Factors influencing and affecting Second Language Learning

The factors that influence English as a second language


Some students learn a new language more quickly and easily than others. This simple fact is known by all who have themselves learned a second language or taught those who are using their second language in school. Clearly, some language learners are successful by virtue of their sheer determination, hard work and persistence. However there are other crucial factors influencing success that are largely beyond the control of the learner. It is their complex interplay that determines the speed and facility with which the new language is learned.

Age: Second language acquisition is influenced by the age of the learner. Children, who already have solid literacy skills in their own language, seem to be in the best position to acquire a new language efficiently. Motivated, older learners can be very successful too, but usually struggle to achieve native-speaker-equivalent pronunciation and intonation.

Personality: Introverted or anxious learners usually make slower progress, particularly in the development of oral skills. They are less likely to take advantage of opportunities to speak, or to seek out such opportunities. More outgoing students will not worry about the inevitability of making mistakes. They will take risks, and thus will give themselves much more practice.


Motivation: Intrinsic motivation has been found to correlate strongly with educational achievement. Clearly, students who enjoy language learning and take pride in their progress will do better than those who don’t.Extrinsic motivation is also a significant factor. ESL students, for example, who need to learn English in order to take a place at an American university or to communicate with a new English boy/girlfriend are likely to make greater efforts and thus greater progress.

Experiences: Learners who have acquired general knowledge and experience are in a stronger position to develop a new language than those who haven’t. The student, for example, who has already lived in 3 different countries and been exposed to various languages and cultures has a stronger base for learning a further language than the student who hasn’t had such experiences.


Cognition: In general, it seems that students with greater cognitive abilities will make the faster progress. Some linguists believe that there is a specific, innate language learning ability that is stronger in some students than in others.

Native language: Students who are learning a second language which is from the same language family as their first language have, in general, a much easier task than those who aren’t. So, for example, a Dutch child will learn English more quickly than a Japanese child.

Curriculum: For ESL students in particular it is important that the totality of their educational experience is appropriate for their needs. Language learning is less likely to place if students are fully submersed into the mainstream program without any extra assistance or, conversely, not allowed to be part of the mainstream until they have reached a certain level of language proficiency.


Instruction: Clearly, some language teachers are better than others at providing appropriate and effective learning experiences for the students in their classrooms. These students will make faster progress.The same applies to mainstream teachers in second language situations. The science teacher, for example, who is aware that she too is responsible for the students’ English language development, and makes certain accommodations, will contribute to their linguistic development.


Culture and status: There is some evidence that students in situations where their own culture has a lower status than that of the culture in which they are learning the language make slower progress.

Motivation: Students who are given continuing, appropriate encouragement to learn by their teachers and parents will generally fare better than those who aren’t. For example, students from families that place little importance on language learning are likely to progress less quickly.

Access to native speakers: The opportunity to interact with native speakers both within and outside of the classroom is a significant advantage. Native speakers are linguistic models and can provide appropriate feedback. Clearly, second-language learners who have no extensive access to native speakers are likely to make slower progress, particularly in the oral/aural aspects of language acquisition.


Factors Affecting Second Language Learning


Learning a second language is a complex brain activity that involves listening, speaking, reading and writing. According to linguistics expert Stephen Krashen, you can learn a second language in one of two ways: You can ‘acquire’ it, as a child does if he/she grows up hearing more than one language spoken consistently, or you can ‘learn’ it, studying the language’s rules, structures and vocabulary. Many factors affect the process of learning a second language, including self-confidence, age, exposure and the method of learning.

Self-Confidence: Self-confidence plays a larger role in learning a second language than it does in learning any other subject. Those who lack confidence can be afraid to make mistakes, which are an important part of learning in any subject. Learning a second language is considered more ‘personal’ than learning other subjects because language is tied to aspects of our identity. Over monitoring oneself or becoming frustrated with repeated mistakes can shake the confidence of a second language learner and can prevent him from being able to focus on anything but the mistakes he makes. By viewing the learning as a process that will evolve over time, a learner should be willing to make mistakes with the understanding that they will help in learning in the long run.

Age: Though experts previously believed that older people do not learn languages as easily as younger people, studies by the U.S. Department of Education have contradicted that belief, saying that the only way age may a factor into second language learning is in the choice of teaching methods. For younger learners, a second language is typically taught through repetitive drills. For older learners, a second language is taught more effectively by relating elements of the new language to ideas and elements in the learner’s primary language.

Exposure: ‘Learning’ a second language is reading about and memorizing the rules of the language. ‘Acquiring’ a language results from immersion and natural, ‘real life’ exposure. According to expert Stephen Krashen, acquiring a second language by living with it in daily life is the preferred method for all ages; when that cannot be done, drills and other types of methods can be used. Acquiring a second language involves constant exposure to the language. The learner ideally is surrounded by native speakers and is required to use what she/he has learned in order to communicate, much as a young child would have to do when learning how to speak.

