Young learners

Just the other day, a post from Views From the White Board caught my eye. In her post, Teresa was questioning the validity of exams for young learners. I am aware that many people from the blogosphere teach young learners, so I decided to write this post to ask for some help to answer some questions I’ve always had regarding young learners (YL).

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about YL is whether we’re talking about English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL). If we consider the former, it does make all sense in the world to teach YL. When it comes to the latter, not so much, at least for me. Briefly speaking, in an ESL context, the child is surrounded by English speakers 24/7 (maybe not at home) and all people this child runs into are potential ‘teachers’. There’s also the survival motive (“Eu quero água” is unlikely to be understood, for instance, which forces the child to remember the “I want water” equivalent) and this means the child has got to learn the language in order to, well, survive. In an EFL environment, there’s no survival motive, and the child is only required to productively use the target language for about 2 hours a week. Is this enough? And even then, if the child resorts to his or her native language, the teacher and his or her classmates are likely not only to understand, but also to respond positively to it.

I’ve heard some people comparing the minds of children to sponges… funny, though, as it is as easy for sponges to absorb water as it is for them to have this water squeezed out. I mean, there are so many things going on around an infant, so many different learning opportunities, that they’re likely to forget most of what they learnt in a 1 hour class compared to what they learn on the other 15 hours of the day they are awake, times 7 days a week. Oh, and don’t forget most English classes for children usually last between 2 to 3 hours a week.

I’ve read some research, and there are also some thoughts in Brown’s “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching” and Ur’s “A Course in Language Teaching” that corroborate the view that children aren’t the best foreign language learners. As a matter of fact, it seems that adolescents are the best language learners, and even adults might learn better than children as they’re aware of their learning strategies – the only area that children outperform them being pronunciation.

But then comes (OK, came… last year) a neuro-surgeon on Brazilian TV saying that the brain of a 5 year-old child is ready to learn a foreign language. It may even be ready, I won’t argue with that. However, how much of what is done in English classes for YL in a foreign environment isn’t simply a reproduction of what is done in an ESL environment? This question is also extended to all sorts of language classes. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in my humble opinion.

Other questions that spring to mind are: how long does a child who starts studying English in a foreign country take to be able to reach C1 level according to the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference for languages)? Is it really that much sooner than someone who starts at the age of 11? Is it really cost effective for parents to pay for 5 years of a language course to gain 1 semester (if so) by the time of graduation? How can we adapt what’s best from ESL classes for YL to suit EFL classes? Are we even ready to do so? How do you cope with abstract concepts when the child isn’t cognitively prepared to understand such concepts?

As a final thought, I have to say I’m in favour of teaching a foreign language to YL if parents speak that foreign language and interact with the child using that language. And the reason I stressed ‘interact’ is just because I don’t believe mere exposure is a sufficient condition for language learning – first, second, third or whatever language. I’m also not thinking about the exceptions, but about the vast majority. I’ve seen one or two children who developed incredibly fast, but I’m thinking about the other 10 or 20 thousand children who didn’t.

I’d love to hear your say and get some answers to my questions.

16 thoughts on “Young learners

  1. Henrich,

    Always a pleasure to find a post about language development and the age old “language window” or You raise a lot of interesting questions! But I still think the court is out on many though recent evidence does point conclusively to the idea that children AREN’T better language learners (I’m thinking of the Collier Thomas study )

    There is A LOT that can be learned from ESL by ELTers. I come from an education background and find our discipline doesn’t have much in the way of “Best Practices”.

    One thing in your post that I have to disagree with – is the idea that parents speaking the L2 have any bearing on the ultimate success of the child in acquiring the target language. Collier’s study suggests otherwise and all my experience in ESL classrooms does too. What is important is the literacy in the L1. The parents actively promoting their child’s development of L1 literacy. Children with high levels of literacy in their L1, ultimately can and do have success acquiring a second language. We used to ask parents to speak English for a few hours every day with their child, to help them. That is looked on as a “quaint” notion in ESL circles nowadays. The parent’s fluency in the L2 has little influence on the child’s development (that is unless the second language is the dominant language in the house).

    I also think you have to look at social and “school” or academic language when thinking of children acquiring language. They very quickly pick up social language but despite being by all appearances “fluent” can take 7-11 years to achieve parity with L1 speakers in school. We’d do well to make the distinction between these when speaking of children and their language competency.

    Despite all this – I do believe that there is something to the idea of brain plasticity (when the hemisphere’s actually separate) and that this is the real language window — Krashen suggests that there is evidence for this being around the age of 5.

    But who knows… I love the questions and that is what it is all about, the nuance….



    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for the thorough response to the post! That does shed some light on some of the questions I have, and points to newer questions. I’ve already downloaded the report and I’ll read it asap. Thank for that!

