Tag Archives: Language acquisition

Bilingualism: Language acquisition and language learning

Linguists distinguish between language acquisition and language learning. Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This happens especially when they acquire their first language. They repeat what is said to them and get a feel for what is and what is not correct. In order to acquire a language, they need a source of natural communication, which is usually the mother, the father, or the caregiver.

Language learning, on the other hand, is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. Language learning is not an age-appropriate activity for young children as learning presupposes that learners have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge. They usually have a basic knowledge of the grammar.

From a neurolinguistic point of view, language acquisition and language learning are processed in two different ways in the brain. During early infancy, language processing – during acquisition – occurs in many areas of the brain. Only over time it gradually becomes concentrated into two areas: the Broca’s area, which is situated in the left frontal cortex and is involved in the production of the patterns in vocal and sign language, and the Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal cortex that is primarily involved in language comprehension. The Broca’s area is the one actively involved in language acquisition processes, whereas the Wernicke’s area is active in the language learning process.

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved in language. Author: Reid Offringa creation date: 1/9/06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • unconscious process
  • does not presuppose teaching
  • the child controls the pace


  • intentional process
  • presupposes teaching
  • the teacher controls the pace

5 tips to learn a new language for expats

I recently got involved in discussions about different methods to learn a new language for adults. Most of my friends find that to learn a new language, you have to take language classes. But they often don’t really feel comfortable to talk the language in public. I’m a researcher, translater and language teacher with a great knowledge of linguistics and I know different approaches to language teaching for adults. I personally consider the full immersion method as the best way to learn or improve a language and I recommend to consider these following 5 tips while or before you’re taking language classes.

1) What I can recommend is to first of all try to like the new language you want to learn to speak. Try to become familiar with the sounds of it. If you already know a language that sounds familiar  the phonetical part will be easier. It’s very important to decide why you want to learn a particular language. Maybe you want to learn it because it’s the language of a person you love and you want to share this knowledge. Or you just like the sound or the aesthetics of this language or you’re fascinated by the culture and history associated with the language. Or you want to travel freely in the country (or countries) the language is spoken.

2) Copy the sounds. Try to repeat whatever you hear on the radio or on TV. After a while you will feel more comfortable about talking. I tried to copy the phonetics and to memorize entire sentences. I also learned some standard sentences by heart like “Could you please tell me where I can find…”, “Can you (please) repeat it slowly” etc.

3)  Read out loud. In the beginning it doesn’t matter what you read. Simple sentences like in nursery rhymes, children’s books or short articles on newspapers (maybe choose a light subject) are good to help develop your narrative skills. Seeing the language in print helps to understand sentence structure. In addition to reading literature, also read grammar books and visit online grammar sites. If you’re not sure how to pronounce a word, some online dictionaries offer user recordings for the word (like http://www.dict.cc).

4) I always felt more comfortable to learn languages in a social context. Whether doing sports or pursuing some hobbies, this helped me to have first contacts with native speakers. Obviously, team-sports are better than just the gym where you probably don’t speak that much with others. I got pregnant a few months after we moved to the Netherlands and I signed up for a prenatal class. It was a great help for me to get to know all the vocabulary and to become familiar with the health care system. I also met my first dutch friends there. – Try to get out as much as you can: restaurants, musea, even theater, cinema etc.

5) Be passionate and try to invest as much time as possible in your language learning project. Passion is above all the most important factor in learning any language (or anything else in life…).

Do you have any tips about how to learn a new language as an adult?