Table of contents
2. Key research findings in brief
1. Cognitive benefits
2. The benefits of starting early
2. Language shower and language bath
3. Collaborative learning
4. Other related issues
1. L1 interference. Specific EFL / ESL issues for speakers of other languages and users of L2WS (second language writing system)
About the writer
A question has been raised about the earliest reasonable age for a student to begin to learn a second language, especially when the mother tongue and the second language are from two different language groups.
Other often heard questions are: Can a young student learn two languages well at the same time, or is it necessary to first become proficient in the mother tongue? At what age can foreign language study be introduced? What would be the best way to introduce the second language?
The prevailing view in the early part of the 20th century was that bilingualism and early second-language acquisition confused children and interfered with the development of normal cognitive functions and hindered their success in educational environments.
The purpose of this paper is to identify current research frameworks and results to improve discussion and decision-making.
This research points to a number of recognized cognitive benefits of starting a second language in the early years of education (in kindergarten, before formal education).
Current research also dispels parents’ and educators’ traditional concerns regarding the negative effects of early introduction of a second language. Research shows students who learn a foreign language do better in their mother tongue and in other key subjects.
Foreign language learning is a cognitive problem-solving activity as well as a linguistic activity. Studies show that there is a correlation between foreign language study and
- increased mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving
- increased critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children
- second language learners often outscore their non-foreign language learning peers in verbal and, surprisingly to some, math sections of standardized tests
In other words, foreign language learners have a built-in advantage, and the early years are important for gaining that advantage.
How language learning is organized throughout the school years also makes a difference. Language learning is a social activity. Collaborative and interactive learning, whether over the web or in real life groups, have multiple benefits over solitary or teacher-led learning. Using active methods have the added benefit of building communicative and interactive competencies and skills.
Digital materials and games are and excellent support, but no technology can replace a teacher who has the ability to engage the students in dialogues and peer learning and who can design collaborative projects to develop transversal competencies.
The language classroom is the obvious place to start the development of transversal competencies in schools. These student-centered and active learning methods play an important role for equipping the youngsters with the skills, competencies, creativity and adaptability to thrive in an ever-changing world.
Terms and abbreviations
Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an approach for learning content through an additional language (foreign or second), teaching both the subject and the language. CLIL is based on methodological principles established by research on "language immersion". Methodological approaches to CLIL are varied, ranging from highly traditional teacher-centered to distinctly learner-oriented approaches.
English as a foreign language. The study of English by nonnative speakers in a non-English-speaking environment and in countries where English is generally not a local medium of communication.
English as a second language. Study of the English language by non-native speakers in an English-speaking environment. ESL also refers to specialized approaches to language teaching designed for those whose primary language is not English.
An educational approach in which foreign languages are introduced to children during short sessions by using activities such as songs, games and rhymes. The goals are to make children aware of foreign languages, develop positive attitude towards those and motivate them for foreign language learning.
An immersion method of teaching a second language in which the learners’ second language (L2) is the medium of classroom instruction. Many different formats are possible and there are numerous variations of class time spent in L2, learner age, school subjects taught in L2 etc.
First language. Also known as Mother tongue. The first language of a child is part of their personal, social and cultural identity.
Foreign and second language. It is learned after the first language (L1). The language a person knows, is learning or is acquiring in addition to their native language.
Anyone who is learning the written form of an L2 is learning an L2 writing system. This may mean learning new symbols (as is the case for Arabic L1 learning the Latin alphabet for English or Spanish as L2). But English learners of Spanish are also learning an L2WS, because the English and Spanish writing systems use the same alphabet differently to represent the English and Spanish languages.
The challenge of learning an L2WS is much more than the symbols - it’s totality of the grammar, pronunciation, syntax, spelling and all other aspects of the language in written form.
Second language acquisition
2. Key research findings in brief
2.1 Cognitive benefits
What are the benefits of early foreign language learning in terms of overall academic achievement ?
Second language study benefits academic progress in other subjects, including mathematics and the mother tongue.
- Early second language study promotes achievement in English vocabulary and reading skills. (Masciantonio, 1977)
- Mastering the vocabulary of a second language enhances student comprehension and abilities in reading, writing, mathematics and other subjects. (Saville-Troike 1984)
- Children who study a foreign language tend to develop new perspectives and depth of understanding about the vocabulary and structure of their first language.” (Stewart 2005)
Second language study benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking.
