What is the optimal age to start learning an additional language? Current educational policy (in Europe at least) suggests that the younger, the better. However, as I wrote in An A-Z of ELT, “the results and benefits of this [policy] are still inconclusive.” Now evidence is emerging that casts some doubt on the wisdom of introducing a second language at primary level, if this means only an hour or so a week. And an hour or so a week seems to be the norm. A recent Europe-wide study shows that the time devoted to language teaching in primary schools remains limited, in general less than 10% of total class time, and varies considerably between countries.
The report is called Key Data on teaching languages at school in Europe 2009, by the Eurydice Information Network on Education in Europe. You can download the full 136 page report from this website:
The report is worth looking at – there are some great graphs, showing startling variability across Europe – e.g. some secondary school systems (e.g. Bulgaria, Denmark) have 200 plus hours of foreign languages a year, while others have fewer than 100 (Romania and Greece, for example). Spain is nearer the lower end, with 113 hours – but only 57 at primary.
Age of onset in Spain has been the subject of an extended study, conducted under the leadership of Carmen Muñoz of the University of Barcelona, and written up in an article in a recent issue of Applied Linguistics (Dec 2008) as well as a book: Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning (Multilingual Matters, 2006). Muñoz points out that a basic flaw in the argument supporting the introduction of English at primary is that proponents of an early start base their case on the evidence of natural L2 acquisition, i.e. where young learners are immersed in a second language, because (typically) they are the children of immigrants. Muñoz argues that to extrapolate from these cases to the classroom situation – where children are getting around two hours or less a week – is fundamentally flawed.
“An inferential leap has been made in the assumption that learning age will have the same effect on learners in an immersion setting as on students of a foreign language, where the latter are exposed to only one speaker of that language (the teacher) in only one setting (the classroom) and for only limited amounts of time … However, recent studies conducted in foreign language settings have clearly illustrated the role of input and exposure in the equation: an early start leads to success BUT ONLY PROVIDED THAT IT IS ASSOCIATED WITH ENOUGH SIGNIFICANT EXPOSURE”. (Applied Linguistics, p 591, emphasis in the original).
It’s difficult to see how – even with substantial training in classroom techniques that maximise exposure and use – that any primary system that devotes only an hour or two to English a week is going to make any noticeable difference. In fact it may be just a waste of time and valuable resources. Is there evidence in your area that suggests that the policy of “the younger, the better” is working?