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Recent research on age, second language acquisition, and early foreign language learning

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The aim of this chapter is to provide a critical overview of the issues and research conducted since the most recent state-of-the-art article published in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics by David Singleton (2001). First, we summarize what research has said about the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) in cognitive science and neurobiology, then we review recent findings of age-related studies since 2000 focusing on what late beginners and adults can achieve, and how early and later beginners compare in bilingual programs. The second part of the presentation explores language policy and classroom implications of the CPH for foreign language teaching. As English has become the lingua franca, early programs have mushroomed all over the world. However, besides overwhelming enthusiasm, more recently critical voices can also be heard. On the one hand, early exposure is often seen as a key to success and a solution to all problems in language education; on the other hand, it may be perceived as a threat to first language development and identity. Finally, we explore areas for further research.
Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2006) 26, 234-260. Printed in the USA.
Copyright © 2006 Cambridge University Press 0267-1905/06 $12.00
234
11. RECENT RESEARCH ON AGE, SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION,
AND EARLY FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING
Marianne Nikolov and Jelena Mihaljevi
Djigunovi
The aim of this chapter is to provide a critical overview of the issues and research
conducted since the most recent state-of-the-art article published in the Annual
Review of Applied Linguistics by David Singleton (2001). First, we summarize what
research has said about the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) in cognitive science
and neurobiology, then we review recent findings of age-related studies since 2000
focusing on what late beginners and adults can achieve, and how early and later
beginners compare in bilingual programs. The second part of the presentation
explores language policy and classroom implications of the CPH for foreign
language teaching. As English has become the lingua franca, early programs have
mushroomed all over the world. However, besides overwhelming enthusiasm, more
recently critical voices can also be heard. On the one hand, early exposure is often
seen as a key to success and a solution to all problems in language education; on the
other hand, it may be perceived as a threat to first language development and
identity. Finally, we explore areas for further research.
The Role of the Critical Period Hypothesis in Age-related Research
The role of the age factor and the existence of a critical period (CP) is a key
research area in second language acquisition (SLA) research and, as Hernandez,
Ping, and MacWhinney point out, “the idea of a biologically determined critical
period plays a pivotal role not just in linguistic theory, but in cognitive science as a
whole” (2005, p. 220). Cognitive approaches to and neurobiological explanations of
SLA have recently emphasised a distinction between processes interacting in the
development of language proficiency in line with the procedural/declarative
dimension widely accepted in cognitive science (e. g., MacWhinney, 2005; Paradis,
2004; Ullman, 2001). Two systems co-exist: a rule-based analytic procedural
system, and a formulaic, exemplar-based declarative system (Skehan, 1998). In the
first one, storage and powerful generative rules operate together to compute well-
formed sentences, whereas in the latter, the central role is played by a large memory
system with some rules operating on chunks. It has been widely assumed that young
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 235
children rely more on memory-based processes, whereas adults are more
characterized by rule-based learning.
According to Paradis, the CPH “applies to implicit linguistic competence.
The decline of procedural memory for language forces late second-language learners
to rely on explicit learning, which results in the use of a cognitive system different
from that which supports the native language” (2004, p. 59). The acquisition of
implicit competence is affected by age in two ways: (1) biologically, the plasticity of
the procedural memory for language gradually decreases after about age 5; (2)
cognitively, reliance on conscious declarative memory increases both for learning in
general and for learning a language from about age 7. CP can bemasked to some
extent by compensatory mechanisms. To the extent that proficient L2 is subserved
by declarative memory, like vocabulary, it is not susceptible to the CP,” (Paradis,
2004, p. 60). This hypothesis is further supported by studies on exceptionally
successful adult learners, as most of them seem to possess unusual memory capacity
(Skehan, 1998, p. 233; Ioup, Boustagui, Tigi, & Moselle, 1994). Later learners
compensate by relying more heavily on metalinguistic knowledge and pragmatics
(Paradis, 2004).
The question whether a cut off point or a continuous decline characterizes
learners in second language contexts is pivotal to the CPH debate. Hakuta, Bialystok
and Wiley (2003) tested the CPH on data from the 1990 U.S. Census using self-
assessments on age on arrival, length of exposure, and language development from
2.3 million immigrants with Chinese and Spanish L1. Instead of finding a markedly
different line regressing on either side of the CP, their results showed large linear
effects for level of education and for age on arrival. This lack of discontinuity
indicates “that the degree of success in SLA steadily declines throughout the life
span (p. 37). Along similar lines, a huge dataset was analyzed by Chiswick, Lee,
and Miller (2004) in a longitudinal survey of immigrants to Australia. These studies
failed to find a pattern of discontinuous decline indicating a hallmark of a critical
period. MacWhinney explains the absence of a sharp decline and age-related effects
within his Unified Competition Model: older learners become increasingly reliant on
connections between sound and orthography and they vary in the constructions they
can control or that are missing or incorrectly transferred (2005, p. 64). They are also
affected by restricted social contacts and declining cognitive abilities. In his view,
none of these factors predict a sharp drop at a certain age in L2 learning abilities, but
a gradual decline across the life span. An in-depth analysis of maturational
constraints is put forth by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson arguing that aconsensus
model” can integrate the accumulated evidence on empirical facts and the
relationships among them. In their view, maturation can account for the general
linear decline in learning potentials with increasing age on arrival for learners in
general, “whereas the variability between exceptionally successful and non-
exceptional L2 learners of the same starting age is accounted for best by non-
maturational factors” (2003, p. 574).
The CPH claims that natural language acquisition is available to young
children, but it is limited in older adolescents and adults. Although the existence of
236 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
age effects is widely accepted, many applied linguists disagree on whether age
effects are consistent with a CP. Overviews on the age factor tend to rely on the
same body of empirical evidence; however, some authors interpret studies in favor of
the existence of the CPH (e. g., DeKeyser, 2003; DeKeyser & Larson-Hall, 2005;
Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2001, 2003) or against it (e. g., Bialystok, 2001;
Birdsong, 2005; Marinova-Todd, Marshall, & Snow, 2000, 2001; MacWhinney,
2005; Moyer, 2004), whereas others maintain a more balanced view (e. g., Muñoz, in
press; Scovel, 1988, 2000; Singleton, 1989, 2001; Singleton & Ryan, 2004).
Studies exploring the CPH look into data from two perspectives: the rate of
acquisition and ultimate attainment. A widely accepted finding states that children
are slower at SLA than adolescents or adults. However, they tend to achieve higher
levels of proficiency in the long run. Both bilingual and early start foreign language
(FL) programs (Foreign Language in the Elementary School, FLES in the U.S.)
worldwide are based on the second assumption, but neglect the slower rate of
language acquisition in young learners. As will be seen in our discussions
concerning second language (SL) and FL education, this highly optimistic view may
lead to unrealistic achievement targets and disillusionment over time.
Recent Research on Late Beginners: Can Adults Attain Native Proficiency?