      When you say that parents speaking the L2 having no relationship with the child’s success in learning that L2, do you mean in an ESL environment (e.g., a child learning English in the U.S. or in the U.K.) or in any kind of environment? I’ll definitely give this one some more thought. I’ve had the chance to talk to parents of ELLs in Brazil who speak the foreign language fluently (some of them being native speakers themselves) and it does seem to help in the child’s development of the L2. However, I totally agree with you that literacy in L1 plays a major role in learning a foreign language – and this is true of adults as well as kids. If I’m not mistaken, Pinker also describes a couple of situations that illustrate this. If we’re talking about kids in a foreign language programme, like studying English in Brazil, the child would still be exposed to his or her L1 pretty much everywhere, but would also have a chance to interact and meaningfully use the L2 at home. I’ve heard of good results when one of the parents speak only the L1 with the child, and the other only uses the L2. This however, is not the result of any kind of study; it’s mere observation. :-/

      I guess when the child is immersed in an environment where she’s spoken to in L1 only, she’s still making progress on L1 literacy, but if there’s a chance for the child to use the L2 more than twice a week, this is helpful in the development of the L2. However, if the child is immersed in an L2 environment, there’s very little chance for the child to develop L1 literacy. Thus, if parents speak the L1 at home, this will foster such development. Am I onto something here or is this just gibberish to you? I mean, I do think there’s a difference regarding where the child is learning the L2.

      I had not taken into account the differences regarding social and academic language – thanks for pointing that out! Yet another thing for me to think about. I guess when we look at language as a foreign language and in a language institute where the purpose is communication we tend to forget about this distinction. The social aspect of language is more important than the academic one.

      Once again, thank you for the insights! Just like you, I also love the questions you posed in your comments.



  2. Hi Henrick,
    Another great thinking post….My thinking:
    When students have a STRONG foundation of literacy in their first language is the greatest predictor for acquiring a second language. Young learners are in their ‘prime’ for acquiring language, the structures in the brain are making connections for language. However, a learner who is older and has formed their foundations for language actually learn a second language better because they have the skills and concepts already wired. Young learners need exposure and interaction in a second (or third) language daily.
    With young learners who do not have a strong literacy background and they then proceed to learn a second language are at a deficit for acquiring the necessary literacy skills in their second language because they have little to pull from in the ‘transfer’ from L1 to L2. Adults actually are the best at learning a language due to their ability to reason and deduce the ‘systems’ of language, whereas a young learner just ‘acquires’ the systems and the reasoning is left out. Our wiring in the brain actually has a lot to do with the windows of how we learn language, and our first language system has a lot to do with how well we learn a second language. 🙂
    your EAL friend in Bangkok,

    1. Hi Susi,

      And we’re back to Krashen’s “acquisition” and “learning” dichotomy. I actually agree with pretty much all you said. A strong literacy in L1 is indeed important, but, as you well said, exposure and interaction (this being the most important to me) are definitely necessary for L2 learning to take place. One of the things I’m still trying to figure out, though, is whether or not we sometimes transfer principles of second language learning to a foreign language learning environment without any sort of adaptation or change… YL are in their prime for acquiring language, but not for learning a language, right? I mean, their brains may have the right ‘plasticity’ (as David put), but I don’t think they’re cognitively mature to deal with many of the abstract concepts one has to deal with when learning a language – and the way they’re exposed to L1 learning in schools is a good indicator of that. It is only after a certain age that schools start dealing with more complex issues of the L1, and we definitely can’t expect them to learn a L2 any differently. However, the amount of time for sheer exposure and interaction is dramatically reduced from the time they spent immersed in L1.

      Loved the comment! 🙂
      Your EFL friend in Brazil,
      Henrick 😀

      1. Hello again,
        I am going to briefly chat about brain “plasticity”. Plasticity in the brain is not the separation of the hemispheres, but instead is the ability to re-shape the neural connections, the wiring in the brain. Plasticity is how our brain maps itself, organizes information, which can be changed.

        Cognitive maturity in the brain happens around the mid-twenties when the frontal cortex is ‘ripe’ and matured.

        all the best! ~Susi

      2. Hi Susi,

        Thanks for clearing that up! 🙂
        So I guess I can change my reply to your comment by saying that the brain may be ready to map itself and create the connections in any way that best suits the acquisition of a second language, right?


  3. A thought-provoking post, Henrick.

    In an ideal world, YLs would be surrounded by L2 outside of the classroom, but unfortunately that’s hard to accomplish for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, the parents. I know that many parents of my YLs feel ashamed that they can’t help their child with homework, but they are always very proud to say that the child is producing English at home. Hopefully the generation we’re teaching now will stick with English and so will be able to help their own children in a way their parents can’t.

