition, and applying vocabulary to drills in an instructed
context. Once the vocabulary is “learnt”, I move forwards to introducing more
complex content in a context that resembles as much as possible to a naturalistic
one, with authentic material, by using engaging and challenging activities and
involving students in meaningful communicative activities; the immersion in that
naturalistic context and how students respond to it as they make the transition from
explicit to implicit learning (DeKeyser,2005:241) is what favors automaticity and
therefore, further acquisition.

Reference entry
Cook, V. (1993) Linguistics and Second language Acquisition. Hampshire and London: The Macmillan
Press Ltd.
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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self‐
determination of behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227‐268.
Dekeyser, R. (2005) “Implicit and Explicit Learning” in Doughty, C. and M. Long, eds. (2005) The
Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing. pp
Morgavi, S. (2015) “Second Language Acquisition-Section A”. Retrieved from:
Segalowitz, N. (2005) “Automaticity and Second Languages” in Doughty, C. and M. Long, eds. The
Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Blackwell Reference Online: Blackwell Publishing. pp

Written by: Emanuel Navarro

An essay on the learning – acquisition distinction