A number of recent studies on the age factor have inquired into adults
ultimate attainment. Differences between early and late-start programs in immersion
and foreign language contexts have also been explored. Research on ultimate
attainment was called for by Long (1990) and a number of recent studies explore
whether native proficiency is available to learners starting SLA after the CP. Over
the last few years, this research question has inspired several empirical studies
aiming to challenge the strong version of the CPH by identifying highly proficient
adult learners of an L2 who started SLA after the CP and are indistinguishable from
native speakers. These new studies go beyond the scope of traditional inquiries into
the age factor as they triangulate their data and apply mixed research methodology:
Although some studies use grammaticality judgment tests following Johnson and
Newport’s (1989) seminal study, they combine formal tests of competence with
measures of performance. After testing post-puberty learners, authentic speech
samples are used in tests for native speakers to pass a judgment on adult nonnative
speakers. Other recent inquiries combine interview data and self-assessment with
performance measures (Bongaerts, 1999; Bongaerts, van Summeren, Planken, &
Schils, 1995, 1997; Marinova-Todd, 2003; Moyer, 2004; Nikolov, 2000a; Urponen,
2004). An important development in these studies relates to the variety of first and
target languages: Successful post-puberty learners of L2 English, German, and
Hungarian were involved speaking over 30 languages as L1, for example, Bulgarian,
English, Farsi, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Russian, Slovak, and Ukrainian, among
others (Marinova-Todd, 2003; Moyer, 2004; Nikolov, 2000a; Urponen, 2004). In
this section five studies are discussed: In three projects the target language was
English, whereas in two others participants learned Hungarian and German.
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 237
The profiles of 30 post-puberty learners of English from 25 countries and
speaking 18 languages were examined by Marinova-Todd (2003). A control group
of 30 native speakers with matched academic backgrounds was also involved in her
study. Data were collected with the help of a number of formal tests and a narrative
task. Formal tasks included a previously validated grammaticality judgment test,
sentence comprehension tests, a standardized vocabulary test, a discourse completion
test, reading out a paragraph, and spontaneous speech (Frog story with visual
prompts) to evaluate pronunciation and fluency. Nonnatives performed on a
significantly lower level than the control group of native speakers on measures of
pronunciation, vocabulary size, grammatical knowledge, and narrative skills,
whereas no significant differences were found in semantic comprehension and on the
discourse completion task. Two of the participants were judged to have
indistinguishable accent from native speakers, and an additional six performed within
the native range in spontaneous speech. Three main profiles emerged for highly
proficient late learners: (1) Three women, married to native speakers of English,
attained native level across all domains. (2) Two participants (also married to native
speakers of English) were within native range on all measures, but in receptive
vocabulary. (3) Three other women achieved similarly high scores on all tests, but
they failed on both measures of pronunciation. None of them lived with native
speakers of L2.
Urponen (2004) studied a large group of Finnish women (N = 104). The
majority of participants had learned English as a foreign language (EFL) prior to
moving to the U.S. or Canada and marrying native speakers of English. Data were
collected by a grammaticality judgment test and interviews. On the test 38 percent of
the participants were indistinguishable from the control group of native speakers.
The best significant predictors of native proficiency included age when the study of
EFL began, education in the host environment, and length of exposure, but not age
on arrival. However, the group of youngest age on arrivals (12–15 years)
outperformed later arrival groups. On the whole, participants’ performance did not
decline with their aging. The length of exposure in years did not predict ultimate
attainment, as its relationship with grammaticality judgment test scores was
-
shaped and the advantage gained from the study of EFL was noticeable even after
decades of exposure to English in the host environment. The test scores declined as
the participants’ age on arrival and the age of starting EFL study increased. As for
similarities and differences between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring
participants, the top achievers had studied more EFL before arrival in the U.S. and
had more years of education both in Finland and in the host environment, read more,
and focused more on both their accuracy and communication skills than participants
with low scores.
Two parallel studies were conducted involving late starters of L2 English
and Hungarian by Nikolov (2000a). Participants in the first study were 20 adults
learning Hungarian; all of them started learning the target language as young adults
in Hungary. The second study involved 13 Hungarians all of whom started English
at the age of 15 in secondary school and some of them studied one or two semesters
abroad as young adults. Both studies involved control groups of native speakers.
238 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
Data were collected with the help of three instruments: (1) participants’ background
was explored with the help of structured interviews; (2) in a narrative task they were
asked to describe an embarrassing moment in their life or a happy moment they
remembered with pleasure; (3) they read out an authentic passage in the target
language. Three groups of judges (13-year-old children and two groups of adults)
were involved in deciding whether the speakers who had been audiotaped, were
native or nonnative speakers of English and Hungarian respectively and why. From
among the 20 learners of Hungarian, 2 were generally, and 4 were often mistaken for
native speakers by the Hungarian judges. In the study involving 13 Hungarian
speakers of English one was generally, and 4 others were often mistaken for native
speakers by native judges. As a general strategy, judges used fluency, intonation,
and content as clues. Children considered the lack of fluency, false starts,
paraphrasing, and hesitation as the most important indicators of nonnative speakers,
whereas adult judges focused more on content. For example, the expression of
Hungarian of 56 (ötvenhatos magyar), a description of a gay bar experience, and
the use of “ruptured ulcer” were judged as idiomatic and used only by native
speakers. Similarly to these findings, lack of self-confidence was one of the
indicators of a non-native speaker in the study conducted by Marinova-Todd (2003).
Moyer (2004) studied not only the language proficiency of 25 successful
well-educated immigrants to Germany from Britain, France, Poland, Russia,
Slovakia, Turkey, and the U.S., but she also explored how their ultimate attainment
was influenced by their opportunities and intentions, thus integrating quantitative and
qualitative data. Three sets of instruments were used for data collection: (1) a
questionnaire surveying biological-experiential, social-psychological, instructional-
cognitive, and experiential-social experiences; (2) controlled and semi-controlled
production tasks (reading out words, a paragraph, spontaneous speech on an
important or embarrassing situation, recital of short sayings or proverbs); and (3)
semi-structured interviews. Speech samples were judged by three native speakers on
a 1 to 6 scale. Performances on the reading tasks turned out to be the least reliable
indicator of proficiency in German (similarly to other studies: e.g., Marinova-Todd,
2003; Nikolov, 2000a), whereas natural speech production was found to be the most
reliable (in line with results in other studies using similar methodology: e.g.,
Bongerts et al., 1995, 1997; Marinova-Todd, 2003; Moyer, 2004; Nikolov, 2000a).
Raters were given space to write comments; the majority of these related to
phonological criteria, but many referred to word choice. According to Moyer’s
findings, the directness and independence of age effects were weaker than suggested
by earlier studies. Age on arrival and length of residence exerted similar influence
on ultimate attainment, whereas psychological factors (personal interest in improving
fluency and satisfaction with attainment) accounted for 74 percent of the variance in
attainment, offering a stronger prediction than that offered by a combination of age
on arrival and length of residence. Based on the findings, quality of access to L2 and
experience with L2 are operationalized along four criteria: (1) duration (length of
residence, instruction, contact); (2) quality of experience (formal and informal
contexts, types of feedback and instruction, motivation); (3) consistency over time;
and (4) intensity or extent of orientations (motivation, intention to reside, identity,
sense of self in the L2 community and in the L2) (Moyer, 2004, p. 144).
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 239
These recent studies on successful adults’ ultimate attainment go beyond the
traditional CPH research methodology and debate: They tap into a number of
variables, involve a range of first languages, apply tests of performance, and take into
consideration different “opportunities afforded to individual learners” (Moyer, 2004,
p. 147) and the extent to which they wish to be taken for native speakers. An
important finding relates to the status and perception of languages, because learners’
first language and culture and the L2 and culture also exert an influence on ultimate
attainment: in Moyer’s (2004) study an American participant learning German, and
in Nikolovs (2000a) research three Russian wives and a British woman learning
Hungarian did not want to pass for L2 native speakers, for they considered their
accent to be an integral part of their identities and their culture of higher prestige.
