Not-so-bright and early

Education policy makers have been emphasising the importance of starting foreign language learning early…but could it be a waste of time?

By: Claudia Civinini 


When it comes to learning a foreign language, the earlier, the better – right? Think again.

This common assumption may join the ever-growing group of edu-myths unless policies for introducing early language learning in schools have a stronger evidence base, research suggests.

A new study found that while pupils who had started learning English in year 1 had a temporary advantage on those who had started in year 3, by year 7 the late starters significantly outperformed the early starters (see graph). The longitudinal study was carried out in the North-Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany, where early EFL education – consisting of two 45 minute lessons per week – was moved from year 3 to year 1 in 2008.

The authors of the paper argue that the policy has been implemented without taking the existing research about second language acquisition into proper consideration.

‘There should be more open dialogue’, Dr Nils Jaekel, one of the authors of the research, told the Gazette. ‘The early start approach has neglected the evidence that was already there. There was a lack of coordination between policy makers and language researchers.’

The sample was composed of 5,130 students, half of whom had started EFL instruction in year 3 and half in year 1.

The researchers used standardised tests to assess their English reading and listening skills twice.

In year 5, the early starters had a significant advantage of 27.5 points in reading and 33.6 points in listening. However, by year 7, the late starters (LS Cohort) had not only closed the gap, but also outperformed the early starters (ES Cohort), reaching an advantage of 34 points in reading and 17 in listening (see graph below).

The majority of states in Germany, the paper explains, aim for students to reach A1 level by the end of primary school (year 4).

This is in line with similar policies across Europe that aim to reach the ambitious 2+1 (two foreign languages plus the mother tongue) goal of the European Union. It is common for foreign language education to be started early, at primary level.

However, there is a gap between research and policy. ‘Either research does not inform policy making well enough, or it has been misinterpreted’, the authors argue.

Research shows that older learners have a cognitive advantage, in that they can learn explicitly and learn faster. Younger learners meanwhile need more time as they are taught with implicit methods, such as those based on playful acquisition.

These findings suggest that young learners need more contact hours to achieve the same results: the two 45-minute lessons that primary school pupils receive every week will not be adequate.

They could even be a waste of time. ‘Under non-immersive conditions or without increased exposure in school environments, amount of exposure seems more important than time of onset’, the authors said.

The policy of starting early has also received criticism as it has been implemented without enough appropriately trained teachers. Dr Jaekel told the Gazette that this has improved thanks to new degree courses for language teachers being launched in Germany.

One limitation of the study was that it was conducted in the first year of the implementation of the early learning policy, the researchers admit.

But in the light of the available evidence, Dr Jaekel said policy makers should consider several key points: ensure teachers are properly trained in EFL teaching methodology and to C1 level in the language, increase contact hours, or even consider moving back the start of foreign language education to year 3 or maybe 5. Moreover, policy makers should make the transition from primary to secondary school smoother through improved communication between EFL teachers. ‘Everybody knows that, if we want to see Europe grow, languages need to be instilled from a very early age’, he said. ‘But this needs to be done correctly’.