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Is second language learning possible with only a focus on function and not form?

Aktualisiert: 27. Feb 2021

Different studies have proven that, even with a second language, acquisition has a higher

success rate than learning. This can lead to the thought that it is possible to learn a second

language without a focus on form, like most children do it with their first language.

I am of the opinion that this assumption is mostly accurate since people, especially young

children, who move to a different-speaking place often acquire the language without any kind

of formal education. Of course, the effectiveness of this process varies from person to person

and some people might actually have more trouble with this process than they do with

learning a new language through traditional education.

It is also possible for a person to fully acquire parts of a language without any formal

education but for their progress to eventually stagnate before they were able to develop a full

understanding of said language. That might not happen when language classes also include

theoretical parts.

A focus only on function might also be less practical when learning a new language without

having native speakers around, especially because learning a second language through

acquisition alone takes more time than simply studying the grammar and remembering the

vocabulary. At the same time, simply studying a language without a focus on function can

actually hinder the learner´s ability to actively communicate using their second language.

But even if the language learner has access to native speakers, there might be issues with

simply having them talk to each other. Especially with teenagers, these conversations might

increase the understanding of a new language, but the learner´s output will not necessarily

improve. This is mostly due to low confidence levels when using a language one is not fully

familiar with.

When a language is taught only focusing on function instead of form, the learner might make

more mistakes at first, but they will also be able to communicate better, even after a short

time. They will relatively quickly pick up grammatical rules and use them correctly but they

will not gain the ability to correctly identify and name these grammatical rules the way a more

traditional learner would. Therefore, a greater focus on function will give the learner the

ability to communicate with native speakers of their second language while a focus on form

will give them the ability to analyse their second language and understand linguistic reasons

and connections better.

But not everyone who learns a new language while only focussing on function will be able to

use if not name grammatical structures correctly. Instead, they might apply language

structures from their first language even if they don´t make sense in the new one. This is less

likely to happen if the learner is familiar with the underlying structures of the new language.

This understanding can most easily be gained by incorporating grammar lessons into the

language class.

It is also easier to acquire the function of a language when one is already at least vaguely

familiar with different aspects of its form. It is, for example, hard to successfully

communicate ideas when one does not know the right words to do so. That is why, in my

opinion, the best way to learn a second language is to start by learning the basic aspects of its

form with the help of vocabulary lists and grammatical charts. Once the earner has built a

basis using this knowledge, they should switch to a different way of learning that focuses

more on function than form.

In conclusion, it is still possible to learn a language focusing on only form or only function for

some people, but combining those two aspects in the way described above is the most

successful way of second language learning and brings the learner the closest to the language

level of a native speaker in the shortest amount of time. The best way to learn a new language

differs from person to person, but combining different ways instead of focusing only on one

aspect will most likely lead to the greatest success in the greatest number of learners,

especially if it is not possible to develop individual learning plans for each one.

Lucie Brennberger, MSS13 und Lydia Müller, MSS13

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