These findings are in line with what Moyer (1999, p. 98) found in her previous study
in which few successful advanced learners of German wanted to sound native or
even to improve their phonology. However, a Ukrainian speaker of German (Moyer,
2004), and a young Russian entrepreneur and a Bulgarian actress speaking Hungarian
(Nikolov, 2000a) did not wish to be identified by their accent and worked on their
language development consciously.
These case studies document that all the post-puberty learners who were
frequently mistaken for native speakers definitely strived for unaccented proficiency,
similarly to participants in previous studies (Bongaerts et al., 1997; Ioup et al., 1994).
These successful language learners shared intrinsic motivation in the target language,
were proud and conscious of their achievement and worked on their language
proficiency actively through finding opportunities for communicating with L2
speakers and reading and listening extensively. For many of them, the target
language was either part of their profession or they had very strong integrative
motivation to become bona fide residents of L2 society. Intensive phonetic training
in British English was hypothesised to contribute significantly to Dutch adults’
ultimate attainment (Bongaerts et al., 1997, p. 463), whereas this was not typical in
the studies overviewed earlier, as conscious training was available only to a few
participants. Intensity of language use is an important factor in native-like
proficiency: In studies on successful adult learners complete immersion in the host
environment (in many cases in the form of marriage to a native speaker) for an
extended period of time has been found to be conducive to native proficiency.
Although accent is seen by some experts as the least important aspect of L2
proficiency and speakers who fail to achieve native-like accent lose nothing
important (Cook, 1995), others, for example, Bongaerts et al. (1995) found that
native speakers may avoid further interactions with speakers of heavy accents and
argue for the importance of accentless proficiency.
The conclusion based on these recent studies is that native ultimate
attainment is available to a number of adults who started learning the target language
after puberty, therefore, the strong version of the CPH cannot be maintained any
longer. In the next section, we focus on young learners and research into
pedagogical programs involving them. Before doing so, however, a final note is
necessary. Early foreign language learning experience was found to have a
significant impact on outcomes in the case of successful Finnish learners (Urponen,
240 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
2004). Participants who began their EFL study before age 16 and spoke two or more
languages obtained higher nativeness scores than the participants who began later.
Whether they were initially more able, or their earlier language learning experience
of one or more FLs contributed to their better ultimate attainment would need further
research.
Pedagogical Programs Based on “the Younger the Better” Assumption: Second
versus Foreign Language Contexts
In bilingual programs in second language contexts, learners are immersed in
the target language so that they can join their peers in mainstream education after a
while and become balanced bilinguals. However, political agendas may clash with
this aim and research findings, as is the case presently in Californian public schools
where bilingualism is not seen as something valuable, but young children are
submerged into mainstream English classes. In comparison to bilingual education,
foreign language programs tend to set less ambitious but more complex goals. They
intend to expose young learners to an L2 not only for linguistic purposes, but to
allow them to develop favorable attitudes towards languages and language learning,
and to help them become proficient users of foreign languages as adults. For
example, a recent European language policy document states that it is a priority to
ensure effective language learning in the kindergarten and primary school, as in such
programs “attitudes towards other languages and cultures are formed, and the
foundations for later language learning are laid (Commission of the European
Communities, 2003, p. 7). Besides socioaffective and linguistic gains, research on
early bilinguals (Bialystok, 2001, 2005) emphasizes that bilingualism is associated
with more effective controlled processing in children, as the constant management of
two competing languages enhances executive functions, and a higher level of
metalinguistic awareness (Cook, 1992; 1995); recently, similar results have also been
found for bilingual adults (Bialystok, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan, 2004).
In order to set realistic goals for early learners, it is essential to consider
what level learners in bilingual education achieve, and how long it takes them to
develop native-like proficiency in a L2. The research evidence shows that five to
seven years are needed, depending on the educational programs, to achieve grade
level norms in academic subjects taught in English (Wong Fillmore, 1998) and a
recent longitudinal study found that young children had strong accents after four
years of enrollment in English-medium schools (Flege, Birdsong, Bialystok, Mack,
Sung, & Tsukada, 2005) indicating that native accent is not automatically available.
For a comparison of SL and FL programs, the ratio of the curriculum
available to learners in L1 and L2 is a key factor. According to Cummins (n. d.), the
results of three decades of research focused on three major variants of French
immersion program involving early immersion starting in kindergarten or grade 1;
middle immersion starting in grades 4 or 5; and late immersion starting in grade 7.
All are characterized by at least 50 percent instruction through French in the early
stages; between grades 5 and 9 the ratio declines to about 40 percent. Students have
been consistently documented to gain fluency and literacy in French at no cost to
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 241
their L1 academic skills. By grade 5 there are no differences in English test
performance between immersion students and English only comparison groups,
whereas by grade 6 their French is close to native-like in listening and reading
comprehension, but their spoken and written L2 is less good.
In contrast, early FL programs devote very limited amounts of curricular
time to FLs: between less than an hour a week to short daily sessions. Other
important differences relate to the quality and amount of input and interaction
available to learners in and outside the classroom, and most importantly, the quality
of teaching. While in immersion programs teachers are proficient users of both
languages and the curriculum requires a primary focus on meaning, in FL contexts
teachers’ proficiency and age-appropriate methodology vary to a great extent. A
further difference concerns achievement targets: FL learners are not expected to
achieve native L2 level in school; in fact achievement targets tend to be modest and
different levels may be required in the four skills. Finally, in FL contexts L2 is
considered—and often assessed—as a subject in the curriculum in its own right and
learners do not necessarily associate it with something more useful than math or
science. A recent trend aims to integrate the immersion model through content-based
instruction (the new buzz term iscontent and language integrated learning,” CLIL),
but obviously, the quality of learning cannot be guaranteed by content teaching.
Early and Later Beginners in Immersion Programs
The most widely cited recent comparative studies on early and later
immersion were conducted in Canada in two phases (Harley & Hart, 1997, 2002).
The first study investigated the relationship between aptitude and SLA among
learners whose intensive L2 exposure began at different ages hypothesizing that in
late immersion there would be a positive relationship between language performance
and an analytical dimension of language aptitude, while in early immersion
beginning in first grade a positive relationship would be found between L2 outcomes
and memory ability. They also hypothesised that early immersion students’ aptitude
would increase as a result of their early exposure to L2. Altogether 65 eleventh
graders were involved in the study: 36 early immersion children received 50 percent
of their daily instruction in French, while 29 late immersion students began their
French studies along the same pattern in 7th grade. Prior to their late immersion,
these children had attended aregular core French program of 40 minutes a day from
grade 4” (Harley & Hart, 1997, p. 385). Thus, they also started French early and
participated in what would be considered intensive language learning in FL terms,
but their early experience is not considered, as the authors focus on “intensive
exposure” irrespective of earlier language study, though students must have
developed in two years. In addition, in the discussion of the results the authors admit
that the late immersion group wasa more select group of higher aptitude learners in
the first place (1997, p. 395); therefore, finding no increase in aptitude for the early
immersion group may in fact indicate an increase. Also, it is possible that the late
immersion group relied more on their analytic abilities because they had better access
to them. As for the language tests (for a critical analysis of the test design see
Nikolov, 2002a, pp. 36–38), instruments included a vocabulary list, a listening
242 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
comprehension test, a cloze test, and a writing task, but the latter were based on one
another. Writings were assessed for task fulfilment and accuracy, but not for fluency
or vocabulary. The oral test consisted of sentence repetition and picture description
(Harley & Hart, 1997, p. 388). The authors found that “early immersion students’ L2
outcomes were much more likely to be associated with a memory measure than with
a measure of analytical language ability, whereas the opposite was the case for the
late immersion students, for whom analytical language ability was the only
significant predictor of L2 proficiency” (Harley & Hart, 1997, p. 395).
