Language acquisition at 21 months old

A couple of weeks ago we spent some time with 3 of our grandkids.  Abigail, the youngest, is 21 months old.  Interacting with this very verbal toddler made me wish I had documented every word she said.  I would guess her vocabulary comprises at least 75 to 100 separate words.  Along with several pairs of words like ‘help me’.  Easy to understand, Abigail used her words accurately and appropriately to the context.

23 - Abigail  As a language acquisition teacher (French and English), I love seeing evidence for the value of comprehensible input (CI).  Abigail enjoys a rich home environment with LOTS of input from her parents and older sister and brother.  The family reads and listens to recorded stories.  Meal times include lots of back and forth conversation, as do trips to school, the store, museums, the pool, gymnastics and martial arts to watch the older kids.

Just so you know, as a CI teacher, this year, I have intentionally laid off correcting the speech of my students in French class.  Hanging around Abigail for 5 days showed me the value of such self-discipline.  When we first arrived, as the other two grandchildren greeted me and ‘Papa Mike’, little Abigail started calling my husband ‘Pocket Mike’.  (pocket is a word she DOES know).  We did not correct her but chuckled a bit.  By day 3, she had un-self-consciously shifted to calling her grandpa ‘Papa Mike’.  No correction needed.

How did that happen? Simple! Abigail continued to hear ‘Papa Mike’ multiple times in ordinary conversation and at some point, her brain noticed the sounds and she started correctly reproducing his name.  The brain is in charge!

Back in the classroom, I shared with my middle school students how they, like Abigail, are acquiring a new language. I told them that one of my top goals this year has been to refrain from correcting their spoken speech.  Why? Because……

  • Corrections don’t work.  The brain balks at this kind of ‘shaming’ (its interpretation of a teacher’s good intentions) and shuts down.
  • Each person’s brain determines when it is ready to add something to the mounting quantity of correct language.
  • What comes out of our mouths is the exact representation of what the brain has noticed so far.

My experience with granddaughter Abigail set the stage for me to evaluate 7th-graders’ final presentations one week later.  We have finished the school year by reading Fama Va en Californie, a reader geared to their level.   The project called for each student to pretend to be Fama once she had returned to her home and school ‘back in Mauritania’.  The set up was that her teacher had asked Fama to share her ‘photos’ from the 4 months spent in America.

For the most part, I don’t consider this kind of output as much more than preparation.  Some kids memorize a good chunk of what they want to say.  Nonetheless, I was able to gain some sense of what the kids can do after 2 years with me (about 200 classroom hours).  Using no notes, each student stood by the screen with their projected Google Slides, explaining in French the trip’s ‘photos’.

Each student is unique.  Noticing which words/phrases each accurately used fascinated me, as well as the chunks of language that were not correct.  The fact that correct language resides together with incorrect language makes sense, for language acquisition is messy.  Hanging out with little Abigail set me up to understand better how the brain processes language input, not just for little ones, but for ALL of us.

One boy, in particular, made my day, my entire week, in fact.  He’s been one of my weakest students over the past 2 years.  But what I witnessed yesterday is what he can do with French when he focuses.  Yes, part of his output was a result of intentional practice in front of his non-French-speaking mom. But I also sensed that he would probably be able to replicate what he said in a different context. Although his active vocabulary is small compared to most of the others, his pronunciation is beautiful.  He has a musical ear.  That is, he HEARS the sounds and his brain DIFFERENTIATES the articulated, vocalized word chunks.

I’m completing my 26th consecutive year teaching French to kids.  I am pleased to say that this has been my best year teaching.  I have polished my input skills, backed off on correction and relaxed in my daily goals.  Delivering comprehensible input, day after day, in meaningful and varied ways DOES pay off.  It’s as simple as that.

I’m looking forward to yet another school year to work on my skills and marvel over how my students acquire French.

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2 thoughts on “Language acquisition at 21 months old

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Maria. First, Abigail is adorable! Second, it makes me think about how we teach grammar in writing. Research shows that teaching rules, and having students do practice activities, doesn’t translate into correct writing. I have certainly noticed that in my years of teaching. However, I have noticed that giving direct feedback on writing assignments has helped students improve their attention to conventions. Third, thanks so much for all you have taught Theo over the past three years. I really appreciate it.

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    1. Jodi – I appreciate your reading and linking what you’ve learned about how to teach kids to write. I certainly think that sitting down with a student who WANTS feedback and is ready to receive and apply it is effective. ‘They’ say that when a student asks a grammar question in L2 acquisition, it’s at that point they have a space to receive/plug in a brief 3-5 second explanation. It’s been my pleasure to work with Theo because he has been enthusiastic about French from the beginning!

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