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Why Is It Beneficial to Commence Learning English at a Young Age?

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I am going to share my essay that I think parents, children, educators, language instructors and many others who can benefit from in this forum.


Reasons Why the Younger the Better

In today’s world, English is adopted as a common language between people who have different native tongues. In other words, it is Lingua Franca of modern world. The international business community sees English as a common means of communication and academics publish their researches and dissertations in English. In many fields employers seek for employees who knows English. If one is to be a competent as a skilled worker in global world, one must learn English. That being the case, to be better at raising globally qualified workforce many countries tend to lower the starting age for English language teaching. Especially this notion is apparent in developed countries. According to a report published by European Commission children are starting to learn foreign languages at an increasingly early age in Europe, with most pupils beginning when they are 6-9 years old and English is the most dominant language that is taught to children. However, whether lowering the starting age has a positive effect on learning English or not is a matter of debate in academia. Although there is a controversy going on, the younger start at learning English or another foreign language is better due to its advantages and its positive relevance with Critical Age Hypothesis.

Commencing to learn English or another foreign language at an early age is more advantageous. According to Paradis (2004) and Johnstone (2009), young learners acquire languages with greater ease, especially the sound system, and develop implicit competence since they can rely on natural acquisition process. They are undeniably better at acquiring the sounds and rhythms of target language. Then, they have lower affective filter than older learners do and they are also intuitive and less anxious. Moreover, they have more time to learn target language and larger capacity to gain awareness about the potential intercultural identity. Finally, if they start earlier, they will make use of the ultimate benefits for improvement over time. Since a child’s mouth structure is more underdeveloped than a teenager or an adult and a child has less knowledge and embracement about his culture than an adult or teenager of his culture, it makes sense that they are better at acquiring target language’s sounds and rhythms and having a more potential about gaining intercultural identity. Among these advantages the most important can be said the time advantage. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time devoted to language study and the language proficiency that the students attain (Curtain & Peso la, 1988). Thus, it may be argued that children who begin foreign language study in elementary school, and who maintain such study for a number of years, have a better chance of developing a high level of foreign language proficiency than do students whose foreign language instruction begins in the post elementary school years. Another advantage is improvement of cognitive skills. Children who are adequately exposed to two languages at an early age experience gains: they are more flexible and creative, and they reach high levels of cognitive development at an earlier age than their monolingual peers (Hamayan, 1986). Piaget (1983) believed that cognitive development occurs when a child is confronted with an idea or experience that does not fit into his or her realm of understanding. In this context, foreign language education can be used to challenge the kid’s understanding to make cognitive development happen. Thereby, foreign language study becomes the catalyst for cognitive and psychological development in young children.

When it is comes to the notion of the younger the better, it is inevitable to mention critical age hypothesis which highly favours of the idea. The hypothesis suggests that primary language acquisition must occur during a critical period which ends at about the age of puberty. Another corollary of CPH is that any language learning which occurs after the age of puberty will be slower and less successful than normal first language learning (Krashen 1975; Lenneberg 1967, 1969; Scovel 1969). Comparing second language acquisition to first language acquisition several studies by using this approach have shown that the course of second language acquisition is similar to that of first language acquisition, in terms of order in which rules and structures are acquired (Dulay & Burt 1974; Fathman 1975), of the learning strategies employed (Cook 1973; Ervin-Tripp 1974) and of the errors made (Taylor 1975). From these findings we can conclude that both first and second language acquired in a similar way and because of that it can be said that age factor related with both of them. If age factor applies to second language acquisition too, then, it should be the case that young children are better than adults at learning a second language and should consequently reach higher levels of final proficiency in the second language. To prove this assumption Newport and Johnson (1989) conducted a research with 46 native Korean or Chinese speakers who had arrived in the United States between the ages of 3 and 39, and who had lived in the United States between 3 and 26 years by the time of testing. These subjects were tested on a wide variety of structures of English grammar, using a grammatically judgment task. Both correlational and t-test analyses demonstrated a clear and strong advantage for earlier arrivals over the later arrivals. This study clearly positively correlates with the corollary of CPH and the assumption. From a wider perspective, in any type of learning age is among the most important factors. For example, if we were listed best living pianists of the world and looked their starting ages of playing piano, we would find out that all of them started to play it at a very young age. It cannot be expected from a person who started to play piano after their puberty to become a piano virtuoso. Similarly, it cannot be expected from a person who started to learn English after their puberty to become master of the language.

