The Amazing Process of Language Acquisition in Preschoolers

Many parents that are new to Spanish Schoolhouse wonder how their child will learn the language, and how the process will unfold.  Much of the research on second language acquisition in early childhood relates to English language learners in the classroom, however, our experience shows that most of the same principles apply to SSH students learning Spanish. The article below details some of the steps children may go through and what parents can expect to see in their child.


Second Language Acquisition in Early Childhood (excerpts)
Linda M. Espinosa, Ph.D

All children are born ready to learn language to communicate. Young children who have regular and rich exposure to two languages during the early childhood years can successfully become bilingual.

How Do Children Learn a Second Language?
It is commonly assumed that preschool-aged children can just “pick up” a second language without much effort or systematic teaching. However, becoming proficient in a language is a complex and demanding process that takes many years.

As with any type of learning, children vary enormously in the rate at which they learn a first and a second language. The speed of language acquisition is influenced by personal attributes and the learning environment. The child’s personality, aptitude for languages, interest, and motivation interact with the quality of language inputs and opportunities for practice to determine fluency levels.

Simultaneous vs. Sequential Second Language Acquisition
When a child learns two languages simultaneously, e.g. before three years of age, the developmental pathway is similar to how monolingual children acquire language. The language development of children who learn a second language after three years of age, or sequentially, follows a different progression and is highly sensitive to characteristics of the child as well as the language learning environment.

According to Tabors and Snow (1994) sequential second language acquisition follows a four stage developmental sequence:

1. Home Language Use:   When a child has become competent in one language and is introduced into a setting where everyone is speaking a different language, the child will frequently continue to speak his home language even if others do not understand. The child will persist in trying to get others to understand him for a brief time or for months.
2. Nonverbal Period:  After young children realize that speaking their home language will not work, they enter a period where they rarely speak, and they use nonverbal means to communicate. This is a period of active language learning for the child, which can be brief or long. He is busy learning the features, sounds, and words of the new language (receptive language) but not verbally using the new language to communicate.
3. Telegraphic and Formulaic Speech:  The child is now ready to start using the new language and does so through telegraphic speech that involves the use of formulas. This is similar to a monolingual child who is learning simple words or phrases (content words) to express whole thoughts. For instance, a child might say, “me down” indicating he wants to go downstairs. These are phrases the children had heard from others that helped to achieve their social goals, even though the children probably did not know the meaning of the two words.
4. Productive Language:  Now the child is starting to go beyond telegraphic or formulaic utterances to create their own phrases and thoughts. Initially the child may use very simple grammatical patterns such as “I wanna play”, but over time he will gain control over the structure and vocabulary of the new language. Errors in language usage are common during this period as children are experimenting with their new language and learning its rules and structure.

As with any developmental sequence, the stages are flexible and not mutually exclusive. McLaughlin and his colleagues (McLaughlin, Blanchard, Osanai, 1995) preferred to describe the process as waves, “..moving in and out, generally moving in one direction, but receding, then moving forward again” (pp.3-4).

Code Switching/Language Mixing
It is important for early childhood educators to understand that code switching (switching languages for portions of a sentence) and language mixing (inserting single items from one language into another) are normal aspects of second language acquisition. This does not mean that the child is confused or cannot separate the languages. The main reason that children mix the two languages in one communication is because they lack sufficient vocabulary in one or both languages to fully express themselves.

The goal must always be on enhancing communication, rather than enforcing rigid rules about which language can be used at a given time or under certain circumstances.

Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy & cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Genesee, F. (2004).
Bilingual acquisition. Retrieved from July, 2004. Hakuta, K. and Pease-Alvarez, L. (1992).
Enriching our views of bilingualism and bilingual education. Educational Researcher, 21, 4-6. McLaughlin, B. (1984).
Second language acquisition in childhood: Preschool children. Vol.1. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates. McLaughlin, B., Blanchard, A., & Osani, Y. (1995).
Assessing language development in bilingual preschool children. Washington DC: George Washington University. (The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, #22, June) Tabors, P. and Snow, C. (1994).
English as a second language in preschools. In F. Genesee (Ed.).
Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community (pp.103-125). New York: Cambridge University Press. Tabors, P. (1997).
One child, two languages: A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Espinosa, L. (in press).
Second language acquisition in early childhood. In New, R. & Cochran, M. (Eds.). Early Childhood Education. Westport,CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

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