Language Acquisition

Learning language is natural to humans. Unlike reading and writing, our brains are actually wired for listening and speaking! This innate ability helps us to communicate for survival, working, recreation, learning and millions of other activities. The process for learning a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth, etc.) language is similar to the process of learning a first language, although certain factors, such as age, environmental factors, intensity of exposure and other variables can impact the rate of acquisition, as well as the extent that a person acquires the language. This article at Colorin Colorado, Language Acquisition: An Overview by Kristina Robertson and Karen Ford explain the six stages of language acquisition as well as offer strategies for teachers to facilitate language acquisition.

Another fantastic resource for ELL teachers, classroom teachers and school leaders is this document: Help! They don’t speak English Starter Kit (which is way more positive than it sounds like!) It has fantastic resources for new ELL teachers and a million ideas in it from strategies for teachers to fostering partnerships with parents.

The final thing I want to mention in this post is that there is a difference in the types of language that students acquire. Social language, or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), develops much faster, usually in 1-2 years because it is the language needed to interact and “survive” in everyday situations. Examples of BICS/social language includes asking to go to the bathroom, talking to friends, ordering food. Academic language, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), on the other hand, generally takes up to 5-7 years to reach proficiency. Academic language is so tricky because it encompasses technical vocabulary, as well as discourse patterns found in academic writing such as test questions and textbooks. Examples of academic language include math vocabulary, science vocabulary, if____then_____, however, idioms, expressions, etc.

Jim Cummins was the researcher who theorized that language is like an iceberg. What we often see are students who appear proficient, but struggle in school. What we see is a tiny fraction of language needed to navigate school (BICS), but what students really need is often much deeper, (CALP.) Check out this post for more info: BICS v. CALP



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