Language Learning: Insights into Foreign Language Acquisition and Native Language Loss

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Language Learning: Insights into Foreign Language Acquisition and Native Language Loss
Language Learning: Insights into Foreign Language Acquisition and Native Language Loss

Learning about foreign language acquisition and loss of the mother tongue

Adopted toddlers who learn a new language without tuition go through the same steps as learning their first language – even though they are older and have more developed brains. This was found in a case study by Jesse Snedeker and colleagues at Harvard University [1]. The authors conclude that the always identical, characteristic process that one observes when learning a mother tongue is less the result of an innate automatism, as a number of linguists believe, and more of general, cognitive requirements.

If learners cannot fall back on language lessons or textbooks, they have to filter the necessary information from their mother tongue like small children. The order in which knowledge is acquired reflects how obvious each component of a language is to the child and how important it is to communication.

Snedeker had accompanied Chinese-born children during their first year in the United States. Their linguistic abilities were initially limited to single words, especially for concrete things. This phase was followed by two-word sentences of increasing complexity. Purely grammatical sentence building blocks were added last. However, the authors point out that the process was faster than for the younger, native-born toddlers. This is mainly due to the age difference.

Children growing up in these circumstances typically forget their native language. Researchers at the University of Oregon found out that this is due to a special mechanism – in addition to a gradual deterioration due to lack of use: Apparently to avoid interference between the two languages, the brain actively inhibits the retrieval of words in the other language and thus raises the one for the current one Situation most important vocabulary out [2]. Comparable effects are also known from other memory functions.

Michael Anderson's team asked adult subjects, all of whom had studied Spanish for at least a year, to repeatedly name different objects in that language. When asked about the equivalent expression in their mother tongue, English, they clearly had problems finding the right term.

However, this inhibition of the mother tongue relates exclusively to the phonetic form of an expression - language-specific word meanings cannot influence each other, the study found. It was also shown that the more fluently the test participants mastered the foreign language, the less mutual inhibitions they felt - apparently this form of "contrast enhancement" is less and less necessary for advanced speakers.

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