Language acquisition versus language learning


What is the difference between language acquisition and language learning.


Some people use the term of language acquisition for all the phases that lead to language fluency, including learning to read and write. Others use the term of language learning even for babies and very young, pre-school children. – But there is a fundamental difference between these two terms.


Children acquire language through a natural, subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This happens especially when they acquire their first language(s). 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. Children who grow up with multiple languages, will acquire these languages in the most natural way. They will repeat what they hear, try out sound chains until they make sense (i.e. others will understand their meaning), and they will use them purposefully in their communication. – Some distinguish infant language acquisition – as defining the process of acquiring the first language(s) – from second language acquisition, which takes place "later" and in addition to speech, includes also reading and writing.

As many parents tend to think that they need to teach their language to their children, it is important to make sure the whole concept is clear!

We do not teach our children the first language(s)! We transmit our languages through verbal and non-verbal communication. We do not need to explain all the objects around us. We don't need to show our child what an apple is and say "this is an apple", or a cup "this is a cup". We simply need to use our language like we always do and our children will acquire it by simple and regular exposure. We need though to involve them in conversations with us – also non-verbal ones count! – and encourage them to use our language.

In German we distinguish between Spracherwerb and Sprachenlernen, in Italian between acquisizione di una lingua and apprendimento di una lingua, in French acquisition du language and apprentissage d'une langue.


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 very young children as learning presupposes that learners have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge.

Language learners usually have a basic knowledge of the grammar of their first languages they acquired. They know the differences in intonation, the sound of words, what a grammatically correct word order is in a sentence in the language, that words can have multiple meanings etc..

When we learn a new language we have a deductive approach to the intonations, phonology, morphology, syntax of the target language. This happens when we start being schooled in this language, when we learn to read and write.
Reading and writing are not skills that come naturally. They are not intuitive. We need to learn that signs (letters and letter combinations) represent a sound, that by combining them we form words that have a meaning, which we can use to convey our thoughts. We learn that there are rules for each language, concerning the position of the words in a sentence, that intonation can vary and change the meaning of a word and a sentence, that one word can have many different meanings, depending on the context. For example, in "I like the green apple", depending on the intonation and accentuation of one word, we can convey different meanings:

I like the green apple = It's not Tom who likes it!
I like the green apple = Really, I'm honest!
I like the green apple = Not the red one!
I like the green apple = Not the kiwi!



©Fernandes Arung 2016 (see below)



From a neurolinguistic point of view, language acquisition and language learning are processed in two different ways in the brain.

There are many areas of the brain involved in language acquisition and learning, and in the understanding and articulation of languages.

The two main areas are the Broca’s area, which is situated in the left frontal cortex, and is the word production center of the brain, i.e. responsible to the production of the patterns in vocal and sign language.
The Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal cortex, is the word recognition center, which is primarily involved in language comprehension.

Roughly said, 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 – where the understanding speech takes place.

During speech processing and language learning, these two areas collaborate with multiple other areas of the brain, like the Angular Gyrus – where the assembling of information takes place, and where understanding of words and concepts happens –, the Supramarginal Gyrus, which is involved with language perception and processing, and the Primary Auditory Cortex, where auditory signals are recognised, memorised and may result in a response...



To learn more about how this works, have a look at the video with Kenneth Pugh (Haskins Laboratories/Yale University) and Arturo E. Hernandez (University of Houston):


About Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain:



  • unconscious process

  • does not presuppose teaching

  • the child controls the pace


  • intentional process

  • presupposes teaching

  • the teacher controls the pace

Some articles:

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011), Language Acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arung, Fernandes, (2016), Language Acquisition and Learning on Children, Journal of English Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2016, 1-9. 

Brooks, Patricia & Vera Kempe (eds.), Encyclopedia of language development, Thousand Oaks, Sage. 

Chomsky, N. (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press.

De Houwer, A., (in press 2019) Uninstructed language acquisition in multiple language learners in Jeroen Darquennes, Joseph Salmons & Wim Vendenbussche, Language Contact. An International Handbook, Berlin, Germany, Mouton de Gruyter, 183-196.

Pecchi, Jean Stillwell, 1994, Child Language, London, Routedge.

Pine, J.M., Conti-Ramsden, G., Joseph, K.L., Lieven, E.V.M., & Serratrice, L. (2008). Tense over time: testing the Agreement/Tense Omission Model as an account of the pattern of tense-marking provision in early child English, Journal of Child Language, 35(1), 55-75.

Pinker, S. (1994), The Language instinct, New York, W.W.Morrow.

Pinker, S. (1995), The New Science of Language and Mind, Penguin.

Rowland, C. F., & Noble, C. L. (2010), The role of syntactic structure in children’s sentence comprehension: Evidence from the dative, Language Learning and Development, 7(1), 55-75.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior, Acton, MA, Copley Publishing Group.

Smith, N. (1989). The Twitter Machine: Reflections on Language, Oxford, Blackwell.

Theakston, A.L., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2005), The acquisition of auxiliaries BE and HAVE: an elicitation study, Journal of Child Language, 32(2), 587-616.

Tomasello, M. (2005), Constructing A Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press.

You can find more articles about Language Acquisition here.

"Playing the Language Game." Program Two: Acquiring the Human Language. The Human Language Series. Videocassette. New York: Equinox Films, 1995.

How it works: Video

Research about Language Acquisition:

Utrecht Institute of Linguistics

Radboud University Nijmegen

MIT Language Acquisition Lab

And please watch this very inspiring video which shows the way I acquired most of my languages!


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