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  Optimum age or optimum conditions? Issues related to the teaching of languages to primary age children


The purpose of this article is to give a brief survey of some of the key issues with regard to the teaching of foreign languages to younger children and to provide a further reading list for those who wish to look in more depth at particular aspects of this complex subject.

The need to be clear about aims and means

A study of documents produced by educational planners worldwide with regard to the benefits of introducing a foreign language (in particular English) to primary school aged children reveals considerable consensus, but the list is long and not all aspects will be highlighted in each country. The list can be divided into two main categories:

  • benefits that are connected with the position and importance of the language in a country
  • benefits that derive from the nature and needs of children

The importance of English to a country

With regard to English, a major consideration is whether the language already has an official or widespread use within a country that gives it the status of a Second Language, or whether its position is that of a Foreign Language. Statements from the educational authorities such as 'In this country, English is necessary for access to secondary education or vocational training' have the clear implication that, in order to provide equal opportunity to all citizens, English needs to be effectively taught at primary level. On the other hand, in other countries more global statements such as 'English is one of the most used languages in the world' or 'English is important to this country for international contacts' perhaps need further examination with regard to whether it is therefore necessary to introduce English at a young age rather than later on. Beginning young might add symbolic weight to the perceived national importance of the language, but in the world of tight budgets and value for money analysis, it is well to work on the basis of evidence that beginning young can be more effective for meeting these long term needs.

The importance to the child of learning a language

The second category of considerations centres on how learning a language at a young age can benefit the individual child. This learning is often stated to be beneficial for:

  • breaking down cultural barriers or at least enlarging cultural horizons
  • helping the child's cognitive development
  • contributing to the child's general language awareness, not least through the comparison of the first language with the new language
  • forming positive and confident attitudes to the learning of other languages in later life
  • last but not least, leading to higher achievement in the language in secondary school and in adult life.

These are all benefits that can be supported by successful examples from different countries, but it is important to remember that success depends on the way in which an early language learning programme is implemented, on the conditions and the methods, and not on the age factor alone. For each of the potential benefits listed above, examples can be found where there has been no evidence of actual benefit, or even negative results. The section below on looking at past instructional projects raises some issues relevant to this area.

Is younger better?

It is often the case that, when the decision whether to teach a foreign language in national primary schools is debated publicly, administrators, politicians, parents and some educators start from the premise that age has more weight than other factors. 'Younger is better' in short.

This claim needs to be examined critically from a number of points of view.

The psycholinguistic evidence

Evidence drawn from studies of the physical development of the child's brain and of the development of thinking processes in the maturing child was once felt to be more clear cut in favour of early language learning than it is today considered to be. What can be said in a brief article such as this is that while general receptivity in younger children, and sensitivity to some areas of the language system (especially pronunciation), are not widely disputed, there is evidence from studies of older learners that the different, more cognitively-based strategies that they are able to bring to bear can often result in more effective learning, class hour for class hour, if retention of linguistic items is what is valued. This is not so much bad news for proponents of an early start, as good news for educational planners and learners themselves in many situations. An early start may have its own benefits, but a later start is not necessarily a barrier to success.

The need to compare like with like

Often conclusions are drawn from one type of learning situation and applied to a very different one. In the present case, much of the confidence in the capacities of younger children to learn better comes not from studies of how they fare in an instructional school system, but from studies of children placed at an early age in a new society with a new language around them, and acquiring the language by meeting daily needs and challenges. Many aspects of the conditions are crucially different as shown below.

  Acquisition School learning
The sheer quantity of exposure to the target language High Low. In many situations only a few hours a week.
The amount of communicative need for the target language to be mastered High, if personal needs and interests are to be met Not a genuine need, although interest can be engendered by suitable activities
The variety and types of language model available Many and varied, according to the daily life situations the learner meets Probably limited, to the teacher(s) and models provided by teaching materials
The opportunities and pressures to interact with other people Ever-present, if personal needs and interests are to be met Opportunities for interaction need to be created in class. They are not 'built in' to the situation

This list of differences should not only be seen in a negative light. If attention is paid to helping language classrooms approach the naturalistic situation more closely, the capacities for rapid and effective acquisition that are attributed to children by many authorities stand a better chance of being activated (Krashen, 1981). This has implications for types of classroom activity, and teachers' style. In other words, what the children are doing in class needs to be considered as carefully as the age at which they are doing it. However, few instructional situations are able to provide anything approaching the sheer quantity and variety of exposure to the new language that is characteristic of natural acquisition situations. The results of the present EYL survey show how modest is the time available for English in the busy school curricula in many countries. Parental and official expectations of achievement need to be realistic in this regard. More research is needed into the most effective distribution of the time available in an instructional situation, but with young learners promising results are often reported with 'little and often' exposure and particularly when the language is more 'embedded' in the school work and daily routines rather than being taught only as an isolated subject (Johnstone, 1994). Decision making with regard to this 'dosage' aspect often has to be made with regard to the current possibilities of a particular teaching situation, but the choices with regard to the recruitment and training of future YL will be crucial. The decision to deploy the children's class/'home room' teacher for EYL will have implications for one sort of 'dosage', while the use of specialist 'English only' teachers will imply another.

