Second Language Acquisition

Published 06 Jan 2017


Learning a second language in adolescence or adulthood often proves a serious challenge for people. To realize what difficulties are involved in the process, researchers need to examine first of all factors of language acquisition, including contextual, social, and psychological ones. Popular theories of effective domain, cognitive styles and multiple intelligences in second language acquisition can also shed light on the dynamics and causes of the process.

Factors Of Language Acquisition

Second language acquisition can be influenced by a variety of factors:

Language Distance: learners will find it easier to master the language that is genealogically related to their own than one that has a different alphabet, grammar, vocabulary etc. Thus, it is easier for a German to pick up English than for a Chinese person. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, introduced a system in which “languages are placed in four categories depending on their average learning difficulty from the perspective of a native English speaker” (Walqui, 2000).

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Native language proficiency: The better the student is acquainted with the academic learning of the mother tongue, its grammatical features, and various academic refinements, the easier it will be to master a forein language (Walqui, 2000).

Language Attitudes: It is necessary to understand how a person perceives learning a new language. Thus, students need to understand that “learning a second language does not mean giving up one’s first language or dialect” (Walqui, 2000).

Motivation: Motivation, connected to language attitudes, means that students with more enthusiasm for learning will acquire language more quickly.

Socio-Psychological Aspects In Second Language Acquisition.

Apart from contextual and other factors, there are also factors directly related to social and psychological aspects of personal development. Each inpidual comes to language learning equipped with a certain set of psychological and social characteristics that directly affect this person’s process of language acquisition. Among others, there are the following factors that have direct impact on language learning:

Age: Although this is debatable, many linguists believe in Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory that posits the presence of a special language learning ability that allows a human to acquire a variety of languages as mother tongues (bilingualism) if this happens before a certain age. Similarly, many researchers of the second language acquisition process believe that “there is a biological timetable for optimal language learning that stymies the efforts of adolescents and young adults to acquire language” (Clyne, n.d., p. 1).

An Affective Filter: Stephen Krashen has advanced a theory according to which second language acquisition is guided by an affective filter that includes “the variables of motivation, anxiety and self-confidence” (Clyne, n.d., p. 2).

“Language Shock”: a concept advanced by John Shulmann meaning “the fear of making a fool of oneself when attempting to communicate in a second language” (Clyne, n.d., p. 3). This shock can seriously impact the ability of the person to learn a new language.

Effective Domain, Cognitive Styles And Multiple Intelligences In Second Language Acquisition

Researchers have proposed a number of theories that strive to explain the process of languge acquisition and to propose techniques that would enhance and facilitate language learning experience. Here belongs, for instance Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that proposes the existence of a variety of different forms of intelligence manifest in each human being to a different extent. Gardner suggested a few forms of intelligence (linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills)) (TIP, n.d.). Thus, according to Garnder, students, depending on the type of intelligence that is best developed can learn the language most effectively through, for instance, dancing, singing, or any other type of movement (Bell, Lorenzi, 2004).

The theory of cognitive styles insists that language learning has to be aligned with inpidual cognitive peculiarities of a person. A person’s cognitive style can be measured according to many dimensions, including “field independence vs. dependence”, “analytic vs. global processing”, “cooperation vs. competition”, “tolerance for ambiguity” (Oxford, 2000). The measurement of the learning style according to the Myers-Briggs Type indicator also accounts for extraversion, intuition, emotion vs. thinking, and perception vs. judgment (Oxford, 2000).

Finally, cognitive science has debated whether the language acquisition is centered around a specific domain or is spread around many cognitive domains. Many cognitive scientists posit that language learning is governed by a specific domain that includes special memory processes, schema, rules and meaning structures. Reliance on this domain is what can make language learning effective.


Language learning is a complex process that is governed by an interrelated set of factors that make it a complex subject for research. Scholars by identifying factors that affect second language acquisition are able to produce recommendations that greatly facilitate the work of EFL teachers. However, the emphasis on inpidualised approach, especially visible in cognitive styles and multiple intelligences theories reminds teachers that only practitioners are able to make links between theories and practical learning. Since inpidual learning patterns are vastly different, the teacher needs to be able to recognize and accommodate this difference between learners.


  • Bell, N.D., & Lorenzi, D. (2004). Facilitating Second Language Acquisition in Elementary and Secondary Physical Education Classes: The Increasingly perse Student Population Makes Every Teacher a Teacher of English. JOPERD–The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 75 (6), pp. 46+.
  • Clyne, S. (n.d.). Psychological Factors in Second Language Acquisition: Why Your International Students are Sundado La Gota Gorda (Sweating Buckets). Retrieved February 20, 2006.
  • Oxford, R. (1989). The Role of Styles and Strategies in Second Language Learning. ERIC Digest. ED317087, ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC. Retrieved February 20, 2006, from
  • Walqui, Aída. “Contextual Factors in Second Language Acquisition.” CAL Digest, September 2000, EDO-FL-00-05. Retrieved February 20, 2006, from
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