How Early a Second Language?
Misconceptions about age and second language acquisition
Posted September 1, 2013
Post written by François Grosjean.
In an earlier post on questions parents may want to consider when deciding to make their child bilingual, I stated that some people still believe that you cannot be a "real" bilingual if you have not acquired your two languages in infancy or as a very young child (see here). There is a common belief that the earlier a second language is acquired, the more fluent a child will be in it. And yet when we examine the scientific foundation this belief is based on, we find that it is not as strong as we could imagine.
In an paper entitled, "Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning", University of British Columbia researcher Stefka Marinova-Todd and her two coauthors argue convincingly against the fact that there is a critical (or sensitive) period for second language acquisition beyond which the language will not be acquired adequately.
They claim that some researchers, as well as the lay public, have fallen prey to three fallacies. The first is based on a misinterpretation of observations of learners of different ages which tend to suggest that children, especially young ones, are fast and efficient at picking up a second language. In fact, it has been shown repeatedly that young children are rather unsophisticated and immature learners in that they have not yet fully acquired certain cognitive skills, such as the capacity to abstract, generalize, infer and classify, that could help them in second-language acquisition.
In an often cited study, Harvard professor Catherine Snow and her coauthor, Marianne Hoefnagel-Hohle, examined the learning of Dutch by speakers of English in different age groups. They showed that twelve to fifteen year-olds did better than younger learners. This has been confirmed since then in other studies such as those that examined late immersion as opposed to early immersion children. Older children were simply more efficient learners than younger children. Of course, beyond a certain age (most situate it at around age 12 or even later), it might be difficult to acquire full native-like pronunciation in a second language, but this still leaves many years between infancy and adolescence.
The second fallacy Stefka Marinova-Todd and her coauthors point out is the fact that some researchers report differences in the brain organization of early and late second language learners and then misattribute presumed language proficiency differences to this factor. In fact, as expounded by neuropsycholinguist Jubin Abutalebi, a second language is acquired through the same neural structures responsible for first language acquisition. This is true for the acquisition of grammar in late second language learners contrary to what one might expect from the notion of a critical (or sensitive) period.
The third fallacy is based on taking frequent failure in second language acquisition and extending it to the impossibility of success. Many older learners (adolescents and adults) do admittedly end up with low levels of proficiency but this is not due primarily to the age they started learning their second language as such but to other factors such as motivation, time, energy, language input, support from the environment, etc. This misemphasis on poor older learners has distracted researchers from focusing on the truly informative cases, that is successful older learners who spend sufficient time on second language learning, give it their full attention, and who benefit from high motivation and from supportive language learning environments.
The authors conclude their analysis by stating that older learners have the potential to learn a second language to a very high level of competency and that introducing a second language to very young learners cannot be justified on grounds of biological readiness to learn languages.
As for introducing a second language in the home in order to allow a child to become bilingual, the important factors, at whatever age, are the need for the new language, as well as the amount and type of language input the child receives, the role of the family and the school, and the prevailing attitudes toward the language and the culture in question, and toward bilingualism as such.
And so the next time we read or hear that to reap the full benefits of bilingualism, the earlier you start the child's exposure to a second language, such as in infancy, the better it is, let's keep in mind that the majority of bilingual children start monolingually, and only begin acquiring their second language after a few years such as when they enter school or, later, in their adolescence (see here). And yet they become fully functioning bilinguals. There is no age limit to entering the world of bilingualism; it can take place at any time.
Photo of mother with baby from Shutterstock.
Marinova-Todd, S. H., Marshall, S. D. & Snow, C. E. (2000). Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly, 34(1), 9-34.
Abutalebi, J. (2008). Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychologica, 128(3), 466-78.
Snow, C. & Hoefnagel-Hohle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development, 49, 1114–1128.
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