A is for Age (of onset)

17 01 2010

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?



61 responses

17 01 2010
Sara Hannam

Its an interesting question Scott as so much effort is put into convincing parents (in marketing terms) that the younger the better really works (see Phillipson on this!), and language policy in Europe and beyond is definitely affected by the growth of English etc which puts pressure on policy makers to up the amount of English often at the expense of other foreign languages, and to begin it earlier. But it is really quite difficult to prove how much difference it actually makes as such data are hard to collect and direct correlations are risky. There are so many criteria that are important which go beyond simply the number of hours of classroom time, or the age that a language is begun.

I think the statistics that you have linked up here need to be tempered by the fact that what is provided in state educational terms is often supplemented through private tuition outside classroom time, esp in the era where parents are also being told English is tied to job opportunities (in countries where classroom time is low). That is certainly the case in Greece, although I am not sure about Spain (you can tell us). In Greece few children only have the hours offered in school and younger learners are no exception as private language schools and private teachers target these students (at least in my neck of the woods) specifically. Additionally, from some research I have carried out in Greece, it seems that this generation of parents who are themselves proficient in the language are also becoming involved in assisting their children outside classroom time, in a way their parents were unable to do as they were either proficient in other languages (French was amongst the aspired to language of their generation) or only in Greek. The countries that have more provision in state schools perhaps assume that language learning (and education per se) begin and ends in that state classroom, which is kinda the opposite mentality to Greece where ‘real’ language learning is often seen as residing in private language schools, at least in examination terms (another thorn in the argument). Also, Greece has one of the highest proportions of coverage in the classroom of the Greek language of any country in Europe (i.e. in relation to mother tongue language/literature studies) which some would argue is tied to more recently formed nation states for reasons that are perhaps too complicated to go into here (but I am happy to do so if you want) and are tied to socio-political reasoning about the importance of the ‘national’ language in ethnic terms.

However the outcome in terms of examination results in English (not that I like to reduce it to that personally but often that is the barometer used to assess these things) seems to show that Greece is still pretty high up on the European framework scales in terms of final level of achievement. The sought after is C2, the achieved in most cases at least B2. How much of that is to do with classroom time or starting younger, and how much is to do with factors like non-classroom exposure (subtitiling, music, culture, wide use of English amongst young people anyway, tourism) or the fact that Greece, in historical terms, has a very multi-lingual history and has always been open to the idea that people routinely speak languages beyond their own. Conquesting nations, such as Spain (and England), perhaps transmit different messages to the young about the need for learning foreign languages and of course Spanish itself is a huge language in its own right in lingua franca terms and growing. Could these factors play a role in the outcomes?

What seems to be clear is that the tide is turning for the younger generations in terms of the total normalising of the ‘need’ to learn English as a reality that cannot be ignored. But the question regarding how young to begin is in itself too simplistic to give a yes/no answer to methinks, however ‘obvious’ it might seem on first glance.

That’s my thoughts for the day Scott!

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Sara commnented: “Conquesting nations, such as Spain (and England), perhaps transmit different messages to the young about the need for learning foreign languages and of course Spanish itself is a huge language in its own right in lingua franca terms and growing. Could these factors play a role in the outcomes?”

I think this has a lot to do with it. The Spanish press, for example, is constantly trumpeting the ascendency of Spanish as a global language, and how it will soon overake English in some regions. In such a climate, there is a built-in reluctance to really push English. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of exposure because of dubbing of films and TV programs. So, the Spanish system gives with one hand (providing classes at primary level) but takes with another (reducing hours of primary English to a pathetic few).

17 01 2010
Chia Suan Chong

I think it makes sense to say that if exposure to a second/foreign language in a classroom is limited to one or two hours a week, the benefit of starting young would be lost.

Considering that the amount of classroom time given to language teaching is often out of our control, that being in the hands of civil servants who are no experts in language acquisition, teachers can only make the best out of the situation that is presented to them.

If the limited time in the classroom can be used to motivate the students to continue their journey into the foreign language outside the classroom, exposure time can be increased drastically. Instead of spending time on teaching tenses and verb forms, teachers in such contexts should be finding ways to inspire the students and giving them a taste of the great amount of self-satisfaction that can be achieved through successfully expressing oneself in another tongue.

Parents can be roped in to participate in the learning process by exposing their children to wide variety of children programmes available on the net and on DVDs these days. I know of friends who learnt a lot of their English from watching Sesame Street when they were young.

When I was learning my foreign language, we had two lessons a week and i got absolutely nowhere with it. It was through my own subsequent interest and motivation that led me to immerse in the language even when I was outside the classroom, which in turn led me to speak the language fluently.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Chia Suan Chiong wrote: “Instead of spending time on teaching tenses and verb forms, teachers in such contexts should be finding ways to inspire the students and giving them a taste of the great amount of self-satisfaction that can be achieved through successfully expressing oneself in another tongue.”

This is a key point – if second language teaching has to start at primary level (because of the political and parental pressures alluded to) then at least make it motivating and exposure-rich. The evidence that – at present – it is either is fairly thin on the ground – at least in the public sector (see further comments below).

17 01 2010
Mark Alan Forehand

In Kiev, Ukraine there seems to be substantial parental anecdotal evidence that public school English language training is not working. First let me provide the schooling options available in Kiev (not private language school options). Public school means public in the American since of public school not the UK. Private school has the same correlation in meaning. There are two English speaking private primary schools in Kiev. There are approximately 200+ primary schools. There are some 30 or so private primary schools where instruction is in Ukrainian and Russian and English are taught as a foreign language.

For obvious reasons English language learning does well at the two private schools. The results seemed terribly mixed in public schools. Anecdotal evidence, taken from parents whose children we interview for our private language school, suggests that English is an ‘option’ and that it is 1 to 2 times per week for about an hour and the teacher is usually in the CEF A2 to B1 level. It is rare that a public school teacher has C1 or higher.

Our clients seem to come to us in an effort to give their children an opportunity to compete earlier in an emerging market that is just now reaching internet saturation nation wide of 7 million people. This is 7 million of a population of 45 million.

Our unscientific analysis of our YL department shows us that our largest groups of elementary students are in the 11-15 demographic and did take English at their primary and secondary schools.