- Early language study results in greater skills in divergent thinking and figural creativity. (Landry, 1973)
- Language learners show greater cognitive flexibility, better problem solving and higher order thinking skills. (Hakuta, 1986)
Second language study narrows achievement gaps.
- In a four year study by McGill University, working class students did just as well in foreign language as middle-class students even though their English skills were not as good. (Holobow, 1988)
- There’s a high positive correlation between foreign language study and improved reading scores for children of average and below average intelligence. (Garfinkel & Tabor, 1991)
Second language study enhances a student's sense of achievement.
- Foreign language study is area where children not accustomed to achievement in school are able to excel. The resulting benefit to self-image, self-esteem and satisfaction with school experience are enormous. Evidence from several studies study show language students to have a significantly higher self-concept than do non-language students. (Masciantonio 1977, Saunders 1998, Andrade, et al. 1989)
Second language students score higher on standardised tests.
- Students of foreign languages tend to score higher on standardised tests. Results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) show that students who had studied a foreign language for 4 or more years outscored other students on the verbal and math portions of the test. (College Board 2003)
- Foreign language learners consistently outperform control groups in core subject areas on standardized tests often significantly. (Armstrong & Rogers 1997, Saunders 1998, Masciantonio 1977, Rafferty 1986, Andrade, Kretschmer & Kretschmer 1989)
- Third-graders who had received 15 minutes of conversational French lessons daily for a year had statistically higher Stanford Achievement Test scores than their peers who had not received French instruction. (Lopata 1963)
Second language study promotes cultural awareness and competency.
- “The positive impact of cultural information is significantly enhanced when that information is experienced through foreign language and accompanied by experiences in culturally authentic situations.” (Curtain & Dahlberg 2004) Foreign language learners are more tolerant of the differences among people. (Carpenter & Torney 1974)
Second language study enhances career opportunities.
- Studying a foreign language helps students understand English grammar better and improves their overall communication and problem-solving skills. Beyond the intellectual benefits, knowledge of a foreign language facilitates travel, enhances career opportunities, and enables one to learn more about different peoples and cultures. (National Research Council 2007)
- In a survey of 581 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona, most respondents said they had gained a competitive advantage from their knowledge of foreign languages and other cultures. Language study was often a critical factor in hiring decisions and enhanced their career paths, it also provided personal fulfillment, mental discipline, and cultural enlightenment. (Grosse 2004)
For full references see the References at the end of the report.
2.2. The benefits of starting early
Studies in developmental psychology and neuroscience indicate that there is a ‘sensitive period’ for learning L1. The theory has been stretched to second language acquisition (SLA) where it is less accepted. There is some evidence that by the onset of puberty language learning is more difficult and learners may retain an accent and not achieve native-like fluency
The debate over the timing and the critical period continues with respect to SLA. Estimates ranging between 2 and 13 years of age depending on the focus of the research e.g. syntactical or phonological. Bialystok and Hakuta (1994) conclude that second-language learning is not necessarily subject to biological critical periods, but "on average, there is a continuous decline in ability [to learn] with age. (Wikipedia)
Young children are in a highly developmental stage (Edelebons, Johnstone and Kubanek 2006: 26) and for that reason, the early foreign language learning can have many benefits. For instance, positive experiences of early foreign language learning can produce linguistic self-confidence, develop language awareness in children and teach that there is more than one way to realize meaning. (Pynnönen, 2013)
Why should the children be introduced to foreign language early in their education?
- “According to Harry Chugani, a Detroit pediatric neurologist, foreign language teaching should begin when children are in preschool - when teachers can maximize a child's willingness and ability to learn. By the time a student reaches high school, the optimum learning period is lost.” (Vos, 2008)
- “The learning experiences of a child determine which [neural] connections are developed and which no longer function. That means what is easy and natural for a child – learning a language – can become hard work for an older learner.” (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2004)
- Research indicates that children who are exposed to a foreign language at a young age achieve higher levels of cognitive development at an earlier age. (Bialystok & Hakuta 1994)
- Younger learners “are likely to be less 'language anxious' than many older learners and hence may be more able to absorb language rather than block it out” (Johnstone, 2002).
