Language acquisition and CLT

Crucial differences between L1 and L2 acquisition [Robert O'Neill - April 1998]

A great deal of what is called 'Communicative Language Teaching' is based on what is essentially a 'nativist' view of second language (L2) acquisition. A 'nativist' view assumes – consciously or unconsciously – that somehow L2 learning can and should be like learning our native language (L1). This is wishful thinking and is based on a profound misconception about the nature of L2 learning - just as it is a misconception about how L1 acquisition occurs. The best way to explore the differences between the two processes is to view them side-by-side – in parallel, as below.


  1. L1 acquisition is genetically triggered at the most critical stage of the child's cognitive development.

  2. The 'engine' of language – its syntactic system – is 'informationally encapsulated' – which means that children are not even aware of developing a complex, rule-governed, hierarchical system. Most L1 speakers do not even realise this is what they are using.

  3. The L1 is typically acquired at the crucial period of cognitive development; pre-puberty, when L1 and other crucial life-skills are also acquired or learned.

  4. Children never resist L1 acquisition, any more than they resist learning to walk.

  5. Given even minimal 'input' during critical pre-pubescent development, all humans acquire the L1 of the society or social group they are born into as a natural and essential part of their lives. Even brain-damaged and/or retarded children usually acquire the full grammatical code of the language of their society or social group.

  6. In short, L1 acquisition is an essential, biologically–driven process. It is part of every individual's evolutionary history and development in the most critical stage of that individual's acquisition of essential life-skills.


  1. L2 learning is not genetically triggered in any way unless the child grows up bi-lingually (in which case, it is not really L2 learning at all).

  2. The syntax of the L2 is not acquired unconsciously , or at least not in the way L1 syntax is acquired. Few L2 learners develop the same degree of unconscious, rule-governed insight into and use of the L2 which they demonstrate with the L1.

  3. The L2 is not learned as part of the learner's general cognitive development. It is not an essential life-skill in the same way that the L1 is.

  4. There is often great conscious or unconscious resistance to L2 learning.

  5. Many highly intelligent individuals with impressive learning skills often have great problems learning an L2. Many L2 learners 'fossilise' at some stage, so that even if they use the L2 regularly, and are constantly exposed to input in it, they fail to develop full grammatical or 'generative' competence.

  6. L2 learning is not a biologically-driven process. It is not an essential aspect of an individual's general development. especially when the L2 is simply another subject on an already overloaded school curriculum or something that has to be undertaken by people with busy lives and heavy work-loads.

Some Conclusions I Personally Have Drawn From The Foregoing

  1. Speech-act theory, upon which so much of so-called 'Communicative Language Teaching' (CLT) is based, has some importance and should not be ignored. Yet the engine of generative competence – syntax – is just as important. In fact, I would argue that it is even more so, just as I would argue that it is as wrong to ignore the teaching and/or study of syntax as it is to ignore the pragmatic acts of everyday language-use which are the focus of speech-act theory. In other words, the question is not 'Is syntax important' but 'How – if at all – can it be taught and learned in the study of any L2?'

  2. I believe that texts – typical, naturalistic (but not 'authentic') instances of every-day language use – should be the central vehicle of my own teaching. Teaching and learning with and through texts makes it possible to study both the generative and pragmatic domains of language and also favours 'unconscious' learning. of language as text - language in context.

  3. As important as systematic and regular study of the underlying generative system is, it is even more important to maintain the interest of learners and to give them a certain degree of confidence that they can and will learn the L2 to a reasonable degree of accuracy and fluency. Texts also make this possible, especially if they have 'narrative-drive' – that is, if they arouse the interest of learners in what is going to happen next and what may have happened before the time-focus of the text.

  4. Just as all good 'native-speaker' texts are directed at particular native-speakers and written, spoken and edited with a clear idea of what they are likely to understand and be interested in, so all good 'non-native' texts should be created with the same clear understanding of what those non-native speakers are likely to understand and be interested in. Such texts may be based to some degree on 'authentic' texts, but once any text is adapted or changed in some way, it is no longer 'authentic'. Authenticity for its own sake is an empty and irrelevant fetish.

  5. It is essential for the text to be 'accessible'- so that learners do not spend too much time struggling simply to make sense of the text and all the words or structures they do not know. In real-life with our own language, we usually 'switch off' when we encounter such texts. Typical instances of 'authentic' speech acts and typical 'authentic texts taken from newspapers and other sources are often incomprehensible even to native-speakers when the background context is no longer 'here and now'.

  6. Texts for classroom use need to be fairly short, so that there can be time in the lesson for various activities and exercises that encourage learners to use the language of the text and to modify it for their own purposes or the purposes of the lesson. Most typical newspaper articles, even from sources likes 'Newsweek', are simply too long.

  7. The text is there not just to be read but to generate language use by the class, and to lead to further study. So it will almost always be adapted for these purposes and thus cease to be 'authentic'. Authentic materials – in the narrow sense of the word are often boring and hardly ever as relevant or as useful as texts that have been skilfully-written for specific didactic aims. Of course, such texts are often based on 'authentic' materials. They should reflect different types of such texts just as they should be naturalistic and interesting.

  8. The argument that texts should be 'authentic' is as superficial and misconceived as the belief that L2 learning can and should be like L1 learning. All genuine 'authentic' texts in the real world are created with definite purposes and for clearly perceived and defined audiences. Texts created or designed for classroom purposes must have their own purposes and their own clearly defined audiences, as well.