This is How a Second Language is Acquired


When you hear the words “learning a language,” you probably think about your high school Spanish class, full of vocabulary quizzes and verb conjugations. But, what if I told you there’s a better way to pick up a second language? In this article, I will dive into how a second language is acquired, not learned. 

A second language is acquired the same way that babies acquire their first language.  This method relies on comprehensible input, which is simply giving the person messages they can understand, either through listening, gesturing, drawing, or reading. 

It is reasonable that you have questions about the difference between learning a second language and acquiring one. I’ve got your answers! Keep reading, and I’ll dive into the specifics of second language acquisition and how it differs from traditional teaching methods, along with some tips on how best to acquire a second language. 

Learning vs. Acquiring a Second Language

When you think about learning a language, you probably imagine memorizing vocabulary words and learning grammar structures. But, language acquisition is a completely different process. 

The main difference between learning a second language and acquiring one is that learning is a conscious studying and memorization process. At the same time, the acquisition of language is the natural, subconscious comprehension and absorption of information. 

Revisiting our analogy of how a baby learns their language, they: 

  • Start by listening to what’s said around them first
  • Begin to speak after a few months
  • Learn grammar rules much later

At the heart of the concept of language acquisition is the idea that we should learn a second, third, or fourth language the same way that we learned our first language – by absorbing it naturally through listening. 

The Basics of Language Acquisition 

Linguist Stephen Krashen states that we didn’t learn our first language as babies – we acquired it. Our ability to understand and speak our native language came naturally, through a process of listening first. We all listened to our mothers, fathers, and other caretakers speak to us in ways that we could understand, and we simply listened for months before even attempting to speak. 

Listening is the foundation of language acquisition, but we can’t just listen to two people speaking a foreign language and eventually understand it. Stephen Krashen emphasizes that comprehensible input is the key to acquiring any language. 

The Idea of Comprehensible Input 

So, what is comprehensible input? This is the process of taking in interesting listening or reading material that is at or just above your current level of understanding. With this process, you might not understand what a word means, but you should be able to pick it up through context clues.  

For example, a parent might introduce their baby to basic vocabulary about their shoes by pointing to their shoes, saying the word “shoe,” and talking about the color of their shoes. Eventually, the child subconsciously connects the word “shoe” and that thing covering his or her foot. 

Stephen Krashen himself demonstrated the idea of comprehensible input in a lecture. He spoke entirely in German and taught the audience by drawing a picture of Spock, a character from Star Trek. Krashen was able to communicate the German words for “two,” “three,” “face,” “ears,” “eyes,” and a few other basic words by drawing, gesturing, and repeating those words. 

Language acquisition relies on these kinds of methods as great ways to give the learner clues and communicate meaning:

  • Gesturing 
  • Pointing
  • Drawing pictures 
  • Acting things out 

As an ESL teacher who taught through immersion, I relied on these kinds of actions a lot. In fact, we used something called TPR or total physical response as a teaching method to support immersion almost on a daily basis. One of the best books on TPR, available at Amazon, is The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox by L. Ferlazzo; I highly recommend it for all teachers or those who want to learn more on the subject.

Essentially, Krashen explains that language is acquired through presenting the learner with messages that they can understand. 

What About Grammar Rules? 

Many linguists who subscribe to the ideas of language acquisition emphasize that grammar rules should not be taught early on. This definitely goes against more traditional classroom teaching methods, where language students start to memorize sentence structures and verb conjugations from day one. 

But, when students are always thinking grammar-first, speech can be much more stunted and awkward. The student must first construct the sentence in their head before even saying it out loud. This results in the student being more focused on whether the sentence is structured correctly than whether they are communicating what they really mean. 

In contrast, think about how young children speak their native language. They might use the wrong verb tense or leave out a word, but as long as others can understand what they are trying to say, they are communicating their meaning effectively. 

When children learn their first language, things like correct verb tenses are learned over time through reading and listening. The human brain can sense grammatical patterns and subconsciously absorb those patterns through comprehensible input. Think about it: when you speak or think in your first language, you’re never consciously conjugating verbs in your head; you just know which verb tense is correct. 