I will comment that our situation is unique in that we do not really have a large base of trained teachers for public schools, there continues to be a modified grammar translation method (now using Headway 3d Ed.) in the public schools and that speaking and writing are not considered at all.

However, what I find most interesting and seems to logically contrast the comments of the last commenter from Greece; because there is limited English proficiency in a country that has started down the troubled road of democracy in just the last 20 years, our students’ parents are merely beginners at English for the most part (meaning a significant majority of parents, our estimate being over 80%) so they are independently finding the merit in sending their child to additional training (1.5 hours per class, twice a week up to Pre-FCE and then an increase to 1.5 x 3/wk) in English to provide them with opportunities.

A short summary of this would be that current public systems are not working and there does not seem to be any increase in L2 acquisition in our public schools is not successful for the reasons stated in the journal article, i.e. no significant exposure.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Mark (it feels like old times!)

“Anecdotal evidence, taken from parents whose children we interview for our private language school, suggests that English is an ‘option’ and that it is 1 to 2 times per week for about an hour and the teacher is usually in the CEF A2 to B1 level. It is rare that a public school teacher has C1 or higher.”

I think that this is a pretty typical profile for much of southern and central/ eastern Europe, and even beyond. In some ways, it’s good news for private language schools, like yours, but at the same time it seems to be a situation that only the well-off have a chance of overcoming. I guess, though, that whether you provide primary English or not, there will always be parents who will be paying for private tuition at a very young age just so as to give them that competitve edge.

17 01 2010

Yes, Scott, I think this is the most important issue you have blogged about so far, especially since primary ELT is such an enormous market (I use the term deliberately).

As Pinkey says (or says something like it) ‘acquisition of a language is guaranteed up until the age of about 6 r 7, is heavily compromised from then until puberty, and is rare thereafter’ – well that’s only vaguely relevant,, but the point is that full-on exposure allows young kids to acquire the school language with great facility (Cambridge is a great example for this with many ‘foreign’ academics families etc). And then the kids can forget what they have acquired equally easily. But the point is that these kids get constant and supported exposure (see, I am trying not to use the word scaffolding!).

Compare that to the 2 or 3 hours a week of fairy tales and ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’. The latter MAY help kids to be sensitised to the idea of other languages and cultures, but the efficacy of this in terms of real language learning is not attested to in any literature that I know of.

Much more interesting is the idea of sustained short burst of CLIL-like (?) English when kids are say 9 or 10. Now that starts to look as if it may have benefits.

But governments LIKE primary English. Sounds good. The industry likes it too, of course. And maybe kids and teachers like fairy tales and songs so it’s OK?


18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Much more interesting is the idea of sustained short burst of CLIL-like (?) English when kids are say 9 or 10. Now that starts to look as if it may have benefits”.

I agree, Jeremy. Of course, this depends on there being a sufficient number of teachers with requisite language AND subject teaching skills – not the case in Spain (yet). But the pressure is on – and one wonders what is better: the present medicore primary provision, or CLIL classes where both the teacher’s and the students’ level of English is insufficient to engage with the subject in any depth.

18 01 2010
Sara Hannam

CLIL is another subject for discussion (is there an entry on this Scott?). I mean that there are arguments that children should be educated in their own language in a range of subjects in the curriculum as part of a protection mechanism for mother tongue within the diversity of the world’s languages. Additionally if we assume that English level is partly related to access to private tuition (which seems to be a theme emergent from quite a few contributions across the world in this thread) wouldn’t CLIL actually be problematic both in terms of a) fairness (i.e. those with private means would be further ahead in CLIL situations) creating ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and b) taking time away from learning in mother tongue which is a ‘right’ perhaps of those living in any given country. It is almost unthinkable that the UK would introduce two subject-based lessons in Spanish into the national curriculum, thought the frequency of Spanish as a Lingua Franca (in line with English as a Lingua Franca) would certainly warrant it. So why is CLIL considered any more viable when proposed in English? So it is not just an issue of level, but one of both access and language protection. For me that is!!

19 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Sara, your scepticism about CLIL is shared by a number of people I have talked to about it here in Spain, who see it as an option – like immersion schools – only for the privileged few, i.e. those who attend schools where the level of English (of both teachers and students) is already at that critical mass level necessary to mediate subject area knowledge, and also for kids whose first language is sufficiently supported in the home, street, playground and media, so as not to be under threat (as opposed to the children of immigrants, for example).

Does anyone else share these reservations?

(Yes, I was planning to revisit CLIL in a Iater post, but inevitably it comes up in any discussion of age of onset).

19 01 2010
Jason Renshaw

I think Sara’s concern about inequality in a regular public primary setting on account of CLIL is entirely warranted.

Most of my teaching happened in Korea, where a massive number of students (something in the range of 70-80% from statistics I recall) get private English tuition of some kind. I’ve seen Scott and others use the term “hagwon” and “cram school” as tags for this, but it is a very broad generalisation. There are waeguk (o-)hagwons (foreign language academies, with native speaker teachers), ipshi-hagwons (test-prep cram schools for a range of school subjects, including English, but only rarely including native speaker teachers), another type I can’t immediately recall, but basically a very cheap type of ipshi, then gongbu-bangs (private “study rooms” led by – usually – ex public school teachers), and of course, private 1-1 tutors. All of my students at a waeguk o-hagwon level also attended ipshi-hagwons, and a rather large percentage of them also had up to THREE private 1-1 tutors! (The hardest conversation topic in a Korean private academy context is always “hobbies” and “free time” – because students have neither – from as young as Grade 2)

Based on that, if subjects were to be taught in English at elementary school level (which is a current topic attracting massive attention there at the moment), you would have one stark division between the haves and have-nots (private tuition in English versus those who have none), but then also a complicated series of “have more”s versus “have less”s, as income indicates just how much and what sort of ‘quality’ extra tuition different students ‘enjoy.’

The playing field there is already horribly slanted in favour of income, in terms of access to extra tuition in English, Science, Maths and Korean (the four cornerstones of the Korean national curriculum). Having public school subjects taught in English would double the advantages or disadvantages of students depending on which end of the carrot they already found themselves at.

