Language Learning and Age

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The question of the optimal age at which to begin foreign language (FL) instruction has attracted the attention of parents, scholars and policy makers over the years, and is directly related to APEC's goal of learning each other's languages. Though the topic may seem new due to the surge of media interest, brought on partly by the turn of world events and domestic concerns about immigration-related issues in some APEC economies, research has been conducted in this area for at least 30 years. Studies on the “critical period” by psychologists, linguists and educators have turned out many interesting and relevant findings. In the United Kingdom, the National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning promotes starting language education early, because of the relative ease of learning at a younger age. Francis (2005) maintains that the knowledge of two or more languages in early childhood does not contribute to language deficiency or deficient intellectual development.[1] At the same time, researchers have considered possible areas of conflict that may arise when informing linguistic foundations for the one language by exposure to another. Recent studies show that adult learners may actually be at an advantage when studying a second language. It is clear that different economies’ school systems introduce FL at different ages with varying levels of implementation as reflected in their language standards.

Trends in FL Education

Economies are continuing to introduce FL at earlier and earlier grades. LeAnn Eyerman, on faculty at Ming Chuan University in Chinese Taipei, has identified the average age for the introduction of second language learning in the APEC region. In 2003, the average grade of language introduction was Grade 4. In 2007, it was Grade 3, while Hong Kong China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand all begin second language instruction in Grade 1 (Survey analysis reported in Background Research Paper, 2007). In addition, Patricia Duff in her paper, “Foreign Language Policies, Research, and Educational Possibilities” presented at the 2008 APEC Symposium on Education Reform, claims this downward push can be justified for affective and cognitive reasons.[2]  Duff states there is a critical or “sensitive” period for optimal language learning, and particularly for FL pronunciation, ending around the age of puberty. Other researchers believe younger children are more amenable to other languages and cultures. Furthermore, they are less self-conscious about FL production than older children and adolescents.[3][4]

Children and Language Learning

The trend towards introducing language education instruction at younger ages has made it imperative to examine why children are perceived to be more proficient at FL acquisition. The most significant reason why children are assumed to be more proficient at language learning is because they are more proficient at mimicking native pronunciation.[5] Further, the amount of vocabulary necessary for a child to be proficient in a FL is less extensive than what is necessary for an adult to be considered competent in vocabulary. 

Successful FL Implementation in Early Language Education

 Research shows that the age at which FL learning commences is also dependent on the implementation variables of (1) the intensity, duration, and quality of FL instruction, (2) the status of the FL course itself within the school curriculum, and (3) students’ metalinguistic efficiency. According to Duff (2008), each of these variables must be taken into account when changing policies and evaluating the effectiveness of earlier FL instruction.[6] Indeed, several scholars[3][7] have written about the “myth” of the “earlier the better” principle in FL learning, noting that a shorter but more intensive FL learning experience in the later elementary years may be just as effective if not more so than a so-called “drip-feed” method of instruction over many years when children are younger, less cognitively developed, receive too little instruction to make much of a difference, and may have teachers who themselves are not highly proficient.[3]  Rosenbusch (1995) reports that “the minimum amount of time recommended for an elementary school FL class is 75 minutes per week, with classes meeting at least every other day”.[8] Others have recommended at least 30 minutes a day, everyday, long enough for students to engage in meaningful activities (see also the ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K¬12 Learners[9]). Research synthesized by Nikolov and Djigunovic (2006) and Coppola (2005) illustrates that starting early can allow young children to master a FL only if a well-design total immersion program is in place for teaching them.[10][11] Even so, child language researchers have identified family, friendship networks, popular culture and others as important influences on the development of native and FL abilities.

Developing Primary Language Literacy

 Research has shown that it is important to develop a child's first language literacy before introducing a second language. According to Duff (2008), research shows that while the promotion of FL education - and second languages, such as English, in immigrant-receiving, English-dominant countries - is associated with potential gains in students’ cognitive, sociocultural, and linguistic development, FL education should not be undertaken at the expense of students’ indigenous/home languages and their prior literacy development in those languages; that is, it should be an additive as opposed to subtractive learning experience for them.[12] Goldenberg in his 2008 article, “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does--and Does Not--Say”, claims that teaching students to read in their first language promotes higher levels of reading achievement in English.[13] If only a few hours per week are feasible, studies show that it may be prudent to wait until students are a bit older and have more linguistic foundation in their native language. By designing a curriculum that incorporates deliberate direct instruction, these learners can also make significant progress in a FL, a point well supported by research covered thoroughly in the book, Age in L2 Acquisition and Teaching, edited by Abello-Contesse, et al.[14]

