Second Language T-Chart

Help vs. hinder: Factors promoting and inhibiting second language acquisition

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Low level of linguistic distance (learning a Romantic language like Portuguese is relatively easy for a native Spanish speaker) versus a high level of linguistic difference (learning a tonal language like Chinese is a greater challenge for native non-tonal language speakers)

Knowing the standard dialect of one’s native language vs. A non-standard dialect

Strong academic preparation in languages and other academic subjects vs. little preparation for the rigors of an academic environment. (Additionally, a high informal level of exposure to the new language vs. none at all is a factor in facilitating learning).

High level of personal motivation vs. little personal motivation to learn the new language

High support level at home and amongst the student’s peers vs. hostility at home or amongst the student’s peers

Contextual factors can have a great deal of influence upon a child’s ability to acquire a second language. The relative linguistic distance between the child’s native and second language, both in sound and appearance on the page can both be factors in ease of acquisition. Learning a new alphabet for a Russian speaker, or a new writing system for a Chinese or Japanese speaker, are additional challenges when coping with an English language environment, versus learning English for a French or German speaker. For an English speaker learning a new language: “the basic intensive language course, which brings a student to an intermediate level, can be as short as 24 weeks for languages such as Dutch or Spanish, which are Indo-European languages and use the same writing system as English, or as long as 65 weeks for languages such as Arabic, Korean, or Vietnamese, which are members of other language families and use different writing systems” (Walqui 2000). Also, the child’s own language may itself be a dialect, with highly idiosyncratic sounds and constructions. This can make learning the rules of Standard English grammar more difficult than for a child who was brought up learning his or her language in a more conventional academic environment.

Tied to this notion of standardization is also the question of academic preparation and the child’s background in ‘learning how to learn’ a foreign language. A child who has been exposed to English as part of the curriculum of his or her native school will likely have an advantage over a child who has not. The processes of learning a new language are themselves helpful, even if the child has not previously been exposed to English. Being prepared for learning irregular verbs, understanding how to diagram a sentence, and figuring out unfamiliar words in context are all skills that are essential to becoming fluent. Never having thought about a language in a critical fashion is an additional obstacle for non-English speakers who have never had formal language training. “This helps explain why foreign exchange students tend to be successful in American high school classes: They already have high school level proficiency in their native language,” and often an additional language (Walqui 2000).

The psychological motivation for learning a new language cannot be discounted. A child from a high-achieving background who is happy to be in the United States and wishes to assimilate quickly will have fewer internal obstacles than a child who is more ambivalent about doing so because he or she fears a loss of ties to his or her own culture. “Feeling they have to give up their own linguistic and cultural background to join the more prestigious society associated with the target language,” can cause the child an identity conflict that does not facilitate ease of learning (Walqui 2000). Parents who view speaking the new language as a betrayal of the child’s native culture and parents who do not allow English to be spoken at home can increase the learner’s anxiety. Even if parents are not fluent, encouraging and supporting the child’s English language studies is vitally important. Peer support from the child’s native language group of friends, and of friends who are native speakers in the child’s second language can also facilitate the child’s conscious or unconscious motivation when learning.


Walqui, Aida. (2000, September). Contextual factors in second language acquisition.

CAL (Center for Applied Linguistics) Digests. Retrieved May 10, 2010 at