Is acquiring a second language like acquiring the first?

by Yanyu Guo

Human language has posed great challenges for learning sciences. It has long been noted that children acquire language with relative ease and rapidity and without effort or formal teaching while adult second language (L2) learners cannot. In particular, children show creativity in the course of first language (L1) acquisition, which goes far beyond the input that they are exposed to. This was dubbed as the poverty of the stimulus by Chomsky (1980), with an assertion that our knowledge about natural language grammar is supplemented with some sort of innate linguistic capacity. Chomsky (1965) put forth a hypothetical module called the language acquisition device (LAD), which enables us to acquire and produce language.

A question that arises is: how different is acquiring a second language from acquiring the first? One of main differences between L1 and L2 acquisition is previous linguistic knowledge (Schwartz & Sprouse 1996, White 2003, etc.). The acquisition of second language is after the structural foundations of the first language are in place. Schwartz and Sprouse (1996) proposed the Full Transfer Full Access hypothesis, assuming that L1 grammars constitute the starting point for L2 acquisition. L1 transfer, also called cross-linguistic interference, can positively or negatively affect L2 acquisition, depending on the similarity of the L1 and the L2. For example, Yuan (1998) investigated acquisition of the long-distance reflexive ziji in L2 Chinese by English and Japanese-speaking learners. He found that, compared to the English speakers, the Japanese speakers at the same level of proficiency were more likely to accept the use of ziji because Japanese has a long-distance reflexive, whereas English does not.

Moreover, it is well documented that L2 input is a central aspect of learning a second language (e.g. Ellis 2005, DeKeyser 2005, Lardiere 2009, Yuan 2014). Although L2 learners may be exposed to less input than a L1 learner and may engage higher order cognitive schema not yet available to L1 children (Bley-Vroman 1989), they face the same inductive problem as the L1 acquiring child when parsing L2 input. Positive evidence (i.e. the set of grammatical sentences that the learner has access to) in L2 input will allow learners to restructure their L2 grammars accordingly (Lardiere 2009). Long-term absence of informative evidence in the L2 input, or lack of robustness or salience of the relevant positive evidence may cause acquisition difficulty (Yuan 2014). In addition, L2 acquisition researchers (e.g. Ellis 2005), who place an emphasis on input frequency and its effect on learners’ L2 competence, argue that language learning is not different from other types of learning, and thus adults and children are able to keep track of statistical information in the L2 input. The statistical information, in turn, allows learners to predict or use words. In a nutshell, quality, quantity and availability of L2 input have a great impact on the L2 acquisition process.

The two factors briefly introduced above will be further discussed and investigated in the L2 Mandarin part of MEITS’ strand 5 project. By examining the potential roles of age, typological differences and linguistic experience in the acquisition of Mandarin Chinese by English and Cantonese-speaking learners, this project aims to reveal the nature of L2 acquisition/learning and its impact on language learners and communities.


Bley-Vroman, R. (1989) The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis 20: 1–49.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

DeKeyser, R (2005). What makes learning second-language grammar difficult? A review of issues. Language Learning, 55, 1–25.

Ellis, R. (2005). Measuring implicit and explicit knowledge of a second language: a psychometric study. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27, 141–72.

Lardiere, D. (2009). Some thoughts on the contrastive analysis of feature in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 25, 171–225.

Schwartz, B., & Sprouse, R. (1996). L2 cognitive states and the full transfer / full access model. Second Language Research, 12(1), 40–72.

White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yuan, B. (1998). Interpretation of binding and orientation of the Chinese reflexive ziji by English and Japanese speakers. Second Language Research, 14(4), 324–340.

Yuan, B. (2014). ‘Wh-on-earth’ in Chinese speakers’ L2 English: Evidence of dormant features. Second Language Research, 30(4), 515–549.

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