Second Language Acquisition

Second Language Acquisition

The purpose of this page is to familiarize you with some of the most important theories in second language acquisition. Having a working knowledge of the basic stages of language acquisition and how it is developed is essential for you to have when teaching English to linguistically and culturally diverse students.

Five Hypotheses

1. The Acquisition Learning Hypothesis: There is a distinct difference between acquiring and learning a second language.

  • Acquisition is a natural language development process that occurs when the target language is used for real communication, often in informal situations. It is implicit and subconscious. It does not explicitly teach grammar.
  • Language learning is the explicit, formal or conscious study of language forms and functions. It uses and teacher grammatical rules and is highly dependent on aptitude.
  • Learning cannot turn into acquisition.
  • Only acquired language is available for natural, fluent communication.
  • “Language is best taught when it is being used to transmit messages, not when it is explicitly taught for conscious learning.” (Krashen)- Language is acquired when messages are understood.

2. The Monitor Hypothesis: The formal study of language leads to the development of an internal grammar monitor.

  • As a learner produces sentences, the grammar monitor monitors the output in order to ensure proper usage.

  • In order for a learner to use the monitor, three conditions are necessary: sufficient time, a focus on form, and explicit knowledge of the rules.

  • Knowing the rules helps learners perfect their language.

  • The focus on language teaching should be on communication, not simply rule learning.

  • Correct errors with more comprehensible input.

3. The Natural Order Hypothesis: Language learners acquire the rules of language in a predictable order.

  • Language proficiency develops from pre-production to early production to speech emergence and to intermediate fluency.
  • For example, certain grammatical features tend to be acquired early, whereas others tend to be acquired later.
  • See detailed information further on.

4. The Input Hypothesis: The acquisition of a second language is the direct result of learners’ understanding the target language in natural communication situations.

The messages communicated are often enhanced with comprehensible input.

  • Comprehensible input connects the known to the unknown. It enables learners to understand more than they can produce.
  • The more comprehensible input the greater the second language proficiency.The messages should be at a level of I + 1, that is the message should be just a bit beyond the learners’ current level of second language acquisition. The I represents input and the 1 represents the challenge.
  • This challenging input can be made comprehensible by providing various clues.

5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis: The most important affective variables favoring second language acquisition are a low anxiety-learning environment, student motivation to learn the language, self-confidence and self-esteem.

  • “People acquire second languages when they obtain comprehensible input and when their affective filters are low enough to allow the input in.” (Krashen)
  • The learning environment must include meaningful activities with the anxiety level low. It must be a safe and supportive environment so that learners feel free to take risks.
  • Students may experience a silent period during which they can acquire some language knowledge by listening and understanding, rather than forcing immediate speech production.

Affective Variables

  • Self-esteem: If students have high self-esteem, they are more likely to view themselves as capable learners and will therefore have a greater probability of taking risks.
  • Motivation: If students are motivated to learn, by understanding the rationale behind acquiring a new language, then they are more focused and apt to take more risks.
  • Level of anxiety: If the level of anxiety is high, then students are more apt to focus on form, rather than communication.

Stages of Language Proficiency

  • Pre-Production Stage: At this stage, learners do not yet produce speech. They are mainly acquiring language by listening and responding with non-verbal signals, such as hand signals, nods, winks, etc. Learners are participating through physical responses. During this acquisition stage, learners are internalizing significant pieces of the information.
  • Early Production Stage: Learners may respond with one to two word utterances. They can attend to hands-on demonstrations with a greater comprehension of what is occurring. Learners may initiate conversations by pointing to an object and / or using single words. Communication focuses mostly on interpersonal and personal issues.
  • Speech Emergence Stage: Learners begin speaking in phrases and short sentences. They often use speech that sounds telegraphic (I go home now). Learners may make many errors of grammar and syntax as they are emerging into the new language.
  • Intermediate Fluency Stage: Learners speak with a flow of phrases and sentences that are related. They can engage in discourse and communicate their thoughts more effectively. Learners can partake in daily conversations without having to rely on concrete contextual support. They further develop their academic language.

*For additional information on Stephen Krashen follow the link to his website where you can find full text articles, books on line, and a list of his books in print.