The follow up study aimed to explore the relationship between age, aptitude,
and other variables on a bilingual exchange (Harley & Hart, 2002). Participants were
26 10th and 11th graders staying with a French-speaking family in Quebec for three
months. Students had been in core French programs since grade 4 or earlier. The
same measuring instruments were applied and a questionnaire was also designed to
collect data on students’ experiences in the host environment. The findings indicate
that analytical language ability did influence learning success but less consistently
than among late immersion students in the previous study, and memory for text was
less relevant than for early immersion students. It is important to stress that in both
studies the authors assume that age of initial intensive exposure is qualitatively
different from age of initial exposure. However, it is unclear why this should be the
case and what the criteria for such a distinction should be—and this question leads us
into the applicability of these findings to FLL contexts. A further question may be
how early exposure to an L2 will influence learners’ L2 learning orientations, and
how it may impact on learning L3 or further languages (see positive relationship
discussed in Urponen, 2004).
What is known from research on the CP and immersion students has
important implications for young learners of FLs: (1) young children are slow at
developing in the target language, therefore they need a longer period to achieve
levels adolescents and adults can achieve faster; (2) they benefit from meaning-
focused activities; (3) they rely very little on explicit rules, declarative knowledge,
and inductive/deductive reasoning skills; (4) but rely on their memory and procedural
knowledge; (5) because young learners tend to surpass adults in the host environment
in the long run, classroom instruction providing children with opportunities similar to
natural” SLA are appropriate in FL contexts; (6) early language learning
experiences may enhance children’s cognitive control; (7) there is no reason to
assume that the L2 will have a negative impact on L1 if it is also developed in
parallel; (8) both early and late immersion programs contribute significantly to
learners’ development. Thus, it is impossible to decide whether early or later
immersion program models should be favored. (9) It is possible that an early start
contributes to young learners’ attitudes and motivation, which later ensure good
proficiency; in other words, most probably it is not the actual early language gain
that matters in the long run. SLA is a life-long enterprise; both proficiency and
willingness to maintain and develop it further are crucial. Finally (10) teachers need
to be proficient users of both languages and able to apply age-appropriate
methodology.
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 243
Early Foreign Language Programs: Issues
The last 15 years have seen an enormous worldwide increase in early FL
instruction. The publication of state-of-the-art reviews (e.g., Johnstone, 2002;
Kubanek-German, 1998; Nikolov, 2002a; Rixon, 1992) and studies focusing on
international comparisons of early FL programs (Nikolov & Curtain, 2000) as well as
conferences, special interest groups, workshops and special examinations designed
for young learners all indicate that despite thequestionable impact” (DeKeyser &
Larson-Hall, 2005, p. 101) of CPH-related discussions, there is an enormous
interest—and a huge market. In this section we discuss the most important issues
emerging from recent sources (e.g., Blondin, Candelier, Edelenbos, Johnstone,
Kubanek-German & Taeschner, 1998; Edelenbos & Johnstone, 1996; Moon &
Nikolov, 2000) exploring early language instruction practices all over the world. On
the whole, it can be stated that although the educational contexts and conditions of
early programs vary to a great extent and despite the worldwide spread of teaching
foreign languages, most importantly English, to young learners, very little research
has been published.
Most countries accept the folk wisdom and findings from L2 contexts
without considering questions like the amount and quality of exposure to L2,
teachers’ competences and motivation, classroom methodology, and continuity of
programs. The trend documented in recent European statistics is typical of contexts
where parents’ instrumental motivation for their children to study English as a global
language is strong indeed. In these contexts compulsory foreign language education
tends not only to start at an increasingly early stage but also to last longer (Edenlebos
& Johnstone, 1996, Key data on teaching languages at school in Europe, 2005). In
addition to these trends, because English is overwhelmingly favored, in Europe the
study of a second FL is added to language policy recommendations (Common
European Framework of Reference, 2001).
Earlier start programs are often introduced through pilot projects aiming to
prepare ground for the integration of modern languages on a larger scale. For
example, 10 European countries reported a pre-primary or primary pilot project in
the 2002/2003 academic year (Key data on teaching languages at school in Europe,
2005), whereas many other countries simply launch programs without official
piloting on parental demand. When, however, educational policy fails to keep
priorities on the agenda and project money runs out, as has been the case, for
example, in Austria (Jantscher & Landsiedler, 2000), Croatia (Mihaljevi
Djigunovi
& Vilke, 2000), Italy (Gattullo, 2000), and Scotland (Blondin, et al., 1998), FL
teaching becomes part of routine and the initial enthusiasm and professional quality
declines. In most empirical studies, experimental programs with enthusiastic
teachers produce good results (e.g., Moon & Nikolov, 2000); but when programs
become more widely spread, there is less research and often funding is also
withdrawn. No studies are available on why, if any, programs fail. Most studies
apply cross-sectional design (but see recent exceptions); testing techniques (often
inappropriate for the age group) vary, and classroom observations are hardly ever
used (Nikolov, 2002a).
244 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
Target Languages: Modern Foreign Languages in General versus English
Early programs tend to be run in a number of languages but the proportion
of English has been increasing extremely dynamically worldwide. Presently, in the
overwhelming majority of countries, English is widely taught, despite some heated
debates, for example, in Switzerland (Fretz, 2000) and Belgium (Housen, 2000),
whereas in Australia, Croatia, Ireland, or the United States (Curtain & Dahlberg,
2004; Harris & Conway, 2002; McKay, 2000; Mihaljevic Djigunovic & Vilke, 2000)
a range of languages has been offered. In some countries the L1 of immigrant
children is also offered: for example, Turkish and Italian in many German schools
(Kubanek-German, 2000). The most important recent trend, however, is to offer
English to more, or all, and younger learners: for example, according to ministry
statistics in Japan, more than 90 percent of public elementary schools offered English
language activities in 2004 (Nakamura, 2005) as a result of parental pressure. This
overall enthusiasm towards early instruction in English is creating needs in teacher
education and materials; thus, teaching EFL to young learners has developed into a
huge business in the private sector (for example, in China, where the majority of
children take on additional EFL classes at cram schools).
Access to early start programs varies from context to context. In many
European countries where public education has provided all young learners with
opportunities to study EFL and transfer to the secondary level is also smooth (for
example, in the Scandinavian countries or in the Netherlands), an early start is the
norm, the overwhelming majority of the population achieve useful levels of
proficiency, and Council of Europe language policy documents recommend two
foreign languages to allow students to study another language besides English.
