Starting early with foreign languages does not necessarily enhance learning
Younger does not necessarily mean better when it comes to learning English. This is according to the findings of an interdisciplinary research project that has followed two groups of children over a number of years.
Over the past 50 years, politicians across European countries have periodically lowered the age at which children learn foreign languages at school. In Denmark, before 1970 pupils started learning English in Year 6. In 2014, the latest legislative change lowered the commencement of learning English from Year 3 to Year 1.
But it does not necessarily follow that children will be more proficient in English for this reason. This is the finding of a large interdisciplinary research project funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. The preliminary findings have been published in the prestigious journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition from Cambridge University Press.
A group of researchers from the humanities, psychology and statistics took advantage of the change to the law in 2014. The fact that children in both Year 1 and Year 3 started their first English lessons created a rare opportunity to carry out a comparative study of how well children learn English at different ages.
Older children learn more
The research team has followed a total of 276 children in Years 1 and 3 at six different schools. Using three rounds of English tests, questionnaires and interviews, the researchers have analysed the children’s English proficiency and how much they have improved over time.
‘The research project shows that children in Year 3 are better from the beginning, and they also learn more – and more quickly,’ says Teresa Cadierno, lead researcher and professor of foreign language acquisition. Because of their age, they are more likely to have heard, seen and used English outside the classroom.
Meet the researcher
Teresa Cadierno is a professor at the Department of Language, Culture, History and Communication and is affiliated as Chair of Humanities with the Danish Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) at the University of Southern Denmark. She is also head of the Center for Language Learning. Her research focuses on foreign language acquisition and foreign language pedagogy.
The older children are cognitively more developed and they have greater metalinguistic abilities. So they have the ability to focus and think more about language as an object
‘The older children are cognitively more developed and they have greater metalinguistic abilities. So they have the ability to focus and think more about language as an object,’ states Teresa Cadierno.
Older pupils therefore learn more quickly than younger ones. They quickly become proficient in English, whereas the younger ones are slower to learn the language. The English tests given one and two years after the children have started English lessons show that the gap between the English proficiency of the older and younger groups is widening.
The conclusions may change, however, as this year the research team will be conducting the final English tests with the youngest participants, who will graduate from Year 9 this summer.
Boys doing better than girls
The study shows that factors other than age play an important role in determining how much English children learn. For example, boys have an advantage. They are statistically better at English than girls.
‘The boys have higher scores in the three measurements than the girls. They’ve also learned more in between the three times we’ve surveyed them. For the older boys, it goes really fast. We explain this by the fact that boys are more likely to be gamers than girls, and in this context there are many English activities over and above the game itself,’ says Teresa Cadierno.
Boys are more likely than girls to find things in English online, and they have to write or speak to other players in English while they’re playing, which can help develop their English language skills.
In addition, the study found that individual factors have a strong influence on children’s ability to learn English.
How much confidence the children have in the language, that is, how good they think they are at English, is instrumental for learning as well as how nervous the children are about taking part in the lessons. For example, if children are nervous about making mistakes and being criticised in front of the whole class or if they are just nervous about speaking in front of their classmates, it has a great impact on how much they learn.
‘Fear trumps confidence. If a child with high self-esteem is reluctant to participate in class, they may not be getting enough feedback from the teacher,’ explains Teresa Cadierno.
The anxious children are more anxious about being corrected by their classmates than by their teacher. In this way, the research project emphasises that a safe environment in the classroom is crucial for children’s ability to learn.
It’s important that teachers explain that mistakes are a natural part of learning a foreign language. Based on our study, it may be better for the teacher to make corrections than for classmates to do it.
‘It’s important that teachers explain that mistakes are a natural part of learning a foreign language. Based on our study, it may be better for the teacher to make corrections than for classmates to do it,’ says the professor.
An unusual foreign language
For Danish children, individual factors are more important than contextual factors, such as how much they hear, read and use English outside the classroom. This resembles the findings of research projects conducted in naturalistic settings. For example, this can be seen among immigrants learning a language in a country where they are constantly surrounded by the new language.
These findings from the project are in line with results from previous research showing that English has a special status in countries like Denmark, because English is so widely used in Danish society.
‘In Denmark, English is not a foreign language in the traditional sense,’ says Teresa Cadierno, who would rather categorise English more as a second language, which in this respect is also in line with previous research.
Behind the research
- The research project examines several factors that influence the development of children’s English language acquisition. The project follows two groups of children – one group who started English lessons in Year 1 and one group who started in Year 3, until they leave primary school.
- It is an interdisciplinary research project led by Professor Teresa Cadierno with the participation of Søren W Eskildsen, associate professor of second language acquisition at the University of Southern Denmark, Mikkel B Hansen, associate professor of psychology at the University of Paris, Jørgen T Lauridsen, professor of econometrics and data science at the University of Southern Denmark, as well as Signe Hannibal Jensen, Katalin Fenyvesi and Maria Vanessa aus der Wieschen, who completed their PhD projects as part of the research project.
- The preliminary findings have been published in the prestigious journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, published by Cambridge University Press.