Although there is a substantial amount of linguistic research on standard language acquisition, little attention has been given to the mechanisms underlying second dialect acquisition. Using a combination of function-based grammar and sociolinguistic methodology to analyze topic marking strategies, the unguided acquisition of a standard by speakers of nonstandard varieties is examined in two distinct linguistic and geographical situations: in a Caribbean creole situation (Belize), with special attention to the acquisition of acrolects by native speakers of basilects, and in a noncreole situation (PRC), documenting the acquisition of standard Chinese (Putonghua) by speakers of nonstandard varieties represented in Cultural Revolution literature, Wuhan Chinese, and Suzhou Wu story-telling style. In both cases psychosocial factors, linguistic bias toward nonnative renderings of the standard varieties, the social status of their speakers, and related political and educational consequences play an important role in the development of second dialects. The broad-ranging analysis of a single feature of oral discourse leads to the formulation of cross-linguistic generalizations in acquisition studies and results in an evaluation of the putative uniqueness of creole languages. Related issues addressed include the effect of linguistic bias on the development and use of language varieties by marginalized groups; the interaction of three major language components - semantics, syntax, and pragmatics - in spontaneous communication; and the development of methods to identify discourse units. The ultimate goal underlying the comparison of specific discourse variables in Belizean and Chinese standard acquisition is to evaluate the relative merits of substratal, superstratal, and universal explanations in language development.