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Second Language Acquisition Theory

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 6/22/2014

If you are a language teacher, you probably know there is a specific process that second language learners go through to absorb a new dialect. Read on for a practical summary of the stages students progress through to pick up a new language.

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    Second Language Learning

    This is not an esoteric, academic discussions of the mechanisms by which people learn their second language, or the quantization of Students various hypotheses compared to each other. Rather, we will take you through the practical pathway for picking up a second or foreign language, and when you've finished here, you can find more on this topic to study.

    The Silent/Receptive or Preproduction Stage: (I learned this as The Formatting Stage ) This can be a period as long as several months or as short as a few hours. The learner is 'formatting' the language, more or less consciously, not yet ready to produce words or phrases, but observing, soaking up and choosing to be immersed in and mindful of a wide variety of situations, even if the learner doesn't PRODUCE any of the observed vocalizations. The learner may accurately hear and recognize, in this stage, several dozen to several hundred words or phrases in the target language. This stage has a conscious component, but is mostly happening at the subconscious level.

    The Early Production Stage: ( I characterized this as Crawling, or Stumbling ) Students here can stumble along or crawl about, giving 1 or 2-word answers in response to questions that they comfortably recognize. This is a very conscious process, often involving an active 2nd-Lang to Native to Meaning to 2nd-Lang response-retrieval or recall type process. It is clumsy, the learner feels clumsy and often embarrassingly inadequate, as is normal, for the human's conscious mind is NOT up to the task of speaking any more fluently than this. Learners live here for a few weeks to a few months, with short, yes-no answers and clumsy, labored production.

    The Speech Emergence Stage: ( I'm Walking! ) Walking in the learner's newly-acquired language allows the learner to meet and respond to a wide range of habitual, daily chores and routines, now with only occasional conscious-mind assistance or interference. The speech production process is beginning to be transferred to the subconscious mind, with the conscious mind doing little more than choosing subjects to discuss or occasionally dredging up a word or a workaround for an as-yet-to-be-learned word. Learners move through this valley in a few months to a year-plus. Students can be here with as few as 2,000 well-chosen words, but 3,000 to 5,000 is more common. This stage is sometimes marked by the learner's first dream in the second language.

    The Intermediate Language Proficiency Stage: ( I'm loping along now, skipping and jumping! ) This is where real reward starts kicking in, with the learner engaging in real give-and-take, dialog and question-and-answer type repartee. An extensive vocabulary has seeped into the subconscious, and is at the learner's beck and call.

    The Advanced Language Proficiency Stage: ( Look, Ma! No hands!) If the learner has been using the acquired second language on a frequent, daily basis for practical, real-world activities and information-gathering, this stage can be achieved in one or two more years.

    It's those first three stages that can be most demanding, so in order to minimize hassle and optimize learning, Learn some tips that can make the process a little easier.