The Difference between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

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With learning a language, there is a great difference between first and second language acquisition. Not only are the ways of learning different but the processes within the brain also differ from each other. Children who grow up with more than one native language have a distinct advantage when learning further languages due to the surprising differences in brain structure compared to children who learn a second language at a later age.

First Language Acquisition

First language acquisition is mostly passive. We listen to the people around us, their speech melody, their sounds, their words, and their sentence structures. Before we can even read or write a single word in our first language, we already use an impressive vocabulary and many important grammar structures. Some people never learn how to read or write but still speak their first language fluently.

Babies learn rules while listening to the people around them. They are able to distinguish sentence structures at the early age of seven months as experiments have shown. They also pick up new words from their surrounding people. At the age of six, most children have acquired their native language(s) without any effort.

Second Language Learning

Second language learning, on the other hand, is an active process. We need to learn vocabulary and grammar in order to achieve our goal. Most people will need an instructor, either a teacher at school or the instructions of a course book or audio course. If we ever want to achieve fluency or near fluency in a second language, it requires years of studying and likely a long stay in another country. Many people will never reach anywhere near fluency with any second language.

Most experts see the ages between three to four years as the critical age when first language acquisition ends and second language learning begins.

Language in the Brain

Tests have shown that first language acquisition mostly activates the left half of the brain while second language learning activates the whole brain. Other tests have also revealed why bilingual children can learn further languages so much easier than children who grew up with only one native language. Bilingual children build one single net of nerves for their language skills within the Broca’s area (the cerebral area which is responsible for language) while monolingual children build a second net when they learn a second language. The most surprising fact, however, is that the brains of bilingual children “write” every other language they learn into their bilingual Broca’s area while the brains of children with only one native language build a separate net for every single language.

These facts clearly show why language acquisition is easier for people who grew up with more than one native language. Their brains need less effort to “save” the new language as they use existing nerve structures.

To make use of the natural language abilities of children, language acquisition and learning should begin as early as possible. The difference between first language acquisition and second language learning is so great that it can be the difference between language genius and language struggles.


  • Gehirn&Geist, Dossier: Sprich mit mir!, Nr. 3/2006
  • Lernen: Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag Heidelberg, 2009, Manfred Spitzer