    Also though, there needs to be more of an effort made by the state to encourage people (not only children) to use English outside the classroom. I know that in some countries, films are always shown in the original version in cinemas and on TV. It’s such a shame that isn’t the case in Spain – now with digital TV you can change the language of American series and films, but most people don’t. And I admit that I’m guilty of the same thing – I always change the language back to English, partly because I do prefer watching things in V.O. but also, I’m just plain lazy and don’t feel like concentrating in Spanish!

    I think the key for YLs is “exposure” to L2, rather than “learning” the language. As you and other people have commented, adults are much better at learning languages but YLs benefit from hearing the language so they can learn the sounds – I don’t know about other languages, but for Spanish speakers there are a whole variety of English sounds which simply don’t exist in Spanish and adults have a hard time pronouncing them.

    Mmmm…I feel another blogpost coming on!
    T 🙂

    1. Hi Teresa,

      As far as I remember, pronunciation is indeed the only area in which children are at an advantage when compared to adult learners. There are many English sounds which are not pronounced in Brazilian Portuguese, especially the vowel sounds. Let me see if I can remember a couple of the sounds Brazilians have difficulties with: the /i/ in six, man vs. men, the schwa, and a couple of others – perhaps a blog post would say it better.

      I’d already heard that most series used to be shown in Spanish (or French) in Europe. To be honest, I have a hard time trying to picture any of the FRIENDS characters speaking any other language but English. How do they do with all the jokes and subtleties of the language? For instance, I remember the episode in which Phoebe has decided to be a surrogate for her brother, and when she’s asked she comes up with, “Oh no, it’s just my oven, it’s totally their bun!” There isn’t such an idiom in Brazilian Portuguese, and if I remember correctly, the subtitles were horrible for bits like this. But coming back to the important part of the comment, I agree with you. Even though I stil feel that interaction is more important than exposure alone, I also believe exposure plays its role. The more one is in touch with a language, the easier it will be for this person to understand it. If we think about English learners, listening actively to a sitcom or a movie is similar to a listening activity done in class.

      And as I started commenting backwards, going to the first part of your comment, I totally see your point. I mean, if parents cannot really speak the L2, it might actually do more harm than good if they tried to speak it at home. It’s a much better idea to build strong L1 literacy in these cases, as people said in the comments below. However, if parents are fully literate in the L2 and the child is bound to be educated in L1 at school and while playing with friends, I don’t see it as lack of foundation in L1 if parents choose to use L2 with the child. Hopefully, tomorrow’s parents will be ready to do so, as you said.

      Thanks for sharing! I’d been looking forward to it as your post inspired this one. 🙂


  4. I see your point. I also have many doubts considering this subject. However I believe that teaching kids English as a foreign language has its purpose. In one of the lectures about foreign language teaching I’ve learned something interesting. To dominate one word, to use it comfortably, you need to see it various times – there was a specific number, which I can’t recall now, but it was a surprising one. So my point is – the earlier kids start learning English, the easier it will be for them to master it in the future.

    1. Hmm… then we’re talking about meaningful encounters, right? I see your point, and there’s some validity in teaching YLs, otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular these days. I still don’t think, however, that it is cost effective. But sure, the child will have plenty of encounters with certain words and chunks used for elementary conversation.
      I still haven’t seen any research in that area, but I have some friends who started learning English way sooner than I did – most of which can’t really use the language effectively nowadays and quite a few of them dropped out even before graduating. Hmm… I guess this would be a nice starting point for some sort of research… 🙂
      Just like you, I have many doubts on this subject, which is why I enjoy these comments so much! 🙂
      Cheers! 🙂

      1. Teaching kids and cost effectiveness… Controversial topic. From one side you have to invest in your kids to ensure their development. On the other hand that investment is a bit risky because you never know what future holds. Let’s say you decide to send your kid to study English. Lots of money invested in it and finally you discover, as it happened in case of your friends, that seeds were not planted on a fertile ground. Risky? Yes. But how do you know that you won’t wake up some interest in your kid?
        My mum used to send me to tennis classes, modern dance, swimming, acting classes, to study German, and finally to study English. Lots of money spent. Well, I’m not a sportsman, not a dancer or an actress, my German is almost non existent, but I’m a good-looking (thanks to many sports) English teacher living in Brazil. Acting classes helped me to combat my shyness and invent some extra activities for my students. I can say my mum’s investment paid off.

