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Language, Language Development

The 5 Stages of Second Language Acquisition

5 Stages of second language acquisition

Last Updated on March 16, 2024 by Bilingual Kidspot

Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Have you ever wondered how we acquire language? Do you know what language acquisition means? Do you know the difference between first language acquisition and second language acquisition?

We all speak a language, some people speak multiple. But most of us don’t even think about how we actually acquired these languages.

Below you can find the 5 stages of language acquisition, and the difference between language acquisition and language learning.

Language learning vs. language acquisition

Speech pathologists are often asked if all language development will occur in the same way.

“My child acquired their first language automatically, will the same happen in their second language?”

What you need to know is there is a difference between language acquisition and language learning. They are two different things.

There are different definitions of bilingual. In many ways, the way in which a child will develop their second language depends on the age and manner in which this second language is exposed.

  • A simultaneous bilingual is an individual who is exposed to their first and second languages at the same time.
  • A sequential bilingual develops their second language after their first. Typically, if a child is exposed to their second language past the age of three, they will generally become a sequential bilingual.

Read More:
Simultaneous bilingualism vs Sequential bilingualism
Language acquisition vs Language Learning

First Language Acquisition

When children develop their first language, the process is an automatic, subconscious one. Children typically do not require explicit instruction for their first language to develop. Here, the process of “language acquisition” is occurring. This can also be the case for bilingual or multilingual children who learn more than language from birth.

Second Language Acquisition

In contrast, if a child is a sequential bilingual, they will require explicit teaching to support their second language’s development. This process is known as “language learning”.

Unfortunately, explicit teaching of grammatical rules does not necessarily mean that a sequential bilingual child will be able to speak and write with ease. Time, practice and real social experiences are needed to support the language learning process.

The five stages of second language acquisition

Linguists often consider and consider second language acquisition to occur in five key stages. While there is some debate over the intricacies of the five stages, there is general consensus that:

5 Stages of second language acquisition infographic
Use of this infographic ONLY with link to this page

1. Silent or receptive phase

In this first stage of second language acquisition, the silent or receptive phase, language learners dedicate time to learning vocabulary of the new language. They may also practice saying new terms.

While there likely is talking happening at this stage (there is controversy over whether second language learners are ever truly “silent”), a second language learner does not produce their new language with functional fluency or comprehension.

Speech-tip: It will be essential to continue providing rich, meaningful language modelling and exposure during this stage. You can support a child’s understanding of new vocabulary and language by providing visual and concrete models to help the words that they are hearing. 

2. Early production

This second phase involves the second language user beginning to “collect” new words.

During this time they may also start to say some terms and may even begin forming short phrases of early word combinations.

Speech-tip: You may find that children can begin to comprehend written material when they reach this stage. Expose children to simple written texts with illustrations to help their understanding. 

3. Speech emergence or production

By the time second language learners enter into this third stage, they have collected several thousand words.

This is an exciting phase as they begin to communicate by combining these learned words into short phrases and sentences – their second language is truly becoming “connected”.

This connectedness will also afford increases in the understanding of their new language, and you may see your child beginning to read and write in their second language at this stage.

Speech-tip: Continue to provide meaningful, functional opportunities for children in the ‘speech emergence’ phrase to express themselves through. Practising a second language through spoken or written mediums will support further sentence development. 

4. Intermediate fluency

The fourth level of second language acquisition is said to occur when speakers begin communicating in complex sentences (that is, sentences will include conjunctions to sequence and connect related clauses).

This is a critical stage for allowing even more connected language and true conversations to emerge.

Second language learners may also begin to think in their second language at this time, again reflecting the significant progress that has been made.

Speech-tip: By targeting narratives (both fictional and personal narratives – that is, stories about your own experiences) we can ensure that children in the ‘intermediate fluency’ level can express their thoughts and feelings in a connected manner. As children can use their second language for such meaningful purposes, their second language proficiency will continue to deepen. 

5. Continued language development or fluency

This stage may last for an extended time. Here, second language learners will continue to develop their new language and to achieve accuracy with increasing complexity and with social pragmatics.

Speech-tip: Continued practice and exposure will continue to consolidate second language learning in the ‘fluency’ phase. Teachers who have students in the ‘fluency’ phase can continue to provide language scaffolding through curricular content-area learning. 

Important Take Home Messages for Families and Service Providers

Bilingual children should develop and consolidate their home language to feel connected to their family, culture and heritage.

—> It is not appropriate for children to be restricted to a single language. Encouraging children to develop their home language will support their feelings of connectedness and will correlate with enhanced communication and cognitive development.

Bilingual (or multi-lingual) language development needs to be considered holistically

—> It is critical for a child’s language development to be viewed holistically – that is across all of their language systems. By examining a child’s understanding and expressive communication across all of their languages, we can accurately capture their complete language ability.

Exposing a child to multiple languages will not lead to a language disorder or delay

—> While monolingual and multilingual children may show some differences in their communication development, acquiring a second language will not cause or worsen a language difficulty.

Recommended: Bilingualism does NOT cause Speech Delay

Language ‘mixing’ is common

—> Language mixing a common feature of bilingualism. Even adults who have been exposed to multiple languages for an extended period may borrow or mix their languages when speaking. This is not an indicator of language impairment.

Recommended: Bilingual Kids mix languages and it’s OK!

Concerned about second language acquisition?

First language acquisition and second language acquisition happen very differently. This post has hopefully helped you to understand the five stages of second language acquisition.

If you have concerns for your child’s language development, or would like to determine if their bilingual language development is tracking in a typical manner, contact your local speech pathologist today.

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5 stages of second language acquisition

Author: Lauren Crumlish, a qualified Speech Therapist and founder of Speech Clinic.

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