Take a child at any given stage of development. All else equal, three key drivers will determine the effectiveness of the child’s foreign language acquisition: quantity of language activities, motivation, and social interaction.

What is summarized here as language activities covers in fact several concepts, distinct but complementary, perfectly well introduced by Shumei Zhang (2009) of Dongguan University. These concepts are : input, output and feedback. Input describes the amount of target language that the learner is exposed to and that is processed by their brain. Input is indispensable, but not sufficient by itself. Feedback (sometimes called interaction) is necessary for the learner to grow aware of their mistakes and correct them. Last, output, or language produced by the learner, enables them, amongst others, to test their target language hypotheses and develop automaticity in language production. Our brain being “a supercomputer (…) equipped with powerful and rigorous statistical inference mechanisms”, as Stanislas Dehaene (2013), Professor at the College de France, puts it, input, feedback and output will be all the more effective as they come in large quantity and at the required level of quality.

It is thus necessary to speak abundantly to the child in the target language, if possible regularly, and with the right language level (that is to say without mistakes, in a way that is clear enough to be understood and sophisticated enough for the child to progress). The child must be strongly encouraged to speak in the target language, even if they have to take a leap of faith without any guarantee of success. Finally, one should not refrain from providing feedback to the child in case of mistake: it is not blaming or scolding but genuinely a necessary stage in the learning process.


L’input est indispensable à l’apprentissage de langue … mais pas suffisant

Input is indispensable for second language acquisition – but not sufficient by itself

Rebecca Oxford (1994), with the University of Alabama, mentions it: “research shows that motivation directly influences how often students use L2learning strategies, how much students interact with native speakers, how much input they receive in the language being learned (the target language), how well they do on curriculum-related achievement tests, how high their general proficiency level becomes, and how long they persevere and maintain L2 skills after language study is over”. Indeed, motivation is one of the most powerful language learning drivers. Motivation can make up for certain aptitude or quantity deficiencies; conversely, without motivation no learning can take place.

Typically, children will want to learn a language to integrate in their environment and have friends, or to succeed at exams; their motivation will be intrinsic, out of interest for the language or for the sake of achievement, or extrinsic, when driven with more or less success by their environment. Teachers play a pivotal role in their students’ motivation. Motivation also implies lack of demotivating factors. Parents, for instance, should not convey their own concerns towards a language that they think is too difficult; society should not make negative judgements on a language that is deemed inappropriate for one reason or the other.



Motivation, a key driver for language learning, varies in nature and intensity from one individual to the other (credit

Social interaction is the third learning driver. There is a partial overlap with the previous two drivers: feedback is often given through a social interaction (and not by a machine), and motivation very often comes from someone’s positive action. But the phenomenon is much farther reaching. At the iLabs center at the University of Washington, Sarah Roseberry (2011) studied the linguistic learning of a group of 42 children aged below 3, in various experimental settings: first with an adult attending in person, then with an adult attending virtually through a Skype-like remote connection, last with an adult in a pre-recorded video.

The outcome is unambiguous: live adults, whether present in person or through an online connection, enable a similar level of learning whereas the pre-recorded video is much less impactful. Therefore, one can strongly question the pedagogical effectiveness, at least for infants and toddlers, of pre-recorded child programs, even when the main character asks a question and pretends to be waiting for the answer. The fact is that children are not fooled. For actual learning they need real social interaction wherein the other person effectively follows their gaze, reacts to their facial expressions and change of attitude, pausing or resuming, in a word to their behavioural and learning dynamics.


Les personnages de certains dessins animés populaires ne dupent pas les enfants, même lorsqu’ils posent une question et font semblant d’attendre une réponse

The characters of some popular cartoons do not fool children, even when they ask a question and pretend to be waiting for an answer.

For your child’s second language acquisition, make sure not to disregard any of the powerful learning drivers discussed above: quantity of language activities, motivation and social interaction.