Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning

Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning

by Judie Haynes

Should grammar be taught to young elementary age English language learners? Learn what the difference is between language acquisition and language learning.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is about teaching grammar rules to very young English language learners. Those of you who follow the "Ask Judie" bulletin board already know my answer to that question. I would not teach grammar out of context to young students. (I am asked for grammar lessons for 1st and 2nd graders!) Research has shown that "out of context" grammar drills do not work with students of any age. Teachers of English language learners should really be developing the oral communication, reading, vocabulary, and writing skills of their young students. The grammar will take care of itself. Read predictible books. Teach thematic units. Any mention of a grammar rule should be within the context of those texts.

Language acquisition vs. language learning

There is an important distinction made by linguists between language acquisition and language learning. Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This is similar to the way they acquire their first language. They get a feel for what is and what isn’t correct. In order to acquire language, the learner needs a source of natural communication. The emphasis is on the text of the communication and not on the form. Young students who are in the process of acquiring English get plenty of “on the job” practice. They readily acquire the language to communicate with classmates.

Language learning, on the other hand, is not communicative. It is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. And it certainly is not an age-appropriate activity for your young learners. In language learning, students have conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge. They can fill in the blanks on a grammar page. Research has shown, however, that knowing grammar rules does not necessarily result in good speaking or writing.r A student who has memorized the rules of the language may be able to succeed on a standardized test of English language but may not be able to speak or write correctly.


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