Three Challenges of Second Language Acquisition

by Richie Lauridsen

While it's no secret that learning a new language takes time, practice, and dedication, many are increasingly surprised to learn that no amount of isolated practice, no stack of flashcards, and no amount of immersed reading in a second language can prepare someone to communicate like a native speaker. This is primarily due to the fact that languages are our portal to the very thoughts and ideas and objects that make up our world, and they simultaneously produce and reinforce cultural knowledge. Even with a perfect accent or a nuanced regional vocabulary, second language learners are often faced with some common obstacles to language acquisition. Today, we'll look at how metaphor, encyclopaedic knowledge, and radial categories can all provide obstacles for second language learners, and how being conscious of these obstacles can be critical to successful language acquisition and practice.


Nearly everything in language can be viewed through the lens of metaphor; our thoughts, feelings, and directives are often transmitted using the language as a vehicle. We continually look at using universal concepts to create and translate complex ideas into more concrete lexical examples. In this sense, metaphor, and specifically, conceptual metaphor, can govern the way in which we speak and whether or not certain lexical items truly fit within a certain language or system. Unpacking some common examples in English, let's look at some conceptual metaphors proposed by Lakoff and Johnson in their seminal work Metaphors We Live By, and talk about how these examples continue to manifest within the way we speak today.

One of the easiest examples to understand in English is the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. While you may never hear someone make the explicit connection between the two, the implicit ties between argument and war are rampant. People "attack" opponents, "defend" their arguments, and tend to use the language of war or aggression in order to talk about how they would approach any sort of debate or argument. However, in a culture where an argument may be seen more as a dance, the language could change considerably. People may engage with another person's point of view in a way that is more collaborative, playful, or fluid, becoming less reliant on the cognitive boundaries of war, aggression, and absolutism, and more focused on the nuance of differing viewpoints and how these two can coexist.

These conceptual metaphors are rampant throughout any language, and important to unpack. By being aware of conceptual metaphor, we can better understand the challenges that many second language learners may face.

Encyclopaedic Knowledge

In the same way that a culture that spoke about argument using a different conceptual lens other than war, there are many instances where particular idioms or common sayings are far more reliant on encyclopaedic knowledge rather than logic. A fantastic example of this comes from the English phrase my "other half", usually used to refer to one's romantic partner or a long-term friend or associate. This is a term of endearment, and a fairly evident common expression in conversational English. English speakers who choose to learn Spanish and travel to Mexico may hear the phrase "media naranja," literally translated to half of an orange. While someone new to the culture may think the speaker in question might be requesting half of a fruit, the phrase is an idiom that relies on encyclopaedic knowledge from this particular culture; the unusual idiom simply means the same thing that many English-speakers would impart by saying "my other half." Similarly, a Spanish speaker traveling north to the States wouldn't get very far in the USA referring to their wife, husband, partner, or friend as half of an orange.

As idioms like these become part of the popular lexicon, it's critical to realize that they detach themselves from literal translation or etymology and become rooted in a shared cultural vocabulary. This cultural vocabulary can be a portal to solidarity within a particular linguistic group, but can be a barrier for entry for second language learners. As a result, it is increasingly important to get a sense of how cultural knowledge and encyclopaedic knowledge can inform linguistic decisions.

Radial Categories

Radial categories refer to instances in which broad conceptual categories do not necessarily arrive out of rules, but by cultural conventions. Similar to the considerations mentioned above, these conventions are inculcated for the speaker, not demanded by the grammatical or semantic confines of a particular language. An example would be the word "mother", which could infer, depending on cultural considerations, things like marriage, giving birth, nurturing the child, caregiving, whether or not they are married to the genetic father, whether or not they are only one generation older than the child, whether or not they are the legal guardian, etc. These considerations are broad stroke definitions of what would normally constitute hugely conditional categories of motherhood. A "single mother" or a "surrogate mother" would exist outside of the typical radial category, as a single mother would be a mother not married to the child's genetic father, and a surrogate mother would not provide caregiving or nurture the child.

While this specific example may seem like an isolated instance, radial categories and associations are made at a semantic and lexical level for a number of items in our vocabulary and a number of words in any language. Second language learners need to be careful in building an understanding of how these radial categories could potentially affect the way in which they choose their words in order to build relationships and solidarity when speaking in their recently acquired language.

In any instance, language acquisition is not simply about mastering vocabulary and grammatical rules. Instead, cultural rules can dictate a huge number of linguistic decisions, and need to be considered in the foundation of language acquisition or any translation project.

About the write

Richie Lauridsen has an MA in Critical Discourse and Communication from the University of Birmingham, in the UK, and has studied under linguists like Bob Holland and Jeannette Littlemore. He writes on behalf of Interpreters Unlimited Midatlantic, an interpretation service offering translation and language assistance in the DC metro region, Baltimore, and Virginia.


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