Second Language Acquisition

› Language Acquisition

Second language acquisition is a complex process that can take years to fully develop.   Teachers need to understand the difference between "playground language" and "academic language."

Our students come to us with a variety of backgrounds.  Some possess little to no knowledge of what school is like, many are not proficient yet in their native language, yet others are more than proficient and are ready for full language immersion.

All of these students will go through similar stages of language acquisition.

Knowing these stages will help the regular classroom teacher to understand how and why ESOL students progress at certain rates as well as how to best modify assessments for them.

five myths about esol learners

Misconceptions About Second Language Acquisition

There are many misconceptions about what second language acquisition really is.  

There are also misunderstandings about why ESL students can converse fluently on the playground but do not achieve in the classroom.

Myth #1:  Being around native English speakers will make learning it very simple for non-native speakers

  • Very few learners actually "pick up" a language. They need comprehensible input  (Krashen 1981), multiple opportunities to practice the second language at their level. 
  • Simple exposure will not result in second language acquisition.

Myth #2:  Children acquire a second language faster than adults

  • The only part of it children acquire faster is the social language and the pronunciations.
  • Younger children may seem to acquire the language faster, but remember that they have less language to actually learn in order to seem fluent with their peers.

Myth #3:  Students should be encouraged to speak English right away

Why? Would you? I know I wouldn't, and didn't when I moved overseas.

  • Most students will go through a silent stage where they are listening to others speak, trying to develop a receptive vocabulary and are watching how others interact socially.
  • It could very well be embarrassing for them to be forced to speak a language they do not yet know or understand. They will do it in their own time.

Myth #4:  If a student can speak just fine in English but their academic work is poor, there is good reason to suspect a learning disability

  • Speaking with peers is called our social language. This is very different from school language.
  • Social language can be developed with reasonable fluency in as little as 2-3 years.
  • School language, however, can take up to 7 or more years to develop.
  • School language involves rules, accuracy, is cognitively demanding and does not provide any face-to-face interactions to help the student make meaning.
  • Social language uses real language, is not cognitively demanding, and provides interaction for meaning

Myth #5:  A second language student who lashes out and is disruptive is not only experiencing language issues but also is is exhibiting emotional disturbances

Most of these children are actually suffering from culture shock. People experience culture shock in a way that is similar to the stages of grief. In her book Getting Started with English Language Learners, Judie Haynes lists these stages as:

  • Honeymoon (showing excitement about a new life)
  • Rejection (there is too much to understand)
  • Regression (frustrations with communication and homesickness)
  • Integration (learning to deal with differences and finding ways to live in both cultures)
  • Acceptance (assimilation and adoption of mainstream culture at school while keeping home culture values)

Go to one of these pages for more about second language acquisition and teaching ESOl students.

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