5 Stages of Additional Language Acquisition

When children learn another language after having acquired their first language or languages, they go through different stages that can vary from child to child and depend of how similar the additional language is to those the children already know. 

This infographic shows 5 stages that 3 to 8 year olds can go through when learning an additional language in informal settings, i.e. not at daycare or school, without formal instruction.
This is why we use the term of language acquisition and not learning, although for the last 3 stages reading and writing skills are also considered. Reading and writing are both skills that need formal instruction.

After our children have already acquired their first language(s), everything they will acquire and learn about the additional language will be put in relation to their existing knowledge of the other languages. And if our children have already started reading and writing in those other languages, these skills are transferrable to the additional language (see Jim Cummins’ Common Underlying Proficiency). 

Please consider this infographic as a general guideline. Every child is different and deserves personalized attention and assessment if necessary.

I invite you to observe your child’s language development and to support your child by praising the progress (not the mistakes!) and to enjoy all the steps!

If you are not sure if your child is making progress, try to write down the words he/she understands (receptive language) and uses (active language) for 3-4 weeks.

The infographic explained

1) The first stage, called pre-production stage (some used to call it the silent stage) which I prefer calling the receptive stage can last between zero to six months.

In this stage, children have very few if any oral skills in the additional language and begin learning vocabulary. They may only respond to someone speaking the additional language in a non verbal way such as pointing, gesturing or drawing for example.
But they start understanding simple sentences and words, and therefore they are receptive for the new language since they start being exposed to it.

As this stage is very controversial among language educators because it is very unlikely that a child that acquires an additional language will “stay silent” in this first stage, I prefer the term of receptive stage, in analogy to the receptive pre-verbal phase of very young children. Furthermore, speech is so fundamental in language acquisition and when speaking about additional language acquisition, we talk about children who are verbal in another language or other languages (plural) already, so they have means to express themselves.

Children can improve very quickly in their additional language if they directly get to apply what they are acquiring: by repeating simple words, phrases, anything they understand, that is useful for them (see: comprehensible input (and output) by Stephen D. Krashen)

2) As soon as children begin to practice articulating new words starts the early production stage that can last between six months to a year.

The child starts having a greater understanding while listening to the additional language and can produce a limited number of words, phrases and simple sentences like “thankyou” “please” “Ineedthat” “Iwant”. In this stage, children might not distinguish words in the new languages morphologically and consider “thankyou” as one word, until they understand that one can also say “thank her / him / us… Anna…“.

3) The third stage is known as speech emergence and can last between one and three years depending on the frequency of exposure to the additional language.

The child gains even greater comprehension in the additional language, starts stringing words together into phrases, sentences and questions, and we can notice that the accuracy from a grammatical point of you and with regards to the pronunciation increases.

The child might be starting to read and write in the additional language if taught how to do so in another language. Remember, this is an infographic about language acquisition, i.e. when the child is exposed to the additional language on a regular basis but without formal instruction.

If the child starts being exposed to the additional language starting from age 3, this stage would correspond to the child starting school, and receives formal instruction in the school language, i.e. learns also how to read and write.

4) The fourth stage is the one of intermediate fluency which can last for 3-5 years.

Children will continue developing vocabulary and start thinking in the additional language. This thinking in the target language will help them gain a higher proficiency when speaking the language!

There is a considerable increase in communicating via writing: children will use more complex sentences – with subordinates for example – and we’ll notice a greater accuracy and correctness in the use of grammar and pronunciation.

Furthermore, children might start auto-correcting themselves.
At this stage, children have learned how to read and write in their other language, and are able to transfer those skills to the additional language – at least to some extent.

They’re able to express their thoughts and feelings in the additional language, be more spontaneous, start conversations and hold conversations about familiar topics. Depending on the language, they might be able to use simple forms of negative questions “You don’t like the movie?”, “Don’t you like the movie?”.

If children started with the additional language at age 3, they would be approximately 8 years old at this stage. Their fluency in the additional language will depend from their exposure to the other language (usually the one they are schooled / educated in) and the way they manage to transfer the learned skills to the additional language.

5) The last stage is called advanced fluency or continued language development which can take for 5 to 7 or 8 years, depending on the circumstances.

The children develop the vocabulary of the content area, i.e. the domain and circumstances they acquire the additional language. Their improvement in the additional language depends from the exposure of a greater variety of contexts, i.e. different content areas, or more in depth vocabulary in the areas of interest.

With the increase of vocabulary and overall confidence in using more complex sentence structures across the domains of interest (and need), children will be considered as nearly native users of the additional language, even with regards to idiomatic expressions, metaphors etc.

By attaining nearly native fluency, children will be confident at using more complex negative questions  like “I hope you don’t mind…” and irony.

If you would like to have tips about how to start such a journal or are wondering if your bi- or multilingual children’s language development is healthy, don’t hesitate to contact me for a free consultation .

I’m a linguist and I have studied language acquisition, language variation etc. and I can help you find out if your child needs a speech therapist, audiologist, child psychologist… or not. 

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