How Children Learn a Second Language (page 2)

By — Diversity in Education Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Sequential Second Language Learners

Sequential learners include children who have become familiar with one language, but are then introduced or required to learn a second language. The classic example of sequential learning is when a non-English speaking child enters an English-dominant classroom.
Unlike simultaneous language learning, sequential learning of languages can occur at any age and can be influenced by factors like the child’s temperament or motivation.

The Four Stages of Sequential Second Language Learning

Stage I: Home Language Use
For the first few days, children may persist in using their first or native language even if others do not understand them.
Stage II: Silent Period
After children realize their first language is not working, they enter a silent period in which they barely speak and rely heavily on nonverbal means to communicate with others. The younger the child, the longer the silent period may last.
Stage III: Telegraphic & Formulaic Speech
Children will start to speak in the new or second language. In this stage, they will only speak in small utterances (e.g., Me Down) or by repeating the words of others.
Stage IV: Productive Language
Children are now ready to express their own thoughts and construct their own sentences. In the beginning, these sentences may be very basic or grammatically incorrect; however, this improves over time.
Parents of dual language learners should not be alarmed if their children exhibit any of the above behaviors (e.g., silent period). These behaviors are common for children who are learning a second language. Also, research has found that children who begin to learn a second language before the age of 6 or 7 are more able to speak the new language like a native speaker than children who didn’t start until after ages 6 or 7 (Bongaerts, 2005).  

The Multiple Benefits of Learning More Than One Language

Research strongly supports the benefits of bilingualism in language, literacy, social, and cognitive development. For example, bilingual children have performed better than monolingual speakers on measures of analytical ability, concept formation, cognitive flexibility, and metalinguistic skills (Espinosa, 2008; Hakuta, Ferdman, & Diaz, 1987; Roseberry-McKibbin & Brice, 2005).
While some teachers and parents believe that in order to succeed academically in the U.S. all children must learn English as quickly as possible, research demonstrates just the opposite. In fact, evidence suggests that children who continue to learn academic concepts in their native language while gradually learning English outperform academically and socially children who are immersed in English-only programs (Chang et al., 2007; Restrepo & Kruth, 2003).  

How Can Parents Support Dual Language Development?

  • Ensure that the environments in which you introduce languages to children are nurturing—whether it is a school, early childhood program, or home (Tabors, 2008).
  • Choose an education program that is accepting and supportive of dual language learning.
  • If your child is learning a second language sequentially, select a program that allows children to continue to learn academic concepts in their native language as they gradually learn the second or new language (Copple & Bredekamp, 2008).
  • Volunteer your time and/or skills in your child’s classroom. This would allow dual language learners the opportunity to communicate in their home language during the day.
  • Teach vocabulary or nursery rhymes in your native language to the class or teachers, extending opportunities to practice a second language to all children (Espinosa, 2008).
  • Be prepared for the possibility that your children will express disinterest in their native language. Support your children’s interest in maintaining their native language by talking to them about the importance of dual language development.
  • Create fun family-oriented activities that will provide opportunities to converse in the home language, such as reading books, singing songs, or playing games together.
  • Bring children to activities in which the demand to speak the home language is high, such as in extended family or community gatherings (Tabors, 2008).

Parents play a crucial role in supporting their children’s dual language development. It is a misconception that children are just “natural” learners who effortlessly store and maintain knowledge of languages. Dual language development requires the conscious effort, reinforcement, and support of parents, teachers, and family members (Tabors, 2008).

Linda C. Halgunseth, Ph.D. is the Coordinator of the Office of Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The goal of the Office is to bridge research, practice, and policy in the area of early childhood education.

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