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Warren Midgley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary ificantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.
Before they can add two small s or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners. Two theories from the s continue to have a ificant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.
Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective. These theories have been contestedbut nevertheless they continue to be influential. Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better. In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.
Living, learning and playing 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. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible. 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 do not usually develop until early adolescence. For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.
There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own.
To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners. What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear. If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better.
If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood. However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood. Be Curious — Leeds, Leeds. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom.
Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers. Warren MidgleyUniversity of Southern Queensland.
Why younger may not always be better Two theories from the s continue to have a ificant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.You younger is better
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