English has always been one of the most spoken languages in the world. More than 40 countries worldwide have half of their population speaking the language of Shakespeare.
Nowadays, learning English as a second language has almost become mandatory in order to travel and work.
It is commonly thought that the earlier you start to learn a foreign language the better you are at speaking it. This is what Dr Nils Jäkel and Prof. Dr Markus Ritter at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany tried to demonstrate. “Starting foreign-language lessons at an early age is often very much commended, even though hardly any research exists that would support this myth,” says Nils Jäkel. Both researchers conducted a study between 2010 and 2014 including 5,130 students from 31 secondary schools in Germany. They compared two groups of students: those who started to learn English in first grade and those who started in third grade. By the seventh grade, it was observed that third grade students were better.
A surprising result.
For Tom Doyle, English Teaching for Young Learners (ETYL) Trainer “those results are surprising but learning a new language is intense and it takes time to reach fluency. Studying earlier is better but limited by the restricted learning capacity in early age. The brain is better able to learn when you grow up”.
According to Peter Roger, Head of the Applied Linguistics Department at Macquarie University, these results can be explained based on the type of learning process followed. Learning in a classroom environment does not give that many advantages to learn languages. “Classrooms limit the exposure to the language, it is still a good idea to start early but if you want to achieve proficiency you need to be in an English environment at this age”. This opinion is shared by both researchers who also estimated that in secondary schools, 90 minutes’ lessons are not sufficient to achieve sustainable effects.
The teaching method needs to change for Annabel Mangin, English lecturer at the University of Lorraine in France. “We are aware that something needs to change in France. It is too formal and theoretical. It should be like learning the mother tongue and being in a natural environment. More autonomy should be given to the kids. Let’s let them speak and debate!”.
Unlike French or Spanish kids, Northern European children can benefit from an environment directly embedded in the English language. “Smaller populations are under more pressure in terms of languages to communicate with the other countries. Their languages are not spoken worldwide” said Peter Roger. In the Nordic countries, inhabitants are constantly exposed to English (e.g: from a young age, they get to watch television in English). This natural exposure makes them better English speakers compared to the rest of Europe.
Learning English as a second language in an early childhood may not give the expected outcomes but it is still a great advantage for kids. It helps them to be more open-minded, to experience another culture and to gain self-confidence.