The discussion of second language necessitates the elucidation of the term ‘first language’ more popularly known as the ‘mother tongue’. The first language or mother tongue is the primary language which children acquire due to the social impact of their environment and their surroundings. This acquisition of the native or commonly spoken language in the social setting can be termed as first language acquisition.
There are several theories which try to explain the phenomenon of language acquisition among children. While Jean Piaget explains the acquisition of language by his ‘cognitive theory’, the theory of ‘imitation and positive reinforcement’ is also believed to play a substantial role in the acquisition of the mother tongue. Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, forwarded his theory of innate linguistic knowledge in children, stating that there is a ‘language acquisition device’ in children which helps them to acquire the first language.
Thus, language acquisition is more or less a natural process which occurs in various stages and can be successfully achieved by way of practice.
While many researchers have acknowledged similarity in the learning of first and second language (Macnamara, 1975; McLaughlin, 1977), researchers have suggested that the since the learning of the second language takes occurs after the first language has been learnt, there is an additional conscious ability to utilize the mental processes rather than merely the instinctive processing which children use (Krashen, 1977). Even as the debate between the similarities and difference in the process of first and second language continues, the importance of learning the second language has now been widely accepted and understood.
In the current age of globalization and advancement of computer technology and the internet, the tentacles of communication have spread beyond the limits of geographical locations resulting in the necessity and preference of the knowledge of more than one language, more commonly referred to as ‘bilingualism’. It is not only preferable but many a times imperative to know a second language.
This learning of another language besides the primary language or mother tongue is known as ‘second language learning’. The learning of a second language thus indicates the learning or knowledge of language “subsequent to the mother tongue” (Ellis, R. 1997).
However, second language learning does not necessarily mean the knowledge of a single language subsequent to the first language but implies the learning of one or more languages apart from the native or primary language acquired by a person (Ellis, R. 1997). Ellis (1997) further explains that the learning of a second language need not necessarily imply the learning of a foreign language but any language, native or foreign, the learning of which could take place “inside or outside of a classroom” (p.3)
This paper attempts to examine the process of second language learning while focusing in detail, the reasons, methods and advantages of second language learning.
The primary goal of learning a second language is communication and researchers have highlighted the numerous positive benefits of acquiring a second language in the modern world. The importance of learning a foreign or second language can be gauged from the fact that it has now become part of the national agenda of the United States of America.
In its ‘Standards for Foreign Language Learning’ (1996), also known as ‘America 2000’ or ‘Goals 2000’, the government calls upon the education of the students of America so that they are “equipped linguistically and culturally to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad”. The ‘Goals’ have made it crucial to educate “All Students” in such a way that they would “develop and maintain proficiency in English and at least one other language”. (Standards, 1996, p. 7).
According to the standards, the students of the United States completing their fourth, eighth and twelfth grades had “demonstrated competency” in not only the core subjects of mathematics, English, science and other subjects, but also “foreign language”. The standards outline the basic goals of “communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities” so that they obtain the “powerful key to successful communication of knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom” (Standards, 1996, p. 11).
In another noticeable event, the Secretary of Education of the united sates, Richard Riley addressed the audience on the “Changing the American High School to Fit Modern Times”, and suggested that the standards of American high schools students could be raised by initiating the education of foreign languages in elementary, middle and high schools in order for each and every high school to “be close to fluent in a foreign language when he or she graduates”.
Acknowledging the world status of English, Riley asserted that the learning of a foreign language has the potential to “expose” the younger generation “to new cultures and new horizons” thereby facilitating an enhanced comprehension of English. Thus it is clear that communication skill in second or foreign language enables the possibility to comprehend the culture, tradition and the values of a particular society or community.
Needless to say, this knowledge and understanding in part facilitates sensitivity to other cultures, thereby broadening ones horizon. The learning of a second language enables the learners to gain a global perspective which is becoming ever so crucial in the modern globalized community.
The importance of learning a second language as crucial skills among K-12 students has been acknowledged by the American Association of School Administrators in the year 1996. In a policy statement of 1989, the American Council of Education appealed to the education leaders to make the learning of foreign language “an integral part of a college education” so that each and every bachelor, acquires proficiency in a “second language” as the country ascends “into the next century”.