For references see References at the end of the report.
How a foreign language is introduced to young learners makes a great difference in how they learn in depth in later years.
Language learning is inherently a communicative and a collaborative activity, thus also a foreign language is best acquired through an immersive environment and through regular second language exposure in a school or home. There are evidence-based, thoroughly studied methods that have been successfully implemented for years. The following overview presents some of the most frequently used evidence-based methods that have been successfully used in many countries and in various language areas.
CLIL stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. CLIL is a dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language. This means that in the teaching and learning process, the emphasis is not exclusively on the language – as it would be in a language class – nor exclusively on the content – as it would be in the case of a subject class. Although the focus may shift from language to content and vice versa according to students’ needs, both are expected to receive equal emphasis and both are interwoven with each other. (Wolff, 2003)
Teaching content through a foreign language can make the learners more motivated, because in this way they feel that the learning has a purpose. (Pynnönen, 2013)
It is not possible to discuss constructivism in a short presentation, but it is necessary to touch the constructivist theory of learning just to state that the key to language learning lies in comprehension, which is a highly active constructive process. Language learning takes place whenever a learner engages in a constructive comprehension process. Language learning does not take place when the learner does not activate his constructive abilities but just takes in receptively the stimuli which his perceptual system discerns. This is often the case in instructed language learning in school or university, where learners believe that in monotonously working through formal exercises they will learn language.
CLIL can provide effective opportunities for pupils to use their new language skills now, rather than learn them now for use later. It opens doors on languages for a broader range of learners, nurturing self-confidence in young learners and those who have not responded well to formal language instruction in general education. It provides exposure to the language without requiring extra time in the curriculum, which can be of particular interest in vocational settings. (Wikipedia, 2016)
If content and language are learnt and taught in integration and not in isolation the time available for the teaching/learning process of a content subject and a foreign language doubles; length of study time both for language and content subject can thus be reduced considerably, and as a consequence, more languages can be introduced into the curriculum. (Wolff, 2003)
Lamsfuß-Schenk, Stohle and Vollmer (2008) have found that CLIL learners were at least matching, and at times even exceeding their monolingual peers.(Wolff, 2003)
For references see References at the end of the report.
3.2 Language shower and language bath
Language shower is an educational approach in which foreign languages are introduced to children during short sessions by using activities such as songs, games and rhymes.
Language showers aim to prepare the children for foreign language learning, lower the threshold to learning a new language and raise pupils’ awareness of other languages.
The goals are to make children aware of foreign languages, develop positive attitude towards learning and motivate them to learn a foreign language. The background and the principles of the language shower is similar to other educational approaches in which foreign languages are used for instructions, as for example immersion and the content and language integrated learning (CLIL).
Compared to other approaches language shower offers only short-term exposure to foreign languages and cannot on its own lead to high proficiency in a foreign language. However, it has an important role in motivating or preparing children for foreign language learning, which is why it usually precedes the actual language teaching. Language shower can also offer a possibility to get to know different languages before pupils decide which language they want to learn at school. (Pynnönen, 2013)
In the language shower, the language is introduced to preschool children through playful situations by using songs and games. The foreign language is used for instruction as much as possible and the children will also be encouraged to use the foreign language themselves, even though they can also use their mother language. The aim of the language shower is that the children would gain positive experiences of the language and the foreign language learning already in preschool before the language teaching actually starts. (Pynnönen, 2013)
Immersion, also known as language bath was developed in Canada in the 1960s and it has been researched more than the other forms of teaching in a foreign language. There are many different types of programs and ways to carry out immersion in schools. The options range from the early total immersion that aims to bilingualism without loss of achievement in other contents, to only teaching part of the curriculum, for example biology or geography, in a foreign language.
Teaching a specific subject through a foreign language differs from immersion in a sense that it is more content driven, whereas immersion aims primarily to bilingualism. (Pynnönen, 2013)
For references see References at the end of the report.
