Language acquisition is a labor of love, but it’s labor-intensive

Mother-baby synchrony shows the start of language acquisition [1]

Language acquisition depends on social contact

Children get their information about language from their caretakers and the adults around them. They tend to pick up on the most frequent nouns, verbs and adjectives first, and then extend their range. They attend to what is in the joint focus of attention for adult and child, to what is physically and conversationally present, and hence to the language directed to them as addressees.[2]

Infant attention… was significantly higher in response to the live person than to either inanimate source… During live exposure, tutors focus their visual gaze on pictures in the books or on the toys they talk about, and infants’ gaze tends to follow the speaker’s gaze… Infants in the live exposure sessions were visibly aroused before the sessions – they watched the door expectantly, and were excited by the tutor’s arrival, whereas infants in the non-social conditions did not.

Exposure to a new language in a live social interaction situation induces remarkable learning in 9-month-old infants, but no learning when the exact same language material is presented to infants by a disembodied source.[3]

Language acquisition is fostered by emotional expression

…infant-directed speech style reflects free vocal expression of emotion to infants, in comparison with more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult-directed speech. …infant-directed speech is accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions of emotion…[4]

American infants exposed in the laboratory to Mandarin Chinese rapidly learned phonemes and words from the foreign language, but only if exposed to the new language by a live human being during naturalistic play. Infants exposed to the same auditory input at the same age and for the same duration via television or audiotape showed no learning…[5]

…infant-directed prosody itself is not special. What is special is the widespread expression of emotion to infants in comparison with the more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult interactions.

…infants prefer to listen to infant-directed speech expressing positive (approval) affect over infant-directed speech expressing negative (prohibition) affect…[4]

Infants of nondepressed mothers readily learned that their mothers’ speech signaled a face, whereas infants of depressed mothers failed to learn that their mothers’ speech signaled the face. Infants of depressed mothers did, however, show strong learning in response to speech produced by an unfamiliar nondepressed mother.[6]

Language acquisition takes substantial labor and time

… a mother’s immediate social feedback results both in greater numbers and more mature, adultlike vocalizations from infants…

…infants vocally imitate adult vowel sounds by 5 months but not acoustically matched nonspeech sounds that are not perceived as human speech…

By 10 months… Children raised in Beijing listening to Mandarin babble by using tonelike pitches characteristic of Mandarin, which make them sound distinctly Chinese. Children being raised in Seattle listening to English do not babble by using such tones and sound distinctly American.[5]

Language acquisition labor changes, but the labor continues

Parents frequently check up on what their children mean. They often do this by reformulating with a side sequence or an embedded correction what they think their children said. Since the child’s utterance and the adult reformulation differ while the intended meanings are the same, children infer that adults are offering a correction. Analyses of longitudinal data from five children between 2;0 and 4;0… show that (a) adults reformulate their children’s erroneous utterances and do so significantly more often than they replay or repeat error-free utterances; (b) their rates of reformulation are similar across error-types (phonological, morphological, lexical, and syntactic) in both languages; (c) they reformulate significantly more often to younger children, who make more errors.[7]

At a conservative estimate, the average 5-year-old child will have learned more than 2,000 words… and will learn up to 3,000 more per year in the coming school years…[8]


  1. Melina, Remy. “” LiveScience, 23 Aug. 2011, www.livescience.com/15709-toddlers-understand-complex-grammar.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
  2. Clark, Eve V. “How language acquisition builds on cognitive development.” Trends in cognitive sciences 8.10 (2004): 472-478.
  3. Kuhl, Patricia K. “Is speech learning ‘gated’ by the social brain?” Developmental science 10.1 (2007): 110-120.
  4. Trainor, Laurel J., Caren M. Austin, and Renée N. Desjardins. “Is infant-directed speech prosody a result of the vocal expression of emotion?” Psychological science 11.3 (2000): 188-195.
  5. Meltzoff, Andrew N., et al. “Foundations for a new science of learning.” Science 325.5938 (2009): 284-288.
  6. Kaplan, Peter S., et al. “Infants of depressed mothers, although competent learners, fail to learn in response to their own mothers’ infant-directed speech.” Psychological Science 13.3 (2002): 268-271.
  7. Chouinard, Michelle M., and Eve V. Clark. “Adult reformulations of child errors as negative evidence.” Journal of child language 30.3 (2003): 637-669.
  8. Baddeley, Alan, Susan Gathercole, and Costanza Papagno. “The phonological loop as a language learning device.” Psychological review 105.1 (1998): 158-173.

English-language expertise and peak skill take decades

Age at best publication vs. age at first publication shows that English-language expertise and peak use take decades

Age at peak skill vs. age at initial expertise for writers. Expert-to-peak averaged 11-13 years, and took up to 45 years.[1]

English-language expertise starts with years to proficiency

… even in two California districts that are considered the most successful in teaching English to limited-English-proficient students, oral proficiency takes 3 to 5 years to develop, and academic English proficiency can take 4 to 7 years.

This paper follows on precedent-setting research… estimates of up to 10 years before students are fully proficient in English, i.e., are fully competitive in the academic uses of English with their age-equivalent, native English-speaking peers.[2]

English-language expertise is not necessarily automatic

…the ‘compressed’ discourse style of academic writing is much less explicit in meaning than alternative styles employing elaborated structures. These styles are efficient for expert readers, who can quickly extract large amounts of information from relatively short, condensed texts. However, they pose difficulties for novice readers, who must learn to infer unspecified meaning relations among grammatical constituents.[3]

This article presents a case study of a nonnative-English-speaking scholar from Hong Kong and his experience in publishing a scholarly article in an international refereed journal on his return from doctoral study in the United States.

