The earlier is the better

Everybody who starts learning a foreign Kidslanguage as an adult wishes they could have started doing it at his or her childhood.  We assume childhood, early ages in particular, is the time when a new language learning goes faste and with less stress. “The earlier, the better” assumption inspires many educational policy makers, administrators, teachers, and parents around the world to initiate the early English learning and teaching in a preschool level. Kazakhstan is not an exception. According to the state program of educational development for 2011-2020, our government plans to introduce English to preschoolers of 50 per cent of public educational settings at age 4-6 by 2020. What does the empirical research says about early English learning? Is it necessary to engage small kids to a second/foreign language (L2) in addition to Kazakh and Russian? The answers to these questions will help understand the issue of early English learning for the sake of improvement of the Kazakhstani educational system.

A number of scholars comprehensively examined “the younger, the better” assumption. In their studies, they all refer to the Critical Period Hypothesis, which was proposed by neurolinguists Penfield and Robert (1959) and Lenneberg (1967). Human language acquisition is hypothetically limited to the time when “the loss of plasticity is undergone by human brains by year nine of life” (Penfield and Roberts, 1959, as cited in Ortega, 2009, p. 12). In other words, there might be a critical period in human brain when any language is better to learn.

On the one hand, those researchers who are in favor of this hypothesis argue that the earlier you arrive to L2-majority country – for example, the USA for English learning – the more proficient you are likely to be. Huang’s (2013)  study demonstrates that the age of learning has an impact on speech production stronger than on grammar. These discussions might be commonsense, but they are not quite relevant for Kazakhstan. Our kids do not get an exposure to English as L2 outside school just like an immigrant child in the USA. On the other hand, the empirical study in the Basque Country, Spain revealed that without exposure to a target language outside school, late learners at the age of 8-15 gained better proficiency in L2  in schools than younger students at ages 4-5 (Cenoz, 2009).

The analysis of the reviewed studies reflects the controversial nature of the topic on the critical period in L2, especially English, learning.  Of course,early English learning initiative is important and beneficial, but more research is needed to be conducted in the context of the Kazakhstani educational system.

References

Cenoz, J. (2009). The age factor in bilingual and multilingual education. In Towards multilingual education: Basque educational research from an international perspective. (pp.189-212). Clevedon, GBR: Multilingual Matters.

Huang, B.H. (2013). The effects of age on second language grammar and speech production. Psycholinguist Res, 43, 397–420. doi: 10.1007/s10936-013-9261-7

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. New York: Routledge.

SPEDRK 2011-2020 retrieved from http://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/U1400000893

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4 thoughts on “The earlier is the better

  1. As an EFL teacher I was engaged in reading this post because the content specifically focused on learning L2;this topical issue is going around educators’ heads in teaching languages in the world diverse community. The author logically demonstrated strong arguments of early second language learning benefits backing up with factual information. I do agree with the arguments given above because I know from my personal experience when Russian speaking boy who lived in the kazakh aul/village could acquire the state language easily. Or when one of my learner’s was engaged in early language learning environment abroad and returning back he demonstrated fluency in L2 speaking. But he had some grammar errors in his writing. Thirdly, ‘the loss of plasticity’ can be seen from adult learners who try to memorize English or Kazakh words sentences or grammar rules but without progress in Kazakhstan. So,both empirical researches and life experiences prove that earliy language learning can bring much success rather than late actions.

    However, in Kazakhstani context EFL educators should acknowledge learners’ L1 experience and knowledge in that appropriate level. For example,when my own children began attending school I tried to explain them effectively English grammar rules and sentence patterns. But that was very challenging task for me. Some time late I realized that when I referred back to L1 language rules they could accept the English language rules easily without questioning or surprising too much.Finally, I can assume that this issue is very actual in our language in education policy system. I hope that further empirical researches in Kazakhstani context will be substantial and appropriate in implementing Trilingual Policy in multi-ethnic country.

    I am thankful for the opportunity to comment such attention-grabbing post!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you, Lora, for your comments about your personal and professional experience as a parent and and EFL teacher. The initiative of introducing early English classes to kids at age 4 or 5 should consider the results of the studies to make it effective and beneficial, but not just another way of spending a budget.

    Like

  3. It was interesting for me to read this post because I have some experience of working as EL teacher for young children in a language center. Indeed, I could notice that the early age is an extremely sensitive period for the development of speaking abilities. Even though I had to spend the whole lesson to learn only one phrase, then my kids demonstrated that all the efforts were not vain. Besides, I was glad to see their parents – full of pride when the children started speaking English with them.
    However, my colleague had an adult group where one woman was 60 years old and she was as inspired and motivated by English language learning as the other younger students. Furthermore, my colleague used to admit that the woman performed much better than her groupmates.
    Thus, I would argue that if in the young age the starting point is age per se, the adults’ secret of success is in their level of motivation.
    I definitely agree with you that this topic needs, or even must be researched more thoroughly, and your work is, undoubtedly, a serious contribution to this investigation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for an interesting post with evidence from international studies. I agree that they may not be relevant to Kazakhstani context, children here are not exposed to English as in children in some other countries. Some studies show that introduction of second and third language in early ages may even lead to low cognitive level in mother tongue.That is why I think it would be more effective to introduce English gradually, starting from secondary school. Students should master Kazakh and Russian languages at certain level first when they finish primary school. From my personal experience, it was not so necessary to start learning English from 1 grade. I had English lessons only when I was at secondary and high school, and at the end I was more proficient than my peers who started learning English in earlier grades. Certainly, many parents would prefer their children to learn English as earlier as possible, but I do not think that people should be so concerned about it. Let the childen grow, develop mentally, speak their own language and the language of people who surround them, and be children, not polyglots.

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