First Language and Second Language Acquisition

Freedman and Freedman (2014) presents many theories on language acquisition with regards to first language and second language acquisition. There are some theories which are not accepted by Linguists today and several new ones which have impacted the study of language.  How do these theories effect second language acquisition and how can we use this knowledge in our own classroom? 

 The Major Theories Concerning First Language Acquisition 

There are many theories of language acquisition that are not formally acknowledged today. These historical theories were used in the past and widely accepted in their time. According to (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 23-26) there are three historical views of language acquisition, Imitation Theory, Reinforcement theory and the Behaviorist theory.    

Historical Views of Language Acquisition 

The Imitation theory, The Reinforcement Theory and the Behaviorist Theory are three historical views of language acquisition presented by Freedman and Freedman (2014) that are not accepted by Linguistics today.  

The Imitation Theory states, “Children learn language through imitation. According to this theory, the child hears a word or phrase and attempts to repeat it” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 23). This means that a child can only say the things they hear. If they have not heard the word, they would not repeat it. This theory does not account for the made-up or created words children make.  

Another theory is the Reinforcement theory which states, “Children develop language through positive reinforcement of standard language forms, and they are corrected when they produce nonstandard forms” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 23). Some language is learned this way, but it does not account for all learned language. In the video, a parent talks about how her son says pajamas and no matter how much she corrects him, he still says the word the wrong way (Ruth, 2016). I found myself in this situation with my own children. No matter how many times I corrected them they never said animals the right way. Years later, they have developed their langue to the point where they no longer say animals incorrectly but was that natural development or my constant telling them how to say it correctly? They never heard me say it the wrong way so how did they come up with this new way to say animal on their own.  

The Behaviorist Theory  

Finally, the Behaviorist Theory, “Combines elements of imitation theory and reinforcement theory” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 24). It states that children imitate those around and them and are positively reinformed when they speak correctly. There are several problems with this theory. First it does not account for the changes in learning environments. A child in a vocabulary enriched family and a child who is not in such a situation will still develop language. Secondly if language is learned through imitation and reinforcement then why are humans the only ones who learn how to speak? There must be something more to language.  Another problem is the students do not just imitate adults. If they did, we wouldn’t get three-year olds creating their own words. Finally, this theory does not account for how fast children learn language.  

Current Views of First Language Acquisition  

“The foremost linguist in the United States, Noam Chomsky, developed a theory referred to as Generative Grammar” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 26).  He believes that children gain much of their language before they even enter school. “By the time they reach school, most children have mastered many of the features of their languages and can use it effortlessly to comprehend and produce sentences” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014 p 27). Though we still learn as we go through school the mechanism to learn have been present since early childhood.  

Another view of first language acquisition is the Social Interaction Theory. This theory states that children acquire language as they interact with others. When children speak and it is not correct, instead of correcting them use their language. It encourages them to continue and use more language. Teachers should try and understand what their emergent bilinguals’ students are saying and let them explore the language.  

The Two Views of Second Language Acquisition 

There are two views of second language acquisition, presented by Freedman and Freedman presents (2014), are that language is acquired or language is learned. These two have led to Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition and Schumann’s theory of second language acquisition. Krashen believes people acquire language both consciously and subconsciously. According to Krashen, the first way we learn is by he is by studying the language and learning vocabulary and rules. The second way we learn is called acquisition. This means you subconsciously pick up the language. People pick up the language while they are doing daily things and being part of their culture. Schuman’s theory is based on social interactions. While Krashen speaks of subconsciously picking up language by being immersed in the culture, Schumann’s view is that people must immerse themselves and consciously work on picking up the language from within the culture or by social integrations of being part of a group or culture.  

My Teaching  

In my school we only have a few students who are English language Learners. In the past I was teaching content instead of Language as I was not the language teacher. I would translate tests into Spanish for him to see if he understood the content but that does not help us understand if he understands the language. I would still like to see if he has mastered the content, however I would also like to see that he understands the language. Following Krashen’s model, I should use English as much as possible without the translations. I should help my student be fully immersed in the culture of the school and interact with other students.  


 There are many theories on language acquisition, but teachers should acknowledge and learn newer models. Many of us learned a language in high school and had to learn the grammar of the language without ever speaking it. In the article, “Why L2 teaching should mirror L1 Acquisition,” the author speaks of the process of learning your second language is similar to the process used to learn your first language.  We learn language at an early age before we learn grammar formally in school. If this is the case for our first language, then why shouldn’t it be the case for our second language? Shouldn’t we learn our second language the same way we learned our first language? 


Freeman, D. E,. & Freeman, Y. S., (2014). Essential Linguistics: What Teachers Need to Know to Teach (7th ed.). Heinemann. 

What is Morphology? (n.d.). Retrieved from 

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