Looking at past instructional projects

The most often cited large scale evaluation of an early language learning project in an instructional situation is that of Burstall et al (1974). This was carried out over a 10 year period in relation to an experimental project to teach French from the age of 8 in the state primary schools of England and Wales. The lessons to be learned from this experience and the way in which it was evaluated are very cogently summarised by Khan (1991).

Two sorts of lesson emerge.

1. Details of implementation matter

Results can vary greatly often in relation to a factor that takes years of training and considerable investment of government funds to bring to an optimum condition: the quality of the teacher's own command of the foreign language. This affects both the model of language that can be provided and the type of methodology adopted. It can easily be seen that a teacher who lacks confidence and fluency in the language is unlikely to be able to set up the occasions for genuine interaction. These factors are crucial for the YL. Firstly, it is widely accepted that one area in which YL are superior learners is in their ability to imitate a pronunciation model. There is a strong case, therefore, for ensuring that the models available are acceptable ones. Secondly, without adequate opportunities to engage in genuine interaction with other users of the foreign language, another agreed capacity of YL will go to waste.

One of the most important factors with regard to long term success in the language is the way in which transition from the primary to the secondary school is handled. Without careful liaison between the two levels, and planned use of the children's achievements at primary school, there is every danger that the language will be re-started 'from zero' in the new school, with consequent loss of pace and progress and usually of motivation on the part of the pupils. This is a phenomenon that is well known and often discussed, but which seems to be occurring frequently in many countries in the twenty-first century although it was pointed out in the Burstall report in 1974. The EYL survey has not addressed this area yet, but when more EYL projects worldwide have reached maturity, this aspect should be added. One modern project which took deliberate steps to obviate this danger, by building in co-operation between primary and secondary schools, is the introduction of modern languages in Scottish primary schools (Low et al, 1993).

2. Evaluation should not stop at summative results

A view of evaluation that focuses on the outcomes of a project without due investigation of its processes is unhelpful. One conclusion of the Burstall report was that on the basis of language and attitude tests of 'early starters' when they reached the age of 16, there was very little significant advantage to be seen over pupils who had not started learning French at 8, but at 11. It was this that encouraged the administrative decision to drop the project. The Burstall report has often been criticised, but on the basis of the uses to which the information revealed was put by administrators rather than on a questioning of the results themselves. In fact the sets of reports produced over the life of the French from 8 project clearly described problems deriving from implementation factors such as those covered above, but the administrative decision that was taken was to cancel the project rather than to attempt to alter the conditions in which it took place.

A related lesson is that, just as there is often public pressure that results in the introduction of YL teaching after a not very lengthy period of planning and consultation, so the converse can apply. Public and official disappointment if the hoped for results are not obtained within a short time can lead to calls for change at a point which educational researchers might consider to be premature. It is notable from the survey that the countries from which the most positive reports come tend to be those where YL teaching has been established for a considerable number of years and in which investment in teacher preparation has been considerable and long-standing. It can also be seen that in other countries, dissatisfaction with results is becoming apparent after a perhaps unrealistically short time.

The message that is emerging from research and from the survey itself is that introducing primary age children to a new language in school is costly in terms of funding, planning time, curriculum time and often in terms of upheaval to teachers' careers and training programmes. It can have enormous value if the different types of educational and cultural value that it can have are considered along with the purely linguistic gains. Putting too much faith in the age factor alone to bring spectacular linguistic results should be avoided since this can allow imprecision to creep in with regard to the provision of the other conditions that contribute to allowing Young Learners to make the very best use of their capacities. Finally, in the light of research into the ways in which adolescent and adult learners can have their own kinds of success, it should be possible for educationists in countries where EYL is not yet established to feel less under pressure to act in the short term, but to allow time for research, planning and the preparation of resources to consolidate the chances of future success in EYL.


Burstall, C, et al (1974) Primary French in the Balance, Windsor, NFER

Johnstone, R, (1994) Teaching Modern Languages at Primary School: approaches and implications, Edinburgh, Scottish Council for Research in Education

Khan, J, (1991) Lessons worth Remembering – from Primary French in Britain, in Ideas and Issues in Primary ELT, Walton on Thames, Nelson

Krashen, S, (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Oxford, Pergamon Press

Low, L, et al (1993) Evaluating Foreign Languages in Primary Schools, Stirling, Scottish CILT

Further Reading

Blondin, C, Candelier, M, Edelenbos, P, Johnstone, R, Kubanek-German, A, Taeschner, T, 1998, Foreign Languages in Primary and Pre-School Education: a review of recent research within the European Union, London, CILT

Moon, J, 2000, Children Learning English, Oxford, Macmillan Heinemann

Rixon, S, 1992, State of the art article: English and other languages for younger children: practice and theory in a rapidly changing world, Language Teaching 25/2 pp 73 - 93

Satchwell, P and de Silva, J, 1995, Young Pathfinder, A CILT series for primary language teachers, 1, Catching them Young, London, CILT

Singleton, D (1989) Language acquisition: the age factor, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters


Shelagh Rixon, Centre for English Language Teacher Education, University of Warwick, UK

  Produced in United Kingdom by The British Council 2000. The British Council is the United Kingdom's international organisation for educational and cultural relations. Registered in England as a Charity.