Second Language Acquisition in Children

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  • 0:00 Sequential Second…
  • 0:58 Pre-Production
  • 1:42 Early Production &…
  • 2:45 Intermediate &…
  • 3:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains the stages passed through on the road toward second language acquisition. It specifically focuses on children who are considered sequential second language learners.

Sequential Second Language Learners

When figuring out how to motor around, babies don't just one day stand up and walk. Instead their journey to toddling and walking happens in stages. In the same manner, children in the midst of second language acquisition also travel through stages. In today's lesson, we'll take a look at these very stages.

We will focus on sequential second language learners. These are children who are fluent in one language then introduced to another. These are boys and girls who speak Spanish or Chinese then find themselves sitting in a classroom in a place like Pennsylvania. Not understanding a word of English, their journey to becoming fluent in a new tongue begins. According to those who study language acquisition, these young students will go through several stages in their climb to acquire a new language. Of course, these stages vary greatly from child to child so our overview of them will be simply that, an overview.


The first stage in child second language acquisition is the stage of pre-production. Also called the silent receptive stage, the amount of time spent in it tends to vary from child to child. During this phase, young learners have minimal comprehension of the new language. Due to this, they will draw or point rather than try to verbalize in the new tongue.

Experts in linguistics report this stage includes familiarity with about 500 words but applying these words independently is still not in the child's toolbox. In other words, they are able to parrot the language more than speak it. For this reason, it's not uncommon to see a child in the pre-production stage do things shake his head yes or no rather than say yes or no.

Early Production and Speech Emergence

The next stage in the second language learning climb is early production. Lasting about six months, this stage sees the child beginning to learn and speak in short phrases. During this stage, they have a vocabulary of about 1,000 words and very little understanding of grammatical rules. For this reason they tend to stick with short, familiar phrases like 'Where is the bathroom' or 'Thank you very much.' Despite these limitations, they are beginning to make the language their own.

With this, we come to the next stage, speech emergence. Lasting from about one to three years, comprehension of the new language takes off during this phase. As evidence of this, our young learners will begin to independently form simple sentences. Rather than simply regurgitating memorized phrases, they will begin to manipulate them. Rather than saying the rehearsed, 'Thank you very much,' they might say, 'Thanks for doing that' or 'Thanks for your help.' Yes, their grammar will still be quite a disaster, but they will be able to sound out words phonetically with an inventory of about 3,000 words.

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