Process of Language Learning


Children have the ability to acquire several languages without conscious effort.

In brief, the process of how your child acquires language and learns a specific language is complex. When your child is settling in to a new kindergarten you may be interested in the ways languages are learned. It can help you to understand the process your child is going through. Generally, children acquire language systematically and develop rules to govern their language acquisition (Gass, Selinker, 2008). These rules are established quite early and can later only be modified to a certain extent. Only sounds, words and sentence structures your child is exposed to on a regular basis can turn into systematic rules for their language acquisition.

Implicit Learning

A child is exposed to unknown intonation, sounds, words or sentence structure. They become familiar with the specific characteristics of the language after a while and implicitly take in the underlying structure of the language without any conscious effort. Children are like sponges whilst absorbing the language around.

Explicit Learning

A child starts to notice the unknown characteristics of the language that they are exposed to on a regular basis. They investigate the differences of this specific language in order to make out its structure.

Incidental Learning

A child can learn certain features of a language from the context. They can sometimes grasp the meaning of a word from context, without obvious intention or awareness. Mostly noticeable in younger children.

The use of language and code-switching

‘’Ich bin finished’’ (I am finished), ‘’Tuletko sinä outside?’’ (Are you coming outside?). These are examples of a small child code-switching. Code-switching is the alternation between two or more languages within a single conversation (Myers-Scotton,1993). In the past code-switching was often seen as a sign of confusion but current research shows that this is not the case. In fact, code-switching is a sign of linguistic competence that requires a high structural understanding of both languages. Changing language in mid-sentence is in many ways endearing and a vital part of your child’s learning so a process to be supported rather than a negative stage of learning.

Once your child masters two languages or even more there can be more reasons for switching languages which relate more to the child’s emotions. As a parent you do not need to know all the theories related to this but having an understanding of why a child may use different languages in certain situations can help you in the parenting of our child in a multilingual kindergarten.

Cognitive control

Cognitive control allows the brain to make a conscious decision based on goals rather than habits. A child may have several languages to choose from and they would choose which language they speak in which context, but heightened emotions could interfere. A child may feel emotional distress and resort to their first language though that is different to her educator’s language in the kindergarten.

Emotional Regulation

Your child may be used to expressing their deepest emotions in the languages you use at home and the languages used at the kindergarten may have less of an emotional connection for the child. Your child may feel comfortable in speaking about the weather and colours but struggle with other aspects, which deal with more intense emotions for the child.

Cultural frame switching

Your child may choose a language as more appropriate than another for expressing their emotions consistent with a particular cultural frame (Panayiotou, 2004). Emotional terms are not universal, so it can be difficult to find exact translations for certain emotions. A child may code-switch, so that the emotions they are trying to express are not lost in translation.

The above theories are just some potential reasons for code-switching. Your child is individual in the process of learning and using languages. A child may switch due to how they view the language of your family or the language of the newly adopted country/culture. Usually between the ages of three and six, children develop a social awareness of language differences.

• Peers
• Community
• Educators
• Number of years in the country
• Familiarity of different languages