The way in which someone learns a second language is known as Second Language Acquisition or SLA.
SLA is often regarded as mimicking the way in which native speakers acquire their first language (or Mother Tongue (MT)) and it is often felt that imitating this methodology in the classroom is the most useful way to help learners acquire a second language.
There are several main stages involved here and as a teacher if you understand that all students will go through these stages it will help with your understanding and acceptance of the students abilities.
Stage 1: Pre-Production
During this stage the students receive input in the target language (that is, the language they are learning). They may develop a passive vocabulary of some 500 or so words but not feel comfortable using them; instead they are content to listen while the teacher talks. (This is also known as the silent period.)
At this stage the students communicate with single words or gestures such as pointing to a person or object or perhaps answering with a single word yes or no.
This being the case, the teacher shouldn’t really push the students to speak as although it may seem like they are doing nothing, they are absorbing the sounds and rhythm of the language. Even when students do speak, they may merely be parroting what you say rather than producing language per se.
Stage 2: Early Production
By this period students have a vocabulary of some 1,000 words and they can use them in context, usually in one or two word phrases. During this stage as a teacher you can:
- ask yes/no questions
- accept 1 or 2 word responses
- build vocabulary
- use plenty of pictures and realia
Stage 3: Speech Emergence
Students by this time have a vocabulary of some 3,000 words and they can use short phrases and simple sentences to communicate. They can get involved in simple dialogues and ask questions. Although they will be able to produce longer sentences, they will often make mistakes.
It is not necessary to correct those mistakes explicitly. For example:
Student: I go toilet?
Teacher: Can I go to the toilet?
Student: Yes, I go toilet?
The student will hear your correction but will not necessarily be able to produce the correct sentence. This isn’t a problem.
Stage 4: Intermediate
This is a continuation of the previous stage; vocabulary has grown to some 6,000 words and students can produce more complex phrases and utterances, state opinions, ask for clarification and speak at greater length.
At this stage, students will often use strategies (i.e. grammar and sometimes vocabulary) from their mother tongue (or MT) to help. This may well lead to MT influence errors which should be pointed out explicitly.
Stage 5: Advanced
To get to this stage will usually take some 5 or more years depending on circumstances. Students have developed specialist areas of vocabulary and can participate in most language situations. Ideally they will be using the grammar and vocabulary of a similarly aged native speaker.
As a teacher, when you are in the classroom the language you use and teach should be very slightly above the current ability of the students.
If, for example, your beginners class can understand What is your name? then you can ask them something slightly above that grammatical level such as What is her name?. In other words, get them to stretch themselves slightly to understand.
Likewise, your students should be encouraged to produce language slightly above their abilities. Encourage your students to use the new language they’ve just learned in the classroom in an easy environment and be able to make mistakes without judgement.
(Unlike most subjects, with language it is expected, and natural, to make mistakes during learning and practice. Outside the classroom this can often cause embarrassment but your classroom should be a “safe haven” where students can make as many mistakes as they like without fear of ridicule; making mistakes is a part of language learning.)