However, in countries where provision of early English has been increasingly seen as
a key to success in the long run, but access to it is limited, starting early has become
entangled with equity issues. Better education means earlier access to good quality
EFL instruction for the advantaged. In Hungary, for example, a significant
difference has been found between nationally representative samples of English and
German children’s cognitive abilities: Learners of English tend to be more able
(Csa & Nikolov, in preparation). The best predictor of achievements on
proficiency tests in these two languages is learners’ socioeconomic status reflected
by parents’ level of education (Józsa & Nikolov, 2003). In Croatia, where a wider
choice of modern languages was welcome in lower primary classes in the mid 1990s,
parents whose children were placed in German classes in 2003 organized protests
upon the mandatory introduction of a FL in grade 1 (age 7); the parents wanted these
youngsters to study English.
An early start of English as a global language may also be seen as a threat in
other contexts: for example, recently in the Arab world and the Asia-Pacific region
xenophobic fears have emerged. As several presenters in sections on World
Englishes claimed at the 39th TESOL Convention (2005), English is increasingly
seen as a vehicle of globalization, and its spread may not only corrupt young
children’s minds, but it also threatens their L1 literacy and identity.
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 245
Individual Differences
Young children are assumed to be more similar to one another than
adolescents and adults; they are expected to succeed without difficulty, and fewer
individual differences are expected among them. Because of limited access,
however, some sort of selection and streaming is often implemented, although
typically almost nothing is said about the criteria and the process. Criteria often
concern learners school achievements, aptitude, and socioeconomic status.
Research in European countries provides insights into these areas. In contexts where
not all learners are placed in early FL programs, placement is arranged mostly on
parental demand. Research has revealed that in Hungary, for example, 5 percent of
the students, mostly Roma, are never given an opportunity to learn any FL (Nikolov,
2000b) formally because of learning disabilities, but the reason is that village schools
do not offer early L2 instruction and when pupils transfer to an upper grade in a
bigger school, they lag behind their peers. In contrast, in Germany a number of
pupils with learning difficulties get early foreign language instruction geared towards
their needs (Kubanek-German, 2000).
Learners’ socioeconomic status and parental support are rarely addressed
explicitly, although in contexts where the private sector offers early programs,
socioeconomically advantaged children’s parents are more able to afford them. The
aptitude of young learners is a generally underresearched area. Children are
expected to develop basic interpersonal communication skills easily, but cognitive
academic language proficiency is also necessary in the long run to be able to use L2
literacy skills.
Gate keeping and streaming are sometimes based on learners’ abilities along
the claim that early FL instruction is not for everyone, but for the more able only.
For example, in a Slovakian project (Farkasová & Biskupicová, 2000) involving over
1,700 first graders (age 6) learning one of three FLs (English, German, French),
pupils were selected on the basis of tests of school readiness, verbal, and nonverbal
abilities. Successful learners achieved significantly higher scores on the nonverbal
intelligence test than unsuccessful learners, whereas the latter had more neurotic
tendencies and made perception mistakes. As for their family background, parents of
successful learners were better educated, used foreign languages more frequently,
and more actively. Also, they offered their child more active support (e.g., practiced
and revised material taught in school) than parents of unsuccessful children. The
study concluded that because of differences in cognitive abilities and emotional
balance, not every child is ready to start a FL at age 6.
Two recent studies examined how young Hungarian learners’ abilities
contribute to their achievements in EFL at the age of 12. In a context where the
tradition of streaming is strong and EFL tends to be provided for the more able
learners, in a study involving over 400 learners from 10 schools, 22 percent of the
variation in English performances was explained by their aptitude (Kiss & Nikolov,
2005). In a large-scale study on nationally representative samples of over 10,000
learners of English (age 12) learners’ scores on an inductive reasoning test predicted
246 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
14 percent of the variance in their performances on reading tasks (Csa & Nikolov,
2002).
Attitudes and motivation have also been explored in some contexts, because
one of the arguments for an early start is to develop children’s positive attitudes. It is
widely assumed that early foreign language instruction will, as a rule, contribute to
children’s favorable attitudes. There are counter examples from recent history, for
example from Eastern European countries where, although Russian teaching started
early (at age 9), negative attitudes also emerged at an early age. As for more recent
examples, a lack of motivation has been observed in the case of Austrian pupils after
the compulsory introduction of early English instruction (Jantscher & Landsiedler,
2000). Several other studies combined enquiries into linguistic and psycholinguistic
outcomes. A longitudinal Croatian study (Mihaljevi
Djigunovi , 1993; 1995)
explored learners’ attitudes and motivation in various languages on a large sample
over an extended period of time. The longitudinal results showed that young
learners’ initial motivation was closely dependent on their attachment to the teacher,
while as they progressed in the FL both instrumental motives and liking the FL as
such became important. The main finding, however, is that FL learning motivation
was maintained and often enhanced during the eight-year period. This and another
longitudinal study that extended over 18 years exploring the development of
Hungarian students’ attitudes and motivation (Nikolov, 1999) have shown that the
most crucial motivational factors function on the classroom level: The teacher’s role
is extremely important, together with intrinsically motivating and cognitively
challenging tasks tuned to learners’ age and level.
A large-scale Irish project (Harris & Conway, 2002) involving one of four
FLs (Italian, Spanish, German and French) from grades 5 and 6 pointed out the
importance of both interest and ability for listening comprehension, and stressed
adverse effects of difficulty with either the FL or any of the main school subjects on
overall linguistic and communicative competence. Finally, there is not enough
empirical research on how children interact with their peers and their teacher while
doing tasks appropriate for their age. Good examples of how teachers and peers can
scaffold pupils’ learning are hard to find (for exceptions see e.g., Gattullo, 2000;
Nikolov, 2000b).
Early versus Later Start
Two carefully designed and documented longitudinal projects have been
implemented in Spain in recent years. Both projects explore early and later
introduction of EFL into the school curriculum of bilingual (Catalan-Spanish;
Basque-Spanish) learners. The Barcelona Age Factor (BAF) Project (Moz, in
press) started in 1995 and involved 2,068 participants. It aimed to find out whether
age has an effect on the rate of FLL, whether older learners surpass younger learners
the way they do in natural SL context, and how age affects different language areas
during FLL. Data were collected after 200, 416, and finally after 726 hours of
instruction. Measures were tests of speaking, listening, writing, and reading in EFL,
two tests measuring comprehension in L1 (Spanish and Catalan) and a questionnaire.
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 247
Some tests were discrete point, other were integrative skills tests. Several of the
measures (e.g., oral interview and role-play) were meaning-focused tests. The results
of the project indicate that earliest beginners showed the highest rate of learning in
the last third of the followed period (that is, between 416 and 716 hours of
instruction), the middle young beginners (age 11) progressed fastest in the second
third (between 200 and 416 hours of instruction), whereas adolescent beginners
showed fastest initial rate of learning in the first third of the period (after 200 hours).
For those starting at ages 8 and 11 the rate of learning became salient at the age of
12. In terms of younger beginners' surpassing older beginners, Muñoz concludes
that, in the FLL context, younger children need a longer time than younger beginners
in the SL context. After nine years of learning EFL, the difference in scores on tests
implying implicit learning (e.g., listening comprehension) got smaller. Thanks to the
fact that the BAF Project followed language learning in a FL context for a longer
period of time than the studies focusing on natural SLA, the insights have lead
Muñoz to a different prediction about the long-term age effects. She, thus, predicts
that differences between younger and older beginners will disappear once, given the
same time and exposure, they reach the same state of cognitive development.