This government interest in the learning of second language is however based on certain scientifically proven researches. According to a report of the College Entrance Examination Board, the students who had studies a foreign language for approximately four years were found to have outdone their competitors in the oral examination of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Several studies have also proved that the learning of second or foreign language promotes the cognitive functions of individuals so that bilingual speakers are found to score better in verbal and written tests than those who speak only a single language (Bruck, Lambert, & Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986; Weatherford, 1986). Research related to children has also proved that when children are exposed to more than one language at an early age, they were found to be display innovative characteristics and flexibility in their approach (Bamford and Mizokawa, 1991). Similar research in children studies has also proved that the exposure to a second language enabled the children to attain enhanced perceptiveness as compared to their monolingual counterpart (Hamayan, 1986).
Several other academic advantages of learning second language were also noted. The researchers of child development have proved that the student who were exposed to second language had shown significant accomplishment in their academic results as compared to those who were monolingual (Eaton, 1994). Research and study have substantially proved the academic importance of learning a second language. Additionally, research in the medical field has also proved that learning the second or foreign language has an extremely positive effect on the learners’ brains and affects the brain density in a positive way. (Hitti, 2004).
Similar researches have also proved that the knowledge and proficiency of a second language reduces the deterioration of the psychological power of the brain. (BBC News, online). Numerous researches carried out internationally across the Asian countries of India, China and Hong Kong prove the enhanced ability of bilingual speakers to deal with distractions rather than monolingual speakers. (Washingtonpost.com)
Bilingualism or the acquisition of a second language can take place either together with the acquisition of the first language when it is termed as simultaneous bilingualism (Hakuta, 1986) or following the first or native language when it is more popularly termed as sequential bilingualism (Wei, 2000). It has been widely believed that the process of second language learning is heavily impacted by the milieu in which an individual is placed, in particular the social and the family background.
However, Noam Chomsky, the noted linguist, marked that the process of language acquisition is triggered by certain mental process occurring in particular regions of the brain. Researchers used this psychological impact to determine the factors which facilitate the learning of the second language and elucidated that the motivation to learn the second language is immensely impacted by two crucial factors (Gardner and Lambert, 1972).
Gardener and Lambert (1972) established that if a person believes the second language as useful, it will be acquired, termed as instrumental orientation. The second important factor or reason for an individual to acquire a second language is integrative orientation, which is the desire or wish of the learner to be involved into a diverse linguistic faction or society. Gardener and Lambert have established that the integrative orientation serves to be more influential in the desire to learn the second language by an individual.
There are several theories which underline the process of bilingualism or learning the second language and so too are the ways of acquiring the second language.
Second language acquisition can be greatly enhanced if the learner is placed in the cultural setting of the target language. For instance, a learner of English as second language can greatly profit from co-existence in the native English speaking community or where the communication is primarily English based. There are several teaching institutes like universities and colleges where the language can be learnt.
The internet and the World Wide Web are also ideal settings for the learner to learn a new language. There are several tools which the learner can make use of, in order to enhance the target language. The market place is today flooded with technological methods and techniques such as pod casts and audio tapes for the effective learning of a second language. Several tools of communication on the internet can prove as effective ways to learn a new language. For example, the online messaging tools, the chat sessions, blogs, and the immense data available on the internet can be highly facilitative in the fluency of language. Reading and practice of the language by the help of these tools provides the learner with a first hand experience in using the language.
Language learning is no longer a tedious and time consuming process. It is in fact now relatively simpler to acquire a new language, given the immense resources and techniques available to individuals. The primary factors for the acquisition of any language are motivation and the keen desire to excel. The learning of a second language has not only been proved to benefit the cognitive processes of an individual but also give immense insight of the couture, tradition, and the ways of the target language community.
It should be noted that the educationists of the United States of America have adopted in several programs to initiate second language learning programs, keeping in view the tremendous benefits. In the modern globalized world, the role of second language is not restricted to mere means of communication but to garner the many benefits which can be attained due to second language leaning.
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