the 'well known secret'

A. Katz amnfn at
Tue Jan 11 21:59:02 UTC 2011

I think that while total immersion has more chances of producing a native 
speaker-like proficiency before the critical age than after, the deciding 
factor of how much of the potential for learning a new language is 
realized in any given person of whatever age is the degree to which the 
social situation subjects the person to a dominant language viewpoint.

I elaborate more on this idea in the following essay:

I have found that resistance by monolinguals to internalizing their first 
foreign language is high, and these observations also carry over to the 
attitude toward language universals by linguists who have never 
experienced total immersion in a second language.


On Mon, 10 Jan 2011, Danijela Trenkic wrote:

> Hi,
> 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
> period.
> 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
> olds.
> Danijela
> P.S.
> 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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