      2. You’ve made a point there! 🙂
        I’m totally in favour of investing money in children. What I don’t agree with is forcing them to do things they don’t really want to do. I suppose I can relate to your situation as well. My parents always backed me up (whenever possible) in all of the things I’ve always wanted to do as a child. When I told them I’d like to take judo classes, they did that, the same thing happened with basketball, swimming lessons and even English classes. However, they also did understand it when I simply lost interest in those activities. They’d always talk to me and try to make me give some more thinking and try again before stopping doing those things altogether. If this is the case, I think it’s money well spent.
        On the other hand, when I see kids doing things simply because their parents are trying to live their lives through the kids, I don’t think that’s money well spent. Actually, it’s simply a waste of money, and most importantly, time. I remember I decided I did not want to go on studying English after a while. My parents talked to me about it and I didn’t change my mind. They said that if that was my final decision, they’d not force me to continue studying. After one semester away, I told them I wanted to resume my studies. There was another talk and this time we agreed I was going till the end. I’m not sure this is what would’ve happened if they hadn’t heard me, but there’s the possibility I’d fail the course just to show them I didn’t want to go on studying.
        So, yes! Parents should encourage children and foster interests in them. What I consider to be a waste of time is making all choices without asking your children whether this is what they want to do or not. Unfortunately, what I’ve been noticing these days is that lots of parents are using English classes as daycare centres. Then I believe it’s a waste.

        Thanks for the thoughts! 🙂

  5. Hi Henrick,

    Good topic. What you seem to be asking is for non-English dominant countries what is the appropriate starting age for learning English to give the most efficient return on investment of resources?

    It’s an important question, but not easy to answer and any public policy strategy chosen comes with significant challenges and risks. That being, the clear trends from around the world especially over the last ten years are towards societies investing in earlier and earlier exposure to English within the educational process.

    One of the arguments for EYL, as noted in David Graddol’s “English Next 2006” (pp 88~89) is simply there is more time in their school careers- i.e. prior to entering the workforce- to achieve proficiency. Learning a language is a function of time, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” does seem roughly correlate with the amount of effort needed on average to get to the equivalent of the CEFR C2 classification. At any age, 100 to 200 hours a year of classroom time just isn’t going to cut it, especially if you’re talking about large class sizes where each student has little opportunity for individual practice and feedback.

    Another argument for EYL is the fact that the earlier the language acquisition process begins, the less relevant the distinction between L1 and L2 becomes. Instead, it becomes bilingual learning, where the content delivered through the language medium is the focus, not language mechanics as tends to be in EFL.

    I can personally attest to that with my two young children- 3 and 5 years old- who are simultaneously learning English and Korean. (My wife and I are native English speakers living in South Korea.) They very naturally operate in bilingual mode, effortlessly switching from one language to the other as the situation/audience warrants.

    I also see the same thing with Korean children in English language/bilingual kindergartens where they spend 15 to 25 hours per week interacting through English. The comfort and confidence level they quickly acquire is something hard to replicate among older beginning students who are far more self-aware of deficiency and/or potential for failure.

    It goes to the affective aspects of learning.



    1. Hi Matthew,

      First of all, I’d like to apologise for taking so long to reply to your comment. Lots of personal problems got in the way.

      I agree with teaching YL with no reservations whatsoever if they are interacting through English for anything longer than 15 hours a week – which is roughly equivalent to 3 hours a day with the weekends off. However, there are many differences I see between young learners and teenagers and adults when it comes to learning a foreign language. Smaller classes will always be helpful, agreed, but if classes aren’t bigger than, say, 15 students per class, there’s a good chance teachers will be able to allow all students to practise and receive feedback. The teacher, in my view, plays a key role in any kind of course.

      From my experience and readings, I’d say that children, teenagers, and adults all learn differently, and these differences should be respected. Therefore, a teenager will benefit much more than a child if he or she is in a classroom for 100 hours a week. Actually, I’ve witnessed many teenagers reaching level C1 after about 500 hours of classroom time, and geting to C2 after another 100-200 classroom time. I also admit this also depends largely on the learner and on how motivated he or she is to learn the foreign language.

      The situation with your kids seem to me to be one of the cases in which I believe it might work. Your children also have a chance to meaningfully interact in both L1 and L2 with others who are not their teacher. I mean, if you’re learning a second language, the earlier the better. Learning english in an ESL setting is completely different from learning it in an EFL setting. If parents, then, speak English at home with his or her kids, chances are this is closer to an ESL environment than an EFL one, do you agree? I suppose you and your wife interact with your kids in English, right? And I stress interaction because I’ve been exposed to French ever since I was little as my mum and gramma are French, but I never really learned it. You see, they wouldn’t interact with me in Franch, I was merely exposed to the language, but I never had to meaningfully make use of the language, so I guess my brain never bothered to actually understand what it was that they were saying as they’d use Portuguese when talking to me.

      I’m afraid we share the same view on this matter, or at least on certain points. Am I right?

      Thanks for the insightful and thoughtful comment. Hope I made myself as clear as you have in my reply. 🙂


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