3.3 Collaborative learning and development of transversal skills. Benefits of the experiential model.
Language learning is a social and collaborative activity. Language learners on all stages need positive experiences of what they can do with their language communicatively. Feelings of success will increase the learner’s self-confidence. It can be argued that competence develops through confidence. This is fostered by teaching that encourages the learner’s self-assessment of his or her own learning, both alone and with peers in cooperative learning groups. (Kohonen, 2008) (See Appendix)
Social, interpersonal and learning skills and attitudes will become increasingly important. Schools should aim for a multi-dimensional view of the curriculum to foster transversal skills e.g.:
– Creativity: capacity for imaginative and inventive thinking.
– Social and interpersonal skills: ability for cooperative work.
– Learning skills: capacity for autonomous learning.
(Kohonen, 2008, p.45) (See Appendix)
Foreign language classrooms are very well suited for collaborative, learner centered learning activities that develop transversal skills along with subject knowledge.
An often expressed rather sceptic comment regarding collaborative group- and project work especially in foreign language classrooms is the heterogeneity of the group. There is a real need to release learners from the necessity to work all at the same rate, as has been the case in traditional teacher-centered, frontal instruction. One-size-fits-all in learning just does not exist. There is a need for more flexible learning arrangements whereby fast learners are encouraged to take on more demanding learning tasks than slow learners and work faster towards both accurate and fluent communication skills.
This can be arranged through personalized learning paths, through peer teaching and learning and projects in small groups. Faster learners can thus aim at both quantitatively and qualitatively higher standards of language use than slow learners. But this does not need to imply permanent ability grouping of learners. Such differing aims can also be accommodated within a basically heterogeneous, mixed-ability class using cooperative learning techniques and individual learning contracts negotiated between teacher and learners.
In a collaborative learner centered classroom students will have to deal with problems due to an insufficient knowledge of language. They will thus encounter mismatches between their communicative skills and intentions. As a result learners will adopt different kinds of communication strategies, which can be seen as ‘potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal’.
For references see References at the end of the report.
4. Other related issues
“Specifically, children learning to read in two languages that share a writing system (e.g. English and French) show accelerated progress in learning to read; children whose two languages are written in different systems (e.g. English and Chinese or Japanese or Arabic etc...) show no special advantage, but neither do they demonstrate any deficit relative to monolinguals. “ (Bialystok, 2008)
Awareness of L1 interference helps the teachers focus on known problem areas and develop effective and targeted teaching and learning strategies that effectively deal with the key challenges relating to learning a foreign language.
Current research effectively dispels old concerns regarding the negative effects on children’s language and cognitive development of early introduction of a second language. Research shows that the presumed interference with L1 development or normal cognitive functions are clearly not there.
On the contrary second language learning starting in the early years promotes success in education. It has been shown to give the learners a cognitive and an academic competitive advantage, which is likely to benefit the learner during the school years and also later in life.
The benefits of an early start in foreign language study is supported by research. The “right” age to start can be discussed but the research supports an early introduction to build motivation and make the language learning easier in later years. Generally speaking children who start foreign languages earlier attain fluency and accuracy that are superior to those who have started later. Younger children are less “language anxious”, they are used to making mistakes and learning a language is a natural process for them.
Foreign language study carries multiple benefits even for achievement in other subjects and it is a natural point of departure for development of transversal competencies of students.
CLIL, immersion methods and collaborative and experiential learning have been implemented in numerous countries (including Finland) for many years and there is strong evidence of the functionality and efficacy of these methods. Needless to say that models and methods from other countries and contexts are not applicable in Saudi Arabia as such, but need to be adapted and applied in collaboration with local education officials, teachers and external experts.
* Kohonen, Viljo. "Experiential Language Learning: Second Language Learning As Cooperative Learner Education*". Anthology First Training Workshop on the 2006 Programmes of Study (2006): 57. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Chapter 3. Key research findings
3.1 Cognitive benefits
1. Andrade, C., et al. (1989). Two languages for all children:
Expanding to low achievers and the handicapped. In K. E. Muller (Ed.), "Languages in elementary schools" (pp. 177-203). New York: The American Forum. (*"Describes student performance in the Cincinnati Foreign Language Magnet Program. These children score well above anticipated national norms in both reading and mathematics and higher than the average of all magnet school participants, despite the fact that they represent a broad cross-section of the Cincinnati community.")
