Since Penfield (1953) settled an optimum age for language learning within the first decade of life, the idea that children have an advantage over adults in foreign language acquisition has been widespread until present days. Further researches, as Lenneberg’s critical period concept (1967), stated that language capacity was determined by neurological basis situated at puberty. Krasen (1979) stated that adults and older children carry on through early stages of syntactic and morphological development faster than young children, while students who are naturally exposed to a second language during childhood generally achieve higher proficiency on that language, rather than those beginning as adults. It is clear then the relationship between three main factors: age, amount of exposure and eventual accomplishment in second language acquisition.
As mentioned in the Teaching English as a Third Language Cenoz paper, early introduction of English at schools has no negative effects on the acquisition of other languages (referring to L1 or L2) or overall cognitive development. I’m going to develop the arguments deeply in the following paragraphs as well as refute some myths widespread about age influence on foreign language learning.
In the Muñoz study, regarding the age effects on foreign language learning, up to 5 different age groups were analysed to obtain solid conclusions. There was a distinction between different language skills, since these may be different affected by both the starting age and the length of instruction. There are also some individual factors involved in learning a second language which had been considered too. These are the following:
There’s a relationship between attitude and linguistic results. It is said young learners are more motivated to learn English than adults or older children and, therefore, they are able to achieve higher levels. This is not true, as proved in Muñoz investigation, because in general motivation increases as increase the amount of language exposure. Primary students express English classes are fun and interesting, whereas secondary students affirm English classes are important and useful for their academic and professional future. Both students group are motivated to learn English, in a different way but effectively enough in both cases.
It is also said young learners are predisposed to take risks without being afraid of committing errors or mistakes, and they are also more willing to experiment through the language. There are clear evidences these arguments are not enough solid to affirm that early learning students achieve better results. The research on the topic has evidenced those students learning a language use different strategies:
Cognitive strategies, like concepts association, classification or analysis.
Social strategies, such as help request to family members, teacher or colleagues.
These strategies mentioned increase as the learner grows up, meaning that young learners aren’t able to use all these strategies due to cognitive maturation. Therefore, the widespread thought “as sooner the better” is clearly proved to be a myth.
Regarding oral comprehension and oral production (listening and speaking) i
t is proved that older students obtain better results in speaking, because these group of students are able to use more resources and strategies, as negotiation or code-switching, to help them perform a more advantageously speech with the aim to effectively communicate with the interlocutor. Young learners aren’t able to perform the same level of speaking strategies, because of cognitive maturation, as mentioned above. Nevertheless, in terms of listening skills both groups of students are proved to have the same capacities. Despite that, Muñoz research concludes that 12-year-olds did not better than 10-year-olds in the listening comprehension tests, which can confirm that an early start may particularly favours listening comprehension. This would be the only skill
that youngers overtake the older ones.
It is also widespread that those students who started learning English earlier are expected to obtain better results on writing competences than those who started later. Nevertheless, some research on the topic has demonstrate that in this case it is a matter of maturity again, as mentioned above, because older students are better in text production, even though the age starting learning that language was later on. Younger students aren’t able to use the same linguistic strategies and compensatory strategies to elaborate coherent and grammatically correct texts.
Muñoz focused her research on several hypothesis that complement what other authors and studies have already clarified about age and bilingualism effects on foreign language learning. It was confirmed her hypothesis that first levels of competence in L1 and L2 (Catalan and Spanish) would have a high level of competence in L3 (English). Despite that, neither of the two languages seems to have a higher influence on the third one, and neither of the two is formally closer to English. Interdependence between L1 and L2 languages was also confirmed after the research. It was also disproved that the early introduction of English affected the development of L1 and L2 languages or, in general, cognitive ability. Moreover, significant differences were found in writing skills in both languages L1 and L2. Learners who had started English at the age of four obtained higher results in both languages writing tests.
Researchers on the topic conclude that older learners obtain significantly higher results than younger learners, being faster and more efficient when learning a foreign language, due to cognitive maturity and the type of input received. Muñoz study also conclude that 12-year-old students demonstrated better command of English after considering all the tests and interviews. The older students are more efficient than the younger learners and advance at a higher speed in the first stages of language acquisition. Young learners may have some advantage in those situations where implicit learning occurs, similar than the mother tongue learning which involves more natural situations that young learners are used to, there’s no evidence they can achieve better results. In a long-term period of time and being constantly immersed in a foreign language, young learners could obtain proficient language levels, closer to native-speaking. But this is not clear by now, the researches done in this field can’t conclude so yet, due to the lack of evidences they’ve got. I believe it is necessary to promote proficient language learning among our society through immersion programmes, updating our curricular plans adapted to nowadays society needs and promoting language as a medium of instruction for other subjects, in a more integrated and communicative approach, as well as providing teachers the tools and training necessary to perform a good job.