The i+1 Rule 

One crucial part of language acquisition is the i+1 rule. This means introducing students to content just above their comprehension level so that they can understand some of that content, but not all of it. 

The idea behind this is that even if a student doesn’t understand a word, they will still be given a chance to figure out that word’s meaning through the context in which the word was used. This level also ensures that language learners will be challenged but not overwhelmed. 

Factors for Success in Language Acquisition 

So, what exactly do you need to be able to acquire a second language successfully? Language acquisition scholars agree that there are three main factors for success, which are: 

  • Motivation 
  • Self-Esteem 
  • Anxiety 

Studies have shown that motivation is incredibly important when acquiring a new language. The more motivated a student is to understand, the more quickly and more effectively they’ll be able to absorb that language. I’ve written in detail about motivation here, if you’d like to read more.

Self-esteem has also been shown to be crucial in language acquisition. Students with higher levels of self-esteem were better at acquiring new languages than students with lower self-esteem. 

Levels of anxiety are incredibly important when acquiring a new language. It’s been proven that the more anxious a student is, the less language they’ll be able to acquire.

In connection with this, Stephen Krashen introduced the idea of the “affective filter.” The idea behind this concept is that the part of the brain that absorbs language becomes blocked off when someone is anxious. 

This is part of why traditional second language classes aren’t the best way to learn a new language. For many students, there is the anxiety of being forced to speak in a new language before they feel ready. And, there is also the fear among students that when they do speak, they’ll make a mistake and be humiliated in front of their peers. 

For this reason, with the language acquisition method, teachers are not supposed to correct their students. The idea is that the student will eventually learn the correct way to say whatever they had attempted to before. And that student will absorb it more effectively without the added anxiety that comes from knowing they have made a mistake. 

The Stages of Acquiring a Second Language  

According to Stephen Krashen, there are five different stages of language acquisition. In this section, I’ll break these stages down. 

Stage One: Pre-production (or the Silent Phase) 

Just as babies don’t speak for the first several months of their lives, those who have studied language acquisition agree that students shouldn’t have to speak when beginning to learn a new language. Even when babies aren’t speaking, they are constantly absorbing information. 

In this stage, students should be able to answer questions in their target language by nodding yes or no. A helpful method during this period is using children’s books or magazines so that students can point out or circle parts of photos to show their understanding. 

Stage Two: Early Production 

In the next phase, language learners should be able to use familiar, simple phrases and some present tense verbs. The student’s comprehension is still pretty limited in this phase, but students should at least be able to show their understanding by answering questions in one or two words. 

Students should still be mostly listening in this phase – the purpose of asking questions in these early phases is to test the learner’s comprehension levels. As long as the student can engage in small ways, they’re on the right track. 

Stage Three: Speech Emergence 

Stage three is when the student’s speech levels become much stronger – students will have good levels of comprehension, and they should be able to produce simple sentences. 

At this level, it’s okay if students are still making a lot of grammatical mistakes. Like I touched on earlier, grammar rules and sentence structures aren’t a high priority in the earlier stages of language acquisition. As long as the student can understand a significant amount of what they’re hearing or reading at this point, they’ll continue to absorb grammar rules and patterns over time subconsciously. 

Stage Four: Intermediate Fluency 

At this level, students should be able to understand almost everything they hear or read in their target language. By this point, language learners will also have absorbed grammar rules and sentence structures, so they should be making few grammatical mistakes. 

Students in stage four of language acquisition can also answer more complex questions that might require an answer with more than one sentence. They can use different verb tenses easily and explain their points of view when asked questions starting with “what would happen if” or “why do you think?” 

Stage Five: Advanced Fluency

At this level, the student should have a level of ease in speaking and understanding close to that of a native speaker. These students should be able to tell stories naturally, with plenty of detail, and conversation should come naturally. 

Methods of Language Acquisition 

Now that I’ve broken down what language acquisition is and how it works, let’s get into some steps you can take to start acquiring a second language. 

Find a Language Partner

We established that the first step of language acquisition is listening. So, the first step is to find someone to listen to! If you have a family member, friend, or co-worker who speaks the language you want to learn, you’re in luck. 