(By the way, Scott – I hope you do do an article on CLIL… I want to ask why the Europeans came up with CLIL when CBI means pretty much the same thing and had already been around in North America for decades. Was it a British attempt at revenge – like, “you call our car boots ‘trunks’, so WE’LL call your CBI thing ‘CLIL’ instead. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s ignore ESL and call it ‘EAL’: I know, ‘a second’ and ‘additional’ mean exactly the same thing, but it’s the principle that counts!”?)

17 01 2010
Anita Kwiatkowska

I’ve recently read about this issue in ‘How languages are learned’ by Lightbown and Spada. In the book, the authors talk about two different researches on critical period – one supporting that it exists, the other that is doesn’t.

The second research involved examining a group of YLs, teenagers and adults that were learning Dutch from the very beginning. After some time their progress was measured and it wasn’t the YLs that were the best. Teenagers had the highest scores and adults were slightly worse. YLs were at the very end.

It made me think a lot, especially because I’ve been teaching mainly children for the past couple of years.

Introducing EFL into the curriculum as early as possible has one main advantage – kids will most likely pick up the native-like accent of their teacher. On the other hand, how many YLs have native speakers as teachers?

Observing my students I’ve come yet to a different conclusion – an 11-year-old after, let’s say, 6months of learning English is indistinguishable from an 11-year-old who started learning English in the kindergarten.

This causes a great deal of frustration among the students themselves – one of my students once said ‘I’ve been learning English for 10 years and still don’t really get it’. He was 15, his level of English was pretty low and a newcomer to the class, who’d just started scored a lot higher in tests and was better at speaking.

One might say it’s a matter of IQ or abilities but I don’t think so. I started learning English at the age of 12, my colleague was 17 and both of us are now teachers. None of our teachers were NESTs.

Sure the parents are pleased when their children utter a few words in a foreign language with (ideally) a native-like accent but that, sadly, is all. EFL classrooms are an artificially created world and you cannot change it with a couple of English classes a week.

Yep, I’m cutting the branch I’m sitting on with these words but that’s what I’ve observed.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“The second research involved examining a group of YLs, teenagers and adults that were learning Dutch from the very beginning. After some time their progress was measured and it wasn’t the YLs that were the best. Teenagers had the highest scores and adults were slightly worse. YLs were at the very end.”

Thanks, Anita , for this. Similar results were found in the Barcelona study I mentioned in the post. Muñoz (2006) writes “The findings from this study lead to the following prediction for age effects in the long term: when younger learners attain a state of cognitive development that is similar to that of the older learners with whom they are being compared, and are given the same conditions of time and exposure (and instruction), the differences should disappear.” She adds, “This runs counter to earlier predictions that were based on evidence from naturalistic second language acquisition”. And she summarises thus: “These findings suggest that second language learning success in a foreign language context [such as Holland or Spain] may be as much a function of exposure as of age. Exposure needs to be intense and to provide an adequate model…” (p. 34)

17 01 2010
Andy Hockley

A short post about a 9 year old child in Romania (with Hungarian as her first language), and her English lessons. http://szekely.blogspot.com/2008/09/aj-em-fajn-tenks.html

Anyway, away from my step-daughter and what passes for English classes at her school, but sort of not: I am not sure whether the variables are so wide ranging that we really can’t say much about the value of English at primary school – Romanian kids in general seem to speak it pretty well, despite few hours, sometimes weak teaching, very few extra-curricular private language classes. Even Hungarian speaking Romanian kids for whom English is a third language seem to do pretty well in the same boat (and without the advantage of speaking a first language that has any relationship to English). [In fact, Romanian Hungarians tend to speak English at a better level than Hungarians from Hungary, who don’t have to contend with another language in between.]

No idea where I’m going with this comment really, so I’ll stop 🙂

17 01 2010
Jennifer Hillhouse

At IH Moscow the pre-school (or VYL) department has grown significantly over th last few years. We had 30+ groups in 0506 and now have over 60. Whereas this age group used to be taught by a small team of specialists, there are now over 40 teachers trained and working with VYL groups in Moscow this year.

We have two distinct programmes, 45m classes twice a week and a playgroups where learners attend for 6 hours a week. I’ve taught both myself for several years and results vary, so from personal experience it doesn’t seem as if time in the classroom can be the only factor determining success.

Purely in terms of IH Moscow, over the last few years there has been a distinct shift from receptive ‘wheels on the bus’ to more of an ‘immersion’ approach, focusing on meaningful, functional language and maximising student to student communication right from the start. Regardless of the amount of time spent in class, this approach seems to a lot more successful.

As Jeremy says, the industry likes it, and it’s certainly gaining momentum here. The growth of this area is raising more and more questions, e.g. when and how to introduce L2 literacy, how to best support SEN learners and what on earth to teach 7 year olds who’ve been studying 6 hours a week for 4 years. Any suggestions?

Thanks for this discussion, it’s amazing to hear what people think. I’m new to the technology wave so I apologise if I’ve said anything wrong 🙂

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Purely in terms of IH Moscow, over the last few years there has been a distinct shift from receptive ‘wheels on the bus’ to more of an ‘immersion’ approach, focusing on meaningful, functional language and maximising student to student communication right from the start. Regardless of the amount of time spent in class, this approach seems to a lot more successful”.

This approach certainly sounds consistent with current thinking, e.g. re CLIL, but obviously requires a level of English and degree of pedagogical expertise that are not common in many state primary contexts.

18 01 2010

In the two settings that I have studied, the ‘younger the better’ hypothesis can be a double-edged sword. Japan has moved compulsory English education from 12 to 10 years old. However, they will only receive one or two hours per week of classroom study and there are problems with getting the regular classroom teachers, most of whom have very limited English ability, onside. The push for this has come, as it often does, from parents and companies who want their education system to produce better English speakers. Little value is placed on empirical studies that are showing that one hour a week of English is no more helpful to a 10 year old than to a 16 year old.
Parents who push their children to learn English in private academies for 3 to 4 hours per week, watch TV programs in English, and do all they can to provide ENglish learning opportunities, have some success in opening the English door for their children. Yet, the children themselves can successfully immunise themselves against this English shower if they feel they are being pushed too hard. It’s no different to a parent pushing their child too hard in various sports.

