Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning

Language acquisition

  • Effortless
  • Progress takes time
  • Inevitably results in fluency

There are two basic ways we learn languages: language acquisition and language learning.  Language acquisition is the way we all learned our native language as children.  Our brains are wired to acquire language – and that’s what they do automatically as we interact with others around us in daily life.

We don’t need to know anything about grammar, yet we easily acquire the knowledge to use correct grammar (i.e. the same grammar used by our parents and other family members).  All that’s needed for language acquisition is daily interactions with others who are continually communicating in the language we want to acquire.  This is sometimes referred to as “immersion.”

The driving force behind language acquisition is our desire to communicate and interact with other human beings.  It’s a social phenomenon that is enabled by our uniquely gifted human brains.  It’s not an instant process, but immersion in the target language over several years almost inevitably results in fluency – both for children learning their native language and for anyone learning a second language.

So language acquisition takes time and it requires immersion in a social situation where the target language is spoken almost exclusively.

Language learning

  • Requires conscious effort
  • Progress is slow, but immediate results are apparent
  • Rarely results in fluency by itself

Language learning is the process of studying a language as a subject. It requires conscious effort.  With language acquisition, the  focus is on  people, and language processing is automatic.  With language learning the focus is on the language – on the elements of language – vocabulary and grammar – which must be mastered through conscious focus and memorization.

For older children and adults, language learning, especially in a class guided by a skilled teacher, is probably the fastest way to get a basic knowledge of a new language.

But real fluency in a language requires a vocabulary of thousands of words within the context of a complex set of grammar rules.  Language learning approaches falter (with most people) once a “basic” level is reached.  At first it’s exciting and quite motivating to be able to carry on simple conversations with others in the new language.  But the effort required to move from that basic level to real conversational fluency is daunting to most students.  And to try to force all that knowledge through the conscious mind through formal study and memorization is not only difficult but actually a bit foolish when another part of our brains is so good at language acquisition.

That’s why most university level language programs include a semester or year abroad: the real value of living abroad is to speed things up with language acquisition with a host family and daily immersion in the target language.

Both approaches are valuable

At Pars Omni we offer Spanish classes and a unique software program called Spanish Voices for those who want to learn or improve their Spanish. Our classes are targeted for beginners and intermediate level students. And the Spanish Voices program is for those who have already reached at least a basic level in Spanish and want to become fluent.

Our classes and the Spanish Voices program combine language acquisition and language learning approaches, but language acquisition is dominant in both.  To find out how this is possible you can read more about our classes and the Spanish Voices program, or, get a high level overview here.