Language Acquisition in the Early Years

One of the most loved parts of our preschools is the multicultural environment. We are lucky enough to have a wide range of nationalities meaning that our settings are rich in languages, cultures and traditions.

This variety also brings with it a factor that parents are very often concerned about: Additional language acquisition.

One of the most common questions and concerns we have from parents is about their child learning a brand new language. How will they cope? How will they understand? How will they adjust?

This concern for parents in completely understandable as they worry their children will have to not only adapt to a new environment but will also have to adapt to a new language. For us, as educators, however, this is never a real concern. After spending time with young children for a while, you will notice very quickly that children are a lot more intelligent than many give them credit for and learn a lot faster (a lot faster!) than adults do!

For this blog, we thought we would explain, purely based on our own experiences, the typical stages that we have noticed throughout the years of additional language acquisition in the early years in the hopes that if you are one of the aforementioned concerned parents, we may help put your mind at rest.

Stage One: Physical Communication

After spending a lot of time with children, you will quickly come to realize that they sense the energies of the people around them and will typically react accordingly. Therefore, even if a child does not speak your language, you are still able to easily make them feel comfortable with a smile, high five or hug. They do not need to understand that you are telling them that they are safe with you, because they will sense it.

The first stages of language acquisition is based on this – there should be a lot of facial expressions, gestures, physical direction such as pointing, indications of objects and so on. This, accompanied by the use of the language normally and naturally along the way, will introduce the child to their new language. For example, you can ask them if they wish to wear their jacket by picking up the jacket and showing them.

It is very important to note that this initial stage is the most difficult stage for the learner. A young child can easily become frustrated or scared at this beginning phase if they feel that those around them cannot understand what they are saying and what they need. During this time it is important for educators to be patient and compassionate. There are also ways to assist the learner more. A suggestion that we often make to our educators is to create a Communication Board with pictures of items or scenes that the learner or they themselves may be describing such as a bag, toilet, outdoor play area, Mum and Dad, water and so on for both to use to communicate with each other.

Stage Two: Parrot Fashion Learning

The next stage of language acquisition is Parrot Fashion Learning. This is not a purposeful, planned stage, designed by the educator but is a stage that will happen naturally by the learner and is an indication that the learning of the language has officially begun!

Parrot Fashion Learning is as simple and self explanatory as it sounds: it is when a child will repeat what is begin said but the words do not have meaning. For example, the teacher of the class may ask the child to “line up” and while the learner will repeat the phrase “line up” they will not line up.

This stage of the language allows them to practice the physical sounds of the words more than their comprehension but is an indication to the educator that they are grasping the language of their environment and is, therefore, a very exciting time!

Stage Three: One or Two Word Phrases

This next stage of the language acquisition process is when the children will move on to words with meaning. This stage may overlap with the previous stage of Parrot Fashion Learning, so while some words used may carry meaning, others may not.

The first words used with meaning are very typically simple words and words related to the child’s immediate needs. For example, “water”, “toilet” and “food”.

This is a very encouraging stage for both the educator and the learner but more so for the latter as they begin to see that their requests are being understood and fulfilled.

The Final Stage: Language for Effective Communication

This final stage of learning a new language is when the young child can use longer phrases and a wider range of words to socialise and communicate effectively with their peers and teachers.

In order for a child to reach this final stage, socialisation in their new language is highly important throughout the whole process of the acquisition. A learner should be given natural opportunities to communicate using the new language in organic situations such as during play times to participate games with their friends.

It typically, based on our own experiences, takes the first term of school to reach this stage comfortably and this new stage opens whole new doors for our young learners!

It is important to note that these observations and experiences are our own and is typically what we see each year in our own early years settings. However, as with everything else, each child, each individual, each learner and each environment is unique: not everyone learns in the same way and not every child reacts to their environment in the same way. 

What we can assure you of, though, is that all young children are incredibly intelligent and, given the chance, can achieve absolutely anything with support, belief, encouragement, patience and compassion from their grown ups.