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How children acquire language – Is it really any different for EAL learners?

March 10th| Fiona Drever
March 10th |

How children acquire language – Is it really any different for EAL learners?

Short answer…Yes.

When you think about it, learning a language, any language at all, is a pretty astounding thing to achieve. I’ve been doing a bit of research lately into how children acquire language, so I figured I might as well share some of the things I’ve learned!

In particular, I’ve been looking into how children acquire their native language, and whether this is any different to how children learn English as a second (or additional) language. One thing that most researchers seem to agree on is that the first three years of a child’s life are key to their language developement.

From the ages of 0 to 3 there are a number of milestones children meet that can influence how they use language in the future. The first of these is something called ‘auditory discrimination’, which basically means that babies learn to discriminate between different sounds in whatever language is being spoken around them.

The second milestone children reach language-wise comes between the ages of 1 and 2. By this point most children are able understand most of what is going on around them and are beginning to communicate by combining words to make simple sentences like ‘Dada, biscuit’ or ‘oh no! fall down!’ Despite these not being full or ‘correct’ sentences, the word order children of this age use will be the same as whatever language they are hearing spoken.

The last major language milestone usually happens around the age of 3 (or slightly later for some) and is directly related to the child’s cognitive development and their awareness of time. For example, until they understand the meaning of ‘tomorrow’ or ‘last week” children are unable to properly use the past or future tenses.

With regards to the features of language the children typically use, there is a loose order that their development tends to follow, although the actual age they start using each one varies a lot from child to child.

  1. Present continuous – ing (Danny jumping)
  2. Plural – ‘s’ (two biscuits)
  3. Irregular past (went, instead of ‘goed’)
  4. Possessive – ‘s’ (Mummy’s jumper)
  5. articles ‘the’ and ‘a’
  6. Past simple – ‘ed’ (Suzy jumped)
  7. 3rd person singular – ‘s’ (He sings, instead of ‘He sing’)
  8. Auxiliary ‘be’ (Danny is jumping)

(List taken from ‘How Languages are learned’ by Lightbrown and Spada, 2013)

Next time you hear a 3 year old chatting, try paying attention to which of these they use. According to research, the features at the start of the list should appear in children’s speech before those at the end.

So how does this relate to EAL learners?

Well… It’s not exactly the same for EAL learners. A lot depends on the age they start learning English, their experiences and their relationships with other English speakers. Also, the child’s first language can have a huge impact on how they learn and use English. Unless they are brought up in a bilingual environment from a very young age, it’s pretty likely that English learners will filter their English through their native language first, so the type of problems they have are often the result of trying to translate directly from their mother tongue. Basically imagine trying to use Google Translate for everything you want to say… sometimes it just doesn’t come out right!

Nope… that’s not it!

How can we help EAL students to develop their language in mainstream schools?

Friendships matter

The number one thing I would recommend is to provide lots of opportunities for EAL students to socialise with their peers, both in and out of the classroom. One of the most important motivating factors when learning another language is having a good, solid reason for doing so. It’s unlikely that students are going to make much progress if their only reason to learn English is because ‘it’s the language I use at school’, but instead, using English to chat to friends, play sports or take part in other social activities could provide just the motivation they need.

View all posts by: Fiona Drever
Categories: EAL

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