Understanding Language Acquisition

Your students may want to know “how long it will take” to learn the language—to become fluent. They also may have inaccurate ideas about how language learning takes place. To become successful and remain engaged, they need your help in understanding the learning process and developing realistic expectations.

First, students need to understand that learning a language is not the same as learning about a language. When students think of the language as a school subject, they may learn a lot about its vocabulary, grammar, and sentence and discourse structure, but the language will not become a true medium of communication for them and won’t engage them very deeply. By using communicative language learning activities, you can demonstrate that learning a language means trying to use it to communicate, even when they don’t have extensive vocabulary or perfect pronunciation. It means becoming able to use the language to comprehend, communicate, and think—as they do in their first language.

Students also need to recognize that language learning takes place in stages. Interpretive skills (listening, reading) can develop much more quickly than expressive skills (speaking, writing), and the ability that students covet most—the ability to speak the second language fluently—may require the longest period of growth.

Each language learner works through a sequence of “approximate” versions called interlanguages, each of which represents a level of understanding of the target language. Understanding the four main features of interlanguages can help you and your students understand and monitor the language learning process.

  • Uniqueness: Interlanguages vary significantly from learner to learner in the early stages of language learning. Learners impose rules of their own on the oral and written input they receive. Each learner does this differently, combining emerging understanding of the rules of the new language with ideas derived from the first language and other information that comes from their individual situations and backgrounds.
  • Systematicity: As learners begin to develop proficiency in a language, they make errors in systematic ways. For example, once students learn the inflections for a single class of verbs, they may apply them to all classes indiscriminately. These errors are based on systematic assumptions, or false rules, about the language. When students become aware of this aspect of their language skill development, they will often appreciate and even ask for overt error correction from you.
  • Fossilization: Some false rules become more firmly imprinted than others and are harder for learners to overcome. Fossilization results when these false rules become permanent features of a learner’s use of the language.
  • Convergence: As learners’ rules come to approximate more closely those of the language they are learning, convergence sets in. This means that learners who come from different native language backgrounds make similar assumptions and formulate similar hypotheses about the rules of the new language, and therefore make similar errors.

You can use your knowledge about interlanguage to help your students understand the process of language skill development in several ways.

  • Focus on interlanguage as a natural part of language learning; remind your students that they learned their first language this way.
  • Point out that the systematic nature of interlanguage can help students understand why they make errors. They can often predict when they will make errors and what types of errors they will make.
  • Keep the overall focus of the classroom on communication, not error correction. Use overt correction only in structured output activities. (See Planning a Lesson for more on structured output.)
  • Teach your students that mistakes are learning opportunities. When their errors interfere with their ability to communicate, they must develop strategies for handling the misunderstanding that results.

Additionally, you can help your students develop realistic language learning expectations. Students often need assistance with understanding the level of language proficiency that they can expect to achieve after a given amount of instruction. One way to make this clear is to describe the functions and tasks that they will be able to do after a certain period of time. Use the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and the How Long Does It Take chart from Language Testing International to help your students understand the relationships among language of study, hours of study, intensity of study, and degree of proficiency development and develop realistic expectations for their own learning trajectories.

If you maintain the attitude that mistakes are a natural part of learning, you will create a supportive environment where students are willing to try to use the language even though their mastery of forms is imperfect.


Resources on Language Acquisition and Interlanguage

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA). Overview on interlanguage.

Eaton, Sarah Elaine. How long does it take to learn a second language? Applying the 10,000-hour rule as a model for fluency. Calgary: Onate Press, 2011.

Language Testing International. How long does it take to become proficient?

Omaggio Hadley, Alice. On learning a language: Some theoretical perspectives. Chapter 2 in A. Omaggio Hadley, Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle, 2001.


Read More

Promoting Engagement in Language Learning

Understanding Multiple Intelligences

Achieving Success with Learning Strategies



Some material in this section is drawn from the module “Research and language learning: A tour of the horizon” by Ken Sheppard in Modules for the Professional Preparation of Teaching Assistants in Foreign Languages (Grace Stovall Burkart, Ed.; Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1998).