Social factors in second language acquisition

 I presented this paper at Vivekanand Institute of  Technology, JAYPUR, Rajasthan on 5th Noember,2012 in an International conference on Glocal English

Second language acquisition is the process by which people learn a second language. This paper describes in detail how quickly learners learn a foreign language and the ultimate level that learners reach is decided not only by psychological factors but also social factors.

Three topics specially discussed here are:
The relationship between social contexts and L2 proficiency. It should be remembered, however, that social context influences the L2 proficiency indirectly, mediated by a number of variables. Learners’ attitudes towards the L2 and the learning opportunities learner can obtain determined by their social-economic classes are two of the important variables.
The relationship between social factors and the learners’ choice of target language.
The characterization of different social contexts in which acquisition takes place and the effect the type of context has on learning.
Three types of social structures which can affect the acquisition of second languages: sociolinguistic setting, specific social factors, and situational factors. Sociolinguistic setting refers to the role of the second language in society. Specific social factors that can affect second language acquisition include age, gender, social class, and ethnic identity. Situational factors are those which vary between each social interaction.


Several factors related to students’ first and second languages shape their second language learning. These factors include the linguistic distance between the two languages, students’ level of proficiency in the native language and their knowledge of the second language, the dialect of the native language spoken by the students (i.e., whether it is standard or nonstandard), the relative status of the students’ language in the community, and societal attitudes toward the students’ native language

Native language proficiency:

The student’s level of proficiency in the native language – including not only oral language and literacy, but also meta linguistic development, training in formal and academic features of language use, and knowledge of rhetorical patterns and variations in genre and style – affects acquisition of a second language. The more academically sophisticated the student’s native language knowledge and abilities, the easier it will be for that student to learn a second language. This helps explain why foreign exchange students tend to be successful in American high school classes: They already have high school level proficiency in their native language.

Knowledge of the second language:

Students’ prior knowledge of the second language is of course a significant factor in their current learning. High school students learning English as a second language in a U.S. classroom may possess skills ranging from conversational fluency acquired from contacts with the English-speaking world to formal knowledge obtained in English as a foreign language classes in their countries of origin. The extent and type of prior knowledge is an essential consideration in planning instruction. For example, a student with informal conversational English skills may have little understanding of English grammatical systems and may need specific instruction in English grammar.

Dialect and register:

Learners may need to learn a dialect and a formal register in school that are different from those they encounter in their daily lives. This involves acquiring speech patterns that may differ significantly from those they are familiar with and value as members of a particular social group or speech community.

Language attitudes:

Language attitudes in the learner, the peer group, the school, the neighborhood, and society at large can have an enormous effect on the second language learning process, both positive and negative. It is vital that teachers and students examine and understand these attitudes. In particular, they need to understand that learning a second language does not mean giving up one’s first language or dialect. Rather, it involves adding a new language or dialect to one’s repertoire.

The Learner:

Students come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse needs and goals. With adolescent language learners, factors such as peer pressure, the presence of role models, and the level of home support can strongly affect the desire and ability to learn a second language.

Diverse goals:

Learners’ goals may determine how they use the language being learned, how native-like their pronunciation will be, how lexically elaborate and grammatically accurate their utterances will be, and how much energy they will expand to understand messages in the target language. Learners’ goals can vary from totally integrative — the desire to assimilate and become a full member of the English-speaking world — to primarily instrumental — oriented toward specific goals such as academic or professional success (Gardner, 1989).

Peer groups:

Teenagers tend to be heavily influenced by their peer groups. In second language learning, peer pressure often undermines the goals set by parents and teachers. Peer pressure often reduces the desire of the student to work toward native pronunciation, because the sounds of the target language may be regarded as strange. For learners of English as a second language, speaking like a native speaker may unconsciously be regarded as a sign of no longer belonging to their native-language peer group. In working with secondary school students, it is important to keep these peer influences in mind and to foster a positive image for proficiency in a second language.

Role models:

Students need to have positive and realistic role models who demonstrate the value of being proficient in more than one language. It is also helpful for students to read literature about the personal experiences of people from diverse language and dialect backgrounds. Through discussions of the challenges experienced by others, students can develop a better understanding of their own challenges.


Home support:

Support from home is very important for successful second language learning. Some educators believe that parents of English language learners should speak only English in the home However, far more important than speaking English is that parents value both the native language and English, communicate with their children in whichever language is most comfortable, and show support for and interest in their children’s progress.

The Learning Process:

When we think of second language development as a learning process, we need to remember that different students have different learning styles, that intrinsic motivation aids learning, and that the quality of classroom interaction matters a great deal.

Motivation and language aptitude:

According to Deci and Ryan (1985), intrinsic motivation is related to basic human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Intrinsically motivated activities are those that the learner engages in for their own sake because of their value, interest, and challenge. Such activities present the best possible opportunities for learning.

Learner Attitudes:

  • Learners manifest different attitudes towards 1) the target language, 2)the target language speakers, 3)the target language culture, 4)the social value of learning the L2, 5)particular use of the target language, and 6)themselves as members of their own culture.
  • In general, positive attitudes towards the L2, its speakers, and its culture can enhance learning, which can in turn be influenced by this success; negative attitudes can impede learning. However, if learners have a strong reason for learning, negative attitude can have a positive effect.
  • Learners may have conflicting attitudes. Learners might want to learn the L2 as a way of assimilating into the majority culture, but at the same time, they may wish to keep their L1 as a means of maintaining their L1 identity.


