Unit four - Language learning: what mainstream teachers need to know

Unit goals

At the end of the unit the participants will know about:

What are the differences between learning the first and second languages?

The table below shows a comparison of an infant learning his or her own language and a typical ESL1 student joining FIS in grade 7 with very little prior knowledge of English.

 First language Second language (English)
  Starting age: birth 12
  Time available: 24/7 about 8 hours a day
  Teachers: family, relatives, friends FIS teachers, family, peers
  Target: comprehension, communication comprehension, communication, academic success
  Motivation: very high usually high
  Advantages: low pressure, context-embedded, teacher patience, lack of inhibition knowledge about language/the world; greater cognitive abilities
  Disadvantages: undeveloped cognitive abilities, no knowledge of language or the world high pressure, context-reduced, inhibition
  Outcome: age 5 - perfect fluency/pronunciation/grammar; peer-competitive vocabulary age 17 - variable fluency/pronunciation/grammar; limited vocabulary; (academic success)

There's more about this on the ESL website.

How do we learn a second language?

There is still no definitive answer to this question but the most convincing explanation comes from Stephen Krashen, emeritus professor at the University of Southern California. Krashen claims that second language acquisition is very similar to first language acquisition. Language acquisition takes place when:

Implications for FIS mainstream teachers:

More on Krashen's language learning theories.
More from the ESL website on i+1 and the role of the mainstream teacher in ESL language learning.
More from Wikipedia about second language acquisition

What kind of language proficiency is necessary for academic success?

According to Professor Cummins, there are two kinds of language competence: basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP). The differences are shown below:

  Definition: the language of everyday social interaction the language of the subjects, science, maths, humanities, etc.
  Typical settings: the playground, cafeteria, schoolbus the classroom, library
  Main characteristics: listening, speaking, context-embedded, concrete, cognitively undemanding reading, writing, context-reduced, abstract, cognitively demanding
  Linguistic features: short, simple sentences; high-frequency words long, complex sentences; subject-specific vocabulary; semi-technical vocabulary
  Learning time frame: 6 months - 2 years 5 - 10 years

Clearly, a good standard of cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP) in English is a necessary condition for academic success at Frankfurt International School.

More from the ESL website on BICS and CALP.


How long does it take to learn English as a second language?

icon icon

More on this

Is English an easy language?

To some students English is (very) difficult, while others find it easy. To a large extent this is dependent on the similarities of English and their mother tongue, plus some individual factors like intelligence, language aptitude, personality. It is possible, however, to list aspects of the English language that are objectively easier or harder relative to other languages:

Click for (a link to) a more detailed analysis of the question.
Read about the differences between English and the main languages at FIS.

What else is there to know about language learning?

Here are some more of the questions that mainstream teachers sometimes ask about language. Click the question to read a detailed response.


A workshop participant was dubious whether comprehensible input is a sufficient condition for language learning. I replied with the following anecdotal evidence:
A few years ago an Italian boy joined my grade 6 ESL1 class in August. He had a little German but minimal English. At first he was unhappy in school and refused to say anything. He soon became more comfortable and listened attentively in all his classes. Nevertheless he continued to be silent until well after Christmas. He then decided that he was ready to speak. Immediately he showed a good command of basic grammar, and in a very short time he became virtually fluent. Clearly, in his case, comprehensible oral and written input was sufficient to give him a very sound foundation in the language.

Of course, it could be claimed that he would have learned even more quickly had he been prepared to speak from the outset - and certainly, speaking to people usually means that they will speak back to you, thus increasing the amount of comprehensible input! But this does not refute Krashen's argument that comprehensible input is a sufficient condition for language learning.

Ensuring that their classes are comprehensible to ESL students is the single most important thing that mainstream teachers can do to aid those students in learning both the content of the class and the language in which the content is conveyed.

Further reading: What Teachers Need to Know About Language