Language acquisition and Language learning

What is the difference between language acquisition and language learning.

Some people use the term of language acquisition for all the phases that lead to language fluency, including learning to read and write. Others use the term of language learning even for babies and very young, pre-school children. – But there is a fundamental difference between these two terms.

Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This happens especially when they acquire their first language(s). They repeat what is said to them and get a feel for what is and what is not correct. In order to acquire a language, they need a source of natural communication, which is usually the mother, the father, or the caregiver. Children who grow up with multiple languages, will acquire these languages in the most natural way. They will repeat what they hear, try out sound chains – chains made of phonemes – until they make sense (i.e. others will understand their meaning), and they will use them purposefully in their communication. – Some distinguish infant language acquisition – as defining the process of acquiring the first language(s) – from second language acquisition, which takes place “later” and in addition to speech, includes also reading and writing.  

Language acquisition refers to the process whereby an individual learns to understand, speak and interpret signs, sign, read, and/or write. (…) Language acquisition crucially involves change over time towards a state of language knowledge and use that is more extended (…) expressed in “language development”, a term usually reserved for children’s language learning process in early childhood, that is, under age of 6 (Brooks and Kempe 2014). – Annick De Houwer, 2019 (in print)


Language learning, on the other hand, is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. Language learning is not an age-appropriate activity for very young children as learning presupposes that learners have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge. They usually have a basic knowledge of the grammar. When we learn a language we have a deductive approach to the intonations, phonology, morphology, syntax of the target language. This happens when we start being schooled in this language, when we learn to read and write. Reading and writing is not intuitive. We need to learn that signs (letters and letter combinations) represent a sound, and that their combination, have a meaning that conveys our thoughts. We learn that there are rules for each language, concerning the position of the words in a sentence, that intonation can vary and change the meaning of a word and a sentence, that one word can have many different meanings, depending on the context.


From a neurolinguistic point of view, language acquisition and language learning are processed in two different ways in the brain.

During early infancy, language processing – during acquisition – occurs in many areas of the brain.

Only over time it gradually becomes concentrated into two areas: the Broca’s area, which is situated in the left frontal cortex and is involved in the production of the patterns in vocal and sign language, and the Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal cortex that is primarily involved in language comprehension. The Broca’s area is the one actively involved in language acquisition processes, whereas the Wernicke’s area is active in the language learning process.



  • unconscious process
  • does not presuppose teaching
  • the child controls the pace


  • intentional process
  • presupposes teaching
  • the teacher controls the pace

Some articles:

Ambridge, B., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2011).Language Acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brooks, Patricia & Vera Kempe (eds.), Encyclopedia of language development, Thousand Oaks, Sage. 

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

De Houwer, A., (in press 2019) Uninstructed language acquisition in multiple language learners in Jeroen Darquennes, Joseph Salmons & Wim Vendenbussche, Language Contact. An International Handbook, Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter, 183-196.

Pecchi, Jean Stillwell. 1994. Child Language. London: Routedge.

Pine, J.M., Conti-Ramsden, G., Joseph, K.L., Lieven, E.V.M., & Serratrice, L. (2008). Tense over time: testing the Agreement/Tense Omission Model as an account of the pattern of tense-marking provision in early child English. Journal of Child Language, 35(1): 55-75.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language instinct. New York: W.W.Morrow.

Pinker, S. (1995). The New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin.

Rowland, C. F.; & Noble, C. L. (2010). The role of syntactic structure in children’s sentence comprehension: Evidence from the dative. Language Learning and Development, 7(1): 55-75.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Smith, N. (1989). The Twitter Machine: Reflections on Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Theakston, A.L., & Lieven, E.V.M. (2005). The acquisition of auxiliaries BE and HAVE: an elicitation study. Journal of Child Language, 32(2): 587-616.

Tomasello, M. (2005). Constructing A Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press.

You can find more articles about Language Acquisition here.

“Playing the Language Game.” Program Two: Acquiring the Human Language. The Human Language Series. Videocassette. New York: Equinox Films, 1995.

How it works: Video

Research about Language Acquisition:

Utrecht Institute of Linguistics

Radboud University Nijmegen

MIT Language Acquisition Lab


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