Basque-Spanish speaking EFL learners were involved in the other project
following beginners from the ages of 4, 8, and 11. The research design was parallel
with the other longitudinal study (Muñoz, in press) and the outcomes document
similar findings: on a number of performance measures, including oral and written
perception and production tasks, older beginners achieved significantly higher scores
than younger learners (Cenoz, 2003; García Lecumberri & Gallardo, 2003; García
Mayo, 2003; Langabaster & Doiz, 2003; Muñoz, 2003). Two points need to be
mentioned: (1) In these groups the same tests were applied for the sake of
comparability (Muñoz, 2003, p. 167), thus, it is not known how learners would have
performed on tests more tuned to their levels. (2) Assessments of the quality of
teaching, including teachers’ proficiency, pronunciation, and classroom methodology
were not included in any form. As García Lecumberri, and Gallardo word the
dilemma, all teachers were nonnative speakers of English, but for obvious reasons,
this can be a sensitive issue, which we have not been able to address yet” (2003, p.
129).
The eight-year Croatian project of early FLL (Mihaljevi
Djigunovi &
Vilke, 2000) included more than 1,000 first graders (age 6–7) learning four foreign
languages (English, French, German, and Italian). The aim was to find the optimal
starting age at which the FL should be introduced in the primary school curriculum.
In pursuing this aim, the project focused on characteristics and abilities of first
graders, analyzed teaching quality (with a specific focus on teacher characteristics)
and selection of language materials (in terms of content and linguistic structure), and
followed the participants’ FL development over eight years. Some investigations
were conducted with all the four languages, some only with EFL. Control groups
were also involved (beginners starting in year 4, at age 10–11, the official start at the
time). The main characteristic of the Croatian project was that the intensity of
exposure to the FL, the language content and activities were such that they
approximated conditions available in natural SL contexts. Oral interviews,
248 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
questionnaires, classroom observations, and story-telling recordings as well as
proficiency tests were used to collect data. Studies carried out during the eight years
showed that young learners were developing fast at the phonological level
(Kova
evi , 1993); they mastered prototypical language elements faster than other
parts of language (Vilke, 1995), and along with their linguistic development a
number of learning and communication strategies also emerged (Kova
evi , 1998;
Mihaljevi
Djigunovi , 2001). In a final evaluation at the end of year 8, results of
project learners were compared with those of the controls. Project students were
significantly better at pronunciation, orthography, vocabulary and a C-test, but only
slightly better at reading. Project learners were not much better at tests that tapped
explicit knowledge of the grammatical system (e.g., gap-filling of sentences without
a wider context) but outperformed the controls on the C-test, which tapped implicit
knowledge of English. As for their oral skills, results of an unstructured interview
with EFL learners showed, overall, a high level of communicative competence.
However, significant variability could be observed among the four EFL project
groups. Mihaljevi
Djigunovi and Vilke (2000) attribute this to the inadequate
teaching EFL learners were exposed to when their appropriately trained teachers left
the project and were replaced by new teachers. The longitudinal study showed that
in the Croatian socioeducational context, 6– to 7year-old beginners outperformed
later (10-year-old) beginners if some basic conditions were met. These refer
exclusively to the quality of exposure, which in the FL context is dependent on the
quality of teaching.
A recent international project looking into levels of achievement of year 8
EFL learners in Croatia and Hungary (Nikolov, Mihaljevi
Djigunovi & Ottó, in
preparation) showed that earlier starters were significantly better at all measures
(meaning-focused tests on the four language skills, and on pragmatics) than later
starters. The same was found in a large-scale Croatian national project that followed
a similar design but included also year 12 EFL learners: earlier starters outperformed
later starters on all measures (Mihaljevi
Djigunovi , in preparation). The
relationship between an earlier start and outcomes, however, is modest in both
contexts. As for the relationship between starting English and German, a nationally
representative study of Hungarian learners found that in the case of 12-year-olds, the
time of start explained only 3 percent of variance for both languages, whereas the
best predictors were learners’ socioeconomic status and number of weekly classes
(explaining 25 and 18; 13 and 10 percent of variance, respectively) (Józsa &
Nikolov, 2005).
Continuity and Transfer
Educational history repeats itself, as a lack of continuity is often typical in
early start FL programs similarly to the “French in the Primary” report in Britain
(Burstall, Jamieson, Cohen & Hargreaves, 1974): Transfer from early programs is
problematic in many countries from Poland to the United States, and from Hong
Kong to Canada (Nikolov & Curtain, 2000), because continuity is not always
ensured. Continuity is lacking in different areas: Learners cannot continue the FL
they learned in primary years, classroom methodology is form-focused, and
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 249
programs fail to integrate what children already know and are good at. Hardly any
research has looked into how secondary schools build on learners’ level of L2. In a
qualitative study on 94 unsuccessful adult FL learners’ school experiences, all of
whom had studied a FL for 5 to 9 years in the primary school, 59 were placed in
beginners’ groups in secondary schools in Hungary and in the long run they failed to
benefit from early exposure (Nikolov, 2001).
A lack of continuity of support and ownership is also typical. Case studies
on a number of countries illustrate (Nikolov & Curtain, 2000) that ministries sponsor
programs for a while, but when the novelty element, specialist teachers and special
in-service training are gone, support caters only for teaching but no further research
or in-service education. For example, in Italy in-service teacher training supported
the introduction of early language programs but enthusiasm declined with the spread
of practice (Gattullo & Pallotti, 2000; Hill, 2000). In Croatia, a large-scale national
project including the teaching of a variety of languages and research came to a
sudden end as the ministry withdrew support (Mihaljevic Djigunovic & Vilke, 2000).
When the government, in fact, introduced FLL as compulsory part of the curriculum
from grade 1 in 2003, it ignored the findings of the eight-year project and failed to
secure any of the provisions found to be essential for successful FLL. In Scotland,
without specialist teachers the initiative became very different from the original
project (Blondin et al., 1998).
However, expectations are often unrealistically high or simply inappropriate.
Aims are mostly conceptualized in L2 achievement, and checked on tests, which are
not always in harmony with teaching methods. A positive example would be
Sweden where standardized tests on English are administered in year 5 to all students
(Sundin, 2000). Other countries look for innovative techniques, like the language
portfolio (Hasselgreen, 2005), but whether it can solve any of these problems, as
hoped in Austria (Jantscher & Landsiedler, 2000), remains to be seen. Testing
outcomes is problematic in other ways as well. There has been research on teaching
techniques for young learners, but what task types are appropriate and efficient for
testing children is an under-researched area. Because the programs aim to develop
listening and speaking, these are the appropriate skills to be assessed but doing so
costs a lot. Also, who should administer tests, how, and when are delicate issues. In
some countries, unwillingness to introduce evaluation and testing (e.g., Germany)
has been widespread, while in other countries assessment is part of the general
curriculum, so L2 achievement is also graded (e.g., Hungary).
