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Thesis Chapter 1 - First Language Acquisition and the Significance of Age in Second Language Acquisition or Learning

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First Language Acquisition and the Significance of Age in Second Language Acquisition or Learning

Chapter 1


Language Aptitude is both a necessity and a significant factor not only in the communication process but also in acquiring a wider spectrum of knowledge and cultural exposures. Learning a second language is a necessity; it is the increasingly scarce affluence that is needed in the globalized world.

            The innate ability of human beings to learn the art of communication through words has been the breakthrough that paved the way for later advances in human civilization. Human beings are equipped with the ability to think and thus, the ability to learn languages. Ancient history shows that symbols and signs were the primary communication line by our ancestors. They attached meaning through body language and things in their environment. However, the recognition of sounds would be the determining factor in the formation of words and later, languages.

            Fromkin and Rodman (1998) state that the acquisition of language is composed by two phases: the pre-linguistic and the linguistic. Concerning the pre-linguistic stage, there are some scholars who have conducted research on the transition period between pre-linguistic babbling and  the holophrastic stage (see Franklin and Barter). 

            In regard to the linguistic stage, Dale (1972) states that when the child is more or less one year old, his first utterances are produced.  These utterances are hard to comprehend because they are used to express ideas, which are complex.  He calls these utterances “holophrastic speech.”

            By the time the child is twenty months old, proceeds Dales, the child begins to use utterances composed by two words.  These two word utterances are not just simple word combinations as it were the case if children were imitating the adult speech.  At this stage two different kinds of words have been found to be common in many languages.  These two kinds of words are the pivot class and open class.

In relation to what occurs after this stage Gass and Selinker comment that when  “children move beyond the two-word stage, speech becomes telegraphic”(2001, p. 97).  The telegraphic-like utterances that children use show some specific features.  These utterances are characterized by a lack of function words.  In other words, in this stage, children use nouns, verbs and other content words (Rodman and Fromklin).

            Since children do not usually reach the linguistic development that follows the telegraphic stage at the very same age, scholars base their measurement in the length of utterances used by children.  Although these utterances are longer and more complex, they are also predictable.  Gass and Selinker comment, “There are some typical stages that are found in further syntactic development…” (p. 97).  In addition, they also state that it is necessary to mention that the linguistic development that children undergo during these stages is also predictable.

            Even though research in second language acquisition is relatively new as compared to first language acquisition research, there is considerable amount of research that indicates that the stages in second language acquisition are also predictable.  Romeo points out that studies conducted by Roger Brown, Jill and Peter de Villiers indicate that there are a lot of similarities in children’s grammatical morphemes acquisition.  He also indicates that Krashen cited studies conducted by Dulay and Burt which demonstrated that two groups of children with different native language showed the same natural sequence for acquiring grammatical morphemes when learning English as a second language (2002).

            On the other hand, the word interlanguage was used by Lary Selinker who recognized that L2 learners create a linguistic method that comes from the first language, but is not equal to it or to the target language (Ellis, 1997).  This concept is characterized by a series of premises in the acquisition of second language.  These premises, other aspects related to them, the importance of input in L2 and the treatment of errors would be analyzed in details in my thesis.

            Research concerning brain-language relations will be examined.  My analysis will mainly focus on the theory of the lateralization of the brain and its implication for second language acquisition.  In order to examine the process of lateralization of the brain and its relation to L2 acquisition, it is necessary to analyze the hypothesis that has caused so much controversy in relation to the L2 acquisition of adults and children, the “critical period hypothesis.”

            The concept of the critical period was first used by biologists and became popular with ethologists and their studies of animals like geese and chicks.  Renfield and Robert (1959) introduced this idea into the realm of language learning.  According to them, the critical period is complete around 9 to 12 years old.  After this period having the competence of a native speaker in a language different from ones’ own language is very hard.

            Equal to first language learners, second language learners experience a silent period.  Ellis comments that some learners of a second language, especially very young learners, experience a “silent period”.  In other words, they do not try to speak when they start their learning process.  Obviously, they can probably be acquiring a great amount of information about language simply by reading or listening to the target language.  This stage probably functions as a phase of transition for further production (1997).

This research shall examine some theories and findings related to the field of first and second language acquisition. The theoretical debate will be discussed in lieu with the findings that is related with age as a factor in the acquisition of a second language.  In the first part of this work, the most relevant stages in first language acquisition are analyzed.  Furthermore, the phases that characterize the acquisition of a second language will also be studied in order to determine its similarities and disparities with first language acquisition.  Finally, issues concerning the acquisition of a second language in pre and post puberty ages will be thoroughly examined to determine their correlation with second language learning problems.

            This proposed study will utilize the Universal Grammar theory, which shows the relationship of age and language acquisition in order to provide the background on the understanding of how age affects language capabilities.

Conceptual Framework

            This study will utilize the model of Universal Grammar to explore, explain and analyze the dynamics of the second language acquisition in relation to age.  This paradigm would serve as the guide in the breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of second language acquisition on certain specified ages. Consequently, the theoretical debate on the kind of strategies that would be most efficient and the age that would be best suitable in learning the language will be evaluated.

