The Earlier the Better?

by Lisa-Maria Müller

There seems to be a general consensus that languages are best learned at a young age and it is not difficult to see where this assumption comes from. Children generally acquire their native languages seemingly effortlessly, all while discovering the world around them. Adults, in contrast, tend to find the learning of languages substantially more challenging, even if they put a lot of effort into the task. Hence the logical conclusion that foreign language learning must be easier for children than adults, which explains why the starting age for language learning in schools has consistently been lowered over the past decades. Great. Answer found, case closed, let’s move on. Right?

Well, it’s not so easy. The problem with the assumption mentioned above is that it is based on a comparison between first language acquisition and second language learning instead of comparing like with like. That is, students who have started to learn foreign languages early in their school careers and those who have only been exposed to them later in life.

Those studies comparing foreign language learning in early (i.e.: primary) and late (i.e.: secondary or post-secondary) learners, have so far led to equivocal results. For example, a longitudinal project in Croatia comparing 6-year-olds and 10-year-olds in their acquisition of English as a foreign language, found younger starters to outperform their older peers on pronunciation, orthography, and vocabulary. The younger group was further found to perform better on tasks assessing implicit learning mechanisms.

In contrast, the Barcelona Age Factor (BAF) study which compared learners with various ages of acquisition (8, 11, 14, and 18+) after 200, 416 and 726 hours of exposure, came to a different conclusion. Participants were tested on dictation, cloze tests, listening comprehension, grammar, written composition, oral tasks and phonetic imitation and discrimination. The results of this project indicate an age-related difference in the rate of foreign language learning in a formal setting in favour of older learners.

Older groups generally showed a more rapid rate of acquisition than younger groups in the initial stages of language learning. However, the development of adult learners slowed down substantially after the first 200 hours of exposure in relation to younger groups while the youngest group showed a rapid increase between times 2 and 3. Despite this sharp increase, younger learners were not found to outperform older starters in the time span covered by this study but their performance was comparable on aural perception, oral production and some fluency measures on the written production task. Interestingly, morphosyntactic learning was found to boost around puberty which possibly relates to neurodevelopmental changes occurring at this age.

This very brief overview, then, suggests that learners of all ages progress in their language development but that they do so at a different pace. It also becomes clear that we should not overestimate the role of young age for successful language learning. Rather, we should look to investigate to what extent age affects the acquisition of different language skills in formal settings and interpret the results in the context of teaching methods, learning mechanisms and neurodevelopmental changes. These key research questions and approaches are at the root of MEITS' Strand 5 – Language learning across the lifespan: the role of age, language-specific factors & learning experience on language acquisition.

Related resources:

Mihaljevic Djigunovic, J. & Vilke, M. (2000). Eight years after: Wishful thinking versus facts of life. In J. Moon and M. Nikolov (Eds.) Research into Teaching English to Young Learners. Pecs: University of Pecs Press.

Munoz, C. (Ed.) (2006). Age and Rate of Foreign Language Learning. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Murphy, V. (2014). Second Language Learning in the Early School Years: Trends and Contexts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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