Communication and Expression

Language Development

Dual Language Learners -- Receptive and Expressive English Language Skills

Goal 1: Young children whose home language is not English, demonstrate the ability to listen, understand, and respond to increasing more complex spoken English.

Children who learn two languages are referred to as “dual language learners” since they are still learning their first language while acquiring a second Language. There are two distinct pathways for how dual language learners develop. Some children grow up in families where both the home language and English have been used since they were born.

In such cases, these children are “simultaneous” dual language learners since they are learning both languages prior to the age of two. For these children, the process of learning the second language is very similar to the stages of learning their first language. Simultaneous dual language learners may appear to have a smaller expressive vocabulary in any one of their two languages, and they may mix words of the two languages (i.e., code switching) in a sentence. However, if the child’s language environments continue to support the child’s development in both languages, the child will become a bilingual speaker with the ability to use and comprehend both languages. On the other hand, some children grow up in families where English is rarely spoken, if at all; the home language is how the family communicates. When the child enters a setting (e.g., preschool, first grade) where English is the dominant language, the children will need to acquire English as their second language. The “sequential” dual language learner’s acquisition of English language will depend on many factors in addition to chronological age. Progress will depend upon the child’s personal characteristics (e.g., outgoing, risk-taker, shy), cognitive abilities, the amount and quality of the child’s exposure to English, the child’s motivation and her social and cultural experiences, as well as the characteristics of the first language and the child’s level of development in the home language. Therefore, the rate of English language acquisition varies across children, but there are generally accepted stages of second language acquisition; these are presented in the chart below. [Reference Tabor]

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Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Home Language Use

  1. During this stage, the child:
    1. Uses home language to communicate
    2. Attends when others speak English
    3. Engages in activities by imitating others’ behaviors
    4. Decreases use of home language as she becomes aware that others are speaking another language and that they cannot understand her.

Nonverbal Period

  1. During this stage, the child:
    1. Enters into a nonverbal period and relies on gestures, context, and nonverbal cues to understand and communicate
    2. Acknowledges or responds nonverbally to common words or phrases (e.g., hi, snack time, come play) when accompanied by gestures
    3. May repeat sounds and words in English to self to try it out
    4. Observes others using English to learn about the new language

Telegraphic and Formulaic Speech

  1. During this stage, the child:
    1. Uses one or two word sentences to communicate ideas, needs, and feelings (e.g., “Play cars.”)
    2. Memorize and say frequently heard phrases (e.g., “I like pizza.” “How are you?”)
Stages of Second Language Acquisition (cont.)

Productive English Language Use

  1. During this stage, the child:
    1. Begins to construct sentences in English
    2. Demonstrates comprehension and use of a larger and more varied age appropriate vocabulary
    3. Uses more complex English grammar, although contain some grammatical errors or omissions
    4. Becomes aware of her errors and uses this understanding to learn new vocabulary and grammar

There are many persisting myths about learning more than one language in early childhood. For example, the belief that children who are learning English should only speak in English and the home language should be discouraged continues despite the abundant research showing that use of the home language supports growth in a second language as well as affirming the child’s cultural identity.

Also, the assumption that speaking two languages is confusing for children as evidenced by their “mixing” the two languages when they speak continues. Mixing the two languages is a part of the child’s development as a dual language learner. Typically by age 8, if the child has been learning English and the home language for a few years, mixing decreases as the child associates a particular language with specific settings and conversation partners. These and other assumptions are not supported by research nor by the millions of children in countries across the globe who grow up learning two or more languages. What we know is as follows:

  • Learning a second language is a long process. Although there are certain neurological advantages to learning a second language as a child between the ages of 3-8 years, becoming proficient in a language and using it appropriately in a variety of settings takes time. Understanding and using the second language to successfully execute academic tasks may take more time, perhaps a couple of years beyond gaining functional everyday language use.
  • It is important for families to continue to use the home language with the child so that the home language continues to develop as the child acquires English. A child who has developed age appropriate language skills in the home language will be able to transfer some of those skills to use in learning English more quickly and effectively.
  • Learning two languages does not confuse children as long as both languages are supported. When they are, the child will become bilingual. Research has shown that there are significant cognitive advantages to being bilingual (e.g., enhanced executive functioning, self-regulation) that last throughout life.
  • Culture is intrinsically tied to language and to identity. When young children are learning English in an early care and education program or in a kindergarten or primary grade, they also are learning the culture of those settings. Additionally, children bring the culture and language of their home to those settings. In order to maintain their families’ culture they need to retain their home language and learn to navigate between the two different cultures.

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Vermont Agency of Education
Secretary Daniel M. French
219 North Main Street, Suite 402
Barre, VT 05641

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