What is the best age for beginning foreign language instruction?
- research resources related to age of initiating foreign language instruction
The question of the optimal age at which to begin foreign language instruction has captured the attention of parents, scholars and policy makers over the years. 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 UK, the National Advisory Centre on Early Language
Learning promotes starting early, based on the relative ease of learning younger. On the other side of the argument, a number of researchers have looked at possible interferences in forming linguistic foundations for the one language by exposure to another. Francis (2005) stated unequivocally that the research shows “that knowledge of two or more languages in early childhood does not contribute to language deficiency (e.g., semilingualism) or deficient intellectual development.
A number of variables affect when instruction in a foreign language should best begin. Consideration of these factors in light of the environmental and societal constraints is essential in order to make the best use of available resources. Starting early can allow young children to master a foreign language only if a well-design total immersion program is in place for teaching them. Even so, child language researchers have identified family, friendship networks, popular culture and others as important influences on development of native and foreign language abilities. Research reported by Coppola (2005) in “English Language Learners: Language and Literacy Development During the Preschool Years” on children raised to be bilingual indicate that the success of such efforts depends on the richness of the linguistic environment, deliberate attention on the part of parents and teachers, so that both languages can develop fully. This latter concept is echoed by Nikolov and
Djigunovic (2006) in their comprehensive overview,
“Recent Research on
Age, Second Language Acquisition, and Early Foreign Language Learning.
If only a few hours per week are feasible, studies show that it may be much more 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 foreign language, a point well supported by research covered thoroughly in the book, Age in L2 Acquisition and Teaching edited by
Abello-Contesse, et al. (2006). 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, with the possible slight disadvantage of somewhat less nativelike pronunciation. The point of second language pronunciation is taken up by
Abu-rabia and Kehat (2004) in
“The Critical Period for Second Language
Pronunciation: Is there such a thing?
” who report that achievements in
pronunciation are not limited to those who learned their second language at young ages.
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. This provides an excellent overview of research on this topic.
A fine summary of the research from an educational perspective was prepared by Hunt et al (2005), “Primary modern foreign languages: an overview of recent research, key issues and challenges for educational policy and practice” looking at best practices in the area of early foreign language learning as England prepared to launch a programme to teach foreign languages to young learners.
Psychologists and neurologists have also investigated this topic, investigating the neural pathways involved in language processing. Some differences have been discovered between native and second language processing, defined as
‘age of acquisition (AoA)’ as reported by Hernandez and Li (2007). However, it may be said that the remarkable abilities of the human mind do allow processing toward the same aim to proceed, regardless of the AoA.
Klein (2007) argues that age does not affect the "construction capacity"- the capacity to build up linguistic systems - but the "copying faculty", i.e., the faculty to imitate an existing system. In his article
“Mechanisms of First and
Second Language Acquisition” he purports that there is no magic to children’s learning that most adults cannot duplicate; it ’s just that many don’t make that effort.