Friday, 28 October 2011
When is it too late to learn a language?
Recent comments from the Education Secretary Michael Gove highlight the sad reality that British children are just not learning languages at an early enough age to foster real language ability*. In most European countries speaking more than one language is the norm and it’s regarded as a fundamental part of education. Not here in the UK.
At what age then should kids be exposed to a foreign language? The idea that children get “confused” if exposed to more than one language in childhood is absolute nonsense. In fact the opposite occurs - such exposure helps develop a child’s cognitive and communicative ability. As far as language learning is concerned the earlier the better.
One of the issues this raises though, is the question: Is there a point of no return when it is just too late to start teaching a foreign language? For decades linguists have explored the idea that there is a critical period for language acquisition - a window of time where children have the best chance of learning a language as if it were their native language. When that window closes, language learning becomes hard work.
There can be no doubt that language acquisition becomes harder - but not impossible - as we move out of puberty and into adult life. The existence of a critical period is not clear. It may be that the critical period is broken down into chunks of acquisition which apply to different aspects of language, so that language learning is not a granite slab but a series of individual bricks that all come together over an extended period of time.
From an educational standpoint, language teaching should ideally start in primary school. Anecdotal evidence suggests that young children are more enthusiastic and less inhibited about using a foreign language compared to teenagers. However, there needs to be some cohesive policy that allows qualified language teachers to follow a defined course structure so that children build on what they learn at primary school when they reach secondary school. That requires policy, educational planning, teacher development and above all a recognition that language learning should start at an early age.