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#IATEFL – Second language development in childhood: factors for success

content based language teaching and instructionVictoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics and author of Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and Contextsshares her thoughts on the importance of L2 development in childhood, ahead of her forthcoming talk at IATEFL 2015 on Tuesday 14th on the same subject.

How children learn second languages has long interested me. Looking back, even from a very young age I was fascinated with the notion of bilingualism. As a child growing up in Ottawa, Canada I was fortunate in that I had very early second language instruction – indeed I was taught French as part of my pre-school and kindergarten education. When I was in grade 3 I recall that a very nice lady came into the class and told us that if we were interested in having all of our school day in French in grade 4, that we should take the letter she was distributing home to our parents and get them to sign it. I vividly remember how excited I was then at the prospect of speaking French for the whole day! Little did I know then that I was to end up participating in an early cohort of French Immersion education, a form of bilingual education that I would later go on to study as an academic. That very early interest in bilingualism stuck with me and eventually motivated me to go on and study Linguistics and Psychology at undergraduate level and then as part of my graduate work examine more closely some of the mechanisms which underpin child L2 learning.

Why is child L2 learning important?

More than ever I believe the field of child L2 learning, and particularly the role that formal education has in developing plurilingual citizens, is critically important to our futures, for a variety of reasons, which include social, economic, political and cognitive perspectives. I think too that we need to have a much better understanding of the factors and influences that shape successful L2 development in childhood, and again, to identify more precisely the role that educational policy, schools and teachers can play in determining successful L2 outcomes. This understanding is all the more important because increasingly governments around the world are lowering the age at which children are being taught a foreign language as part of their formal primary education.  However, the evidence which directly examines questions about the most effective or appropriate age at which to teach foreign languages to younger children is mixed, where some studies clearly show advantages to older learners while other studies argue for benefits to young learners. One worries (at least I do) that the reason why governments are making these decisions is due to a generally held belief that ‘younger is better’ in language learning in general, and L2 learning in particular. Without a doubt there is plenty of evidence in the literature to demonstrate age of acquisition effects, and clear relationships between the age of the learner and their L2 outcomes.

Contributing factors for L2 learning

However, many other variables are implicated in this relationship in addition to age (i.e., it is not just the age of the learner that determines the ultimate success of L2 learning). This is the point of the volume Second language learning in the early school years:  Trends and Contexts. I wanted to show that by examining L2 learning across a range of young learner contexts – where the children in each context can be argued to be at an advantage age-wise – we see that age is not the only, and probably not even the most critical, variable in determining the success of L2 learners.  Implementing policy to formally teach L2/Foreign Language to children, or developing bilingual education programmes to help support different languages, ought to be considered within a solid understanding of the research that identifies what we can realistically expect of L2 learners across different contexts. Furthermore, particularly in those contexts where children’s bilingual development is being supported by the school, we need to pay very close attention to the nature of the provision in these different bilingual or L2 programmes so as to ensure that we offer maximal support for the development of the L2 (while at the same time maintaining and developing the L1). It is my hope that the discussions in the volume Second language learning in the early school years:  Trends and Contexts will be informative in identifying major themes and issues in different contexts of child L2 learning, and that possibly, future generations of educational policy makers will make decisions concerning educational provision with a greater awareness of the complexity of child L2 development.


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Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learners

Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learnersAge 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.