Stages of Language Learning

Language is what makes societies function well. Language defines what the senses intuit. Language creates bridges and barriers. When using language, rarely does a person think about the implications it has on our lives. Language controls us, in a sense. We are bound by it. When we acquire it as toddlers, we do not have the mental capacity to understand the weight language holds in our lives. When we acquire a second language, we begin to understand how important languages are and how difficult they can be to attain.

When a person begins to learn a language, they go through stages of language acquisition. These stages function differently depending on whether the person is acquiring their first or second language. Typically, first language acquisition happens during infancy, which is a time when a person cannot consciously process the stages of language acquisition. Second language acquisition often occurs between adolescence and adulthood when a person can more cognitively process through the stages and better identify their progress.

The first stage of a person’s first language acquisition process is referred to as “Babbling”. This stage is self-explanatory in which a child begins to make random sounds with their vocal cords. Some of these sounds are made for the purpose of communicating; others are for no purpose at all. This stage is an exploring stage for the speaker to develop sounds and maybe a few specific phonemes. Also during this stage, the child may be able to nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to questions or point to things they want.

Similarly in second language acquisition, the first stage is referred to as “Preproduction”. During this stage, the child has minimal comprehension of the language and cannot make sense of words, neither in understanding nor speaking. Much like first language acquisition, non-verbal communication is important during this stage because the individual cannot yet effectively communicate their desires through language. Typically during this stage, a student would be able to point and nod ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in response to very basic questions and prompts.

The second stage of first language acquisition is the One-Word stage or Holophrastic stage. At this stage, a child can begin to utter recognizable words or at least phonemes that resemble words or simple phrases. Children develop these singular words through association and experience. For example, if a child’s father is bald, the child may point to a bald man walking down the street and say “dada!”, assuming that all bald men are their father. This association shows that the child is beginning to understand the meanings of words, though not yet in their entirety.

In correlation, the second stage of second language acquisition is referred to as the “Early Production” stage. During this period, the child begins to grasp simple concepts in the foreign language and has the ability to produce simple, one or two word phrases. In a language class, the instructor can begin to ask more complex questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Most of the verbs the child uses during this stage are likely in the present tense.

The third stage of first language acquisition is called the “Two-Word” stage. The child begins to develop more complex phrases with multiple words which form a more complete thought than in the previous stage. The child can better define items and personal belongings by combining two words at a time. For example, the child may point to a car and say “mommy car”, communicating that either the child thinks that is his/her mother’s car or it actually is. During this stage, though the child is only using two words at a time, they are still able to put the words in an order that closely resembles the order in which the words should be in a fully-formed sentence.

The third stage of second language acquisition is referred to as “Speech Emergence”. Similarly to the third stage of first language acquisition, the child can construct simple phrases and communicate basic ideas. The child’s comprehension improves greatly, but production is still low. This is the stage in which grammar errors occur frequently and sentences structure is not always accurate. Nevertheless, the child can communicate thoughts and ideas and he/she can respond effectively to more advanced questions like “why…” and “how…”.

The fourth stage of first language acquisition is referred to as the “Telegraphic” stage. During this stage, the child’s analytical skills enhance and their ability to form complete sentences emerges. Their words have more of a purpose rather than simply identifying objects and people like in the previous stages. At this point in a child’s life, roughly age two, they begin to acquire new words more rapidly and their vocabulary increases at a rate of as many as 10 words per week.

Similarly, the fourth stage of second language acquisition is called “Intermediate Fluency” in which the child is able to form complete thoughts and sentences. Their grammatical errors reduce and they make more of a conscious effort to speak correctly. The child’s comprehension by this stage is excellent and production is advanced, as well. In a language class, the instructor could be begin to ask hypothetical questions and assign analytical topics because the student would be capable of producing the appropriate responses during this stage of second language acquisition.

The final stages of first and second language acquisition have the same result: fluency. The child can verbally produce completely sentences, thoughts, and ideas. By this final stage, the child would also be able to understand and maybe even produce non-verbal communication with a native speaker. The child would exude confidence in the language at this stage and, if the child were an ELL, may even be mistaken for a native speaker themselves.

Throughout the process of language acquisition, culture and norms are also adapted. Language is a part of culture and is a very important facet of one’s identity. By acquiring a language, a person attains expressiveness and relatability, without which he/she would not be able to communicate or form relationships. Our survival is dependent upon language and its effectiveness in society and our cultures. Language is natural and necessary. Children that go through both first and second language acquisition at a young age are fortunate to be bilingual, especially in America. Later in life, this skill will prove to be useful and will make those individuals versatile and multi-functional. The process of language acquisition can be stressful and adapting to new cultures as a second language learner can cause anxiety. However, the end result of language acquisition is important and enjoyable!