The acquisition of a second language is a process which results can vary substantially and rarely achieve perfect success. In that regard, unlike first language there are many factors affecting the process of learning the second language. In this paper I would like to reflect my personal experience of learning second language, paralleled with the currently known concepts related to the acquisition of second languages.
Having born in Hong Kong to a Taiwanese father and a mother from Hong Kong, my first language was Chinese. I started learning English as a second language when I was three years old in the kindergarten. If profiling this stage of my second language development it can be characterized as child-informal learning. The informal situation can be seen through the fact, that the learning process was not graded, where as little kids we were learning the alphabet and certain common words and their pronunciation, along with some short phrases.
The aspects of motivation cannot be mentioned at that stage, in terms of a motivation for the language itself, as the learning at that stage was more of an impact of behaviorism, where behaviorism implies that, “learners receive linguistic input from speakers in their environment and they form ‘associations’ between words and objects or events.”(Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 35). Thus, I learned how to repeat certain words, and saying them in the particular occasions, e.g. saying good morning, thank you, hello and etc, and accordingly the associations between these occasions and the phrases or words I repeated became stronger. Accordingly, the introduction of English at early age was important, as “learner’s age is one of the characteristics which determine the way in which an individual approaches second language learning.”(Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 68). My parents were aware of the importance of bi-lingual education, but as a child this importance was not assessed nor was it realized, as I did not have the opportunity to practice the acquired skills, other than the kindergarten, or when I was asked to do so. Nevertheless, I can acknowledge the significance of that first experiences as some of the first phrases and sentences I had learnt were firmly memorized in my head.
The second stage of my learning experience came with the school, were the formal setting had a certain motivational nature. The school I was attending was an ordinary school in Hong Kong, where English was merely a subject among others, with no particular attention paid to it. All other subjects were taught in Chinese, with the English lesson being focused mostly on grammar and phonetics. Translating into time periods, which depended on the grade, the English lessons were about three to four hours a week. The motivational aspect can be seen through the desire to excel in the studied subjects, rather than a specific interest in the language at that stage. As I was a good student, the English classes were something that I wanted to be good at, as in any other subject.
At this stage, the instructed learning environment made the learning experience as a list of objectives to cover. Additionally, as a similar approach to the way the language learned in the kindergarten, the process in the primary school also heavily relied on patterns and routines. Although, the grammar was also slightly covered at this stage, the structure of the phrases, as they were different from that of the Chinese, the learning process relied on the repetition of phrases and patterns, as the students did not have knowledge of the speech structure, and accordingly there was no need for it at that time. The importance of memorized patterns can be seen in that, “The child second language performer is placed in peer and school situations that demand linguistic interaction before competence is attained the “slow way”, and the older child’s advanced short-term memory allows him to pick up and retain the necessary formulas to facilitate interaction.“(Krashen, 1981) Accordingly, the usage of such memorized phrases helped me to get used to express myself in the form of the phrases that I memorized, and compensate the lack of knowledge of structure which would have enabled me to construct my phrases by myself.
The third stage of my development came when I was enrolled in the high school. High schools in Hong Kong put an increased emphasis on English as a second language, where all of the subjects, with the exception of Chinese and Chinese history, were taught in English. At this stage, the English learning process can be characterized by the realization of the structure of the sentences, where the practice of English through studying other subjects extended the duration through which we as students were exposed to hearing English language. The division of language instruction between primary schools and high schools, can be seen in that we acquired the full knowledge of the first language in the primary schools first, as “[t]he common linguistic universals in all languages mean that children who learn to read well in their first language will probably read well in their second language.”(Clark). Accordingly, we moved to learning all the subjects in English in high school, after we learned the basic skills of reading and writing in the first language at primary school.
The major problems at that stage were grammar was introduced in detailed was the comprehension of the learned materials with comparison to the Chinese language. It is well known that the first language is an influential factor affecting the acquisition of the second language, and in that regard the Chinese language is specifically, difficult. The absence of an alphabet in Chinese was one of the issues in learning English, but nevertheless, it was an issue that I quickly got used to. However, one of the most difficult problems that posed a problem to me and the rest of the student were the grammar and specifically the variety of tenses.
In high school the tenses were introduced more extensively, and thus the variation of past tenses for example, put some difficulties, where solving exercises on paper was much easier than choosing the right sentence directly when speaking. The aforementioned problem was solved when I came to Australia. Studying in English native environment, where in addition to being a social and communicative person, I chose to communicate even with my Chinese friends strictly in English, which positively influenced the process of learning my second language.
In that regard, I was aware of the fact that the foreign environment can influence the learning process the second language with the condition of a proper interaction, where according to the social network theory “personal relationships an individual shares with others such as relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors mediate variable linguistic behavior.”(Mantero, 2007, p. 192).
When I started learning Spanish a year ago, the experience has changed drastically in terms of the difficulty of acquiring the third language. On one hand, I have been studying English as a second language for a long period of time, where I had the opportunity to make the switch from Chinese language to English during my stay in Australia. On the other hand, despite the short period of learning Spanish, the similarity of the structure of some words, which facilitated learning new ones, the similarity of the grammar, compared to the Chinese, made it easier to learn Spanish as a third language. In that regard, I can say that reached that stage when I completely understand the spoken language in shorter terms than I did so learning English.
Summarizing the aforementioned I can state that, my learning experience was influenced by many factors, which includes that age at which I started learning English, the environment, the expansions of school subjects to be introduced in English, the differences between my first language and the second and personal factors. In that regard, the experience learning the third language was strongly influenced by the process of learning the second, where the results achieved, if not comparable, they were reached in shorter periods.
- Clark, B. A. First- and Second-Language Acquisition in Early Childhood. University of Illinois.
- Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Pergamon Press Incю
- Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned: Oxford University Press.
- Mantero, M. (2007). Identity and second language learning : culture, inquiry, and dialogic activity in educational contexts. Charlotte, N.C.: IAP.