Younger speakers are subject to peer group pressure, (and they use the nonstandard form used by their peer group); the middle-aged group is less subject to peer group pressure, and they are more influenced by mainstream societal values. For older people, the social pressures lessen and social networks again become narrow. Generally, learners who learn an L2 after puberty (or possibility earlier) are unlikely to acquire a native-speaker accent while those who begin after 15 years are less likely to develop full grammatical ability. – Chambers and Trudgill (1980)

Children are more ready to share external norms as they have not formed stereotypes of their identity. Older kids (adolescents) take learning an L2 as treat to their identity. That may explain why adolescents are resistant to L2 learning in an L2 setting. However, it cannot explain why adolescents progress rapidly than the younger to begin with. Nor does it explain why they tend to do better than middle-aged learners, who ought to outperform the younger generation, given their great acceptance of social norms.  Preston (1989)


Two apparently contradictory principles noticed by sociolinguists are:

  1. In stable sociolinguistic stratification, men use a higher frequency of nonstandard forms than women;
    1. In the majority of linguistic changes, women use a higher frequency of the incoming forms than men.

Women may be better language learners. They are more sensitive to the new linguistic forms and are more ready to incorporate them into their speech. Thus they will be more likely to rid themselves of any inter language forms that deviate from target-language norms. Females have more positive attitudes to learning an L2 than males. Female low-achieving students are less likely to drop the class; they are more motivated; they have a more positive attitude toward the target language and culture (Burstall, 1975; Gardner and Lambert, 1972). Females tackle the task of L2 learning differently than males. They use interacting opportunities to produce more output, males use the interacting opportunities to obtain more input, Where as Bacon reported Men using strategies more than women.

In sum, currently there are no clear-cut explanations yet as to why females outperform males in L2 learning. The reasons that females hold a more positive attitude seems to have been widely agreed. Male and female culture differences are also possible explanations. Females are more cooperative and more delicate in dealing with relationship while males emphasize more maintaining their hierarchical relationship. Thus female ‘culture’ fits L2 learning, as it is more readily to dealing with the treat to their identity posed by L2 learning. There is also some evidence suggesting that females’ better listening comprehension ability puts them at an advantage in L2 learning.

Social class:

  • Individual’s social class is a composite determined by income, level of education and occupation. Usually, it is divided into four groups: lower class, working class, lower middle class, and upper middle class.
  • There is a relationship between social class and L2 achievement. Most of the studies show that children from lower socio-economic groups are less successful in L2 learning than children from higher groups. It should be born in mind that it is not socio-economic class per se that produces these effects, but rather the experience of the world which the different social class are likely to have.

Learners’ choice of target language variety:

The choice of reference group depends crucially on the social context and how this shapes learners’ attitudes towards the varieties they come into contact.

ü  Dialect sensitivity and attitude formation develop in parallel and advanced learners assimilated the attitudes associated with native speakers of English

ü  Learners with a solidarity orientation are likely to manifest unmarked choices (frequent, basic or expected), while those with a prestige orientation will make a marked choice (Beebe, 1985).

ü  In settings where the L2 serves as an official language (for example, India), the reference group is not a native speaker but rather educated users of the L2 in the learners’ own country. And this is also one of the main reasons of local standards.

ü  In foreign language settings the preference model is nearly always a standard variety of the inner circle.

Social context and learners’ attitudes together determine the learners’ preference model, which influences the L2 input that learners are exposed to, and thereby the characteristics of the developing inter language system.

The language classroom:

Language learning does not occur as a result of the transmission of facts about language or from a succession of rote memorization drills. It is the result of opportunities for meaningful interaction with others in the target language. Therefore, lecturing and recitation are not the most appropriate modes of language use in the second language classroom. Teachers need to move toward more richly interactive language use, such as that found in instructional conversations (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988) and collaborative classroom work (Adger, Kalyanpur, Peterson, & Bridger, 1995).


While this paper has focused on the second language acquisition process from the perspective of social factors, the language, the learner, and the learning process, it is important to point out that the second language acquisition is also closely related to psychology, cognitive psychology, and education. The mental processes involved in language acquisition, and how they can explain the nature of learners’ language knowledge.


  • Adger, C., Kalyanpur, M., Peterson, D., & Bridger, T. (1995). Engaging students: Thinking, talking, cooperating. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and school in social context. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
  • Gardner, H. (1989). To open minds: Chinese clues to the dilemma of contemporary education. New York: Basic.
  • Peter Trudgill (1999) Dialectology (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press, 201pp
  • Beebe, L. M. (Ed.) (1988). Issues in second language acquisition. New York: Newbury House.

4 thoughts on “Social factors in second language acquisition

  1. Regarding Social Class:
    “There is a relationship between social class and L2 achievement. Most of the studies show that children from lower socio-economic groups are less successful in L2 learning than children from higher groups. It should be born in mind that it is not socio-economic class per se that produces these effects, but rather the experience of the world which the different social class are likely to have.”

    I’m currently looking for studies that support this. Is there any way you could provide me with some information about the studies you used to come up with this statement? Thank you.


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