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Psycholinguistics and Language: Psychological Aspects of Second Language Acquisition

written by: R. H. • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

How does a person acquire a second language? Psychologically speaking, there are certain elements that are crucial for second language acquisition. Learn what factors must be in place for learners to acquire a second language effectively and the psycholinguistics of non-native language acquisition.

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    Second Language Acquisition: a Low Anxiety Situation

    One of the first factors crucial to second language acquisition is that the learner be placed in a low anxiety situation. Why is this? People naturally have what linguist Stephen Krashen termed an "affective filter," a psychological barrier that can impede learning. When a learner is either very anxious, under motivated or lacking in self-esteem, his affective filter goes up, and he has a very difficult time taking in or processing new information.

    Therefore, psychologically speaking, one of the factors most important for someone trying to learn a new language is to find a situation that is low stress. If it is a classroom arena in which a foreign language is being learned, it is largely the responsibility of a teacher to ensure an environment that does not cause anxiety for the students.

    As a teacher, how can you create a low stress language learning environment? One way is to involve a lot of fun and hands-on activities with language learning. When students are involved in games or activities, they will not be an anxious as if, for example, you are calling on students seated at their desks to one by one produce sentences aloud.

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    Second Language Acquisition: Providing Comprehensible Input

    A second fundamental idea of psycholinguistics of non-native language acquisition is that of comprehensible input. This idea suggests that learners cannot process tons of new language information void of context. For example, if you sit a student down with a recording of a speech in a completely new language, the student will not comprehend any of the information at all. Words with no context are meaningless to the listener.

    How does language input become meaningful to a listener? If a learner is provided with a little bit of new language information surrounded by informative context, the learner can deduce from context the meaning of unknown words and even grammar. Thus learning occurs thanks to the context.

    As a teacher, how can you provide comprehensible input for your students? The first tip is to never provide new language concepts in a vacuum. Do not teach new vocabulary by handing out a printed vocabulary list with no context. Instead, bring objects to class to illustrate the words being taught. If you want to teach students how to interact in a particular context, try to set up the scenario so students can hear and then learn to produce in a real language context. This type of comprehensible input--new language input surrounded by context--will be very accessible to learners and will speed their acquisition of the second language.

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    Second Language Acquisition: a Good Friend Helps

    Though it may seem incompatible with a normal classroom setting, it is a factor in psycholinguistics: having a good friend to converse with really does make second language acquisition much easier. When a language learner has a sympathetic native speaker of the second language who can provide input in the target language, as well as encouragement and feedback, the learner is able to make much better progress.

    As a language teacher, how can you help your students find "language friends?" One idea is to find a native speaker of the second language you are teaching--perhaps a student at the school could fill this role--and ask this person to come in for a "language lab" time. During this time period, students could dialogue with this friend who speaks the target language and develop in their ability to use the language.

    These are just a few of the psychological factors affecting second language acquisition. Remember to consider these factors when planning your classes, and you will find your students to be more successful at acquiring a second language.