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Defining SLA

A definition of second language acquisition (SLA) will be given.
© Edge Hill University

What is SLA?

Second language acquisition (SLA) is a field of study that investigates how humans pick up languages other than their first. While SLA refers to the field of enquiry, second language (L2) acquisition refers to the process of learning additional languages after the first language (L1) is acquired. Additional languages refer to second language, third language, forth language etc., which the study of SLA includes. Ultimately, SLA researchers aim to discover the factors that determine success in L2 learning so we can be better language teachers and learners.

Relevant fields

One of the most interesting elements of SLA is that it is multidisciplinary. Much like a magpie that likes to collect different types of object for its nest SLA draws on a number of distinct disciplines. Three fields that are of relevance to SLA are linguistics, psychology, and education. First, linguistics is the scientific study of language systems and how this is represented in the human mind. Research into first language (L1) acquisition and use can inform us about L2 acquisition also. Second, psychology is the study of mind and behaviour and can help to give us insight into underlying individual difference factors that influence L2 acquisition such a motivation. Finally, education is the study of language and teaching and is highly relevant to SLA as the ultimate goal of SLA research is to discover how languages can best taught and learnt.

The growth of SLA

SLA is a relatively young field of study which started to gain interest in around the 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s interest in SLA grew considerably, and currently it is a distinct discipline with an ever-growing body of research and publications. The continued growth in SLA is inline with the rise of globalization and the prominence of English as a global language. Furthermore, SLA research can have highly relevant and practical implications in the real-world. For examples, SLA research can help to inform education policy in second and/or foreign language learning; it can help inform government policy on bilingualism and multilingualism; it can help inform the creation of language testing such as IELTS; and it can help inform language policy for supranational organizations such as the EU. These among many other real-world issues can be illuminated by SLA research.

Key terms and acronyms

Like any other academic discipline, SLA numerous terms and acronyms many of which are used across the wider disciple of teaching English to speakers of languages. Below are some fundamental terms that will be useful to you throughout these three weeks and beyond:

First language (L1): The first language learnt as a child—mother tongue, native language.

Second language (L2): Any language learnt after the L1. This can also refer to any other additional language (L3, L4 etc).

Target language (TL): The language being learnt.

Second language acquisition (SLA): the study of the process of learning additional languages.

L2 acquisition: The process of learning additional languages.

English as a foreign language (EFL): English learnt outside of an English-speaking country.

English as a second language (ESL): English learnt inside of an English-speaking country.

© Edge Hill University
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TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

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