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The 5 Predictable Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Stages Second Language Acquisition Feature

What is Second Language Acquisition?

There are five predictable stages for students who are learning a second language.

As a teacher, it’s good to recognize the stage your students are capable of working in because you can cater to that particular level.

When you tie your own speech into their stage, you are teaching in their “zone of proximal development”.

In the zone of proximal development, students can complete tasks with guidance encouraging and advancing their individual learning.

The Five Stages of Second Language Acquisition

And if you want to lift them to the next stage, it’s through your knowledge of the five stages of second language acquisition you can do so.

From pre-production all the way to mastering the English language:

Students predictably go through these five stages of second language acquisition.

Here they are:

1. Pre-production Stage

When babies learn a language, it all starts with them recognizing words.

For example, if you ask your child to pick a toy and she reaches for one, there is a transfer of information.

The preproduction stage is generally a one-way, non-verbal exchange.

2. Early Production Stage

In this stage, two-way communication begins with one or two-word phrases.

Similar to young children learning to speak, they speak the most important keywords and phrases.

Additionally, the early production stage is accompanied by the use of present tense for verbs.

3. Speech Emergence Stage

From just learning the basics to getting into more complex speech.

Students start creating simple sentences in the speech emergence stage.

Even though students frequently make grammar and pronunciation errors, their comprehension improves.

4. Intermediate Fluency Stage

Students progress from simple to more complex sentences.

They start forming paragraphs with much fewer grammatical errors and better verb tenses and conjugation.

Their comprehension is now at an intermediate fluency.

5. Advanced Fluency Stage

Finally, the last stage is when students master their second language.

In other words, this is when their second language acquisition has improved to such a level they have a native level of speech.

Really, it’s the stage that most English Language Learners are trying to achieve.


Unfortunately, what we know about language acquisition isn’t making it to mainstream teachers who are engaged in it.

For second language acquisition, you can take these stages and adjust your speech to that particular level.

From production to advanced fluency, second language acquisition goes through these five foreseeable stages.

Not only can your students gain the confidence they need, but they can jump to the next stage of development.


  1. This is all very subjective. Having taught eight languages to students of all ages, backgrounds, with disabilities (deaf, blind or both), proficiency levels (Zero to C2 and beyond)…PLUS having taught people who resist learning all the way up to teaching top 1%’ers moving into military intelligence (where their learning (or lack thereof) could cost lives, I think you’re being way too cavalier with your groupings/levels, and way too general.

    As we all know, a lot goes into teaching language, attitudes are different, time periods for learning (length and duration of course, amount of time per day allotted, etc.), and so many more variables and contingencies too numerous to bore you with here — it’s a wonder we have any “standards” at all. I think we pattern-seeking humans need something to “center” any subject we teach, to whom, and peg each student on some kind of scale.

    For instance, I’ve taught English to blind and deaf 8 year olds who only could speak Portuguese. They learned faster, on average, than many of my best 8 year olds with no disabilities. Why? We’re still trying to find out. Need? Want? Desire? Innate sense? Who knows?

    My military intel candidates had six months to learn Arabic. It took me five; the average is eight for a premier, top-of-class student. And, as you can imagine, they had to speak it like it was their mother tongue, with all the nuances and “insider” references with respect to nationality, tribes and context. And if you think that Arabic or Mandarin or Pashto can be analyzed like any run-of-the-mill Western language, you’d be mistaken.

    Let’s get serious here and stop categorizing language learning like someone learning the piano. It’s more complicated and takes into account all the things I’ve mentioned, plus cultural norms and customs.

    1. Thank you for sharing. Language learning is definitely a nuanced process influenced by several factors.

      You rightly point out factors like individual attitudes, learning environments, and cultural nuances. These all influence the language learning experience. I think it’s still OK to classify language acquisition into 5 stages… but a one-size-fits-all approach is still inadequate when dealing with such a diverse range of learners… that’s because each one has their own unique needs.

      Does this article oversimplify teaching and learning English? I agree with you that it does. But still, it can be a useful framework for some.

  2. Reading this article gave me a deeper understanding about the stages of development, in second language acquisition. I believe this understanding will be helpful to me, in becoming a successful, English Language Teacher.

  3. I have to agree with Steve Tuggle. Going from SPEECH EMERGENCE (Stage 3) where the student speaks simple sentences to INTERMEDIATE FLUENCY (STAGE 4???) From my own experience, I think the teacher needs to know that most students really need a lot of HELP in STAGE THREE to move beyond it. To say that “Speech EMERGES (STAGE 3) and the student goes from simple sentences to any kind of FLUENCY (STAGE 4) seems a bit rare.

  4. This article doesn’t make any sense to me. Going from basic sentences in stage 3 to paragraphs with few grammatical errors and proper verb tense? That transition should have 2 or 3 additional stages.

  5. Great article, but I am curious about the suggestion to use the zone of proximal development. As teachers, aren’t we supposed to provide the correct example, rather than mimicking the level of our students? Perhaps I am misunderstanding what the ‘zone of proximal development’ means…

  6. I found the information very relevant to learning/acquisition of languages across the stages from childhood to adulthood and could relate to the theory. I am more prepared to assist my learners through the stages.

  7. As a foundation for teaching English, every teacher should know the stages of second language acquisition. Having this knowledge assists with planning lessons that will be of the most value and benefit to the student’s language learning process.

  8. I found this article very informative and relatable. I was able to reflect on the growth stages of a baby and see how as they progress through each stage, they acquire their language. Knowledge of these steps will definitely help me as I prepare to teach ESL to students.

  9. I can relate to this article. It feels like the process that I personally went through as a child. Informative and insightful information.

  10. This makes complete sense. I remember my younger brothers learning to speak, and what I recall from that fits with these five stages. I also remember studying second, third, etc., languages, and these steps applied to my learning, as well. This article is a valuable reminder about how we learn languages, and thus ways in which to teach English.

  11. It was good to read about pronunciation and the hard time ELLs have with the English language. I was also reminded of the zone of proximal development which I found very interesting and useful when I worked on my master’s degree and was glad to revisit the term.

  12. I am preparing to take the MTEL English as a Second Language test to obtain a license to teach
    English to second language learners. Your article was relevant to my preparation for the test.

  13. It was useful to read through the 5 stages and think about my own children’s acquisition of language from babies to now. The important point for me is using the knowledge I have about first language acquisition and applying it to second language acquisition.

  14. It’s so interesting to see that there are specific levels when learning a second language and it’s comparable to when babies learn their first, this makes lots of logical sense!

  15. Great article for second language acquisition. I teach English to children in China. Some of these things I was aware of, but I learned a lot too and will put it to good use.

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