The 4 Stages of Second-Language Acquisition


Why does my child refuse to speak English?
Why does it seem like he isn’t making progress?
Why is his English level not the same as some of his classmates?

You as a parent may have asked yourself, or may be asking, these kinds of questions.

I hope this article introducing the 4 stages of second-language acquisition will help you understand where your child is in their English-learning adventure.

Just like any area of development (e.g., motor skills), second-language acquisition develops across a series of stages.

This development often follows a pattern where you can generally expect a rough outcome by a certain time.


When it comes to second-language acquisition, though, there is no exact formula for when a child should reach a given stage of language acquisition.

In fact, it’s very important to understand that children will reach developmental milestones, in second-language development as well as in first-language, at different rates.

It’s a mistake to simply evaluate our children’s development against the development of others.


With that important point made, let’s now move onto the 4 Stages of Second-Language Acquisition. This is how teachers learn to understand how our students develop as English speakers.

The specific terms are informed by a recent American textbook on the subject titled Preschool English Learners: Principles to Promote Language, Literacy, and Learning.


Stage 1: Home Language Use Stage

In this stage, children will attempt to use their home language when communicating with others who speak a different language, such as when speaking with their foreign teachers.

This is very typical when new students come into the school for the first few weeks or so.

Rather than responding to the child in Chinese, the foreign teacher will help and encourage the student to express their meanings with English, using gestures, expressions and concrete actions to help the student understand.



Stage 2: Observational and Listening Stage

Most children pass through a period of observation and listening.

This is sometimes referred to the “silent period;” however, the word silent obscures the fact of what children are really doing: listening closely to understand their new language and watching closely the gestures and environmental cues associated with that new language.

They are attending to and processing the new language, developing their understanding of the language before they are ready to use it to communicate.

Rather than speaking in the new language or home language, they often use other means like gestures, facial expressions and sounds to communicate.

This is the easiest stage to misunderstand. Like teachers, parents should understand that their children are in fact learning English, though it appears that they are merely “quiet.”

Also, understand that this stage of listening and processing is shorter for some children and much longer for others, and that this is perfectly ok!



Stage 3: Telegraphic and Formulaic Speech Stage

Here children begin to start using the new language to communicate!

Because their knowledge of the language is still small, they will typically speak in incomplete sentences, missing things like possession, verb conjugation, plurals, etc.

They will speak formulaically, using chunks or phrases of language without completely understanding their function.

A few examples of common formulas are “I like __;” “I have __;” or “I want __.”

As they progress, children will begin experimenting to move beyond simple memorization to try to analyze and produce language more creatively. This is exciting!




Stage 4: Fluid Language Use Stage

In this stage children begin to achieve increasing control of the rules of English.

They begin to sound more like native speakers. In the earlier part of this stage, children will mostly use simple, short sentences to communicate.

As they develop, they will be encouraged and taught to form longer, more complex sentences.





I hope this basic introduction to the stages of second-language acquisition helps you better understand your child’s journey in learning the English language.

Again, remember that children develop at different rates and that’s ok!

Even if it doesn’t seem like they’re learning, they are! Let’s all keep on learning and growing together!