            Lust, Suner and Whitman (1994) posited the use of the Universal Grammar theory or the UG theory in order to explain the process of language acquisition, the factors that affect it and the intervening variables. The UG Theory reflects the convergence between developments in linguistic theory and developments in the study of natural language acquisition. This convergence has long been motivated by the linguistic theory of Universal Grammar (UG), a theory under which both (1) and (2) hold (Lust, Suner and Whitman, 1994):

(1)  UG is "a general theory of linguistic structure that aims to discover the framework of principles and elements common to attainable human languages; this theory is now often called 'universal grammar' "

(2)  "UG may be regarded as a characterization of the genetically determined language faculty. One may think of this faculty as a 'language acquisition device' "         


            There are two critical aspects of current research in the UG paradigm that, together, characterize the specific thrust of this collection of papers and the source of much of its current energy: (a) the deliberate cross-linguistic aspect, and (b) the confrontation of real development in first language acquisition (Lust, Suner and Whitman, 1994). In spite of this fundamental motivation, however, scholarship directed to a convergence between linguistic theory and actual first language acquisition has, until recently, been limited to the work of only a few scholars and their students. There were several apparent reasons for this divergence. Linguists, lacking adequate methodology or theory for studying development, often tended to dismiss an endeavor that would require scholarship in the area of language acquisition (Lust, Suner and Whitman, 1994)

            Concurrently, as linguistic theory developed (growing in both technical precision and complexity, changing more quickly as time went on), psychologists, often lacking adequate methodology or theory in the area of linguistics, tended to avoid more and more any study of first language acquisition that involved linguistic theory (Lust, Suner and Whitman, 1994)


Statement of the Problem:

            This study will attempt to answer the following questions:

1.    What are the processes involved in the acquisition of first and second language?

2.    How are they similar and different from each other in relation to the factors, requirements and barriers that the process encounters?

3.    How does age affects the acquisition of the first and second language? Using age bracketing, how does age affected the language acquisition in terms of proficiency (reading and writing)?

4.    What are the effects of other factors, variables and barriers in language acquisition?

5.    What are the issues concerning the acquisition of a second language in pre and post puberty ages and how is it related to second language learning problems.

6.    How potent is age in determining language aptitude among different age brackets?



            This study attempts to prove the following null hypothesis:

1.    There is a significant correlation between age and second language acquisition

2.    There is a negative relationship between age and the second language acquisition

3.    Conversely, the higher the age of a person, the lower the possibility that he/she will learn a second language

Scope and Delimitation

This study will tackle the relationship between second language acquisition and how it is affected by age. Further, it shall provide the background on the understanding of how first and second language is acquired and how they are similar/different from each other. The factors that will be outlined will serve as the bases of the analysis on the probability of second language acquisition. Further, age will be analyzed and how it had affected the language acquisition process. A comparative study of age vis a vis second language adeptness will be done to find out their relationship and to effectively analyze the extent to which age affects language acquisition.

This study will be limited to the above-mentioned date. The review of literature will only cover data and studies on the United States alone. This study will only draw conclusions from the findings on US respondents and any attempt of generalization may/may not be applicable to other societies because of several factors.

Significance of the Study

            This study is an attempt to illustrate the significance of age as an intervening factor in the second language acquisition. This will also be an informative guide for students, professors and language enthusiasts on the age variable in language and how it is being utilized to meet language acquisition goals. Further, this analysis will be an additional literature on the current theoretical debate on the framework that should be used in analyzing language acquisition.

Definition of Terms

Language- it is a finite system of sound units, which are combined according to a certain order (a syntax) in order to form an infinite amount of information; it is an arbitrary system of symbols; a word is arbitrarily linked to an object

Language acquisition- all languages have terms for actions and descriptive terms that must be combined together; the meaning of the phrase depends on the way the words are assembled; the meaning of a phrase may be preserved even if the word order is changed (for example the passive form).

Here are some acronyms:
  L(M) is the notation for a language defined by a machine  M.
  The machine  M  accepts a certain set of strings, thus a language.
  L(G) is the notation for a language defined by a grammar  G.
  The grammar  G  recognizes a certain set of strings, thus a language.
  M(L) is the notation for a machine that accepts a language.
  The language  L  is a certain set of strings.
  G(L) is the notation for a grammar that recognizes a language.
  The language  L  is a certain set of strings.
  The union of two languages is a language.  L = L1 union L2
  The intersection of two languages is a language. L = L1 intersect L2
  The complement of a language is a language. L = sigma* - L1
  The difference of two languages is a language. L = L1 - L2




Dale, P. (1972). Language development: structure and function. Hinsdale, Illinois: The Dryden Press Inc.


Ellis, R. (1985). Understanding second language acquisition. Great Clarendon Street, London: Oxford University Press.


Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford: University Press


Ellis, R. (1997). Second language acquisition. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford:            

Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. (1998). An introduction to language (6th ed.). Forth

Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.


Gass, S.M., & Selinker, L. (2001). Second language acquisition: an introductory course (2nd ed.). Nahwah, New Jersy: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.


Lust, Barbara, Suner, Margarita and Whitman, John, Syntactic Theory and First Language Acquisition: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1994


Romero, K. (2002). Krashen and Terrell’s “natural approach.” Retrieved December 20, 2002, from











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