Canada has had some success with bilingual education and anglophones can study French in an immersion setting from Kindergarten through to finishing high school. These children are exposed to an incredible number of hours of French and are supposed to be functionally bilingual by the time of graduation. But, again, it does not work for everyone and many children will fail in this setting where some of their peers will succeed.

There is clearly a lot more to language acquisition than can be stated by an optimal age for learning. The statement would seemed to be based, as Scott noted, on studies of how immigrant children fair with their L2 acquisition, where they are more likely to be truly immersed in the language, both inside and outside of the classroom and they will have stronger and more immediate motivation as they will need the language to interact in society.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Yet, the children themselves can successfully immunise themselves against this English shower if they feel they are being pushed too hard. It’s no different to a parent pushing their child too hard in various sports.”

Good point, Jeff. The push to give their children a competitive edge may be counter-productive. I wonder, for example, if the cramming schools in Korea (the hagwan) get better results than say, a summer spent on an “English only island”.

18 01 2010

Scott –

It was the methodology of the communists, “get ’em young” and seemed to work!

Seriously, I really think that the CPH, though clung to by many is far from a certainty in SLA. I also find interesting many of the studies of bilingual education that support the notion that literacy in one’s L1 is crucial to future, “learning” success (and that’s the goal – not just to learn English, something I think we forget. We are teachers first, then language teachers). There are also some important findings that suggest that very young learners (3-7) “do not” react to formal instruction well and this may well be something causing long term language learning difficulties.

I find the whole subject fascinating and my own opinion is like so much else- it isn’t ‘when” but “how” it is done. Children should be taught informally and with an accent on story/narrative. They should be allowed to speak in the L1 and the focus shouldn’t be on the L2 but communicating. Children will eventually produce and get enthused about the L2 if it is introduced in a very casual and inductive fashion. We are back to Krashen again and his thoughts about giving lots of CO too (am I allowed to mention him??? 🙂

Krashen’s work on lateralization of the brain and language acquisition also have some bearing on this discussion. This is interesting and I hope some researchers in language will tackle it fully (or maybe have and I’m out of the loop). Once there is lateralization of the hemispheres – does that “really” mean that we shut down and have more difficulty learning? When does this lateralization take place? What about the exceptions? (like those who had their left brain taken out and could still produce language, although it was found, younger the better for this! – now that is fascinating). Also, when is lateralization complete, at 5 at 12?

I think earlier is better but only because of socio-cultural and affective factors. It is all how it is done (the eating) and there are many considerations . Let’s keep mentioning them, they are important I believe.


18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

” Also, when is lateralization complete, at 5 at 12?”

The Critical period hypothesis, as expounded by Lenneberg (1967) suggested a link between maximum receptivity for language and brain lateralization. But, to quote John Field (Psycholinguistics, 2003), “there is no agreement as to how long the critical period lasts and when the plasticity of the brain comes to an end. Lenneberg associated the end of the critical period with adolescence. Other researchers [e.g. Krashen] suggested it ended at five or at nine years of age. Most recent evidence shows that some infants who undego brain surgery do indeed suffer language impairment; and, conversely, that some aphasic adults may relocate part of their language functions in the right hemisphere” (p. 98)

Not sure if this answers your question. Rather it suggests the jury is still out!

18 01 2010
Jason Renshaw

Hi Scott,

Well, you’ve diverted me from a current discussion on my own blog which focuses on the issue of age and language learning, with the more specific issue of how age impacts on ability to absorb “language chunks”:


In reponse to your more general prompt here, however, I have to say it is an immense can of worms. After many many years teaching all ages, with some specialisation in teens, young and very young learners, I have to conclude that current approaches of “starting” early in primary settings (with 1-2 hours of instruction per week) quite possibly represent the most colossal waste of time, energy, resources, and money I’ve ever seen in any field.

I’ve seen and taught learners who started at age 4 or 5, but by elementary/primary grade 6 weren’t all that far ahead of learners who had started in grade 4 or 5. Learners around 10-12 years of age appear to have cognitive and experiential strengths that allow them to progress more quickly and “catch up” to the very early starters doing the fairy tales and tic-tac-to games for 4-5 years prior to that. The one notable exception was/is perhaps in relation to pronunciation and accent, where earlier starters DO tend to get a leg up on later starters, but it’s not always the case. Exceptions and variability aside (given we’re talking about broad society-impacting education policies), I can’t help but wonder what those younger starters could have been devoting their time and learning resources on instead. The later starters I worked with tended to have a much more solid foundation in their L1 – for example. It must be a horrible realisation when you’ve been studying English for 6 years and that dude next to you (who only started two years ago) is getting better test scores than you and can hold a conversation at about the same level!

My broad opinion is that the optimal time to begin learning a second language (within a school system, at least) is probably grades 4-6. But as David mentioned above, the “when” is nowhere near as important as the “how”.

When I was living in Europe 12 years ago, I noticed that Scandinavians are outstanding speakers of English. Learners in that context (at that time) began learning English in the primary school system at grade 5, usually only a couple of hours a week, with almost no private or external extra lessons in English. By the time Scandinavians go to university, a very high percentage of them are quite capable users of English. The Dutch are another very good example of such success.

However, (also at that time) German learners were doing pretty much exactly the same thing in their primary system (in terms of beginning age and number of hours devoted to study), and the number of Germans (in general, mind you) who could speak English capably by university entrance time was far below their Scandinavian counterparts. These are my impressions, anyway, and I could be proved wrong!

I’ve deliberately used examples from these two regions, because they represent Germanic-speaking countries and could possibly be said to have the same amount of “positive transfer” across to English. It may be different to compare Scandinavians with Spanish or East Asian learners, for example.

So, given very similar ages of introduction, hours of study per week, and broad language family backgrounds (not to mention geographical proximity to an English speaking context), the differences in achievement between Scandinavian and German learners of English very much highlight to me the importance of the “how” and not the “when” (and not even the “how much”).