2. Bialystok, E. & Hakuta, K. “Confounded age; linguistic and cognitive factors in age differences for second language acquisition.” Second-language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum, 1999. pp.1-22.
3. Carpenter, John A. and Judith V. Torney. (1974) Beyond the Melting Pot. In Childhood and Intercultural Education: Overview and Research, edited by Patricia Maloney Markun. (pp.14-24) Washington DC: Association for Childhood Education International.
4. Curtain, Helena and Carol Ann Dahlberg. (2004) Languages and Children: Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grades K-8. Third Edition. New York: Longman.
5. Garfinkel, A. & Tabor, K.E. (1991) Elementary School Foreign Languages and English Reading Achievement: A New View of the Relationship. Foreign Language Annals, 24, No.5, 375 - 382.
6. Hakuta, Kenjii. (1986) Cognitive Development of Bilingual Children. Los Angeles: University of California Center for Language Education and Research. ERIC Digest EDRS ED 278 260.
7. Holobow, Naomi, Fred Genesee, Wallace E. Lambert, and Louis Chartrand. (1988) The Effectiveness of a Partial Immersion French Program for Students from Different Ethnic and Social Class Backgrounds. Montreal: McGill University, Department of Psychology.
8. Johnstone, Richard. “Addressing ‘The Age Factor’: Some Implications for Language Policy.” Guide for the development of Language Education Policies in Europe From Linguistic Diversity to Plurilingual Education: Reference Study, Stirling:University of Stirling. 2002.
9. Landry, Richard G. (1973) The Enhancement of Figural Creativity through Second Language Learning at the Elementary School Level. Foreign Language Annals 7, no.1 (October):111-115.
10. Lopata, E.W. (1963). "FLES and academic achievement." French Review, 36: 499-507.
11. Masciantonio, R. (1977) Tangible Benefits of the Study of Latin: A Review of Research. Foreign Language Annals, 10, 375-382.
12. Saunders, C.M. (1998). The Effect of the Study of a Foreign Language in the Elementary School on Scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and an Analysis of Student-participant Attitudes and Abilities. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Georgia.
13. Stewart, Janice Hostler. “Foreign Language Study in Elementary Schools: Benefits and Implications for Achievement in Reading and Math.” Early Childhood Education. Journal, Vol. 33:1. Dordrecht, New York, Cambridge: Springer, Inc., 2005.
14. Vos, Jeannette. Can Preschool Children Be Taught A Second Language?. 1st ed. Early Childhood News, Excelligence Learning Corporation, 2008. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
3.2 The benefits of an early start
1. Bialystok, Ellen. Second-Language Acquisition And Bilingualism At An Early
Age And The Impact On Early Cognitive Development. 1st ed. York, Canada: York University, 2008. Web. 8 Jan. 2016.
2. Pynnönen, Johanna. Finnish Preschool Children’S Experiences Of An English Language Shower. 1st ed. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä Department of Languages, 2016. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
3. Wikipedia: "Critical Period Hypothesis". Web. 15 Jan. 2016.
Chapter 4. Methods
1. Wikipedia: "CLIL". N.p., 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.
2. Wolff, Dieter. "Integrating Language And Content In The Language Classroom: Are Transfer Of Knowledge And Of Language Ensured?". Pratiques et recherches en Centres de langues 41 (2003): p. 35-46. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.
4.2 Language shower and language bath
1. Pynnönen, Johanna. "Finnish Preschool Children’S Experiences Of An
English Language Shower". Masters thesis. Jyväskylä University, 2013. Print.
For more information on Finnish research go to:
4.3 Collaborative learning
1. Kohonen, Viljo. "Experiential Language Learning: Second Language Learning
As Cooperative Learner Education". Foreign Language English Anthology (2006): n. pag. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
5. Other related issues
1. Swan, Michael, and Bernard Smith. Learner English. A Teacher’S Guide To Interference And Other Problems’. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
About the writer
Sirkku Nikamaa-Linder is a teaching and learning consultant, teacher trainer and EFL teacher with international teacher training and consulting experience from South Korea, Germany, Kosovo and Tunisia. She has designed and delivered comprehensive workshops and training in active pedagogies and student-centric methods for education officials, teacher trainers and teachers within large scale international projects.