Q. How is language learned?

A. Language is acquired in five stages.


This is the “silent period” of language acquisition. Students at this level are taking in new language and trying to make sense of it in order to meet basic needs. Often students at this level can comprehend much more than they can produce. Students’ responses may be limited with gestures and actions. Lessons are centered on listening comprehension and building receptive vocabulary.

Early production

Students at this level begin to respond with brief answers. Errors in grammar and pronunciation are frequent. It is important that students be able to take risks and experiment with the new language in a low anxiety setting. The lessons at this stage expand receptive vocabulary and classroom activities encourage students to produce vocabulary they already understand.

Speech Emergence

Students at this stage are able to use language to communicate more freely and are beginning to use language for academic purposes. Lessons continue to expand vocabulary and class activities are designed to encourage higher, more complex levels of language use.

Intermediate fluency

Students at this stage conduct conversations in English or Spanish that are approaching native fluency. However, they are still developing cognitive academic competence, especially in the areas of reading and writing. At this stage, students engage in conversation and produce connected narrative. As they continue to expand vocabulary, class activities are structured to develop higher levels of language use in the content areas, while reading and writing are incorporated into the class lessons.

Advanced fluency

Students at this level demonstrate native-like fluency but may be experiencing difficulties in acquiring high levels of literacy. These students may need modifications to address their developing English or Spanish literacy needs.

Q. What is the process of second language development?

A. Language acquisition is a continuous, developmental process. Students who are developmentally fluent in their native language acquire a second language with greater facility than those with limited native language abilities. It is beneficial to support a student’s native language in order to validate the student’s identity and aid in the acquisition of the second language.

Children can speak and socialize long before they can use language for academic purposes. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are acquired first. This is social language such as the language needed to interact on the playground and in the classroom. It usually takes students from 1-3 years to completely develop this social language. Then children will develop Cognitive Academic Learning Proficiency (CALP) skills. This is the language needed to carry out academic tasks in the mainstream classroom. It includes content-specific vocabulary. It usually takes students from 3 to 7 years or longer to develop CALP. (Cummins, 1994) This graphic gives a better understanding of BICS and CALP. It shows how the acquisition of language moves along a continuum, from the concrete to the abstract.

Q. What are the benefits of learning a second language in the elementary years?

A. Multiple benefits exist for acquiring a second language during the elementary years including:

  • Children have the ability to learn and excel in the pronunciation of a foreign language (Krashen, et al., 1982).

  • Children who had studied a foreign language show greater cognitive development (Hakuta, 1990).

  • Foreign language study has shown to increase listening skills, memory, and a greater understanding of one’s own language (Lapkin, et al., 1990).

  • Children studying foreign language have an improved self-concept and sense of achievement in school (Caine & Caine, 1997).

  • Children develop a sense of cultural pluralism, openness and appreciation of other cultures (Met, 1995).

Q. How does dual language compare to traditional ESL instruction?

A. Traditionally students identified as non-English speakers are pulled out of the regular English classroom and taught English in a small group with the ESL teacher for part of the day or approximately 30 minutes at a time. Research shows English language learners (ELL) in two-way immersion programs achieve higher on standardized tests than ELLs in ESL pullout programs.