Adolescent and Adult Language Learning

 Research shows that older children and adults who learn through ample classroom and study time, mixing practice and communication with such direct instruction measure up almost as well as early learners, their only disadvantage having somewhat less native-like pronunciation.[15] The greatest challenge to older adult language learning is skepticism; both teachers and learners alike are influenced by the idea that language learning is easier for younger children.[16] However, as stated earlier, adults have a greater array of techniques at their disposal to augment there language learning capabilities, and may in fact have an easier time than children learning second languages. Especially in the areas of vocabulary and language structure, adults are actually better language learners than children; because they are able to integrate their new language input with their already substantial learning experience.[17] They can use memory tricks such as mnemonic devices to sustain newly gained information. Not even achievements in pronunciation are limited to those who learned their second language at young ages, as shown in research by Abu-rabia and Kehat (2004).[18]

Teaching Children in the Classroom vs. Teaching Adults in the Classroom

FL approaches for teaching adults or children differ substantially. According to Weisel (1980), exercises such as oral drills and memorization, which rely on short-term memory, discriminate against adult learners.[19] Weisel also claims that many language programs are heavily dependent on good auditory discrimination; this puts many older learners at a disadvantage because auditory reception declines with age. Class activities which include large amounts of oral repetition, and extensive pronunciation also inhibit the older learner's active participation. In contrast, teachers should not expect all young students to acquire FL mastery more quickly than adults. Beginning language instruction in kindergarten or first grade provides children with greater exposure to the language than beginning in fifth or sixth grade. Nevertheless exposure alone is not sufficient to predict success in language acquisition. As stated earlier, thirty years of research have yet to resolve whether youthful learners acquire greater mastery than adult FL students. According to Lenneberg (1967) children are able to acquire FL with ease as their brains are typically more elastic than older learners.[20] Thus, they are able to acquire FL promptly and efficiently. Against this view, Lamendella (1977) argues that Lenneberg’s conclusion regarding the critical period is overstated and goes on to introduce the term “sensitive period” to emphasize that language acquisition might be more efficient during early childhood but is not impossible at later ages.[21] Earlier, experimental research conducted by Asher and Price (1967) gives support to Lamendella’s view.[22] In their 1967 study, children were evaluated against adults to determine which group acquired a better understanding of FL. Findings consistently demonstrate that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions. Research by Stern, Burstall, and Harley finds that children who start language instruction at age eleven perform better on FL proficiency tests than children who begin at age eight.[23]

More Reading

The American Educational Research Association, in its regular publication of Research Points: Information for Education Policy presented “Foreign Language Instruction: implementing the best teaching methods” in Spring 2006, which provides an excellent overview of research on this topic.


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  2. Duff, Patricia A.: Foreign Language Policies, Research, and Educational Possibilities. APEC Education Symposium, held in Xi'an, China, 2008.1.14-7
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned. (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Oyama, S. (1976). A Sensitive Period for the Acquisition of a Nonnative Phonological System. Journal of Psychlinguistic Research. 5(3), 261-283.
  6. Duff, Patricia A.: Foreign Language Policies, Research, and Educational Possibilities. APEC Education Symposium, held in Xi'an, China, 2008.1.14-7
  7. Marinova-Todd, S. H., Marshall, D. B., Snow, C. E. (2000). Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 9-34.
  8. Rosenbusch, M. (1995) Guidelines for Starting an Elementary School Foreign Language Program. ERIC Digest.
  9. Swender, E. and G. Duncan. (1998) ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K-12 Learners. ERIC Digest.
  10. Nikolov, M. and Djigunovic, J.M. (2006). Recent Research on Age, Second Language Acquisition, and Early Foreign Language Learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2006) 26, 234-260.
  11. Coppola, J. (2005). English language learners: Language and literacy development during the preschool years. Journal of the New England Reading Association, 41(2), 18-23.
  12. Duff, Patricia A.: Foreign Language Policies, Research, and Educational Possibilities. APEC Education Symposium, held in Xi'an, China, 2008.1.14-7
  13. Goldenberg, C. (2008) Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does - and Does Not - Say. American Educator.
  14. Abello-Contesse, C. et al. (eds) (2006). Age in L2 Acquisition and Teaching, Peter Lang Publishing Group, New York.
  15. Bongaerts, T. et al. (1997) Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language. SSLA. 19, 447-465.
  16. Krashen, S. D., M. A. Long, and R. C. Scarcella. "Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition." TESOL QUARTERLY 13 (1979): 573-582.
  17. Walsh, T. and K. Diller. (1977) Neurolinguistic Foundations to Methods of Teaching a Second Language. ERIC Digest.
  18. Abu-rabia, S. and Kehat, S. (2004). The Critical Period for Second Language Pronunciation: Is there such a thing? Educational Psychology 24(1), 77-97.
  19. Weisel, L. P. (1980). Adult Learning Problems: Insights, Instruction, and implications. (Information Series No. 214.) Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, ED 193 534.
  20. Lenneberg, E. H. (1967).The biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.
  21. Lamendella, J. (1977). General principles of neurofunctional organization and their manifestations in primary and non-primary language acquisition. Language Learning, 27, 155-196.
  22. Asher, J. and Price, B. (1967). The learning strategy of total physical response: Some age differences. Child Development, 38, 1219-1227.
  23. Stern, H. H., Burstall, C., & Harley, B. (1975). French from age eight or eleven? Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.