Contemplating language acquisition today
Uncontrolled in everyday life, but controlled at school?

Digital media have revolutionized language codes
Digital media have revolutionized language codes | photo: © Maskot – plainpicture

What is the relationship between controlled and uncontrolled language acquisition? What role is played in this context by social and institutional framework conditions, and what place is assigned to language acquisition as a curricular element? Views and opinions about this are changing.

We continue to talk about controlled and uncontrolled language acquisition despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s modern societies to make any clear distinction between the two. The two terms are also still used in didactic literature relating to nursery school education and to foreign language learning at secondary school or adult level. However, the contrasting juxtaposition of the terms should not induce one to regard uncontrolled “organic” language learning as something that is disordered or less efficient, nor on the other hand to view the language learnt at school, that is to say a standardized language and language usage, as a means of correcting the language used in the “outside world”.

In many cases, the terms controlled/uncontrolled are seen as virtually synonymous with written/verbal language. Verbal language is regarded as the language of proximity. It can be produced ad hoc, supplemented by non-verbal means, and is considered at the same time to be somewhat less precise. In many language regions, verbal language is characterized by a broad spectrum of varieties and variants. Written language, by contrast, is seen as a scientifically-based form of expression that has evolved culturally, one that is compressed and standardized and often involves a higher degree of obligation.

Now, however, more recent scientific findings have suggested that (uncontrolled) language acquisition is similar in many different languages, and that a mother tongue is also intrinsically “multilingual”. A native speaker knows how to use the different registers of this intrinsic multilingualism, for example the variants of informal and formal language, sociolects and regiolects, though the ability to do this first has to be acquired.

So-called controlled language acquisition is taught primarily in educational institutions. Nowadays, such institutions attempt to make their teaching relevant to the actual lives and biographies of the learners, and attach great importance to learning that has an individualizing effect and integrates learners in a creative manner. The latter involves picking up on the different requirements of language users and activating the individual positive resources of the learners.

Multimedia communication in the playground Multimedia communication in the playground | photo: © Maskot – plainpicture Shifts in society and the media are also doing their bit to blur the boundaries between controlled and uncontrolled learning. Consider code switching or code mixing, for example, which at times is done consciously and at other times takes place intuitively and unconsciously, or communication in social media – or indeed the conversations between pupils in the playground. It is necessary increasingly often to approach hybrid linguistic and cultural forms – that have evolved out of individual and social contacts – in an unbiased manner and to regard them as a tool for language learning.

New research interests

Controlled and uncontrolled language acquisition, the former often being termed simply language learning, are becoming increasingly interwoven. Some authors prefer the more generic word acquisition, as it places greater emphasis on the active role of the learner. Current linguistic and language didactic research believes that this process of language acquisition is influenced by a number of internal and external factors: the languages that individuals learn as their first and second languages, and their structures, as well as the user’s intellectual capabilities and their communicative conditions and needs.

Every language is characterized by its own system into which the language learners grow or which they acquire. Since the language system itself is not a fixed construct, but one that can be changed by its users at both the superficial and the normative level, language changes. Learners have to cope with the changes that this entails. This also has consequences for educational institutions and teachers, as they repeatedly have to check and revise their linguistic and normative points of reference.

Neurolinguistic research explores how acquiring several languages in early childhood affects the way these languages are presented in the individual’s brain. It is thought that early childhood multilingualism results in linguistic knowledge being “organized” in a largely unconscious manner in the brain, and that the language systems of the different languages become interconnected in the brain. This can prove an advantage in certain areas of linguistic activity, such as attentiveness competence for example.

Because there are commonalities and differences between the languages, these can be used in language acquisition for the purposes of transfer or contrast. Many modern language tuition programmes are based on establishing links with the learner’s own mother tongue; this makes transferable language strategies in particular – such as the ability to summarize or report – a focus of didactic activities.

There is no doubt that acquiring written language competence in one’s first or second/foreign language involves a considerable amount of time and work. However, more recent studies such as the South Tyrolean KOLIPSI II study stress that acquiring verbal competence at the higher levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) should be based on didactic principles. Verbal communication and argumentation skills are important not only in the informal domain but also in the professional and public spheres, and need to be structured in linguistic and structural terms, as well as requiring a certain intercultural knowledge. This is also related to the fact that communicative conditions keep changing, for example when communication takes place in a language that is not the first language of any of those taking part in the conversation. Language acquisition, particularly on the verbal level, concerns very different target groups, such as children who grow up monolingually or multilingually, children of migrant background, mobile professionals and students who attend university courses taught in a foreign language.

Framework conditions for language teaching and learning today

The findings of applied language and language acquisition research are taken into consideration in the work of educational institutions and organizations responsible for language courses or the literacy education of immigrants. However, it is not enough when these findings are disseminated merely through training and continuing education courses for teachers, or by adapting textbooks. For institutional language teaching to meet the linguistic challenges in society, there needs to be systemic interplay of teacher training and continuing education and of institutional and curricular development.

Many universities are in the process of expanding their teacher training and continuing education programmes to include language acquisition and language didactic modules, as well as pedagogical units focusing on intercultural competence, inclusion and multilingual competence, while at the same time promoting methodological skills of students when it comes to identifying their language level, their language profile and any language development problems. Examples include the degree in primary education at the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano and the Curriculum for the Bachelor Degree at the University College of Teacher Education Styria (2016, in particular pages 123ff and 140).
More than ever, language teaching and learning nowadays has become a challenge for the education system as a whole; through good collaboration, the framework conditions can be created for successful language teaching and acquisition inside and outside the institutions. 


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