Learners from different first language backgrounds and in different learning contexts (untutored and classroom learners) show remarkable similarities in second language development.
Developmental sequences or 'fixed series of stages' (Doughty 2003) which all learners pass through have been identified for linguistic features such as negation and interrogation (Pienemann), relative clauses, and for the acquisition of the tense/aspect system (Bardovi-Harlig).
The earliest resources that the learners have are their interlocutors' turns, which may provide a time frame on which a learner can build (this is called scaffolding), and universal principles such a chronological order, by which listeners assume that events in narratives are told in the same order in which they happened (chronological order). This is called the pragmatic stage (Meisel, 1987). In the next stage, the lexical stage, learners use temporal and locative adverbials as well as connectives (e.g., and then) to indicate time. Finally, learners may move to the morphological stage, in which tense indicates temporal relations. At the same time that past morphology develops, it also participates in structuring the narrative. The main story line (the foreground) is distinguished from the supporting information (the background) by high use of simple past in English (or preterit in Spanish, and passé composé in French).
Read and reflect: Sequences of acquisition