Motivation is of course absolutely essential in language learning at any age, and making English compulstory from young ages doesn’t (in my opinion) necessarily drive motivation – in many cases it does the precise opposite. So there’s another distinction I would make: a “voluntary” early start versus a “compelled” early start. That can actually be quite tragic. I’ve seen many wonderfully competent early starters who were flying with the language by grade 6, but I’ve also seen plenty of grade 6 learners who were just sick to death of English after 6-7 years of it already (and others who were psychologically affected by early and then recurring failures with it over that time). Hence, an early start may have in fact destroyed some learners’ potential to like and thrive with the second language. Such a pity when you consider that (had they started later) by grades 4-6, they would probably have been in a different place emotionally and cognitively, and quite possibly have been at a better stage in their young lives to take on and “sink their teeth into” a second language.

I’ve only seen one successful model of guaranteed success with early starters, and that is when they are actually interested in English and choose to begin (and continue) learning it. Some might say that is true of all ages, but if you’ve been plugging away involuntarily at something you dislike for the formative years of your primary education, I daresay you’re even further behind the 8-ball than later starters.

18 01 2010
Matt Ledding

Interesting comparison of German and Scandanavians… could this have something to do with subtitled TV vs dubbed? As anti-tv as I am… might be relevent. Curious that the children shows are dubbed.

“In North-West Europe—meaning the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia—generally only movies and TV shows intended for children are dubbed, while all TV shows and movies for older audiences are subtitled (though animated productions in particular tend to be an exception). For children’s movies in cinemas usually both a dubbed and a subtitled version are available.
In The Netherlands, in the majority of cases Dutch versions are only made for children and youth related films. Animation movies are shown in theaters with Dutch dubbing, but usually those cinemas with more screening rooms also provide the original subtitled version; that was the case for movies like Babe, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Finding Nemo, Cars, Shrek the Third, Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda or WALL-E.
Since Belgium is a multilingual country, films are shown in French and Dutch. The range of French dubbed versions is approximately as wide as the German range where practically all films and TV-series are dubbed.”

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubbing_(filmmaking)

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Motivation is of course absolutely essential in language learning at any age, and making English compulstory from young ages doesn’t (in my opinion) necessarily drive motivation – in many cases it does the precise opposite.”

Agreed, Jason – and this chimes with a previous comment about over-driving learners. Nevertheless, one argument for early age of onset that is often put forward is that the younger you start, the more motivated you will become. But this has to be balanced against the kind of instruction you get: a diet of grammar macnuggets is not likely to predispose a five-year old to the joys of English!

18 01 2010
Laura Ponting

We have to remember, of course, that the hours of English taught in state primary and secondary schools are often supplemented (though how beneficially is up for question) by many hours at private language ‘schools’. In Greece, for example, there are over 7,600 frontesterio.

The primary aim of many of these is to get YLs through the Cambridge or Michigan exams as quickly as possible. The stated aim of many YLs (or their parents) is often to get English exams out ‘of the way’ before the pressure of University exams start.

Here, then, another pertinent questions arise. What happens when formal language schooling ends? Say, for example, a 16 year-old student passes their C2 exams. ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’ How worthwhile have the hours of cramming language been in terms of long-term learning? Can it be ‘lost’ before it actually becomes socially/ vocationally useful? I ask this because I don’ know the answer.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“What happens when formal language schooling ends? Say, for example, a 16 year-old student passes their C2 exams. ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’ How worthwhile have the hours of cramming language been in terms of long-term learning? Can it be ‘lost’ before it actually becomes socially/ vocationally useful?”

Good questions, Laura. I don’t know of any research on this, off-hand. But there’s masses of anecdotal evidence, isn’t there, about the incapacity to activate 6 or more years of school French on first contact with a real French speaker!

18 01 2010

In my view, the early introduction to a foreign language is only going to be effective if a substantial number of hours is devoted. One, two or three hours a week won’t do. They won’t do any harm either, as children can be exposed to songs, games and the overall enjoyment of different sounds. It’ll be a big motivating and awareness factor more than anything else. As a child, I remember hearing my parents speak French to friends. It was definitely less than an hour a week but it instilled curiosity and motivation for the school years to come.

While being on the topic, you already did “C” (for corpus) but how about a double-take? “C” for CLIL.

When is “I” (for interactive whiteboards) due?

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

“…the early introduction to a foreign language is only going to be effective if a substantial number of hours is devoted. One, two or three hours a week won’t do.”

This is very much the conclusion of the Barcelona study I cited in my post. The kids woud be better off in the playground, getting some exercise, than frittering their time away chanting “the wheels on the bus go round and round” (as Jeremy so succinctly put it).

18 01 2010
Sara Hannam

Scott Scott where art thou?

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Biding my time, watching all these fascinating replies come in. Who needs a teacher when the “students” are all so clever? 😉

18 01 2010
Sara Hannam

Right you are – and what wonderful contributions you have had today from everyone and from yourself. Thank you all

18 01 2010
Alice M

I have reservations about the claim “the younger the better” reagarding learning a foreign language. I was once asked to teach very young kids and I refused doing it because the kids just needed to be kids at that stage. I also taught children in a primary school in the UK and quickly realised that some kids had huge problems with their own language, and adding French on top of them was really like torture. To me everything depends on the persons (children, parents, teachers, headteachers) involved with the learning and teaching. If you try to teach a child who is not confident in his own language, it may result in another failure. A colleague of mine talked about “challenge” instead of failure. Well for some kids it may be a challenge, but for those who had enough challenge with their own language, French was just another source of failure. So I reckon we should be careful not to generalise : some kids would be stimulated and happy to start learning another language, other kids would just struggle so hard that it would discourage them for life. I sometimes see adult people who had been taught French at a very young age and who tell me about their struggling : they strugggled all the more so as the rest of the kids seemed to be fine. To go through such a difficult experience at a very young age is totally unnecessary IMHO.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

” I also taught children in a primary school in the UK and quickly realised that some kids had huge problems with their own language, and adding French on top of them was really like torture.”

Interesting – if depressing – observation, Alice. There is general agreement that children should get their first two or three years of education in the mother tongue- although this doesn’t preclude some lessons in a second language. A question that many educational ministries have not really engaged with, though, is: how many hours of the second language are necessary if there is going to be any chance of it having a positive effect? The issue becomes more acute in contexts which are already bilingual (I’m thinking of here in Catalonia) where time and resources are stretched just covering the two local languages. In Galicia, in the north-east of Spain, the local government has adopted the (Solomonic?) decision of letting the parents in each school vote on how the three languages – Gallego, Spanish and English – should be distributed across the primary system. The plan has backfired spectacularly, since any decisions involving language choice are so bound up in social, cultural, political and economic considerations, that no one can agree.

