Everybody who starts learning a foreign language 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.
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