Age and Learning a Second Language

What age is best to learn a second language? Teaching a second language aims to train bilingual individuals, but what is meant by "bilingual individuals?

At present, the learning of a second language begins in the third grade when a child’s knowledge of his first language is well established, but many people want to see their child start earlier in hopes of improving his or her success. What does current research show?

An imposing quantity of research has demonstrated that it is better to start learning a second language before puberty. First, primary school children are more open to learning and the fear of ridicule does not paralyze them (Driscoll 1999). On the other hand, research on second language proficiency that has focused on immigrants in the United States has shown that the age of arrival in the United States is the main factor of success when taking tests of English proficiency, both in terms of pronunciation and grammatical skills (Johnson and Newport 1989, Newport 1990, Schachter 1996). In a study conducted by Melissa Newport people who arrive in the United States prior to 7 years of age achieve results comparable to those of native speakers of English, and those who arrive between the ages of 8 and 10 show barely inferior results. There is then a performance decline for arrivals between the ages of 11 and 15 which is even lower for people who arrive after age 17. These results show that there seems to be a sensitive period, which ends more or less at puberty, during which learning a second language is most likely to perfectly succeed. It is therefore important to try to take full advantage of this period to establish the basic structures of language.

The results of this research suggest that the earlier you start learning the spoken language, the better the results, and it would be best to start at six years old instead of eight. But we must consider other factors: at six years old, children cannot address language globally, they are not able to reflect on language and it is difficult for them to undertake a systematic learning in a school context (Byrnes 1991: 17). Also, studies on children in immersion classes have shown that when teaching literacy in both languages simultaneously, there is confusion (Swain, 1984, in O'Neil 1993:65), since the rules of correspondence between graphemes and their pronunciation is quite different from one language to another. If we want to start the second language during the early years of a child’s life then we should take the writing away until the third year of learning so as to ensure that the rules of grapheme-phoneme correspondence are integrated in one language before starting the study of these rules for the second language. That means no books, no written words on the blackboard, etc.

From the third year on, the child becomes able to segment language and reflect upon it. He or she is better equipped in terms of cognitive approach to school tasks involved in learning a second language (Met 1991:64). French children, for example, have already mastered the necessary rules of French grapheme-phoneme and can begin learning to read English without interference. This seems to be a better time to undertake a systematic learning a second language. In addition, some research shows that learning a second language helps to develop metalinguistic skills (Ely 1997:428, O'Neil 1993:251), these skills become particularly important in the third grade when learning begins to include spelling and grammar.
Therefore, some situations favor a quick start, while others suggest that we should wait a bit. The choice becomes a societal choice. A compromised solution could be learning a second language in three phases:

1) an awareness phase, which could be ideal for juniors or primary level students and would aim to develop comprehensive skills in pronunciation and listening skills through songs, rhymes, games, etc.. But without systematic learning.

2) a phase of fluency development and learning the basic structures of language, focusing on oral but also written language. This could begin in the third grade.

3) a consolidation phase of learning and maturing in high school.

In regards to writing skills, it is important to note that while the task of learning the spelling of words is not fundamentally different in French and English, both languages are very different regarding grammar. In English, the agreement marks are audible and conjugations of verbs almost nonexistent. In French, the rules of agreement lead to rich and complex conjugations. Very often the writer has no phonological index to guide the choice of a particular orthographic form. It is much harder to write French without fault to write English without fault. The English spelling does not pose major difficulties for French-speaking learners, since the rules of grapheme-phoneme correspondence, although different, are no more difficult than French.

The plan of study must also be considered in relation to the type of objectives that one wishes to develop. For example, consider the hypothesis of a sensitization phase to the second language. Logic suggests that this awareness is done in short periods throughout the year, such as minutes per week. When it comes to developing fluency in oral language, small periods of one hour per week are relatively inefficient, and it seems better to group blocks intensive hours that leave time for children to appropriate pronunciation and language structures, and thus to develop a sense of language. For the consolidation of learning, once the basics are well established, it is possible that shorter periods which are more spread out would better maintain and develop learning than intensive blocks.
Sharon Le Vavasseur
Fondateur, Gérant et Contact Administratif de English@laCarte
Cours particulier d'anglais haut de gamme par Professeur Américaine à l'Ecole Polytechnique avec 20 ans d'expérience

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