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Focus On: Is younger always better when it comes to learning a foreign language?

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Focus On: Is younger always better when it comes to learning a foreign language?

27 April 2023

“The conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages.” -Roger Bacon

The age at which children in Europe are learning a foreign language is getting younger. In 2002, the Barcelona European Council called for further action ‘teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age’ to improve the mastery of basic skills in education. The 2023 edition of Key data on teaching languages at school in Europe has found that, since then, around two thirds of education systems for which there are data have lowered the age at which children begin to learn a foreign language. Now, learning at least one foreign language is compulsory before the age of eight in most education systems, and even before the age of six in six education systems.

A common belief is that when it comes to foreign language learning, younger is better. But is this true in the context of European school education?

While young children have certain cognitive advantages linked to their age, such as a higher brain plasticity, there are other factors that also facilitate their acquisition of a foreign language. This is because younger children learn in a completely different manner to older children. They learn implicitly, through interaction, songs and play, listening and imitating sounds like with their native language. Young children also have fewer inhibitions and are more likely to take risks without worrying about being corrected. They are therefore driven by the desire to communicate and interact with people around them.

Learning languages at an early age does not only bring linguistic benefits. It can also enhance core cognitive skills, including reasoning, problem solving, and memory, along with improving communication and intercultural skills. Importantly, the songs and play that are a part of early language learning make classes fun, potentially cultivating a long-lasting interest for foreign languages, and motivating children to continue learning as they get older.

However, older children have their own cognitive advantages. They have greater linguistic experience and metalinguistic skills that young children do not possess. This means that they are more efficient learners of vocabulary and aspects of language structure.

In the context of a classroom, with explicit instruction in rules of a language, being older could therefore be better. Linguistic research has shown that older children from the age of 11 can outperform younger children from the age of eight when given instruction in a new foreign language for the same amount of time. Although young children eventually catch up and reach an even higher level of competence, this suggests that the greater cognitive maturity of older children helps them to make use of the limited input and explicit instruction.

As younger children learn through more implicit means, a much larger amount of quality exposure is required. In fact, children who are observed as learning a new language in a short amount of time are typically those who have been fully immersed, such as in families that immigrate to a new country.This is not usually possible in a school context, with a limited number of hours devoted to foreign language teaching. Therefore, it may not be straightforward to implement such a policy across European education systems.

It firstly puts into question the competences of teachers in primary education. If it becomes compulsory for children to learn a language at a lower age, and therefore in a lower grade at school, there must be enough qualified language teachers for these extra hours. This is especially difficult when many countries are already facing a shortage of teachers.

In countries where generalist teachers, i.e. those qualified to teach all (or almost all subjects), are also expected to teach languages, the challenge may be for them to acquire a high level of competence in a foreign language. A high-quality input cannot be guaranteed if the teacher is not a competent speaker of the language or lacks the teaching skills to teach foreign languages.

Continuity in the language being taught is also important. Many children may encounter disruptions in their foreign language learning as they get older and transition between education levels. This notably can be a result of the structure of national education systems, which differ greatly across Europe for full-time compulsory general education. In systems that follow a single structure, such as in Denmark, there is no transition between primary and lower secondary education. This means that Danish students, who are required to learn English as a foreign language, can study the language continuously without any disruption. In contrast, other education systems, like in France, have several transitions between education levels. French students, who have a choice in language, attend two separate schools for primary and lower secondary education. This discontinuity could be a problem if students are no longer taught at the same level or if they are required to start a new language from scratch.

When it comes to learning foreign languages at school, starting at different ages has different advantages. Learning from a very early age has a key role in foreign language education, but there are still conditions of success that should be considered. In view of this, the European Commission is advocating for a more comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages, which notably includes continuity in language education and supporting teachers in their mobility and training.

Authors: Aislinn Curran and Nathalie Baidak

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