the 'well known secret'

Danijela Trenkic d.trenkic.96 at
Mon Jan 10 19:18:25 UTC 2011


I'm just catching up with the debate from 31 December started by Tom on
the 'well known secret' that teaching foreign langauges should start
early, and on Helen Neville's studies on the neurology of the critical

It is true that Neville's studies show different cortical activations in
early and late bilinguals, however in those studies (as far as I am aware)
proficiency levels (and  / or the amount of exposure) were not tightly
controlled for. When proficiency levels of early and late bilinguals are
kept constant, the difference in cortical activation disappears (see
Perani et al 1998, Brain,

But more importantly (for the debate on when one should start teaching
foreign languages in school), the type of research that finds cortical
differences of early vs late bilinguals (and other research, that, more
generally, finds clear advantages for early over late bilinguals) is
almost invariably based on immersion / naturalistic learners (especially
in the case of early bilinguals).

Unfortunately, you cannot extrapolate from that that teaching foreign
languages early in school (for an hour or so a week, with no opportunity
for any out-of-class exposure) would produce the same effect, or bypass
the supposed critical period problem. There is plenty of research to
suggest that, as far as foreign languages in schools are concerned,
adolescent learners have an edge over child learners (see Carmen Munoz's
article "Symmetries and asymmetries of age effects in naturalistic and
instructed L2 learning", Applied Linguistics, 2008). So if you can afford
to teach languages for just a few years in school, then, yes, doing it
between 12-16 (or 16-20) may well be better than teaching it to 7-12 year



Having said all this, I'd better add that I'm not against early foreign
language instruction in principle - just against the inappropriate
application of research. Clearly, the earlier you start, the more input
you'll have (and that ought to be a good thing) IF you stick with it. But
that is a big IF. The UK experience suggests that the majority of students
will opt out of languages at the first available opportunity.

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