Learner inhibition: The most common problem encountered by the learner in the language acquisition process is learner inhibition. Speaking activities require a learner to have all eyes on him; Exposure to an audience can often give learners stage fright. They may also be worried about making mistakes, being criticized or losing face in front of the rest of the class. This results in their performance where either they make a lot of mistakes in spite of having a very good knowledge in the area or totally keeping silent.

Lack of motivation: Lower motivation levels or lack of motivation is another reason for hindering the learners from active participation in speaking activities. It leads to reluctance in active participation in the speaking activities leading to poor practice or no practice at all.

Lack of subject matter: Another common problem seen in the learners is that they think that they have nothing to say on a particular topic. In reality, they may be bored or feel that the topic is unrelated to anything they know. If this is the case, they will have no motivation to speak other than the fact that they should be participating in it actively.


Lack of proper vocabulary: Next problem encountered with ESL learners is that they often have to search for an appropriate word. They don‟t find one to fit into the context/content. This is because of lack of exposure to a variety of vocabulary. This also leads to failing in communicating fluently in English Language, which again leads to losing confidence and lack of motivation to speak. As a result learners make an excessive overuse of fillers in their speech and conversation or give incomplete statements.

Improper listening skills: The central role of listening comprehension in the second/foreign language acquisition process is now largely accepted. Listening plays an extremely important role in the development of speaking abilities. Usually, one person speaks and the other responds through attending by means of the listening process. In fact, during interaction, every speaker plays a duel role- both as a listener and a speaker. If one cannot understand what is said, one is certainly unable to respond. So, speaking is closely interwoven with listening skills.


Poor non-verbal communication: Oral communication involves a very powerful non-verbal communication system, which sometimes contradicts the messages provided through the verbal listening channel. Lack of knowledge of the non-verbal communication system of the target language usually results in the inability to pick up non verbal cues by the ESL learners, which often results in misunderstanding.

Anxiety: Speaking a Second/Foreign language in public, especially in front of native speakers often leads to anxiety. Sometimes, extreme anxiety results in the learners being tongue-tied or lost for words in an unexpected situation leading to discouragement and a general sense of failure in the learners. Unlike children, adults are very cautious about making errors in what ever they say. For them making errors would be a public display of ignorance which would be an obvious occasion of losing face. This is one of the major factors for the inability to speak in English.


Strong and quick learners domination in the class: A large and mixed ability class is another factor affecting the language acquisition process. In these classes we have both strong and weak learners, where the strong and quick learners are often seen to be dominating and overtaking the slow and weak learners. The weak learners don‟t get opportunity in the presence of the strong ones, which results in the shrinking of the weak learners.

Family background: The environment and family background plays a vital role in the learning process. In a country like India majority of the people are farmers with poor educational background. Learners coming from such background when asked to take part or do a speaking activity they fail to do it. Moreover, the poor income status of the family makes the parents engage their children in petty jobs instead of sending them to schools and colleges resulting in poor speaking skills.


Rural background: Rural background of the learners where English is generally not used is another cause affecting the leaning process. Most of the learners coming from rural background are first generation learners of English Language. Their parents being farmers and uneducated, they lack guidance from their elders in this aspect. When learners of such background are asked to do a speaking activity, they end up in saying nothing. Even if they try to speak, they often tend to use their mother tongue, resulting in the failure of the learning process.


Excessive use of mother-tongue: Learners generally tend to make an excessive use of their mother-tongue when it comes to the activities in productive skills namely- speaking and writing. When the learners are asked to perform a speaking activity,they immediately start thinking about the topic in their mother tongue, frame what they want to say in their mother-tongue and then translate it into English, which often results in mistakes, in addition to this learners often tend to make use of their mother-tongue which results in losing the motive of learning the language and lack of practice.

Certified/qualified and competent teachers: Special attention must be paid to ensure that the Language Teachers have a very good command of English Language. They must be well qualified and certified. It is necessary to upgrade themselves and keep competent for which it is necessary to continue their research activities by participating in seminars/conferences and workshops. Presenting papers and publishing articles would enable them to keep abreast with the recent trends.

Improved teaching facilities: The teacher should ensure to get proper teaching aids and facilities which include- proper space, books and teaching aid. This would create a proper learning ambiance for the learner. When the learners get proper learning facilities and ambiance, their learning process will be effective and speedy.


To conclude-the process of acquiring the second /foreign language can be effective when both the leaner and the teacher are involved in the process and derive fun out of it. This is the only way to keep the motivation and interest levels high. When this is achieved all the problems of teaching and learning get resolved and better results are attained.


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