Language acquisition at an early age has many benefits and correlates with Critical Age Hypothesis yet there are people who think that early start in foreign language is not beneficial. Barcelona Age Factor Project aimed to explore effects age on foreign language abilities. This project’s findings evaluated by various researchers. The results of the BAF project implied that an early start in foreign language learning setting did not guarantee the ultimate attainment of young learners (Munoz, 2006). Likewise, Copland et al. (2014) also argue that there is no clear conclusive evidence for the supposed benefits of the early introduction into English. For them, there are optimal requirements such as the amount and the quality of input that young learners receive, the quality of English teachers, and the choice of appropriate teaching strategies for teaching English to younger ages in EFL settings. However, these studies did not take account long term effects. Larson (2008) criticizes the studies conducted so far not examining the long-run consequences of input in foreign language contexts because the critical period studies advocating the “the younger the better” hypothesis consider the immigrant young learners who were immersed in the target language environment and were exposed to larger hours of the target language at schools. In his correlational analysis study with 200 Japanese EFL learners. Also, Larson Hall (2008) found that starting at an earlier age made a modest difference in terms of phonological and phosynthactic abilities, given the increased total input-significant amount of homework and studying outside in the target language. Another opposing research argued that older ones are better at pronunciation. Ekstrand (Notel) and Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle (1978) found better pronunciation in older subjects. Nevertheless, a comprehensive research by Thompson (1991) examined data collected from 39 Russian-born subjects who had immigrated to the United States between the ages of 4 and 42. The subjects were each given three types of speaking tasks: (1) reading a list of 20 sentences which were intentionally “seeded” with English sounds that are known to be difficult for native Russian speakers; (2) reading a 160-word passage which had not been seeded; and (3) speaking spontaneously for one minute about their activities on the day of the experiment. The speech samples were then examined both by a group of native English speakers who had little or no knowledge about or exposure to foreign languages and linguistics, and by a group who was familiar with linguistics and had had frequent exposure to the Russian language. The judges were asked to rate the samples on a scale from 1 (no foreign accent) to 5 (heavy foreign accent). Thompson’s results pointed to a strong link between a subject’s age of first exposure to English and the nativeness of his or her accent. While none of the subjects were universally judged to speak English wholly without a foreign accent, subjects with an early age of arrival scored consistently and considerably better than subjects with a late age of arrival. From Thompson’s research we can conclude that older ones actually can have heavier accents and therefore, their pronunciation can be worse. Also, we clearly see that younger ones can outperform in terms of pronunciation and they can have more native like accent.

In conclusion, whether lowering age of start at studying English or any other foreign is beneficial or not still a controversial issue. Nonetheless, there are several advantages of learning a foreign language at an early age like acquiring easily the sound system and having potential intercultural identity. Critical Age Hypothesis favours of the idea and it positively correlates with it. However, there are findings that indicate that otherwise. Many of these findings comes from researches which missed an important point or poorly made. Even though the younger the better is a controversial topic, it should be implemented owing to its advantages and its positive relevance with Critical Age Hypothesis. If we want to raise competent English speakers, we should embrace the younger the better idea.


References

Cook, V. J. The comparison of language development in native children and foreign adults. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 1973, 11, 13-28.

Copland, F., Garton, S., & Burns, A. (2014). Challenges in teaching English to young learners: Global perspectives and local realities. TESOL Quarterly, 48(4), 732-762.

Curtain, H. A., & Pesola, C. A. (1988). Languages and children-Making the match: Foreign language instruction in the elementary school. Addison-Wesley.

Dulay, H., & Burt, M. Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Working Papers in Bilingualism, 1974 (No. 4), 71-98.

Ervin-Tripp, S. Is second language learning like first? TESOL Quaterly, 1974, 8, 111-127.

Fathman, A. The relationship between age and second language productive ability. Language Learning, 1975, 25, 245-253.

Hamayan, E. (1986). The Need for Foreign Language Competence in the United States. ERIC Digest.

Johnson, J. S., & Newport, E. L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive psychology, 21(1), 60-99.

Johnstone, R. (2009). An early start: What are the key conditions for generalized success. Young learner English language policy and implementation: International perspectives, 31-41.

Krashen, S. The critical period for language acquisition and its possible bases. In D. Aaronson & R. W. Rieber (Eds.), Developmental psycho-linguistics and communication disorders. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1975.

Larson-Hall, J. (2008). Weighing the benefits of studying a foreign language at a younger starting age in a minimal input situation. Second language research, 24(1), 35-63.

Lenneberg, E. On explaining language. Science, 1969, 165, 635-643

Lenneberg, E. Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley, 1967

Muñoz, C. (2006). The BAF project: research on the effects of age on foreign language acquisition. In Age in L2: acquisition and teaching (pp. 81-92).

Paradis, M. (2004). A neurolinguistic theory of bilingualism. John Benjamins.

Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.

Scovel, T. Foreign accents, language acquisition and cerebral dominance. Language Leraning,1969, 19, 245-253.

Snow, C. E., & Hoefnagel-Höhle, M. Age differences in the pronunciation of foreign sounds. Language and Speech, 1978, in press.

Taylor, B. P. The use of overgeneralization and transfer learning strategies by elementary and intermediate students of ESL, Language Learning, 1975, 25, 73-107.

Thompson, I. (1991). Foreign accents revisited: The English pronunciation of Russian immigrants. Language learning, 41(2), 177-204.

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Comments

  1. calxpal's Avatar
    Good read! An interesting subject.

    Out of interest and confusion I did want to mention that I was taught French when I was 2-3 years old and apparently retained it ok for a few years but then completely forgot all of it and lost all my skills ): does anyone have an explanation or likely reason for this?
  2. kessaras's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by calxpal
    Good read! An interesting subject.

    Out of interest and confusion I did want to mention that I was taught French when I was 2-3 years old and apparently retained it ok for a few years but then completely forgot all of it and lost all my skills ): does anyone have an explanation or likely reason for this?

    The phenomenon you're describing is known as language attrition, where a person loses proficiency in a language they once knew. 'Language attrition' describes the loss of, or changes to, grammatical and other features of a language as a result of declining use by speakers who have changed their linguistic environment and language habits.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publica...guage%20habits.