If you don’t already know someone who speaks your target language, consider finding someone with whom you can “trade” languages. Seek out someone who wants to learn English from an ESL (English as a Second Language) class or post on social media or Craigslist. There are plenty of people who want to improve their English skills, who would be willing to trade off taking lessons from one another for a couple of hours a week. 

Use Story Books and Magazines 

Once you’ve found your language partner, an easy method to start with is to find and work with magazines or children’s books. These types of content are incredibly helpful because they have tons of pictures in them. Another article I’ve written provides many recommended children’s resources.

Polyglot Jeff Brown recommends having your language partner take a storybook or a picture from a magazine and describe it to you slowly, pointing out what objects are called, what colors those objects are, and where they are in relation to each other. Your language partner will have to be patient and use lots of repetition, making sure you understand by having you nod or use one-word answers. 

As your comprehension increases, your language partner will be able to describe things in greater detail. Instead of pointing out a car, they might describe how the car has a vintage look and is probably more expensive. By seeing what your language partner is describing, you have a great way to get comprehensible input. 

Last, we have several excellent children’s books for use with learning English available on Amazon. Fun Jokes For Kids is a coloring book that incorporates idioms and multiple meaning words, tricky for English language learners. As well, our Jump to Japan is a vibrant picture book that utilizes simplified vocabulary and supports learning common English phrases.

Draw Pictures and Act Things Out  

If you’re not working with magazines and books, have your language partner use every method they can think of to demonstrate what they mean. Stephen Krashen showed how effective drawing a simple picture can be to communicate meaning. 

And, it may feel silly, but encourage your partner to act things out, point, or gesture as much as they can. The more creative your language partner is, the more you’ll be able to understand. 

Tell Stories 

As you move into the later stages of your language acquisition process, you’ll be able to understand more complex content. One great way to test your understanding is to have your language partner simply tell you stories. 

This is certainly an engaging form of comprehensible input, and it gives you a chance to practice understanding your target language as you would in everyday social situations. 

Tips for Acquiring a Second Language  

So, I’ve broken down what language acquisition is and some ways to put it into practice. Now, let’s get into some tips for acquiring a second language as effectively as you can. 

Speak Only Your Target Language in Lessons 

Multi-linguist and language instructor Jeff Brown states that the first rule you should establish with your language partner is to only speak in your target language as much as possible. 

A good balance to strike in your lessons is to have 90% in your target language content and 10% in English. 

If your language partner speaks too much English, you won’t be challenged enough. But, if they speak entirely in your target language, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed because you won’t understand anything. 

Find a Language Immersion Trip 

Of course, one of the most effective ways to immerse yourself in your new language is to move to a country where that language is spoken. The more you’re introduced to your target language in everyday contexts, the more you’ll be able to absorb. 

Language instructor Jeff Brown learned Arabic in a year partially because he lived in Egypt for three months, where the language and culture completely surrounded him. 

Integrate Your Target Language Into Everyday Life 

Forbes published an article on traditional language education, and what they found was that teaching language as a standalone subject is not effective. The article proposed that if language were integrated into different contexts, students would be able to learn it much more efficiently. 

For example, teaching a gym class in French could significantly improve students’ comprehension and speaking skills. If a student didn’t know what the word “ball” was in French, they’d likely learn much more quickly by having to use it in action, rather than just looking the word up and attempting to memorize it. 

There are easy ways to implement your new language into your daily life: 

  • If you’re unwinding at night by watching TV, try to find something to watch in your target language. 
  • Find a foreign language audiobook to listen to on your commute. 
  • Search on Facebook for foreign language meetups in your area. 

The more you’re hearing, reading, and thinking in your target language, the more natural it’ll start to feel. 

You Can Acquire a Second Language 

You might think you’re not good at learning new languages, but maybe that’s just because you haven’t tried acquiring a new language. Focus on getting comprehensive input, and you’ll be understanding a second language in no time. 

The Final Talking Point about How a Second Language is Acquired

To recap, acquiring a second language is not the same as learning it. To be successful and achieve fluency, you really want to focus on acquisition. Techniques to support acquisition are more natural, authentic, daily and consistent. Don’t give up!

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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