Information About Acquiring a Second Language

Acquiring a Second Language

(information taken from the Guidebook on Designing, Delivering and Evaluating Services for English Learners (ELs), published by the Colorado Department of Education)

Children best acquire a second language in much the same way that they acquired their first language, by learning to communicate and make sense of their world. This process is made more challenging in academic settings because second language learners need the new language to interact socially, as well as learn subject matter and achieve academically.

People acquire language when they receive oral or written messages they understand. These messages provide input that eventually leads to output in the form of speaking and writing. If a student needs to know how to ask for milk in the cafeteria, s/he acquires the vocabulary needed to accomplish this task. By using language for real purposes, it is acquired naturally and purposefully. Language can be acquired through reading and writing, as well as through listening and speaking.

Students acquire second languages through exploration of verbal expression that increases as confidence and knowledge are gained through trial and error. ELs learn English more quickly when teachers use pictures, gestures, manipulatives, and other means to make English understandable, while at the same time reducing the stress associated with the expectation that students immediately produce the new language.

Krashen (1982) defined the following stages for second language learners but acknowledged that language acquisition is an ongoing process, so stages may overlap and growth may occur at different rates. The first three stages typically progress quickly, while students may spend years in the intermediate and advanced stages.

Silent/Receptive—The student does not respond verbally in L2, although there is receptive processing. The student should be included actively in all class activities but not forced to speak. Teachers should give students in this stage sufficient time and clues to encourage participation. Students are likely to respond best through non-verbal interaction with peers, being included in general activities and games, and interacting with manipulatives, pictures, audiovisual and hands-on materials. As students progress through this stage, they will provide one-word verbal responses by repeating and imitating words and phrases.

Early Production—Students begin to respond verbally using one or two words and develop the ability to extract meaning from things spoken to them. They continue to develop listening skills and build a large recognition vocabulary. As they progress through this stage, two or three words may be grouped together in short phrases to express an idea.

Speech Emergence—ELs begin to respond in simple sentences if they are comfortable with the school situation and engaged in activities during which they receive large amounts of comprehensible input. All attempts to communicate (i.e., gestures, following directions) should be received warmly and encouraged. It is especially important that neither the instructor nor the students make fun of or discourage students’ attempts at speech.

Intermediate Fluency—Students gradually transition to more elaborate speech so that stock phrases
with continued good comprehensible input generate sentences. The best strategies are to give them more comprehensible input, help them develop and extend recognition vocabulary and provide chances to produce language in comfortable situations.

Advanced Fluency—Students engage in non-cued conversation and produce a connected narrative. This is an appropriate time for grammar instruction focused on idiomatic expressions and reading comprehension skills. Activities should be designed to develop higher levels of thinking and vocabulary and cognitive skills, especially in reading and writing.

Cummins (1980) originally suggested a framework that distinguishes between the language used for basic social interaction and that used for academic purposes. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) refers to the language skills needed for social conversation purposes. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to formal language skills used for academic learning.

Though not all face-to-face interaction is at the basic communication level, students generally acquire a strong enough foundation to participate in spontaneous conversation rather quickly (Cummins, 1981). Thomas and Collier (A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement, 1995) estimated that it could take as long as 14 years for older students who begin second language acquisition without literacy skills or consistent prior formal schooling in their first language.

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