18 01 2010

Bit late in the day maybe but have just read all these really interesting and thought-provoking posts. As Shelagh Rixon has said it’s not an ‘optimal age’ but rather ‘optimal conditions’ which count and when you’re teaching young children, whatever the reason or context, it’s worth exploring what these might be. Here’s a list of some possible candidates. Younger may be better, even given all the provisos that have been raised here re length of exposure, cognitive immaturity compared to older students etc., when …
• learning is natural
• learning is contextualised and part of a real event
• learning is interesting and enjoyable
• learning is relevant
• learning is social
• learning belongs to the child
• learning has a purpose for the child
• learning builds on things the child knows
• learning makes sense to the child
• the child is challenged appropriately
• learning is supported appropriately
• learning is part of a coherent whole
• learning is multi-sensory
• the child wants to learn
• learning is active and experiential
• learning is memorable
• learning allows for personal, divergent responses
• learning takes account of multiple intelligences
• the learning atmosphere is relaxed and warm
• there’s a sense of achievement
Agree that a diet of grammar mcnuggets and/or ‘wheels on the bus’ won’t hit the mark! And the benefits won’t just be linguistic but contribute to developing things such as tolerance, empathy, respect for diversity too.

18 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Not late in the day at all, Carol! Thanks for joining the discussion – and with such a rich contribution, too.

It strikes me that your checklist of conditions for success provide all the ingredients for assessing the effectiveness of a course, a training program, a set of materials, and even an individual lesson. How achievable are these criteria, do you think, in the conditions in which many state school primary teachers are working?

18 01 2010
Patrick Jackson

All of Carol’s 20 commandments apply to learners of any age and read even more powerfully when you replace the word ‘learning’ with the word ‘life’.

Good teaching and learning at any level (which for very young learners of English definitely includes singing about bus wheels AND fairy tales) in any ‘improving’ subject makes the world a better place. Good teaching of a subject at an early age should be playful and motivated by love not money. Is this where the powers that be have got it wrong?

Good language lessons at an early age are an enriching part of overall development. The same applies to good art lessons, good music lessons, good PE lessons or, like, whatever.

Does it always come down to ‘wasting’ time, ‘using’ resources, ‘attaining’ levels, optimal starting ages? Does it really matter if it’s only an hour or two a week or does it have to be six or more?

My life would be greatly improved by doing an hour or two a week of yoga, flower arranging, kick-boxing, Swahili or windsurfing. I would object strongly if someone told me that I was way past the optimal age for starting any of those because I would be overtaken by a teenager in ten minutes and that my time would be better used making a crust or doing something I was better at than my next door neighbour.

It’s not always about the destination. It’s not even always about the path.

19 01 2010
Mohammed Rhalmi

I think “the younger, the better” works, as you rightly, mentioned only if there is substantial exposure to foreign language.

19 01 2010
Patrick Jackson

Doesn’t that also depend on what is meant by ‘works’.

19 01 2010

Hi Scott,

excuse me for coming back, but I have just read all your commenters (I have been struggling; is that the word for people who comment? It’s not commentators, cause that’s something different).

Sara does it again! CLIL (as it presently stands – see your earlier comments about CLIL in Spain) works to enhance the opportunities for the language privileged. Discuss!

(and the comment about Canada immersion? Well if it’s that successful, how come so many anglophone Canadians have almost no french at all?!!


4 04 2010
Matt Ledding

Jeremy: Anglo Canuck, guilty as charged. My school French was useless until triggered by four years of circus school at l’école nationale de cirque de Montréal with French as lingua franca. (Flif?) BUT… I think it helped. (aside from the fact that the Parisian French on the textbook cassettes had little to do with a full blown Quebec accent.)

If a language is a memorization excercise, it is very hard to actually learn it. (I found it very motivating to understand French when I was pretty high up and about to dive into a foam pit, following instructions of a Russian coach who didn’t speak English.)

Again, I would like to say that I think Community of Madrid’s decision to bring in English “monitors” into the classrooms to help “retool primary teachers” while they demonstrate that it is a real language, not an memory game. They generally implement the program from 6 years up, and while it is not a fair/ equal opportunity across the board program yet, it is doing wonderful things to help the kids realize they are learning a language.

(I do “wheel on the bus” magic / circus shows based on Trinity levels for small groups (under 60 kids from 3-12 years) in a lot of schools, while trying to fulfill the criteria that carolread so elequently placed up earlier… so I can pick up a sense of “where” (rather than what) seems to be working during my educational tourism.)

19 01 2010

Hi there – late in the day again!

Scott asks ‘How achievable are these criteria, do you think, in the conditions in which many state school primary teachers are working?’

I think (hope) they are achievable and, almost more importantly, always worth striving for but of course the answer isn’t at all straightforward and depends on another list of possible conditions to do with e.g. ethos of schools, attitudes, beliefs, experience, teaching and language competence of teachers etc.. In pre-school or kindergarten where there’s more convergence between mainstream methodology and the kind of factors I mentioned, then it’s probably easier to achieve. It gets harder as you go further up the primary years where a tension develops between how you might like to be doing things in an ideal world and your responsibility to the children to get them through the system as it is, and to prepare them for any external exams they may be obliged to take and the dramatic change in approach to learning that usually takes place at the start of secondary school.

24 01 2010
Anne Hodgson

My experience tells me that teens can become completely fluent with minimal previous language learning experience, if they have maximum interest in the language.
I saw that at the German School in Washington (a CLIL comprehensive school from kindergarten through 13th grade) where, no matter what age newcomers were, they did well in English within months or at most a year. My own foreign language learning, French, didn’t get off the ground until I went to France for 2 months at age 16 and fell in love. Bingo. I think that teaching kids English is great fun and starts those cells a-workin’, but travelling with them and introducing them to your friends’ children in foreign lands is much better.

24 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Anne, for the comment. Yes, YL second language acquisition seems to flourish well in any environment where there is plentiful exposure, not just because of the exposure per se, but because of the “maximum interest” it generates (to use your expression). The problem most EFL YLs face, though, is little exposure (pace Internet, popular culture etc) and hence little motivation – a vicious circle of failure. Starting them young neither increases the exposure (at least, in the way that most state systems offer second language instruction) nor the motivation. Recipe for failure!

