Age and Second Language Acquisition

Language learning processes in adults and children have advantages and disadvantages.  Why do young learners often become bilingual uncosciously and naturally as learning to walk? Are young children the best second language learners? Is there an optimal age for second language acquisition?

I’d like to share with you two  interesting articles I read about the myth that young children are the best second language learners.

The author of both is Paul Shoebottom, language teacher for more than 25 years, currently the Upper School coordinator for ESL at Frankfurt International School (FIS) where he has worked since 1987.

Are young children the best second language learners?

A myth, in one of its senses, is a belief about something that is shared by many people, but which in fact happens to be untrue or only partly true. The field of language learning is full of myths and misconceptions, possibly because every literate person has been successful at learning at least one language and so may consider himself to be something of an expert on the topic. The myth that I wish to discuss in the present article is that young children are the best learners of a second language. This is a widely-held belief that contains an element of truth, but which for the most part has been disproved by recent linguistic research (see references at the foot of this page).

One reason why this myth has arisen may be that we are more tolerant of the mistakes of children than of older learners or adults. As an illustration of this, imagine that you are a German bank clerk, living in Frankfurt. On your way to work, you meet your American neighbour’s 3 year old child, who is attending German kindergarten. The child says Guck, ich habe ein neuen Ball. (Look, I have a new ball.) You will probably think How cute! You note how well she’s learning German, and may not even register the mistake in the indefinite article (it should be einen instead of ein). You get to work and the first customer you see is a British woman who wants to deposit some cash. She says: Ich will DM500 auf meines Sparkonto überweisen. Now you will probably not think How cute, but will you think Her German is good! or will you say: Es muss: auf mein Sparkonto sein (correcting the faulty ending in the possessive pronoun)? Of course this is an unfair stereotyping of German bank clerks (although exactly this happened to a British colleague in the bank in her second year here in Germany). However, it does prove the point that we are generally more patient and forgiving of the mistakes of young children than of adults. Indeed, although children make mistakes of both fact and grammar when speaking in a foreign language, they are far more likely to get corrective feedback only when they make a factual mistake. Adults rarely make factual mistakes and so most of the corrective feedback they receive is grammatical in nature. This may be one of the reasons why the myth that young children are the best language learners has taken such a strong hold.

Now consider another reason. Anyone with a young family who has lived for a while in a foreign country will have seen how easily and naturally their children interact and play with others of a different mother tongue. This is very different from how most adults feel when faced with the need to communicate in a foreign language. Many people however mistakenly attribute young children’s comparative ease in new language situations to children’s greater ability to learn language. But this is not the case. The cognitive demands made on a youngster are different from those which confront the adult. With children, everything is in the here-and-now. If they are having a dolls’ picnic, for example, most of the communication will centre around the concrete objects they can see and handle. They also have the right to not to speak and just watch what is happening, or take part silently. Contrast this with the problems confronting the adult who has an appointment with her tax advisor. She does not have the option of being silent, and the whole discussion will be conducted in the abstract mode. No wonder, adults envy children their supposed facility in learning languages!  Read more…

What is the best age to start a second language?

Studies have shown that adolescents and adults are in many ways better at learning a new language than children, except in the area of pronunciation. This is probably because they are already literate in their first language and can use some of their knowledge about language and language learning when learning the second language. However, this doesn’t answer the important question: What’s the best age to learn a new language? This question, like most about language learning, cannot be answered so simply. It depends on the situation.

For example, a child who is born to an American father and German mother living in the USA can start to learn both German and English from the moment he is born. This is probably the most favourable situation for anyone who wishes to speak two languages fluently as an adult. A child of school age who emigrates to the USA has no choice, and must start to learn the new language, English, as soon as she arrives. Depending on the age of the child, it can take up several years for her to reach the level of a native English speaker. It is important in this time that she continues her first language development. And it is equally important that she, her parents and her teachers do not have unrealistic expectations about how easy learning will be and how quickly it will happen.

The two situations described above contrast with situations where there is more choice over whether and when the second language is introduced. Either the choice is made by the education authorities in the area where the child lives, or parents can decide on an individual basis whether to enrol their child in a foreign language learning program. It is this last situation that I wish to discuss a little further.

Some specialists in language acquisition claim that the sooner a child starts to learn a second language the better. It certainly seems to make sense that the earlier you start, the longer you will have to learn, and the more progress you will make compared with someone who started later. However, there is evidence that this is not the case, particularly if the second language comes to take the place of the first language, which has never been allowed to develop properly. One researcher* talks of the dangers of double semi-lingualism for early learners of a second language; i.e. the child does not develop full proficiency in either of the two languages. And as mentioned above, it has been found that older learners of a language are more efficient learners, so they may need less time to reach the same level of proficiency as younger learners. Also, of course, if more time is spent learning a second language during the school day, then some other subject must be cut or reduced to make way for it. This may not be desirable.

So what is the best age for a person to start learning a foreign language in situations where there is a choice, and where it is not critical that a native-speaker-like pronunciation is acquired? The answer, according to current research, is early adolescence, so about 11-13. And the more motivated the child is to learn the new language, the more successful he will be! Read more…

Outside the Box

Being inside the box
was comfortable
–warm and cosy.
We curled up
with cushions of routine,
wadded with words,
blanketed by books,
swaddled in certainties.
A bit stuffy perhaps,
and we sometimes felt cramped,
but never mind,
we were so used to it
that it felt normal –
and, as I said,

Out here we are exposed,
and cold winds blow.
We need to hold on tight,
keep our eyes open
for sudden snow squalls,
hidden crevasses.
It’s a precarious existence now –
but here we can move and breathe,
see clear to the far horizon.

