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English Structures

First Language Acquisition

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 Moodle TESL 551: Crowley   Houts-Smith





The Stages of First Language Acquisition

5. The Telegraphic Stage

The Telegraphic stage occurs around the age of 2 1/2 years.

In this stage, children begin stringing more than two words together, perhaps three or four or five at a time. However, the style of speaking children use in this stage resembles the way of writing that used to be used in telegrams. That’s why this stage is called telegraphic. In the past, every word in a telegram cost money, so people used to write the shortest possible messages to save money. For example, to send the message "We arrived in Paris on Monday," someone might write "Arrived Paris Monday." Function words (pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions) and even grammatical morphemes (-ed) are typically absent.

Articulation of sounds continues to develop in order described in earlier stages. 20 consonants are articulated, and all vowels are articulated by approximatey 3 years of age. All vocabulary development processes continue, and more words are added. Utterances exhibit phrase structure, that is, they tend to follow the grammatical rules of the language.

6. Beyond The Telegraphic Stage

The Beyond Telegraphic stage begins around the age of 3 years and continues into fully developed language skills.

Vocabulary development continues, including its strategies of overextension. In fact, a similar pattern of overgeneralization is used for morpheme development: -ed, meaning past, shows up in such utterances as goed, or putted. Derivational affixes and compounding show up early in this stage: age 3 or 4. Inversion in questions comes in later.

To conclude, children go through approximately six different stages in learning their native language.

The next question is, "When are they finished?" That is, "When can we say that a child has learned language?"

The End of the Acquisition Process
One answer to the question is that a child has acquired language by six years of age.

This makes sense if you think about it. One reason we traditionally send kids off to school at age six is because they now have enough language to manage on their own. There are, of course, other developmental milestones that have also been reached (such as toilet training), allowing a child of six to manage away from regular caretakers, but an important benchmark is the language level that they have reached.

And what do we teach kids about language at school?

Think of the three Rs:

  • Reading
  • 'Riting
  • ‘Rithmetic
Children learn to read and write: to correlate the sounds and words of the language to the written symbols for them. That means they already have the sound system and know the essential words of the language. They already have all the language skills that can be learned through the natural process of first langauge acquisition.

A second answer is never.

Consider the following point of the argument for this answer:

Even adults keep adding to their vocabularies. One of the hallmarks of the college years is a tremendous increase in vocabulary. Of course, if a person doesn’t attend college, the increase is not as significant. So the vocabulary increase may not be tied to age so much as to the college experience.

Nevertheless, the human brain continues to develop until about age 25, and if Vygotsky is correct in describing a codevelopment of thought and language, why wouldn't we expect continued development of language until age 25? Of course, Vygotsky describes the situation as more of the intertwining of language and thought, which is a rather different from ongoing development.

Still, we should also consider that language is a system comprising phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. In the discussions of the stages given so far, focus has been given to these categories except pragmatics. Dr. John Madden (personal communication) has suggested that further language acquisition stages deal more with pragmatics than with some of the other linguistic areas.

And so the debate continues. However, for the moment, the age of six can be taken as a key age in the attainment of language skills. A child of six can fairly readily be said to be able to speak, something that is not as clear for young children, whose language use is often described with mitigating terms such as "She's just starting to talk." or "He knows some words." Rarely would one look at a six-year-old and ask the parent, "Can he talk yet?" It's not even a question that comes to one's mind, since most children of this age can not only talk but can also talk just fine.

Teaching Language

The fact that there is a relationship between age and language development suggests that the age of the learner is an important factor in language teaching.

The fact that language development begins as early as birth suggests that even preschool environments shouldn’t ignore language, especially spoken language.
  • The question arises whether learning a second language is the same as or different than learning a first.
  • The question also arises whether learning two languages at the same time follows the same developmental patterns in the same time frame.

These issues and questions form the basis of methods of teaching language and differentiate L2 teaching from L1 teaching.

Continue to Part 6: The Critical Period Hypothesis


American Sign Language The sign language used by the deaf community in the United States.
Test of English for International Communication. A standardized exam for Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English to conduct business. It is used by some businesses, predominantly in Asia, in hiring.
Test of English as a Foreign Language. A standardized exam from Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English as the language of insruction .It is used as an admissions requirement by most US universities and colleges for international students.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A term that encompasses both TEFL and TESL. It is the name of the professional organization to which many teachers belong. TESOL the organization has many regional affiliates both in the US and abroad.
Teaching English as Second Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as a tool necessary for some daily task like instruction, shopping, or interpersonal interactions.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as an intellectual, academic pursuit to non-native speakers of English.
Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who acquired English in infancy and young childhood as a first language.
Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a language is that it was encountered in infancy and young childhood as the dominant language of the environment.
Non-Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who didn't acquire English as a first language, but came to it after another language was established.
Non-Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a particular language is that he/she didn't encounter it while initially acquiring language, but came to it after another language was established.
Limited English Proficient. An adjectival phrase used to refer to the same students as ELL refers to. LEP is falling into disuse as it focuses attention on student deficiency rather than on the positive attribute of learning. Is being replaced by ELL.
Second Language. Refers to any language gained subsequent to the first or native language. It is acquired or learned secondarily to the native language. Doesn't refer to the ordinal numbering of languages, only to the relationship of a particular language to a persons native language.
First Language. Refers to the language that an individual encounters as an infant and young child; a persons native language.
English for Specific Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it for highly focused activity, such as for business or for aviation communication.
English as a Second Language Program. refers to a school program that is purposefully structured to provide instruction on the English language to NNSEs. An ESL program does not typically include instruction in any other subjects than English. An ESL program may be a component of a larger ELL program at a school.
English as a Second Language. Refers to the subject matter of the English language and the methodology for teaching the English language to non-native speakers. ESL makes no reference to the subjects other than English, but it is not methodology alone either, it refers to teaching the English language as content area. Typically, ESL refers to the study of English in a country where it is used for at least one daily task, such as instruction, interpersonal relations, or shopping.
English Langauge Learner Program. Refers to a school program that is purposly structured to provide instruction on the English language and instruction in other content areas to English Language Learners.
English Language Learner. Refers to students who are in the process of learning English, whether they are in ESL classes exclusively or a combination of ESL classes and other subject area classes.
English as a Foreign Langauge. Refers to the study of English as an intellectual, academic pursuit, not a a language whose use is necessary or desirable for daily life, although it may be used as a research tool. Typically, EFL is the study of English in a country where English is not a language of instruction or daily interactions, such as in Italy or in Saudi Arabia.
English for Academic Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it as the language of instruction for other subject areas.
Refers to a school program that is purposely structured so that students will use two languages on a daily basis.
Refers to the use of two languages in any capacity on a daily basis. A bilingual person uses two languages on a daily basis--for work and at home, perhaps, or for different subjects at school. Can also refer to the ability to use two languages, even if not used daily.