Teachers of Young Learners and the Quality of the Language Learning Experience
Teachers and teacher education emerge as the most important stakeholders
in early foreign language programs. Despite the fact that teacher education is
obviously the cornerstone of early FL education, little research has been conducted
into this area. Discussions tend to explore the differences between specialized
classroom teachers versus specialist teachers, for example in Italy, the United
Kingdom, Austria, (Moon & Nikolov, 2000; Nikolov & Curtain, 2000), whereas in
other countries the lack of any qualification is typical. For example, in the Czech
250 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
Republic, 76 percent of primary teachers were unqualified in 1996/97 (Faklova,
2000), whereas in Hungary, over sixty percent of them are retrained Russian teachers
(Nikolov, 2000b). In Poland, there are simply not enough teachers (Komorowska,
2000), whereas in Belgium native L2 teachers are not allowed to teach their L1
(Housen, 2000).
Two general patterns involve classroom teachers with low proficiency but
age-appropriate methodology and familiarity with the curriculum, and the specialist
teacher, who is more proficient, tends to focus on the target language and often
applies inappropriate and demotivating methodology. The relatively low prestige of
early L2 teachers in public schools is often in contrast with their higher prestige in
the private sector (Nikolov & Curtain, 2000). Teachers’ beliefs and motivation are
also hardly ever researched. In certain contexts teachers do not share the enthusiasm
of parents and other stakeholders. For example, in Hungarian lower primary
classrooms, teachers were observed and interviewed (Lugossy, 2006; Nikolov,
2002b). It turned out that very few found satisfaction in teaching young learners,
they wished they could stream them and teach the more able only, or teach older
learners; they perceived games and storytelling as a waste of time, and looked
forward to proper teaching” in later years.
In-service training programs prepare teachers for the job, but there is not
enough research on what teachers actually do in the classrooms before, during and
after methodology treatment. Mostly cross-sectional inquiries are applied (e.g.,
Gattullo, 2000; Nikolov, 2002b), but no longitudinal studies are available. As for
what teachers do, a cross-sectional nationwide study in Hungary inquired into how
frequent and liked classroom activities were with 12-year-olds in English and
German classes (Nikolov, 2003). The most frequent tasks—and the least popular
ones—in both languages included translation, reading aloud, grammar exercises, and
tests. The least frequent tasks were listening to tapes, viewing videos, role-play, and
playful activities, and these were also the most popular.
It is surprising that there is no study on how teachers’ proficiency, especially
pronunciation and fluency, contributes to young learners’ language development.
This is all the more shocking in the light of the arguments discussed in relation to the
CPH. One might wonder how childrens pronunciation is influenced by the teachers’
nonnative oral skills. Even the most carefully designed longitudinal projects avoid
focusing on the teacher and discuss findings without an analysis of the quality of
teaching (e.g., García Lecumberri & Gallardo, 2003; Muñoz, in press).
Conclusions and Implications for Future Research
The first part of this chapter aimed to overview recent research into the age
factor and the CPH. As a point of departure we discussed theoretical perspectives and
overviewed studies inquiring into what late beginner adults can achieve. The second
part of the chapter discussed language policy and classroom implications of the CPH
for second and foreign language contexts. The arguments for early instruction can be
summarized around the following points: (1) studies in child and adult SLA research
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 251
indicate that the length of exposure may influence SLA in a favorable way, though
longer exposure to L2 does not guarantee better outcomes automatically; (2) as the
general curriculum for learners expands with age, one of the areas of knowledge that
could be acquired early is an L2; (3) in a globalized world, early L2 learning may
contribute to understanding and appreciating different cultures, values, and speakers
of other languages; (4) the ability to use two or more languages may enhance
cognitive development and metalinguistic awareness, and thus, may influence the L1
favorably through raising awareness and may encourage the further language
learning. However, for early FL programs to be useful, certain conditions must be
met: (1) learners need to have positive attitudes towards the L2, its speakers and
language learning; (2) the content and methodology of the programs, transfer, and
frequency need to be appropriate; (3) proficient teachers are needed who not only
speak both the L1 and L2, but can also apply age-appropriate methodology
successfully.
Finally, further research is necessary in a number of areas. Longitudinal
studies are needed with a focus on the quality of the learning experience over time
integrating linguistic, cognitive, and affective factors contributing to young learners’
development in a variety of contexts with different L1s and FLs. It would be
necessary to research case studies of both good and bad classroom practice: what
children and teachers do in which language, how they interact with one another, how
teachers scaffold children’s development and what materials they apply and how,
how peers contribute to classroom processes. In other words, it would be necessary
to explore classroom practice over time and triangulate data collected from learners,
teachers, and observers.
Research is also needed to set realistic achievement targets and to explore
how aptitude, attitudes, motivation, anxiety, and other factors contribute to outcomes
over time. It would be useful to examine how young learners’ cognitive abilities
develop, how their L2 learning contributes to being open and friendly toward other
cultures, and studying further languages. The role of the L1 has been neglected;
therefore further research is needed into how two or more languages interact with
one another, and how children show developmental sequences typical of their L1 and
the target language in different skills. For pedagogical applications, it would be
important to explore how context-embedded, cognitively undemanding tasks can be
shifted towards cognitively more demanding ones. Additionally, retrospective
studies are also necessary to identify the ultimate attainment of early L2 starters.
Organizational factors including the age of start, amount of exposure, content
teaching, and transfer also need to be researched. The amount and role of
extracurricular input should also be integrated to find out how exposure to L2 outside
the classroom (e.g., from television) contribute to young learners’ development. It
would be helpful to establish minimal criteria for schools, teacher education, and
classroom practice to avoid the pitfalls of the past. Applied linguistic researchers
willing to direct their work to any of these important pedagogical areas would have
much to contribute to the potential for improved practice.
252 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
García Mayo, M. P., & García Lecumberri, M. L. (Eds). (2003). Age and the
acquisition of English as a foreign language. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual
Matters.
This edited volume combines theory with practice, as it provides an
overview of current research issues, as well as a detailed account of a special
project conducted in Spain. The first three chapters discuss theoretical
issues: the CPH (Singleton), phonological (Leather), morphological, and
syntactic aspects (Marinova-Todd) of acquisition. The other six chapters are
written by a number of researchers on how English as a third language is
acquired in two bilingual communities: the Basque Country and Catalonia.
Cenoz explores how age influences general proficiency, attitudes, and code
mixing. García Mayo examines the relationships between age, length of
exposure to EFL, and learners’ grammaticality judgments. Three age
groups’ phonetic perception and production were examined in the chapter by
García Lecumberri and Gallardo. The older students outperformed younger
learners on both measures. It is important to point out that these inquiries
concerned learners levels independently from their teachers fluency,
accent, or methodology. Lasagabaster and Doiz examine maturational
constrains on students’ written production with the help of error analysis and
by examining fluency, complexity, and accuracy. Once again, older students
were better. The oral skills are studied in Muñoz’s chapter; the findings are
controversial. The last chapter (Victori & Tragant) explores learner
strategies in a cross-sectional and longitudinal study in primary and
secondary age groups. The book is a perfect example of the expertise and
longitudinal research methodology increasingly typical of studies enquiring
into early modern language programmes. It is based on solid theoretical
grounds, the chapters are focused along burning issues related to such
studies, and the chapters contain mostly quantitative analyses along
comparative lines. The research methodology is almost spotless, and the
accounts are deep and well formulated. The outcomes are systematically in
favour of later beginners. Some decisive factors, however, are missing from
the edited volume: There is no data on teachersproficiency or classroom
methodology. Therefore, it may easily be the case that the differences the
chapters document convincingly result from what children are exposed to.
As the book contains no information on instructional practices at schools or
on teachers’ fluency, accent, motivation, and other features, the reader
wonders about the validity of the huge effort put into the study.
