A Study on Children learning a new language

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"Learning other languages enables children and young people to make connections with different people and their cultures and to play a fuller part as global citizens" (Building the Curriculum,2006: 18).

The above statement highlights the growing importance of children learning a modern foreign language (MFL) in today's society, however the document does not specify at what age a modern foreign language should be taught. Some researchers state that a second language should be taught from an early age as young children seem to have the ability to acquire the sound system of a foreign language to a high level (Tierney and Gallastegi, 2005: 5). On the other hand, researchers such as Marinova-Todd state that "introducing foreign languages to very young learners cannot be justified on grounds of biological readiness to learn languages" (2000:3).

My interest in this area arose during my school experience when I had the pleasure of visiting a school that seemed to place a high importance on modern foreign languages. Primary six and seven were learning French on a regular basis, primary three were learning German and even primary one were learning how to say 'hello' in different languages. The pupils at this school seemed to have a lot of enthusiasm for learning another language and were aware of the relevance of learning another language.

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In another school, I witnessed the opposite. Only pupils in primary seven were learning a foreign language and the majority of pupils seemed unenthusiastic about the hour per week they were taught it. The contrast in MFL education sparked my interest in the area. I also found it beneficial to reflect upon my own experiences of learning a foreign language to compare it to what I witnessed in schools.

When in primary seven, I had my first taster of foreign languages when once a week we learnt basic French and Gaelic. The experience was exciting to begin with however my interest waned and the small snippets of languages seemed pointless. Lessons were taught one hour per week, did not seem as important as other lessons, and I also did not understand why we had to wait until primary seven to learn other languages.

Personally, I am not clear on the optimum age MFL should be taught at and so I feel that researching this area will give me a clearer picture and will enable me to become a more informed professional.

The purpose of this literature review is to investigate the optimum age for introducing modern foreign languages into the classroom. Firstly, the review will involve looking at literature regarding modern foreign languages in general before going on to give a brief history of modern foreign language teaching in Scotland. Next, the psychology of learning a language will be included by discussing theories from several educational psychologists such as Chomsky and Vygotsky before going on to compare research on what age modern foreign languages should be taught at. After reviewing the research and literature, conclusions will be drawn.

For this review of literature, several methods were used to search for relevant materials to use. These include:-

Accessing educational journals using an Athens account. Key words were used in the search including modern, foreign, languages, optimum, primary and age.

Reading textbooks on the subject of modern foreign languages in schools which were borrowed from the library.

Bibliographies and references from journals and textbooks were used to source further, relevant material.

The Learning and Teaching Scotland website and SCILT (Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching) were searched for relevant documents, policies and studies.

Criteria were used in the process of selecting materials to include in the review. The literature retained for the review included:-

Literature relating to the teaching of modern foreign languages in schools in Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Differing research and theories discussing the optimum age for learning a modern foreign language.

Information on the age of foreign language learning elsewhere in Europe.

What are MFL

The importance of MFL

A Brief History/What Modern Language Teaching is like Today

In the 1960s the Scottish Government funded projects to implement French in the upper primary however the projects were deemed unsuccessful (Johnstone et al. 2000 cited in Kirsch, 2008). Around the same time, the Nuffield Primary French Project which aimed to provide French for primary schools in England and Wales, was also considered unsuccessful (Burstall et al. 1974 cited in Crichton, 2010:1). After this, MFL more or less disappeared from primary schools until 1989 when a pilot was set up by the Scottish Secretary which involved several secondary schools in Scotland working to deliver German, Italian, French and Spanish to their associated primary schools. The collaboration and good planning between all teachers involved meant that this project was considered a triumph (Low et al. 1993, 1995 cited in Crichton, 2010:2). The success led to the Scottish Executive recommending an entitlement for language learning and thus the 5-14 guidelines for MFL were published and MFL in Scottish primary schools became the norm.

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Entitlement for MFL in schools was then outlined in the Scottish Government's 2000 document 'Citizens of a Multilingual World.' It detailed that pupils should learn a foreign language in the last two years of primary school (age 9-11) and the learning should cover a minimum of six years or the equivalent of five hundred hours. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) found in 2005 that 96% of primary six and 98% of primary seven pupils were studying a foreign language which goes to show that 'Citizens of a Multilingual World' made an impact on the teaching of modern foreign languages. This timeline shows the changing face of MFL in Scotland and it looks set to change even further due to the new curriculum being implemented.

