Although the distinction between learning and acquisition can be explained fairly simply, when applied to the process of becoming proficient in a language this is in fact a very complex area, not least because how we learn our native languages is still far from clear. However, for the purposes of this article and the lesson plan which follows, the following broad distinction is a useful starting point:
Learning a language involves a conscious effort on the part of the student and is focused on a specific area of the target language, for example a grammar point or piece of vocabulary. This implies a view of language as, at least in part, a body of knowledge to be taken on board by the learner.
Acquiring a language implies that aspects of the target language are ‘picked up’ rather than formally learned, and that this process occurs during various acts of real communication. It has been suggested that children acquire their native language, particularly in their early years before formal instruction begins, by observing, internalizing, and copying a variety of rules which they then apply (often incorrectly at first) during genuine communication. In contrast, a teenage Physical Geography student may be required to learn the names and characteristics of the various types of clouds.
In terms of teaching English as a second or foreign language, we can sometimes see clearly which category, learning or acquisition, a particular classroom activity falls into. If we wanted to teach ten vocabulary items connected with clothing to a group of students, the following two methods would be among the many options available to us:
The teacher asks the students to memorize them for the next class, and then tests their ability via the use of pictures, sentences with appropriate gaps in them, or some other means over a period of several classes.
At the beginning of the class, the teacher makes some casual comments concerning his/her own or the students’ clothes. At various points in this and subsequent lessons the teacher refers informally to aspects of dress and encourages students to make comments of their own. At no point would the teacher say anything like, “Today we’re going to study clothes.” The students would, in contrast, be exposed in a low-level way, to the target vocabulary.
The first method is clearly on the learning side of the spectrum: the students know what they’re required to do and will be able to gauge their degree of success by the test result. The second method makes some attempt to allow the students to acquire the vocabulary and does not explicitly involve conscious, focused effort: the language ‘occurs’ as part of an informal chat or as an aside during the class.
The debate on the implications for teachers of the distinction between learning and acquiring a language is ongoing. It should be noted however, that although acquisition may seem more appealing because it promotes communication over the formal learning of rules, many variables come into play and complicate the issue. Below are some of the questions raised by this distinction:
• Which end of the learning/acquisition spectrum is most efficient for making progress in different language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening)?
• Would a particular method be effective with all types of students? (probably not)
• Is chatting with a class for an hour to promote acquisition a valid activity? (possibly, but not for every hour of every class)
• How can we structure activities which promote acquisition in the classroom?
• What mix of methods is best for your students?
There isn’t the time or space to go deeply into answers to these fundamental questions, but the following two lesson plans, which have the same broad aim and are laid out in parallel, contrast a ‘learning’-based approach with an ‘acquisition’-oriented one.