Moon, J., & Nikolov, M. (Eds.) (2000). Research into teaching English to young
learners: International perspectives. Pécs: University Press Pécs.
The papers in this edited volume are arranged into four sections: (1)
general issues and setting agendas; (2) the large picture of international and
national findings; (3) teachers of young learners; and (4) classroom-based
AGE, L2 ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FL LEARNING 253
research exploring the smaller picture. The studies illustrate the
controversial characteristics of research into what factors interact in the
teaching and learning of English as a foreign language in primary schools
and they document the level and status of empirical research into an area
where practice has been on the increase since the early 1990s. The book
documents the typical weaknesses in research, as they are not all well-
designed or triangulated. Studies tend to involve only one or a few teachers
and their learners, there is a lack of longitudinal inquiry, triangulation is rare,
research is conducted by enthusiastic classroom teachers or qualified
researchers without appropriate funding, or when the funds run out, the
project and research end. Some of the papers are general in scope, whereas
others are deeply embedded in the socioeducational context of the country
where they were conducted. Most of the authors explore a variety of
European socio-educational contexts, but American and Bhutanese
participants were also involved in the empirical studies.
Moyer, J. (2004). Age, accent and experience in second language acquisition.
Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.
The volume examines the experience and ultimate attainment of 25
educated immigrants to Germany from a number of different countries
(Britain, France, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey, United States). The
author explores not only participants’ language achievements, but also how
their ultimate attainment was influenced by their opportunities and intentions
by drawing on quantitative and qualitative data. She collected data with the
help of three sets of instruments: (1) a questionnaire surveying biological-
experiential, social-psychological, instructional-cognitive, and experiential-
social experiences; (2) controlled and semi-controlled production tasks
(reading out words, a paragraph, spontaneous speech on an important or
embarrassing situation, recital of short sayings or proverbs); and (3) semi-
structured interviews. Speech samples were judged by three native speakers
on a 1 to 6 scale. Performances on the reading tasks turned out to be the
least reliable indicator of proficiency in German, whereas natural speech
production was found to be the most reliable. Moyer found weaker
directness and independence of age effects than suggested by earlier studies
and identified four criteria to describe the quality of access to L2 and
experience with L2: duration; quality of experience; consistency over time;
and intensity or extent of orientations.
Singleton, D., & Ryan, L. (2004). Language acquisition: The age factor (2nd
edition). Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.
This volume is not simply the second edition of the seminal book by
David Singleton (1989). It is significantly wider in scope, although the
structure has been maintained. The book provides a panoramic overview of
age-related research into language acquisition. The first chapter discusses
evidence of speech milestones in early language development, whereas the
254 NIKOLOV AND MIHALJEVI DJIGUNOVI
second and third chapters inquire into the evidence for and against the
existence of a Critical Period in L1 and L2. The last two parts of the book
outline theoretical perspectives and discuss the educational dimension of L2
learning and teaching. The authors maintain a balanced view of the
sometimes controversial evidence, discuss issues in depth. The book is a
great professional pleasure reading on the issues related to the age factor.
Vrhovac, Y. (Ed.) (2001). Children and foreign languages III. Zagreb: Faculty of
Philosophy, University of Zagreb.
This is the latest sequel of publications on the 8-year longitudinal
research project looking into early learning of four foreign languages by
young language learners in Croatia. The chapters included in this edited
volume focus mainly on language learning outcomes of young learners
during the period when they were between 10 to 14 years old; language
development in their earlier stages was described in the two earlier volumes.
Among the areas covered are those related to learning grammar, lexical
aspects of language acquisition (multiword units in young learners’ speech),
strategies young learners make use of during vocabulary acquisition and
writing in the FL, and autonomous reading of unabridged literary texts. The
volume includes theoretically oriented research texts reporting on
approaches to investigating young learners in a particular area (e.g., reading
skill) and project findings, as well as reports on practical teaching issues
(e.g., using games or the Internet in FL teaching) written by teachers who
taught in the project. The chapters are written in one of the four foreign
languages included in the projectEnglish, French, German, and Italian.
Those not written in English are provided with an English summary at the
end of the book.
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... Research in the early foreign language learning has confirmed two positive effects of an early start -the benefits it has on the motivational aspect of learning and the development of the native-like pronunciation in the learner (Nikolov & Mihaljević Djigunović, 2006). Both of these elements are also comprised in the Reading to dogs in the English language project. ...
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... Research in the early foreign language learning has confirmed two positive effects of an early start -the benefits it has on the motivational aspect of learning and the development of the native-like pronunciation in the learner (Nikolov & Mihaljević Djigunović, 2006). Both of these elements are also comprised in the Reading to dogs in the English language project. ...
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... Research in the early foreign language learning has confirmed two positive effects of an early start -the benefits it has on the motivational aspect of learning and the development of the native-like pronunciation in the learner (Nikolov & Mihaljević Djigunović, 2006). Both of these elements are also comprised in the Reading to dogs in the English language project. ...
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This paper considers the implications for teachers and teaching of the Ofsted Curriculum Research Review for Languages [Ofsted. 2021. OCRR Series: Languages. Published 7 June 2021. Available online OCRR series: languages – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). Accessed 8 June 2021.] (OCRR) and the content of 24 Languages Subject Inspections (LSI) in primary school foreign language provision carried out between October 2019 and March 2020. It illuminates practice by a single foreign language (FL) primary specialist. Her practice is compared and contrasted to the new Ofsted guidance and the National Curriculum requirements for English primary schools. This research adopts a phenomenological exploratory or discovery case study approach and data collection tools that respond to this overall design: Semi-structured interviews, informal conversations, emails, planning documentary analysis and a review of children’s work. The findings show there are a myriad of factors which affect how languages are delivered in primary schools, including the number of language graduates, primary teachers’ workloads and curriculum time. The paper concludes by considering the challenges that other teachers, not in the same situation as the FL teacher in this research, would have to overcome, without additional time or funding to also meet these requirements.
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Higher education has seen an increase in enrollment in online (OL) language courses. This study ( n = 176) examined why students chose to enroll in OL Spanish courses and if foreign language classroom anxiety (FLCA) in OL classes affects overall oral proficiency. Sex differences and FLCA in online Spanish classes were also examined. Quantitative methods included an online survey and a third-party proficiency exam, Versant for Spanish Test. Findings suggest that students do not register for OL Spanish courses to avoid speaking; however, a majority of OL Spanish students appear to suffer from FLCA. These students reported being anxious about a variety of scenarios in their OL language courses including the tests, large class size, lack of understanding or remembering the course material, and making speaking mistakes. Analyses of oral proficiency coupled with the responses to the survey showed that OL FLCA negatively correlated with oral proficiency. Notably, there was no significant difference between male and female students in self-reported FLCA.
Conference Paper
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The aim of the paper is to provide insights into what tasks teachers of English as a foreign language use to assess their learners’ progress in the classroom in grades 1 to 6 (ages 6 to 13). The study was implemented as an exploratory inquiry into Hungarian teachers’ practices and views on what tasks best tap into young language learners’ development in English. It was the first phase of a larger project (TÁMOP 3.1.9) aiming to develop diagnostic tests for classroom teachers in Hungarian state schools. We intended to establish a baseline in order to build on good practice and integrate relevant task types into a range of new diagnostic tests.