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Opinion: is younger better for teaching a second language?

We know that young children are very effective at learning languages. However, research shows that when learning a second language, starting younger is not always better.

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that we all learn to speak our first language with remarkable skill at a very early age. Long before we can do simple sums, we develop a fluency in our first language that is the envy of most adult learners of that language.

Why younger may not always be better

The idea that younger is better is supported by two very influential theories from the 1960s.

The ‘theory of universal grammar’ proposes that children are born with an intuitive knowledge of the meta-grammar that is common to all human languages. Children fill in the details around these universal grammar rules when they are exposed to their first language, making the process of learning that language very efficient.

The other theory, known as the ‘critical period hypothesis’, claims that as we grow older, we lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but they nevertheless continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories posit, however, research into language learning outcomes shows that starting younger is not always be better.

Older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being taught.

Language immersion is ideal for young children

Playing and exploring in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language.

There is no reason to be concerned that exposure to other languages in early childhood will be to the detriment of first language development. In fact, very often early exposure leads to other cognitive benefits also, such as a greater capacity for lateral thinking and creative problem solving.

If we can provide this kind of exposure to a second language, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in a classroom environment

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that usually do not develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, starting in the early childhood years does not provide any significant longterm advantage. Students who start learning this way in late primary or early high school catch up fairly quickly to those students who started learning this way much earlier.

How we can apply this to early childhood education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? If the only consideration is outcomes in terms of language proficiency, the research paints a fairly clear picture.

If there is the capacity to provide exposure to lots of rich language use, early childhood is ideal. However, if the only opportunity for second language teaching is through traditional language classes, then starting later in primary school is likely to be just as effective as starting in early childhood.

Associate professor Warren Midgley is Head of School, Linguistics, Adult and Specialist Education at the University of Southern Queensland.

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