Age is often considered the critical variable in determining the success of L2 learning. In this post Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics and author of Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and Contexts, introduces her forthcoming webinar on the subject and looks at other factors that influence L2 learning in classroom-based contexts.
For the past few decades there has been a growing interest in child second language (L2) learning, particularly evidenced by the fact that increasingly around the world children are required to learn a second language in the primary school classroom. For example, Qiang (2002) reports that as of 2001 English language became a formal taught subject in the Chinese primary curriculum beginning at age 8 (grade 3) in order to increase the English language skills of China’s population. Similarly in the UK, Modern Foreign Language (MFL) learning has been re-introduced into the English primary curriculum after a long absence. As of 2014, native English-speaking children at Key Stage 2 (starting at 7 years old) are entitled to learn a MFL. These two examples illustrate that governments are showing a greater commitment to learning a (second) language during the primary school years. What has led to this decision?
Is age a critical factor?
One issue that appears in many of the reports available from the UK government highlights the ease with which children in primary school are able to pick up foreign language learning. For example the DCSF report ‘Languages for all, Languages for Life’ states that “If a child’s talent and natural interest in languages is to flourish, early language learning opportunities need to be provided, and their aptitude needs to be tapped into at the earliest opportunity when they are most receptive.” (DCSF, 2002). Another example of this prevalent view is found in the text of the Romanes lecture given by the then Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, in 1999 at the University of Oxford. In his lecture Mr. Blair talked about the importance of learning languages in childhood (in discussing the National Curriculum) and at one point said “Everyone knows that with languages the earlier you start, the easier they are”.
Statements such as these underscore a widespread view that learning a second language in childhood is far easier than for older learners, presumably in part due to the research suggesting there is a critical period for language learning (e.g., Moyer, 2004).
The classroom context
Importantly however, the research that has led to this generalisation that ‘younger is better’ is based on research that was NOT carried out within the primary classroom context. It is therefore an empirical question whether this same assertion about ‘younger is better’ is relevant to young learners in an L2 classroom context. Indeed, the few studies that have been systematically focussed on this question indicate that when it comes to learning a second language within the primary school curriculum, older is actually better (Muñoz, 2006). Furthermore, whether the L2 is being taught in a language minority vs. language majority context can have a significant influence over the outcomes and success of an L2 program, whether a child is learning an MFL as part of an immersion curriculum or as part of a foreign language curriculum with only 1 hour a week of instruction in the L2 can have a significant impact on the extent and success with which the child learns the L2, and so on.
The focus of this webinar is to highlight the fact that the age of the L2 learner is arguably not as informative as other factors that relate to the context in which the learner is developing their L2 knowledge. Some of these other factors will be identified and discussed.
Join Victoria for her webinar on 10th December at 15:30 – 17:00. Register here.