The difference between acquiring a language and learning a language

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. It is like understanding a game by doing, i.e. not by first reading the rules.
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 and are able to reason in a metalinguistic way, for example, by saying “boom is tree” or “Mama says albero, Papa says Baum

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.

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)


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.

During language acquisition, we discover the internal structure of a system that consists in tens of thousands of units that can be assembled into an infinite number of combinations! Only part of these combinations are “correct”, but if we consider the structure in itself, the combinations could be assembled into an infinite number. This system is: our human language.

The units of this system are the words, and the words are constructed from a sequence of sounds. The combination of these words form sentences.
The whole system is quite complex and children don’t discover the underlying structure from the beginning. They discover and acquire language by starting from monosyllables, combination of monosyllables and step by step, combining them, adding bisyllables and longer words as they get more confident in using language.

I always find it fascinating to observe how eager children use the systems (languages) they are exposed to!

Children find words within the acoustic stream made of combinations of sounds, they combine the many linguistic elements, discover the way they can be related and the structure that helps them to give the meaning they want to express.

By listening to language, and by trying out all possible combinations, children acquire the combinations of sounds that form words, and words that form sentences that are acceptable and necessary to express meaning in a relatively short time.

During this acquisition of language, we adults, play a very important role: we help our children by modeling the right combinations of sounds and words, and by imitating us, they become more and more confident and competent in their language skills.


I published part of this post on my other blogs here and here.

What would you like to know about language acquisition?
Did you acquire a language later in life?


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