And if we come to a cliff,
we know we can step off it
into empty air,
trusting it to bear us up.
We have no fear

Alan Maley

Nagoya, November 2010


Reinforcing Language

Think of reinforcing language as a ladder for children to climb up. Your words form the rungs they stand on as they reach for the next higher level of learning.

I’ve just read a very interesting article on about Reinforcing Language, which is a positive teacher language, and I’d like to share it with you.

Reinforcing language is one of several types of positive teacher talk used by Responsive Classroom practitioners. Teachers use reinforcing language to show that they see students’ positive academic and behavioral efforts and accomplishments. Their words are specific and descriptive; their tone is upbeat and encouraging.

In the article, linked below, you will find a lot of more information and tips for using Reinforcing Language.
Here are seven key characteristics of effective reinforcing language, along with an illustration of how each might look in practice. Because we all have typical speech patterns that reflect, among other things, our personalities, the suggested words might not sound like ones you would normally use. With practice, though, you’ll find that you can incorporate all of these key characteristics of reinforcing language without losing your personal style.

1. Instead of giving global priase (“Great job!”), name concrete, specific behaviors so students know exactly what they’re doing that’s helping them learn.

Instead of… Try…
What a great piece of writing! You used lots of describing words.
That will really help readers “see” your story!

2. Speak in a tone that’s warm and encouraging, but professional.

Instead of…
Ooh, Liam, you did such a nice, nice job with your writing today!
I noticed that you worked really hard on your writing today, Liam, and your audience responded with enthusiasm when you read it aloud.

3. Grant children dignity by addressing them respectfully.

Instead of… Try…
Ok, [my little ducks, sweeties…] Ok, [students, learners, writers, mathematicians…]

4. Emphasize students’ actions and accomplishments over our personal approval.

Instead of… Try…
I really like all the adjectives you used in your writing! I see that you used lots of adjectives in your writing.

5. Add a question to extend student thinking.

Instead of… Try…
I see that you used lots of adjectives
in your writing.
I see that you used lots of adjectives in your writing. Why did you decide to do that?

6. Find positives to name in all students – including those who are struggling.

Instead of… Try…
You need to work harder at your writing, Mia. You just don’t stick with it long enough. You worked longer at your writing today, Mia. What helped you to do that?

7. Avoid naming individual students as examples for others.

Instead of… Try…
Marley, Max, Juan, and JD have
already put away their writing
supplies and taken their seats in the circle!
I see more and more people putting away their writing supplies and taking their seats in the circle.

Teaching English with Music

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I often take advantage of the power of music and use it in my English lessons with L2 learners of all ages, from juniors to adults.

The best thing about using music to teach English is its flexibility. In my lessons I use music for a number of purposes and in many different ways! It can be a useful ice-breaker for first lessons, in classes where students don’t know each other, or it can be an enjoyable background, it can live things up or calm things down.

Studies have shown that music…

  • relaxes people who are overwhelmed or stressed,
  • can reflect cultures and give students the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of the cultural reality of the target language,
  •  can help learners improve their listening skills and pronounciation,
  •  can be fun and improve the students’ motivation,
  •  can be useful in the teaching of vocabulary and sentence structures.

In intermediate listening/speaking level classes I focus on song lyrics as the basis of a lesson, to introduce a new theme or topic, to inspire a class discussion and to teach reading comprehension.  Before choosing a song I define the objectives and the resources available and then focus on the activities I could use so that students can achieve their goals and develop the different language skills. I don’t choose very popular  because the students will already know the lyrics and my activities may become a flop.

Here is an example of activies I use to make the listening more effective.

Pre-listening step

  1. I write the title of the song on the board and ask my students to guess what it’s about,
  2. I show them a picture of the singer and ask them what they know about him/her,
  3. I give to each student the lyrics with some blanks

Listening to the song

  1. Once without writing
  2. At the second time they fill in the blank while listening
  3. They listen to the song one more time and check if they got the blanks filled in correctly

After listening activities

  1. We correct the exercise together
  2. Then I split the class into groups of 3-4
  3. I take the vocabulary from the lyrics and write 5-10 key words on the board
  4. I tell the groups to write what they think the words mean
  5. We correct the definitions together
  6. Finally, we discuss about the topic of the song.

There many other things you can do with the song lyrics to get the students involved. Discuss about the characters in the song, have the students ask each other about the perfomer and the topic, change words or invent new lyrics for the melody…

These are just some of my activities. I think I’ll soon be writing about my experiences of music in ESL classes, to share my digital resources and my music activities with kids.

Please leave questions or comments below.

INFO Corsi Juniors 2015-16

Sono contentissima di tutti i messaggi privati che sto ricevendo riguardo ai corsi Juniors e nel costatare che tanti genitori si stanno interessando a un approccio naturale dei bambini con l’inglese. Sono lusingata per la fiducia e la stima che mi dimostrate. Ecco qualche informazione rispondere un po’ a tutti:
  • I corsi inizieranno a ottobre, spero dalla settimana del 5, dipende molto anche da voi… aspetto ancora di sapere giorni e orari delle altre attività pomeridiane dei bambini prenotati. Da questo weekend raccolgo tutti i dati che mi avete inviato e fisso i giorni delle lezioni.
  • I corsi si terrano a Monte di Procida.
  • Potete iscrivere i vostri bambini fino ai primi di ottobre ma, poiché intendo formare piccoli gruppi per seguire meglio gli studenti, rischiereste di non trovare posto. Se siete interessati magari contattatemi appena possibile in privato su facebook o inviatemi una email al mio indirizzo Senza impegno! Giusto per farmi rendere conto più o meno del numero degli interessati e quindi di quanti gruppetti da formare.
Grazie ancora. Vi aggiorno quanto prima!