24 01 2010
Patrick Jackson

Aren’t there two different debates going on here?

Motion 1: This house believes that teaching languages to primary or pre-primary students is a waste of time irrespective of quality.
Motion 2: This house believes that the current state of language education for YLs is in such a poor state that it would be better not to bother and that more damage is being done than good.

I find myself peaking against the motion in both cases:
1. Teaching languages to primary and pre-primary students is a good thing.
2. Things could, and do, improve and no efforts should be spared in facilitating such improvements.

24 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. I agree, there is more than one issue at stake here. The argument behind my original posting was that, whether or not you agree with second language instruction at primary level (and there seem to be good arguments both for and against – the latter including the need to maximise opportunities to achieve basic mother tongue literacy first, especially where the mother tongue is a minority language), the current state of SL provision in many countries in Europe is parlous, to say the least, and the time and resources might be better spent on other areas of education, since the research suggests that there are no advantages to be had from starting very young, if the only exposure children get is one or two hours a week.

26 01 2010
Eric Roth

What an informative, illuminating discussion!

While I have nothing new to add since I have never taught young children, I’m surprised at the emerging site consensus that “optimal conditions” trump early exposure to English. This blog posting, and the diverse sharing of insights by English teachers, seems rather persuasive.

Thanks for challenging my casual acceptance of the conventional wisdom among education policy-makers.

26 01 2010
Patrick Jackson

Have just read through the comments again to see if Colin’s ’emerging site consensus’ theory is true. Actually, commentators seem to point out pros, cons and caveats. The emerging consensus seems to be that (my feelings in brackets):
1. The playing field is skewed due to the imbalance in access. (Yes, but isn’t this the same for all regions, subjects, sectors and levels).
2. The state of YL language education in the state sector is ‘parlous’. (Again, doesn’t this apply across the board).
3. There has been insufficient research done to ascertain the benefits of a small amount of ELT at the pre-primary level. (This subject is in its infancy at primary level in many regions. It is particularly vulnerable to attack. It should be supported).
4. Our host thinks that chanting “the wheels on the bus go round and round” is ‘frittering their time away’. (No! Surely not! No!).

26 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Patrick for a succinct summary of the discussion.

With regard to your last point (about the “wheels on the bus”) I was picking up on a comment made earlier in the discussion by Jeremy Harmer, with reference to the benefits (also in doubt,as it happens) of CLIL-type immersion at primary level. Jeremy said: “Compare that [i.e. CLIL] to the 2 or 3 hours a week of fairy tales and ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’. The latter MAY help kids to be sensitised to the idea of other languages and cultures, but the efficacy of this in terms of real language learning is not attested to in any literature that I know of.”

One could argue that songs and games at a young age will pre-dispose learners to investing in English learning later on. The Muñoz (2006) collection of papers addresses motivation, and concludes that there are positive effects for early onset, but that they don’t persist – a trend also found in studies in Hungary, Canada and the UK. Tragant (in the Muñoz collection) sums up the evidence: “When FL instruction starts early in primary school there seems to be a decline in the learners’ attitudes around the age of 10/11; when most students start a foreign language or enter immersion programmes in secondary school, their initial attitudes are positive but their interest soon wanes” (p. 239). (Of course, the same can probably be said about adults).

The point is, if there is no enduring effect both on learning or on motivation, why start so young?

26 01 2010
Jason Renshaw

I can see Patrick’s points, and just to clarify my own position…

Yes, an early age to begin learning foreign languages can be great. Yes, such programs need support and development.

What I am very much (I dare say “vehemently”) against is forcing children into these lessons when they may not be willing or ready. Considering the percentage of contexts where this new language study is 100% mandatory… sorry, but Houston – we’ve got a problem.

26 01 2010
Patrick Jackson

Most of the primary school curriculum is compulsory. All over the world pressures from within and without the system have put pressure on minority subjects. I have no doubt that my kids who do a few hours of art a week at primary school could be overtaken at the age of 13 by some teenagers who had never been taught art before. I’m sure there are plenty of kids who will be better at basketball within a few weeks of starting the sport. The music teacher comes in once a week and they toot their tin whistles together. They have both made a lot of progress in Irish, particularly the younger one (6) who seems to pick it up in spadefuls.

I’m not putting money on either of my kids being particularly proficient artists, basketball players, tin whistlers or even great Irish speakers but I’m very glad they are spending their time in this way and I’m sure they benefit in their overall development because of this variety.

27 01 2010
Jason Renshaw

Hi Patrick,

Presuming language learning is comparable to other subjects (like Art) or sports (like basketball), makes similar demands without being any more stressful, your argument may be sound.

~ J

27 01 2010
Nick Bilbrough


You say ‘The point is, if there is no enduring effect both on learning or on motivation, why start so young?’

Well even without an enduring effect, it may well be that learning a language at a young age is just a nice thing to do. Learning a language, and education in general, isn’t just about preparing for the future world of adulthood, is it? It’s also about doing what’s right for you as a child.

Let’s hear it for wheels on the bus, fairy tales etc.


27 01 2010
Scott Thornbury

Nick, Patrick, Jason,

Now you make me feel like a killjoy! Far be it from me to kill the joy of learning a second language at a young age – so long as it is a joy (which goes back to Carol’s post about there being no harm in aiming for the stars). What worries me is that a generation of kids are being frog-marched through English grammar in the interests of getting a spurious head-start, and valuable resources are being wasted in doing so. Or that a generation of primary teachers is being forced to re-skill in order to teach English – when their own English may not really be up to it.

I guess what I wanted to do is to question the happy-clappy, uncritical rush towards increasingly younger onset ages, in the mistaken belief that you pick up a second language better, the younger you are – irrespective of the hours of exposure you get, or the kind of instruction you’re given.

27 01 2010
Nick Bilbrough

Didn’t mean to make you sound like a killjoy 🙂

I’m sure that lots of kids are being bored to death and turned off English with dry grammar presentations when they’re really not ready for it.

