Learning a second language is never easy. Students must wrestle with new vocabulary, rules for grammar and sentence structure, idioms, pronunciation and more. Some people, however, seem to catch on much more quickly than others. Researchers have studied the reasons behind these discrepancies and have formed theories that may be helpful to English as second language teachers and students as they work with developing language skills for academic success and social interaction.
Learner Characteristics and Personal Traits
People who are confident and outgoing find it easier to learn a second language. They have less fear of making mistakes, and making mistakes is an integral part of learning a new skill. Introverts who struggle with social interaction are doubly challenged to practice speaking in a new language, although they may do well in written work. Motivation is also a powerful factor. Intrinsic motivation, such as the desire to achieve personal goals and successfully learn the new language, and extrinsic motivation, such as the need to improve language skills in order to find a job or communicate with peers, are both important factors.
Situational and Environmental Factors
Students whose families and communities set high standards for language acquisition learn more quickly than those who do not. Exposure to high-quality ESL programs is also essential. Students do best when they are allowed to speak their native language as they try to learn the new one because that helps them process the information. They also need exposure to native English speakers, both in and out of the classroom. Ideally, students should hear English spoken at a level slightly above their own level of competence. The learning environment should be comfortable, and students' successes should be recognized.
Prior Language Development and Competence
According to the U.S. State Department, "It is generally accepted that adequate linguistic and cognitive development in a home language contributes positively to second language learning." Students who have been exposed to several languages but without having the opportunity to become proficient in any are at a disadvantage. General cognitive ability is also a factor. Certain people are especially gifted in the area of language acquisition, according to some linguists.
Age and Brain Development
The optimal age for learning a language is between the ages of 2 and 12, according to "Firat University Journal of Social Science." After puberty, language acquisition is more challenging because the brain has undergone a process called lateralization, the division of the brain into two parts with separate functions, and is less adaptive. People who learn a new language after puberty will usually keep their native accent, but those who learn as children will not. Children ages 8 through 12 learn new language more quickly than younger children who are not yet proficient in their native language.
Janet Clark has written professionally since 2001. She writes about education, careers, culture, parenting, gardening and social justice issues. Clark graduated from Buena Vista University with a degree in education. She has written two novels, "Blind Faith" and "Under the Influence." Clark has received several awards from the Iowa Press Women for her work.