I’ve recently been giving a lot of thought to ‘acquisition’ versus ‘learning’ of a second (or subsequent) language. In brief, the difference is related to communicative competence versus “explicit rule-based grammar teaching” (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 193). (For more on the distinction, click here). In my mind, acquisition is perhaps the longer-lasting state or the point at which conscious rule-based practice becomes automatic communication, as in Skill Acquisition Theory.
Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, my exposure to French was mere rote learning. Core French courses were mandatory up to Grade 7, but these classes followed the drip-feed method (Lightbown & Spada, 2013), meaning that classes were only about 50 minutes every second day. Content was limited to word lists and rudimentary grammar practice. You took the notes, you wrote the test, and you were done. It was just another class, not a means of actual communication, and so it never had any real meaning for me. In Grade 9, I opted to take two more semesters of French. These classes were streamed in real-time from another school each day via satellite TV, and students from various parachute schools watched and phoned in with their questions and for evaluation. Although these courses covered more material, they still revolved around rote learning of verb conjugations and lacked opportunities for meaningful communication. Even if I had understood the social value of language-learning, there were no French-speaking communities in my area; by extension, there was no opportunity for meaningful conversation with a ‘native speaker.’ My French classes entailed learning, and nothing more.
It wasn’t until I took my first conversational Spanish class after completing high school, prior to a trip to Mexico, that the concept of learning or rather acquiring a language to communicate with real people finally hit me. All those years of French suddenly clicked, as I realized that the purpose of the endless conjugations and agreements was communication. Throughout subsequent years, I alternated between short, more communicatively-oriented trips to Mexico, and university Spanish classes. My competence grew, and I remember the feelings of elation when I had my first conversations fully in Spanish and, later, when I realized I was no longer checking my mind constantly for grammatical structures and vocabulary. At what point did I start to move from learning to acquisition?
As my Spanish improved, I began to lament my missed opportunity with French and started taking undergraduate French classes. The first two were not very different from those I had taken previously, except that more material was condensed into less time. Still, there was little opportunity for meaningful communication. The next class was a pre-intermediate conversation and grammar class. There at last we actually talked about many different topics. Finally, I felt that I was getting somewhere. Was I beginning to cross over into acquisition?
Then I ran out of electives and had to spend my last year focusing on the requirements for my majors (Linguistics and Spanish). I graduated with strong high-intermediate abilities in Spanish and an already fading low-intermediate level of French.
During the following two years, I practiced very little French or Spanish, but I was able to pick back up on Spanish quickly when I traveled, and people’s warm response left me feeling competent. I assumed that French would be the same, but I was in for a shock when I moved to Montréal. Instead of picking up where I left off, I discovered great gaps in my recollection of French grammatical rules. Apparently, I had not moved far enough into acquisition for things to ‘stick.’ I was semi-incapacitated by anxiety about my ‘broken’ French and fear of triggering the ever present ‘Montréal switch.’ Despite the deficiency of the French education that was available to me growing up, I felt like a failure as a Canadian for not speaking it better, and people occasionally asked me why I learned Spanish instead of French, as though—regardless of the factors that lead me to Spanish—it was evident that I should have chosen French.
I desperately wanted to improve my French, but with my graduate studies keeping me very busy and government funding unavailable for Canadian citizens wanting to learn French in Québec, it wasn’t until this spring that I was finally able to take a conversation and grammar class. Between the course and the unstructured communicative practice I seek out in real-world interactions, my French is finally reviving; I can complete my daily tasks, sustain a basic conversation, and since my comprehension exceeds my production, fewer interlocutors switch to English than before. Even as I celebrate my gains, however, I am acutely aware of my limitations. Am I moving from learning to acquisition (again)? How can I sustain it?
At what point does ‘learned’ language become ‘acquired’ language? Is it when you begin to be able to communicate in class? Is it when you write your first essay in the target language? Is it your first sustained real-world conversation? Does it have to be perfect?
What is the balance between knowledge about rules and social competence? How good does my French have to become to be ‘good enough’ to me or others? It’s hard to say, but one thing I have been thoroughly enjoying as I immerse in using my languages in Montréal is an increasingly open gateway to legitimate participation in translanguaging practices. As I spend time with other bi-/multilingual speakers, I realize I am among friends who appreciate the process with language and are more than happy to embrace the beautiful mélange that emerges like the foliage of autumn. We share resources, listening to one language and responding in another or using elements of multiple languages. It’s part of what unites us as multi-competent language users. Perhaps the question is less about acquisition versus learning than about enjoying the linguistic journey and finding confidence, fluidity, and belonging in a given social setting.
Cook, V. (2015). Working definition of multi-competence. Retrieved from http://www.viviancook.uk/Writings/Papers/MCentry.htm.
(2018). Difference between language acquisition and language learning. Retrieved from http://www.differencebetween.info/difference-between-language-acquisition-and-language-learning.
Godfrey-Smith, L. A. (2015). Reconciling language anxiety and the ‘Montreal switch’: An autoethnography of learning French in Montreal and negotiating my Canadian identity through language. Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education/ Revue canadienne chercheures et chercheurs en education, 6(2), 9-15. Retrieved from https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjnse/article/view/30675.
Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schmidt, A. (June 7, 2014). Research bites: Skill acquisition theory and language-learning [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.anthonyteacher.com/blog/researchbites/research-bites-skill-acquisition-theory-and-language-learning.
(July 26, 2016). What is translanguaging? Retrieved from https://ealjournal.org/2016/07/26/what-is-translanguaging/.