*Much of the information for this section comes from Amazing English by Teresa Walter.
The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language Minority Students


  • Misconceptions about English proficiency create deficits in the design for instruction of minority students.
  • There are serious problems with the rationale for bilingual education as stated in the United States Commission for civil rights.
    1. It does not take into consideration the sociocultural factors of minority students’ failure.
    2. It provides an “inadequate understanding” of what is implied by language proficiency.
  • Too often, students are expected to be proficient in the English language after a relatively short amount of time.
    1. Is proficiency being able to communicate with one’s peers? Is it being able to read and write in English? To what degree?
  • Second language learners are many times incorrectly assessed and diagnosed because of their lack of understanding of the English language.

Communicative Competence

  • Canale proposed 4 areas of communicative competence: grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence.
    1. Grammatical competence is the understanding and mastery of the language code, for example spelling, word and sentence formation, pronunciation, vocabulary, and meaning. This competence focuses on correctness and accuracy.
    2. Sociolinguistic competence is the understanding and mastery of appropriate language use in varied social settings. It takes into account factors such as the social norms, the status of the participants, and other social conventions.
    3. Discourse competence is the understanding and mastery of how to combine meanings, phrases, sentences, and forms to appropriately engage in a conversation. The participant is both the sender and receiver of the language.
    4. Strategic competence is the understanding and mastery of verbal and non-verbal strategies such as using dictionaries, being able to paraphrase, gesturing. This competence is used to clarify meaning and to enhance communication.

English Proficiency

  • A bilingual framework must include a developmental perspective.
    1. Speakers are distinguished between native and second language learners.
  • A bilingual framework must allow for differences between the linguistic demands of school and those of interpersonal contexts outside of school.
  • A bilingual framework must allow for a relationship to develop between the first and second language.
  • There is a continuum that corresponds to the contextual support available for expressing or receiving meaning.
  • The extremes of the continuum are classified by the fact that in context – embedded communication, students can actively negotiate meaning and the language is supported through gestures, intonation, body language and situational clues.
    1. This communication derives from interpersonal involvement that reduces the need for explicit linguistic explanation of the message.
    2. It is more typical of everyday world outside the classroom.
    3. The more context embedded the initial second language input is, the more comprehensible it will be and the more successful it will ultimately be in developing the skills in second language instruction in context – reduced situations.
  • In context – reduced communication, the students rely primarily on linguistic cues to make meaning and may need to suspend knowledge in order to interpret the conversation.
    1 . This communication derives from the fact that it cannot be assumed that the message has been understood and therefore must be “elaborated precisely and explicitly so that misinterpretations are minimized.”
    2. It is more typical of the linguistic demands in the classroom.
  • “A major aim in literacy instruction in schools is to develop students’ abilities to manipulate and interpret context – reduced demanding texts.”

Theoretical Chart

  • The following is a chart that demonstrates the degree of cognitive involvement in activities that require communication.
  • “The vertical continuum is intended to address the developmental aspects of communicative competence in terms of the degree of active cognitive involvement in the task or activity.”
  • Horizontally, the range is from tasks where lots of clues are given, to ones where no context clues are provided.
  • Communicative activities, moving from left to right, might include: engaging in a conversation, writing a letter to a close friend, writing and / or reading an academic article.

Cognitively Undemanding 

Developing survival vocabulary
Following demonstrated directions
Playing simple games
Participating in art, music, and P.E

Context Embedded ————————————-

Engaging in telephone conversations
Reading and writing for personal purposes

——————————————————Context Reduced

Participating on hands on experiences
Making maps, models, charts, graphs
Solving math computation problems
Understanding presentations w/o visuals
Making formal oral presentations
Solving math word problems w/o illustrations

Cognitively Demanding

Levels of Language Proficiency

  • Cummins clarifies between academic and conversational language proficiency.
  • BICS: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills involves using language for social purposes, for example for day-to-day conversation and personal communications. It tends to be contextualized and provides various clues to aid in comprehension. It develops within the first two years of acquisition and is the basic fluency in the language. It is most visible and is acquired the fastest.
  • CALP: involves using language to understand and communicate academic and cognitive knowledge. This is the type of language needed to accomplish academic tasks. Usually, there are fewer context clues and thus requires for time to acquire. CALP is highly transferable from one language to another. It is least visible and requires a deeper level of language proficiency.
  • Students with strong educational backgrounds tend to acquire language faster and at higher levels than those that do not.