The key to understanding young learners in an ESL classroom is to realise that they are simultaneously learning LI (the first language) and L2 (the second language), a Herculean task at the very least. How we treat young L2 learners is critical to their long-term language acquisition.
Children learn their mother tongue by first determining, independent of language, the meaning that a speaker means to convey to them and then working out the relationship between the meaning and the expression they heard.
Many language researchers stress this concern with content over form and emphasise that when a small child learns to speak, it is indeed the meaning that takes precedence for both the child and the receiver. Beginning speech consists of very simple forms with an intense desire on the receiver’s side to be understood by the child. Simplification is accomplished through choice of topic, the range of speech functions, the length of the piece of language, as well as repetition and rephrasing of the message. Normally, when a child first begins to speak the L1, there is little correction of ungrammatical forms in the speech of the child. The receiver, usually the parent or a caregiver, seems to be more interested in the truth-value of the utterance. Parents and teachers alike are usually thrilled by any effort at all that a small child makes in forming new language. For example, when the child says, “Dog big!” for the first time, no one labels this a mistake or calls it substandard language. Instead the child is praised and rewarded. The utterance is considered evidence that the child is acquiring the target language.