Theories of additional language learning

It is generally accepted among researchers that a first language is ‘developed’ while a second or subsequent language is ‘acquired’. This would be different for children who are raised by parents with two languages and who develop full bilingualism in two languages from birth. However, for most practitioners using this guide we assume that the pupils with whom they are working are acquiring English, or other target language, while at school. There are a number of different theories related to second language acquisition, and we acknowledge that there is some disagreement in this field. For the purposes of this guide we have identified some which we feel are helpful for practitioners to consider but we do not presume that these are the only theories practitioners may want or need to engage with. Moreover, as stated elsewhere in this guide, responding to multilingual learners is not only about responding to a language learning need.

How is additional language acquisition different from first language development?

Oracy in a first language is generally developed over a period of 5 - 10 years in the home and at school with on-going interaction and encouragement from family members.  Additional languages are commonly acquired in the classroom alongside curriculum content and in the playground through interaction with peers. Vocabulary, concepts and routines are likely to be unfamiliar.

Who are the key theorists in the field of additional language acquisition?

Jim Cummins’ work is useful for teachers in classrooms. Cummins' (1979) ‘iceberg’ theory of language interdependence proposed that there are common mental processes underlying both first and additional language learning. Cummins (1999) also identified the two types of language that pupils need to acquire in order to access learning across the curriculum:

Basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) which is conversational fluency in a language. It takes around 2 years to develop conversational fluency if there are no other inhibiting factors present. These might be the presence of other additional needs, or limiting factors such as poor self-esteem.

Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)

Students’ ability to understand and express, in both oral and written modes, concepts and ideas that are relevant to success in school. It takes between 5 and 10 years to develop full academic proficiency in spoken and written English.

Stephen Krashen may also be useful for teachers. Krashen (1981) distinguishes two processes within additional language learning: acquisition and learning. Both are needed for pupils to develop proficiency in their new language.

Language acquisition is where pupils acquire language informally through immersion in the classroom setting. This is best supported through meaningful interaction with their peers and teachers in risk-free situations that foster confident spoken language. Language learning is the formal process of learning how a language works; conscious knowledge about the language (e.g. grammar).

For a comprehensive review of additional language theory and practice see Colin Baker’s Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.