Third Language Acquisition for Dummies

What on earth is “third language acquisition”, and why is it a separate thing in language acquisition research? Live in ignorance no more!

NO Third language intext1Native vs. Foreign Languages

In order to explain third language acquisition, it is necessary to clarify the forerunners, first and second language acquisition. In the research community, there has long been an agreement there is a difference between learning a native and a foreign language. The first language (L1) is the language you learn as an infant or young child. An important feature of the L1 is that it, under normal cognitive and environmental circumstances, is acquired automatically, regardless of the learner’s motivation and efforts.

Critical Period of Language Learning

NO Third language intext2Some may also choose to categorize languages that are not necessarily acquired from the beginning as L1s, as long as they are acquired before the child reaches the so-called critical period. The critical period is the time frame in which you have to start learning a language in order to reach native-like proficiency. The idea of a critical period is supported by evidence from research on victims of child abuse. If a child for some reason (e.g. evil parents) is not exposed to language in its early childhood, it may never fully acquire it later on, despite normal exposure. It has also been claimed that there are different critical periods for different linguistic levels, e.g. that the critical period for phonology occurs earlier than the one for syntax. Put differently, as an adult, you are more likely to acquire the word order of a foreign language perfectly than its sounds. Acquiring a second language (L2) usually requires a certain level of conscious effort from the learner, which is one of the reasons it developed into a separate research field.

Genie was not exposed to speech her first 13 years and never fully acquired language later on, despite normal exposure.

Third Language Acquisition

NO Third language intext3In recent years, researchers have started to draw a line between the acquisition of the first foreign language, the L2, and all languages acquired after it, so-called third languages (L3s). The thought is that, when learning an L3, learners already have experience with actively acquiring a foreign language, and therefore have a set of strategies that can be applied to the L3 learning process.

Third language acquisition research among others focuses on how the L1 and L2 affect L3 learning respectively. One way background languages can have an impact is through transfer, i.e. applying properties (e.g. sounds, words, expressions or word orders) from background languages to the target language. Do learners only transfer features from their mother tongue, as is often the case when it comes to phonology (resulting in foreign accents), or can second languages play a role as well? I will save this topic for some other post. Stay tuned for more juicy, geeky, hot language acquisition articles!


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