My gripe with primary education is that it’s starting to concern itself too much with preparing kids for the work force, and making them focus too early on on specific and intricate activities, rather than ones that ones which allow them to open their minds ; read and write before you’ve really learnt to talk about stuff, learn to use a mouse before you paint a picture – that kind of thing.

I guess that a very large proportion of kids in the world (perhaps the majority?) know from an early age that other languages exist and this can be a sort of ‘opening up’ experience for them, rather than one that closes down their view of their world. So I guess I think that foreign language teaching can be great at young ages, providing it’s done in an exposure rich and a zooming out, rather than a zooming in sort of way.


2 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

A footnote (and alternative) to the debate about “the younger the better”: ‘extreme language exchanges’, i.e. young start but maximum exposure (from The Independent):

4 02 2010
Christine Taylor-Dorenkamp

Thanks for putting this discussion on the table. I’m so glad to have been able to read it/join it before it’s already long since the last post. I’m sure many more voices would join if they knew…

Recently, I met and chatted at length with an outstanding ELT-YL teacher trainer (L. Durrant), who came to us and led a short course for a group of 15 teachers in the Frankfurt Germany area. (Scott, she certainly mentioned how highly she regards you. :)) The course was simply excellent, and it touched on much of what is being discussed here. The participants had very mixed backgrounds and work settings. Some were just being introduced to ELT-YL, others have been teaching in state schools for years, a few have been teaching only privately, and still others (me) who’ve done a combination of private and state school lessons. But for one we were all NESTs. The question of whether starting young was not at issue. It was more on question of how (to teach, and to create the right conditions).

Personally, the over-commercialisation and unlevel playing field is what bothers me most. THis is hard to improve upon without raising the standards (the quality of learning conditions) throughout the schools in a given community, which of course requires a concerted effort, sufficient funding and political support. This is currently my local mission… still in progress.

Aside from that, without systematic, comprehensive research, there is no sense in trying to judge the sense of primary ELT. The anecdotal evidence is obviously all over the map. The German lag behind their Swedisch and Dutch counterparts is well known, and has been investigated also by the school ministry here–they wanted to know why this is so, and what they could change to close the gap. Let’s just say, the political will hasn’t been there to change what’s really wrong. There has been at least one study, though far from comprehensive, that indicated the culprit as the dire lack of language competence in German state school EFL teachers. I can support this fully with first-hand experience. Children are tortured with the illusion that they are learning something in these classes, and the torture continues way beyond primary school, where they can’t pass a test, tests that are written by teachers who don’t understand the grammar points they’re meant to be teaching. Regrettably, this is extremely common throughout Germany. A sad situation for a country that is supposed to be an economic leader.

My response has been to offer courses specifically aimed, not only at children, whose parents place value on early English learning, but ALSO at teachers who are being asked to teach English ever earlier. To offer them lots more in-service English lanuage training, that is. This has begun, but has a LONG way to go.

My own experiences teaching both private lessons (starting with 3-year-olds) and in state schools (starting with 6-year-olds) tells me that starting young has great benefits for those children who continue for at least two years, but that class size make a huge difference. Children who’ve learnt in small groups with me or a colleague of mine for “just” 45 minutes a week over two years can communicate in English at A1 level or better, and take great pride in this. Children who’d been learning only in the schools however, were being taught in groups of 25. The teachers had not only poor English skills, but lacked training in foreign language pedagogy.

Simply put, the EFFORT toward improvement (thank you Patrick Jackson!) should be out into better training for primary school teachers who are being asked to teach, whether they want to or not, whether they CAN or not. THIS lack is what’s destroying the experience for the learners, NOT their ages or what they should rather be doing (yes, playground time is also essential!). Learning ENglish (Carol Read’s “commandments” taken to heart!) is such great fun when done with the right tools, preparation and the right attitude!

One request i’d like to make is that those who’ve “tried teaching Primary”, and have found it unpleasant or unsuccessful, don’t be discouraged! Stick to teaching adults! I tried teaching adults, and I disliked it! Every teacher teaches best when they teach in their own optimal conditions. 🙂

4 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment Christine. And thanks for introducing the question of class size: I imagine there is a stong correlation between class size and the amount of exposure that learners get. This would seem to suggest that where there are only a few hours that can be devoted to English at least the size of the classes should be kept small.

4 02 2010
Christine Taylor-Dorenkamp

If my above post seems slightly unfocused, that’s because i was. 🙂 Sorry, but i was writing way too late/early to be entirely clear. As a humble author once wrote: i didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so i’ve written you a long one. hope the main points come through somehow nonetheless. best wishes!

4 07 2011
Eric Kane

Time, even more than age, seems to be the recipe. We run a private language school in Japan where we try very hard to offer as much “non-classroom” content and exposure as possible. Those who take us up on the opportunities generally explode. We have 3-year olds who speak in full sentences (albeit broken at times), ask questions and express all types of age-expected reactions. They are the ones who spend time listening to music, watching the videos we have created and reading with mom and dad. Those who don’t? Much closer to the “wasting their time” category, though there are noticeable gains in vocabulary, pronunciation and general lack of fear, however minuscule.

Great article. Great question!

5 11 2014
Rig'dzin Dorje

My experience of relocating my son to Italy at age ten is that he was speaking Italian reasonably by the end of his first term, from uncompromising immersion, due to having primary school teachers with no confidence, competence, or experience in teaching a non-native speaker. But when in middle school he was exposed to French as the second language, at a rate of I think one hour a week, he expected to be able to acquire it as easily as he had Italian, but made the most painful job of it (as did the teachers), got nowhere, and was heartily glad when the government changed the curriculum foreign language to English.

11 05 2016
Monireh Najafi

What is the best Age to learn a new language?

18 01 2019
Olga Goliguzova

I believe there is no harm in having L2 classes in primary schools but in my experience children who started doing L2 (English) at the age of 5 and those who undertook their first proper foreign language course at the age of 12 or even later very often display similar results in early adulthood and the explanations are obvious. When you are older, you concentrate better and are capable of working harder and for longer periods of time, your capacity to take in abstract ideas is higher. So the idea ‘the younger, the better’ looks like a misconception to me. Personally, my best results as a L2 learner were achieved when I was in my early 30-s and was doing a lot of work on my English consciously with a clear sense of purpose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: