Language Learning – Motivation, Environment, and Prior Knowledge

Primary and Secondary
Language Learning

The motivation, learning environment, and knowledge base of first- and second language-learners are completely different.

motivation:  No child, who is not deaf-and-dumb, fails to learn a first language. And, unlike the second language learner who struggles with the grammar of his first second language, his younger sibling acquires the grammar of his first language pretty much on his own and with little complaint.  The latter learns the grammar and vocabulary of his first language through seemingly endless voluntary effort and experimentation.  His older sibling, in contrast, is compelled under threat of punishment or humiliation to memorize words, phrases, and patterns that he may or may not entirely grasp; moreover, he must do this with little opportunity to test his understanding through the seemingly endless trial and error of his younger sibling.  He simply does not have the time, nor in most cases the opportunity, if the time were even available.

Associated with this trial-and-error experimentation, whereby the child tests his knowledge as it is acquired, is the constant dialogue that the child shares with his parents and siblings, and that serves as both a source of experimentation and an exchange of information.  By the time, the child has reached secondary school, his classroom inquisitiveness is all but squelched by the need to learn what the teacher dictates and what his peers could no better, if the child does not apply himself competitively.  In effect, the question-and-answer dialogue that was once so vital to the acquisition of the child’s first language has largely disappeared, for now the child must memorize the dialogue of others and not the dialogue that he himself initiates.  And, if this dialogue does occur, it is more often than not the domain of the brightest and most assertive students — those, whom the system seeks to select out, promote, and thereof eventually assume possession.

learning environment:  Our role models for our first language are our parents and closest siblings.  Not only are these, native experts in what it is that we want to learn, but they are nearly as interested in our own linguistic education as we are.  Their time and effort is provided generously and without pay. Rather than penalize or humiliate us for our errors, they smile gently or even laugh.  As we are oblivious to the cause of their mirth, we are encouraged by it and experiment even more.  Moreover, there is hardly a word, phrase, or logical pattern that we learn that is not relevant to something that we desire or that we want to express in the moment that we feel the urge.

In contrast, our role models for our first second language are often teachers who may or may not be very good in the language that they seek to teach, and as a consequence adhere closely to a book or curriculum designed by authors who reside in a culture very distant and foreign from our own.  There is little room for experimentation, there are heavy demands with regard to time and rote memorization, and there is near zero incentive and only limited opportunity to utilize the language in a very meaningful way outside of the classroom.  In effect, our second language is learned pretty much like mathematics or chemistry, but with far less intellectual interest.  As what we are taught is just another way to do what we already know — namely, communicate our needs and exchange our ideas with others who speak the same language as we.

prior knowledge:  That nearly every child learns a first language, that some learn one language while others learn another, and that we are all able to communicate the same human need and exchange similar kinds of information with the language that we learn, gives strong reason to believe that the learning of language, although innate to our physical character, is clearly a social phenomenon closely bound to the society in which we are raised.

This said, it is not so unusual that speakers of different languages share the same culture, and that the link between language and culture is not nearly as strong as we are often led to believe.

Important is that after learning our first language we are able to take advantage of a body of knowledge that was not available to us when we learned our first language — namely, all of the scientific scholarship that has gone into the study of language and our ability to translate this knowledge across languages.

Indeed, pretending that we can be the same child twice is simply nonsense.  That we should discount important lessons about the nature of  language and language learning  that we can glean from our childhood is no less foolish.


Not only should we take full advantage of that body of knowledge and our ability to understand it that we did not have when we were children, but we should also understand clearly the differences between the motivation, learning environment, and knowledge base that were available to us when we learned our first language and those that are available to us when we learn our first second language.

Unfortunately, in its effort to meet the artificially created demand of a global industry that satisfies a variety of interests other than those of its stated primary target — namely, the billions of school children who fill our nations’ classrooms around the world — the modern CLT approach fails miserably in the majority of cases.  Rather, its promoters vaunt their rare successes as if they were models that can be implemented everywhere, but that can easily be explained by the special learning environments of each.