Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Politicians can be forgiven for not having much time to read the fine print when asking advisers to translate research findings into workable policies. Or does it work the other way round? Do politicians decide on policies first and subsequently ask advisers for appropriate research findings to back up the policy?  This seems the case when considering the wide consensus across the world about the benefits of early introduction of foreign languages (FLs) in pupils’ school curriculum. The expression “younger is better” in education sounds perfectly plausible, is simple and convincing, and must be a vote winner.

In the UK, FLs used to be introduced in secondary education. Estelle Morris, then Secretary of State for Education, changed this policy in 2002, scrapping compulsory modern FLs for 14- to 16-year-olds, and introducing them in primary schools. She claimed in 2006 that: “Starting at a much younger age is the best way of making sure we get more pupils taking exams and, more importantly, more of them enjoying and feeling confident about speaking a language other than their own”.

In other countries, FL teaching has even been introduced in nursery schools.  There seems to be a universal consensus among politicians that an early start in FLs will lead to a smoother, quasi-effortless learning process leading to high levels of proficiency in the FLs. Is this a myth?!

Spanish ClassCounter-intuitively, research suggests that adolescents and adults progress more quickly than children when learning FLs in a school context (so-called “instructed FL learning”). Many researchers have serious doubts about age of onset being the most important variable in successful FL learning. Indeed, research shows quite clearly that starting age is only one of many independent variables in very complex question.

A crucial distinction exists between so-called naturalistic and instructed FL learning.  Research on naturalistic learners, typically immigrants, shows that younger children are indeed more likely to become undistinguishable from native speakers of the FL compared to their parents and older siblings. However, the picture is not so clear in research on instructed FL learning, a crucial distinction that is commonly overlooked.

A large-scale project on Age of Onset of Acquisition (AoA) in formal foreign language teaching, the Barcelona Age Factor project has looked at effects of starting age and the comparisons were always of groups with same amount of instruction hours (200, 400, 700, and 800 hours of instruction). Earlier exposure (ages eight to nine) to English (as a third language) in a classroom did not result in better performance. Learners who started English at age 11 and those who had started at age 14 were found to progress more quickly than early learners but, after a similar number of hours of exposure, the differences between the groups were limited, with older starters still having a slight advantage. In another study with young adult learners who had 2500 hours of instruction, AoA was not found to have an effect but amount and type of exposure had a positive effect. In other words, input seems more important than AoA.

A Swiss study (Pfenninger, in press) found no advantages of an early start among Swiss learners of English even after five years of instruction. The writing skills of late starters caught up with those of the early starters within six months.  One possible explanation is that older learners have greater metalinguistic, metacognitive and strategic skills.

Munoz points out that from the observations that younger immigrants and immersion students in naturalistic settings seem to outperform older peers “an inferential leap is made in the assumption that learning age will have the same effect on students of a foreign language, when they are exposed to only one speaker of that language (the teacher, who is not usually a native speaker) in only one setting (the classroom) and only during very limited amounts of time”.

This does not mean that there are no age effects at all in learning and later use of the FLs.  Indeed, younger children seem to be more motivated in learning FLs. In my own research on language choice and self-perceived proficiency among more than 1500 adult bi- and multilinguals, I found that early starters in a FL felt more proficient in speaking, comprehending, reading and writing their FLs. They were also more likely to choose the FL for the expression of anger and feelings, for inner speech and mental calculation.  Interestingly, the effect of mode of instruction was even stronger than age of onset: participants who had acquired the FL naturalistically or in mixed mode (formal instruction combined with authentic use) outperformed participants who had learned the FL through classroom instruction only.

In their excellent overview of the literature on age and the teaching of FLs, Lambelet and Berthele point out that more research is needed on improving age-appropriate teaching techniques in order to boost motivation levels and metalinguistic awareness of FL learners of all ages. Moreover, extra thought needs to be given to the primary school teachers who are suddenly expected to teach a FL and who may lack in confidence and competence. In other words, those arguing for an early introduction of FLs at school need to take the nuanced research findings into account and avoid promising miracles.

At what age did you start learning a foreign language? How do you think this affected your fluency and confidence in the language? Please leave your comments below.

Further reading

  • Dewaele, J. M. (2009). Age effects on self-perceived communicative competence and language choice among adult multilinguals. Eurosla Yearbook, 9, 245–268.
  • Enever, J. (2011). ELLiE. Early Language Learning in Europe. London: British Council.
  • Lambelet, A. & Berthele, R. (2014). Âge et apprentissage des langues à l’école. Revue de literature. Fribourg: Research Centre on Multilingualism.
  • Pfenninger, S. (in press).The literacy factor in the optimal age debate: a 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
  • Muñoz, C. (2011). Input and long-term effects of starting age in foreign language learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49, 113–133.

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