Factors Affecting Language Acquisition

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Educators know that students learn content and skills at very different rates. Most likely, you’ve seen some students excel, grasping new concepts very quickly, while other students need more time or any number of other pedagogical supports to aid their learning. In our article last month, we talked about Krashen and Terrell’s (1983) five major second language acquisition stages and strategies that teachers can use to work with students in the different stages. Much like learning other skills, English language learners (ELLs) flow through these stages of second language acquisition at very different rates. Let’s look at an example of one ELL student.

Mohammed’s Story
Mohammed is an Iraqi high school student who arrived in the United States at the beginning of the school year. Due to the many years of violence within his home country, Mohammed had been unable to attend school on a regular basis and for many years was not able to attend school at all. Mohammed remembers his first few weeks of school in the United States as a very emotional experience, and compounded with his lack of English skills, a very confusing one as well. He was often embarrassed by his inability to follow what were clearly social norms within the school setting. Students understood what the loud noise at the end of the class period meant, that you had to ask permission to use the restroom, and even how to behave in the hallways. This lack of understanding resulted in Mohammed being labeled as a ‘shy’ student by his teachers, a description his parents found odd given his outgoing personality in Iraq. In addition to all of the cultural norms to be learned, Mohammed also had to try to remember to read left to right across a page of text instead of right to left as Arabic print literacy skills dictate. While in Iraq, Mohammed had the great benefit of having literate parents who had attempted to ensure his continued education by buying and sharing books between friends and relatives.
Mohammed’s story outlines several major characteristics that may impact a student’s second language acquisition process. So, what do we know about Mohammed? Mohammed has:

  • Interrupted schooling experiences,
  • Emotional responses to cultural adjustment, and
  • First language literacy skills.

Research shows that each of these likely impacts the rate of language acquisition.

Mohammad’s Formal Education Experience
There are many students like Mohammed, often refugees, who have not had the opportunity to attend school. As a result, their subject matter knowledge and many other skills such as decoding, and reading and listening for comprehension, may have stagnated. Because of this, these students’ focus of study must be broadened to not just focus solely on learning English, but students also carry the extra burden of attempting to make-up for lost time in their core content area classes.

Mohammad’s Process of Cultural Adjustment
As educators, you have likely seen the nervous faces of new students who are enrolling in your school for the first time. Like any new student, Mohammed’s story as an ELL is fairly typical with regard to the anxiety he faced as a recently arrived student to the United States. The new, highly structured environment of the American school system is a large psychological and emotional hurdle. The anxiety and stress of dealing with these new situations has the effect of slowing down the language acquisition process for many students (Krashen, 1981; DeCapua, Smathers, & Tang, 2009). We see that Mohammed, who had once been an outgoing child, had become reserved in this new environment. The consequence of shyness is then having fewer opportunities for practice of oral expression in English.

Mohammad’s Level of Print Literacy in His First Language
Mohammed’s last noted characteristic is his level of print literacy. Many students must learn new phonology and new print literacy skills that may impact their language acquisition process (DeCapua, Smathers, & Tang, 2007). For example, students who have learned basic skills such as sound-to-letter or word-to-character correspondence in their first language may make gains in their English literacy quicker than those without these fundamental literacy skills.

There are a number of additional characteristics impacting the rate of the language acquisition process. Click on each of the elements below to learn a bit more about what may be impacting your ELLs language learning:

It is very likely that there are factors impacting your students that exceed those mentioned in this article. It will likely be the case that ELL students will continue to need support around developing their academic language skills in all of the content areas for a number of years. In the following MI Toolkit issue, we will begin to focus on best practices for instructing our ELLs and will again share some experiences from Michigan teachers.

Until the next issue,
Jennifer Paul and Madeline Mavrogordato

References and Glossary

Adger, C., Kalyanpur, M., Peterson, D., & Bridger, T. (1995). Engaging students: Thinking, talking, cooperating. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

DeCapua, A., Smathers, W., & Tang, F. (2007). Addressing the challenges and needs of students with interrupted formal education (SIFE). Educational Policy & Leadership65, 40-46.

DeCapua, A., Smathers, W., & Tang, F. (2009). Students with limited or interrupted formal schooling: A handbook for educators. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Krashen, S. D. & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Allemany Press.

Skehan, P. (1989). Individual differences in second-language learning. London: Edward Arnold.

Wallace, L. (1973). Culture and Language as Factors in Learning and Education. Paper presented at the Annual convention of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Denver, Colorado, March 1974.

Walqui, A. (2000). Contextual Factors in Second Language Acquisition. ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, Center for Applied Linguistics. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cal.org/resources/digest/digest_pdfs/0005-contextual-walqui.pdf.

Affective Filter Hypothesis

Language acquisition theorist, Stephen Krashen, argued that human factors such as motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety also play a prominent role in a student’s language learning and acquisition process (Krashen, 1981). You may have experienced this with your own students. A student’s anger, boredom, or nervousness may negatively impact the classroom learning experiences of any kind. But when students are relaxed and in a comfortable environment, their successfulness in acquiring language may be higher.

Each student brings his/her own individual personality to the classroom. This includes everything from the aforementioned elements such as motivation and interest, but also includes learning style differences that can impact the rate of language acquisition (Skehan, 1989). Similarly, some students are more outgoing than their peers, which can impact the amount of interaction students have with English speakers.

Peer Groups
Teenagers are highly influenced by those in their peer groups. When it comes to second language learning, this can be detrimental to improving their English language skills (Wallace, 1973). Students may be socially pressured to resist learning a second language or to not stand out as a high achiever. High academic achievement and acquiring English proficiency may be seen as shedding or rejecting their native identity.

Home Support
As with our students who come from native English speaking families, we know that children typically need support from their families in order to experience classroom success. Often, the challenge for ELLs is that their parents may not be English speaking, therefore limiting second language practice opportunities in the home (Walqui, 2000).

Consider what skills you would want an ELL to learn. You want them to learn to listen, speak, read, and write with ease in English. Students who have more opportunities to practice these skills in meaningful ways will have a greater chance at making improvements. However, students who may experience language learning as lectures, focusing on learning about language as opposed to being given genuine opportunities to practice and interact with language, may have significantly different learning experiences (Adger, Kalyanpur, Peterson, & Bridger, 1995).