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date: 24 March 2017

Second Language Acquisition of Japanese

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Issues surrounding the acquisition/learning of a second language (L2)—including bilingualism—in any language are fairly complicated. This is because the process of second language acquisition (SLA) is multifaceted, involving various linguistic and non-linguistic factors. No one doubts that individuals are capable of acquiring two or even more languages at different stages of human development, particularly in childhood. But research investigating how adults acquire two languages carries important insights into what takes place during later stages of human development. From the fact that early and late bilinguals are faced with two languages in diverse stages of cognitive development, we can predict differences in language processing between these two groups.

Language has the structure and properties necessary to satisfy both the linguistic and communicative functions it is supposed to serve. Part of the SLA-related complication comes from the fact that the structural/functional features apply not only to first language acquisition (FLA) but also to SLA. Thus, we need to examine both FLA and SLA research from comprehensive perspectives. In fact, SLA research has followed in the footsteps of FLA research in its methodology and in many issues that it has treated. In addition to formal and functional theories, different approaches have been proposed, including psycholinguistic approaches and sociocultural approaches to SLA. Despite the fact that empirical and theoretical research on language has recently experienced a period of extensive growth, in the case of the Japanese language, unfortunately, far fewer studies—particularly studies written in English—have been presented on adult L2 learners and bilingual children. It is imperative to integrate theoretical concepts and empirical research findings in SLA of Japanese, so that they can eventually be applied to educational practice.

To approach an understanding of current issues in SLA in Japanese, readers must be familiar with characteristics of the Japanese language. SLA studies also touch on a deliberately wide spectrum of domains of general linguistic knowledge (e.g., phonology and phonetics, morphology, lexicon, semantics, syntax, discourse), context of language use (e.g., interactive conversation, narrative), research orientations (e.g., formal linguistics, psycholinguistics, social psychology, sociolinguistics), and age groups (e.g., children, adults). By connecting past SLA research findings in English and current concerns in Japanese-as-a-second-language (including corpus linguistics), the topic of SLA in Japanese provides an overview of the field of Japanese linguistics and its critical issues.