The Curriculum for Excellence aims for MFL to be taught to pupils from second level onwards (the end of primary school) however the experiences and outcomes state that "schools and centres which implement an earlier start should work towards the outcomes described at second level, providing children with stimulating opportunities for early achievement." (Scottish Government, 2010). This shows that although the guidelines start at second level, there is scope for earlier teaching and learning of foreign languages and this may leave educators perplexed about when to actually introduce a second language.

The Nuffield foundation has been involved in many enquiries into MFL and has produced several reports. The Nuffield languages enquiry was set up in 1998 to review languages in Britain and the final report was published in 2000.

A key document in the discussion about modern foreign language learning is 'The Dearing Report: Languages Review' by Lord Dearing. This review of languages was carried out to evaluate language learning in primary and secondary schools in England and it has made a big impact all over Britain. Dearing et al. state that language learning should become part of the statutory curriculum for pupils aged 8-11 (2007). The report also discusses earlier language learning and makes reference to early starts in European countries such as the Netherlands where language learning starts at the age of five. The report states that they will "leave it to schools to decide for themselves while ensuring advice is available for those who wish to make an early start." (Dearing et al, 2007:11). This statement sends out mixed messages to teachers as it is unknown whether they feel it is better to start earlier or not. This document highlights the importance of MFL. It briefly touches upon an early start in second language learning in other countries however the document does not discuss them in great detail or say whether it works or not.

Psychology of learning a language

People learn in many different ways and learning a second language (L2) is no different. There are many different theories of second language learning. Firstly, there are behaviourists such as ?? who believe that learners acquire a second language through the transfer of rules and habits formed in the mother tongue to the second language. REASON, EVIDENCE.

Linguists such as Chomsky claim that children do not learn by copying, language learning is an active and creative process. Chomsky believes that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD) which evolves over time to acquire universal grammar. Universal grammar is the innate capacity to generate grammatical structures. The language used in the child's surrounding environment triggers the LAD of a young child and the brain sets the parameters for the learning of the first language. However, it is unclear whether second language learners can access the LAD.

Thirdly, there are cognitivists such as ?? who deny the existence of a language acquisition device. They believe that language learning is a constructive process whereby the learner selects incoming information, relates it to prior knowledge, encodes the information into long-term memory and retains what is important and reflects on the learning outcomes (Gagne et al 1993 cited in Kirsch 2008). Repeated practice leads to faster production, improved performance and reduced errors.

Critical period hypothesis (CPH).

Research/studies debate

There has been a lot of debate about what age children should be taught a second language. Research has been done however there is still no clear answer. There are many who believe that children should be taught as young as possible as 'younger=better' (reference). Journal by Larson-Hall in 2008 discusses this issue of age stating that "…we are far from the goal of clearly understanding the role that age plays." This journal looks at whether a younger starting age is advantageous in a situation of minimal exposure to a second language e.g. four hours per school week.

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In Scotland it is advised that learn a minimum of hours per week. "Previous theoretical and empirical studies indicated there should be no advantage for an earlier start." (Larson-Hall, 2008). The journal looks at several studies to back up this statement. A study of English learners in Spain by Mayo and Lecumberri (2003) found that in a foreign language environment, there were no linguistic benefits for early starters. Students of various ages were tested in several skill areas and results were compared. "In no cases were early starters statistically better than later starters." (Cenoz, 2003 cited in Larson-Hall, 2008:38). There is one problem however as all students were tested after the same amount of exposure to the language and so that meant that the early starters were tested at a younger age than the later starters. It is said that older learners are normally better at taking tests than younger learners and Cenoz admits that this may be an explanation for the higher results of the older learners (2003). Due to this unclear result, Larson-Hall carried out her own research in this area by studying Japanese learners of English. The Japanese students were given questionnaires and tests however there is a possibility of error. Larson-Hall simply questioned students to find out who had early experience of English and who did not. This may have led to a misrepresentation as students may not have answered correctly. Larson-Hall found that contrary to previous research on this area, there were some modest advantages for an early starting age however this was shown to be mainly due to significant input of language outside of school e.g. homework. This research article would therefore suggest that there is an advantage if children were to learn a language early however it depends on the amount of input- the more the better. Larson-Hall recommends that foreign language learning should be taught "as young as possible, with as many hours of input as are possible." (2008:59).

'Addressing 'the age factor': Some Implications for Language Policy' by R. Johnstone examines research on modern foreign languages.

Jane Jones and Simon Coffey 2006

Burstall et al 1974 NFER report

Prof Richard Johnstone Stiring Uni 1990s

Cynthia Martin, 2008

Kirsch, 2008

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