…Oliver had considerable exposure to English throughout his life. His first contact with the language was at kindergarten, when he was 3–4 years old. Following kindergarten, he went to an English-medium elementary school. After that he moved to an English-medium secondary school that was staffed primarily by Irish Jesuit priests. His undergraduate education was at a Hong Kong university that has a bilingual policy of teaching in Chinese or English. On graduation, he worked for a time. Later, for his MA and PhD, he moved to a major research university in the United States, where he had very little contact with non-English speakers either inside the university or outside, where he had friends in the local community, living for 2 years with an American family. Oliver said that he considered both Chinese and English as his mother tongue.

Oliver was lucky in that… the single reviewer of his submission had the skill to see a publishable article in a manuscript that two nonspecialists (the research assistant/local editor and I) were unable to envision and that had what the reviewer described as “second language mistakes that interfere with clarity and obscure meaning”… The in-house editor did an aggressive job, cutting the paper from 43 pages to 29. Entire paragraphs were removed, and virtually every sentence was rewritten.[4]

English-language expertise and peak skill take decades

Most children these days are being taught grammar and are given creative writing assignments as early as Elementary school… …in our sample… it is certainly plausible that they started writing creatively at age 10. The average age in which any writer in our sample produced their first work is 32.8 years. The average age at which any writer in our sample produced their “best” work is 43.4.[1]

‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.’—Robert Benchley [5]

In our sample of writers, it took an average of 10.6 or 12.8 years (depending on whether you exclude those whose best work was also their first work) to produce a “masterpiece” of fiction once they had started publishing. Since our sample included contemporary writers, mostly still living, there is still a good chance that the writer’s “best” work has yet to been produced, which would only increase our overall mean. According to Simonton (1997), the average peak year for novelists is 27.1 years into their career…

…many of the skills required to become an expert in literature (i.e., constructing a problem representation, goal setting, planning, etc.) are also required of any task in which people are trying to extend themselves or to achieve a novel or superior result.[1]

In many fields, English-language expertise and peak skill are only just a start

The most frequently reported outside ability for scientists is that of verbal ability… When disabilities are mentioned, however, disabilities in language are named for scientists…[6]

…it is quite possible that writers might require less time for expertise acquisition than other domains. It has been suggested… that the greater the knowledge base of a domain, the more formal knowledge is required for truly innovative work within it.[1]


  1. Kaufman, Scott Barry, and James C. Kaufman. “Ten years to expertise, many more to greatness: An investigation of modern writers.” The Journal of Creative Behavior 41.2 (2007): 114-124.
  2. Hakuta, Kenji, Yuko Goto Butler, and Daria Witt. “How Long Does It Take English Learners to Attain Proficiency?” The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Policy Report 2000-1 (2000).
  3. Biber, Douglas, and Bethany Gray. “Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 9.1 (2010): 2-20.
  4. Flowerdew, John. “Discourse community, legitimate peripheral participation, and the nonnative-English-speaking scholar.” TESOL quarterly 34.1 (2000): 127-150.
  5. Kaufman, James C., and Claudia A. Gentile. “The will, the wit, the judgement: The importance of an early start in productive and successful creative writing.” High Ability Studies 13.2 (2002): 115-123.
  6. Raskin, Evelyn. “Comparison of scientific and literary ability: a biographical study of eminent scientists and men of letters of the nineteenth century.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 31.1 (1936): 20-35.

English-language networks bring a better quality of life

Per-capita income vs. English Proficiency Index score, showing rising impact of English-language networks

EF EPI
score

37.6-
48.4

48.8-
52.3
52.8-
57.3
58.1-
62.1

63.2-
72.2

English
skill

Very
low

Low Moderate High

Very
high

Where English skills are very high (where EF EPI Scores are 63.2 or higher), per-capita income jumps above the trend line, or well above.

English-language networks open up research

English serves as a bridge that connects employees across countries and cultures, weaving networks for innovation.

By a wide margin, researchers in the United States publish the most scientific papers every year, and the United Kingdom ranks third in publication numbers, after China. However,… Chinese research accounts for only 4% of global citations in science publications, compared to 30% for the U.S. and 8% for the U.K. …Chinese research is less integrated into the global knowledge economy.

English skills allow innovators to read primary scientific research, form international collaborations, bring in talent from overseas, and participate in conferences. English proficiency expands the number of connections innovators can make with the ideas and people they need to generate original work.

English-language networks open up business

English spread as a language of international trade and diplomacy first under the British Empire, and then during the postwar economic expansion of the United States.

An increasing number of companies headquartered in non-English-speaking countries (e.g., Rakuten, Renault, and Samsung) have adopted English as their corporate language.

Networks bring better salaries and quality of life

An improvement in English proficiency is tied to a rise in salaries… In many countries, higher English proficiency correlates with a lower unemployment rate among young people.

The Human Development Index measures education attainment, life expectancy, literacy, and standards of living. …all High and Very High Proficiency countries are rated “Very High Human Development” on the HDI.

…English is a core skill today. …it should be taught and tested at a level equivalent to native language reading and math skills.

EF EPI methodology

The data for this sixth edition was calculated using results from 950,000 test takers who completed three different EF English tests in 2015. Two tests are open to any Internet user for free. The third is an online placement test used by EF during the enrollment process for English courses.[1]


  1. EF EPI: EF English Proficiency Index. 6th ed., Education First, 2016.