Stages of language learning
What can you expect from a child who has recently begun second language acquisition? Will they be able to quickly begin speaking or is there a silent period? To answer these questions we need to examine the stages of second language development. The stages of second language development in children mirror somewhat those of first language development.
Just as babies begin by listening before they can actually produce speech, children who are second language learners generally have a silent period called the preproduction stage. This stage of second language development involves primarily listening and using gestures or their first language to communicate although they may be able to produce some words.
Children can be in this phase anywhere from 10 hours to 6 months. They may be shy and respond non-verbally. It is very important for them to have time to listen and absorb the language before they are required to speak it. This is sometimes called the Silent Period (Asher, 2000). As they move through this level, their vocabulary includes approximately 500 receptive words (word they can understand but don’t use yet), and they are beginning to develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which is language used for social communication.
At this level, the adult should be doing about 90% or more of the talking, and the children should listen and respond non-verbally. In order for the adult’s speech to be comprehensible, it should include lots of pantomime, body language, facial expressions, and gestures. In addition, the adult should model rather than just verbally explain tasks and skills, and use lots of pictures and real objects. The adult’s speech should be simplified, slow, and clear. Children at this level can point to an item, nod to answer simple yes/no questions, and carry out simple commands (e.g., put the globe on the table).
This is the silent period. English language learners may have up to 500 words in their receptive vocabulary but they are not yet speaking. Some students will, however, repeat everything you say. They are not really producing language but are parroting. English language learners at this stage will need much repetition of English. Remember that the school day is exhausting for these newcomers as they are overwhelmed with listening to English language all day long.
Children need time to listen to others talk, to digest what they hear, to develop receptive vocabulary, and to observe their classmates’ interactions. When they do speak, we want the speech to be real and purposeful. This does not mean children are not learning. They may understand what is being said, but they are not yet ready to talk about it.
Teacher instruction is also an important factor in the length of the silent period. If the teacher provides “hands-on” activities and has students interact in small groups, children will be able to participate in the life of the classroom a lot sooner. They will feel more confident in risking oral language. It should not be assumed that young learners of English do not feel embarrassment or shyness when attempting to speak in a second language.
In this stage the children can produce single words and short phrases. They will understand a lot more language than they are able to produce. At this level, children have had anywhere from 3 months to a year of English.
They have about 1,000 words in their receptive vocabulary, and as at any other level, about 10% of their vocabulary is expressive (words they regularly use). The types of questions that children can answer at this level are yes/no, “what” questions that elicit 1 to 2 word responses (what is this?), “who” questions (who is standing next to the equator on the floor map?), “either/or questions” (is this an ocean or a sea?) and “where” questions that require a simple phrase response (where is the Bangkok?—In Thailand.). Simple sentences, phrases and questions are emerging as well. For example, they may be able to use the phrase, “How ya doin’?” but they may not be able to understand the function of each word and how the words should form a sentence.
Adults must be careful to ask children questions that are appropriate for their level and to use simplified language, avoiding idioms and uncommon vocabulary.
Because children develop expressive skills in English at the early production stage, they can communicate in a simple manner with their classmates in pairs and small groups. Interacting with peers to solve problems, develop projects, discuss class topics, etc., provides better opportunities for children to understand the content as well as develop their language than many whole-class, teacher-directed activities. In whole-class activities, children are usually reluctant to ask questions if they don’t understand the lesson, but in a pair or small group activity, they may be less intimidated to ask for help.
This stage may last up to six months and students will develop a receptive and active vocabulary of about 1000 words. During this stage, students can usually speak in one- or two-word phrases. Here are some of the things that students in this stage of English language learning are capable of achieving:
- Ask yes/no and either/or questions.
- One or two word responses.
- Building vocabulary by using pictures.
- Participating in listening activities.
- Understanding books with simple and predictable text.
In this stage the child will begin to speak in sentences. They may be able to hold a conversation and will be more easily understood. At this point, somewhere between one and three years of exposure to English, children’s development of proficiency increases drastically. They use phrases and sentences, and their vocabulary is between 3,000 and will grow to nearly 7,000 words. They will ask simple questions that may or may not be grammatically correct, such as “May I go to bathroom?” Children will also initiate short conversations with classmates. They will understand easy stories read in class with the support of pictures. They will also be able to do some content work with teacher support.
Questions they are now able to answer include “how” and “why,” which require fairly complex responses. Because they can understand a great deal and can express themselves fairly effectively, albeit with grammatical simplicity and developmental errors. General student-centred practices such as scaffolding and expansion, poetry, songs, prediction, comparing/contrasting, describing, cooperative learning, problem solving, charting, and graphing are appropriate for children, but the classroom teacher must remember to provide them with additional support.
Here are some simple tasks they can complete:
- Sound out stories phonetically.
- Read short, modified texts in content area subjects.
- Complete graphic organizers with word banks.
- Understand and answer questions about charts and graphs.
- Match vocabulary words to definitions.
- Write and illustrate riddles.
- Understand teacher explanations and two-step directions.
- Compose brief stories based on personal experience.
- Write in dialogue journals.
This is a high level of language development. The child is now quite fluent and able to hold a conversation but will still make minor errors. A shift occurs at this level, after about 3 to 4 years of exposure to English, because students begin to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency in English. Having mastered the knowledge and skills required for social language (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), students have accumulated approximately 12,000 receptive words. They have gone beyond speaking in phrases and simple sentences to being able to engage in conversations. They can answer complex questions as they are able to evaluate information.
This means that they can participate in essay writing, complex problem solving, researching and supporting their positions, and critiquing and analysing.
Students at the intermediate fluency stage have a vocabulary of 6000 active words. They are beginning to use more complex sentences when speaking and writing and are willing to express opinions and share their thoughts. They will ask questions to clarify what they are learning in class.
At this stage the child is considered to be fully bilingual although they still may make an occasional error. It takes students from 4-10 years to achieve cognitive academic language proficiency in a second language. Students at this stage will be near-native in their ability to perform in content area learning.
Ultimately, the process of bilingualism is a journey, not a race. Every child is unique and will follow their own path to becoming bilingual and bi-literate. Attending Wellington College China Bilingual Shanghai and following the EYFS curriculum allows your child to start this process by learning through play and this replicates how they learned, and are still learning, their native language in a natural environment.