Document 503

Language Awareness, First Language Acquisition and Modern Language Teaching in School

Author(s): Brian C Templeton

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


Research into how children acquire their own mother tongue has been influential in shaping the methodology commonly used in teaching modern languages. On first reading, this may appear a rather surprising statement. There are striking differences, both circumstantial and psychological, apparent between the way in which the mother tongue is acquired and that in which a modern language is learned under school conditions. By the time a child is faced with the challenge of learning a modern language, (s)he will have spent several years acquiring a mother tongue. This will have taken place in almost perfect conditions for language learning, which include the almost undivided attention of adult informants, constant exposure to language used in a meaningful context, time to listen and make sense of the language patterns before speaking, and then constant encouragement in spite of error-making.

By way of contrast, the school pupil learning a modern language will have anything from 1 to 4 hours per week of exposure to the target language, and will have to share access to one adult informant with around 30 other pupils. Once the formal teaching is at an end, the pupil will then revert to a world where the mother tongue is dominant. The psychological differences are also striking in terms of motivation. The child acquiring a mother tongue is at the same time discovering the world around it, the objects and their names, for the first time. This sense of excitement will have diminished greatly by the time the school pupil comes to learn the words in a modern language for the same objects.

It is important that those with a responsibility for teaching a modern language are aware of these significant differences and respond to them in a positive manner. One response has been the development of the communicative approach to the teaching of modern languages. In general terms, this approach attempts to replicate in the classroom situation the processes and conditions under which acquisition of the mother tongue takes place. The objective is to develop in the pupil communicative competence, which will enable him to operate initially at the level of communication of meaning, with the analysis of form coming at a later stage. This has led to an emphasis on the skills of listening and speaking in the early stages of second language learning, with reading and writing having the role of consolidating the learning by allowing for the identification and practice of pattern in the language system.

Language competence, however, is seen as more than simply development of the four language skills. In the Subject Guide (Higher Still: Modern Languages) it is stated that language competence will depend on the learner’s progressive development in:
• knowing about language – its nature, its grammatical structure and the purposes for which it is used (grammatical and sociolinguistic competence)
• interacting with others and being aware of the ‘rules’ of interaction or of textual structure (discourse competence)
• successfully using strategies to cope with situations (across all skills) where a breakdown in communication has occurred (strategic competence)
• being aware of the cultural context in which the foreign language exists (cultural competence).

The response advocated by Eric Hawkins (in his "Awareness of Language: An Introduction") is the creation of an ‘awareness of language’ course, the chief aim of which ‘will be to challenge pupils to ask questions about language, which so many take for granted’. Working in collaboration with colleagues who teach English, the teacher of modern languages can draw upon progress already made by the pupils in the mother tongue ‘to develop insight into the patterned nature of language’. This is vital if the pupil is to learn a second language at an accelerated rate under school conditions.

Such an approach has much in common with the communicative approach to methodology and, indeed, Hawkins acknowledges that the second strand to effective teaching of a second language, in addition to the insight into pattern, is getting the pupil to transact real ‘speech acts’ in the foreign language.

The implication of both approaches is that a much more conscious effort must be made to help pupils gain insight into the patterns of language and into the different types of communicative competence. The danger of overemphasis on only the functional use of language in clearly defined topic areas is highlighted in the recent Position Paper by the Scottish Association for Language Teaching (SALT): ‘Unfortunately, in practice, the emphasis on topic areas, seen as an answer to the problem of relevance, has led to the crumbling of language study into a large number of relatively random vocabulary areas, destroying the necessary coherence of progressive language study.’

The paper proceeds to offer the following solution: ‘A return to this coherence, as spelled out in the grammar appendix to the Higher Still modern languages documentation, is urgently required to inform all language learning and teaching from P6 through to Advanced Higher.’

The grammar system and the rules that underpin it are relatively easy to define. However, the process by which the pupils are helped to understand and internalise the system requires careful and consistent development. Every opportunity needs to be taken to compare and contrast aspects of the second language with patterns familiar to the pupils in their mother tongue. If pupils are to internalise the grammar system, the teacher must seek to re-cycle the grammar points and direct pupils to them whenever the opportunity is presented.

The start of a new topic area is a particularly fruitful opportunity to involve the pupils in identifying and discussing the language objectives necessary if the pupils are to communicate successfully in the context of the topic. As well as highlighting the language functions, vocabulary, and language tasks required in the topic, the discussion can help develop the pupils’ language awareness, by showing:
• the language system is made up of many parts, including vocabulary, grammar rules, functions, intonation patterns, social usages
• the same language function can be expressed in several different ways
• a language function or a grammar point, learned in one context, can be transferred and re-used in other contexts.

A similar approach can be used at the start and end of each lesson in order to make apparent the progressive and cumulative nature of language learning. If we are ‘to challenge pupils to ask questions about language’, this will have to begin with the teacher asking the pupils questions about the language they are studying and how it relates to their mother tongue experiences. If this is done systematically and consistently within the context of the communicative use of the foreign language, pupils will have a better understanding of how the language system operates and will be better able to monitor the accuracy and precision of the language they use.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


Cite this Document

APA Style:

Language Awareness, First Language Acquisition and Modern Language Teaching in School. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 28 February 2024, from

MLA Style:

"Language Awareness, First Language Acquisition and Modern Language Teaching in School." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 28 February 2024.

Chicago Style

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Language Awareness, First Language Acquisition and Modern Language Teaching in School," accessed 28 February 2024,

If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 503

Language Awareness, First Language Acquisition and Modern Language Teaching in School


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2000
Word count 1125
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 721
Forenames Brian
Initials C
Surname Templeton
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation University Lecturer
Place of birth Newton Stewart
Region of birth W Dumfries
Birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Baker
Father's place of birth Colmonell
Father's region of birth S Ayr
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Ayr
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Shop Assistant
Mother's place of birth Dumfries
Mother's region of birth E & Mid Dumfries
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work and home
French Yes Yes Yes Yes At work and on holiday
German Yes Yes Yes Yes At work and on holiday
Scots Yes No No Yes Visiting family, relatives