How Quickly Do Children Learn a Language?

teacher speaking to preschooler
Kids Say the Darndest Things

Sometimes kids don’t always say what we want them to say. Once, almost 40 years ago on a bus in Mexico, my mother-in-law told the driver that her son was four so she wouldn’t have to pay his fare. “No, I am not four, I am five!” my now husband proclaimed, much to her embarrassment. As much as adults wish that kids would take the hint about what we want them to say, they often don’t. The same goes for the languages that children use. Sometimes they use one language when we desperately want them to use another.

Expectations for Language Learning

Many parents and grandparents feel frustrated when they speak to a child in one language and they answer in another. Parents and grandparents should know, however, that this is part of a natural stage in language acquisition. It may work to try to “force” a child to speak a particular language, but only in the short term. What are reasonable expectations for language acquisition and how do they map to immersion programs, like ours at the International School of San Antonio?

For children who are just starting with a second (or third!) language in an immersion class, parents can expect a silent period in acquisition. This means that children may not speak the new language for several weeks or months. Most children will start to use isolated words, and often sing a favorite song to themselves within two to three months.

The Stages of Language Acquisition

According to research, we know that language learners go through predictable stages: preproduction, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency and advanced fluency. During the preproduction stage, which lasts between zero and six months, learners usually can only respond with yes/no answers and pointing. Six months to a year later, students in the early production stage will respond to questions and prompts in the target language with one to two words. Over the next two years, in the speech emergence phase, students respond with simple sentences. After three to five years, students have excellent comprehension of the target language and general make few errors in their speech. Learners reach the last stage after about five to seven years. In this stage, learners have close to native-like fluency.

Benefits of Language Immersion Education

It is important to note that this rough time line of stages applies to learners in immersion programs who are in the language environment for dozens of hours per week. Students who only hear a language for a few hours a week would not progress as quickly through the stages of language acquisition. Students in immersion programs get about up to thirty times the language exposure than students who are in a language class that meets for an hour per week.

As we often say, it takes a flood of input to produce a trickle of output. Students who acquire a new language go through predictable stages and it is important to recognize what they are capable of doing during each stage. But the long-term payoff of immersion programs is clear. After a few years, learners develop a strong proficiency in the new language.

To understand more, check out our post Why Does Language Immersion Work?

teacher reading dinosaur book to preschooler in Chinese

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