Tuesday, December 30

To Learn or Not to Learn (a Second Language)

Recently when I announced my intent to have my kids learn a second language (French, since it’s the only language I know myself, beside American Sign Language), Joe expressed 1) concern about it conflicting with Kaizen’s recent study of Latin and 2) the usefulness of language learning compared with all of the other ways our kids might spend their time. He referred to some research, which supports the theory that there is no marked benefit to learning language as a child. My first reaction was complete disbelief and denial. So I figured I’d better look into it more deeply.

So, as far I can grok it, the seeming “opposing” theory goes something like this: Whatever benefit a young child receives from early language acquisition is at least, if not more than, made up for by an older persons more mature learning strategies and other skills.

Here are some nuggets from my preliminary research, exploring the current thinking on SLA (Second Language Acquisition). It is far from conclusive and not specifically organized, but in my opinion cursory exploration suggests to me that, while there are certainly contradictory opinions, there is good reason to utilize Pascal’s wager and bet that we have little to lose by embarking on French and potentially lots to gain. In the case, of Soleil I would extend that to say that we have 4-6 years of prime language learning to lose.

As far as I can tell, based on my looking for support for deciding not to teach a second language, here’s the closest point I could find:

University of Maryland, College Park instructor Robert DeKeyser (mentioned above) does in fact note that adults learn language differently from the way children do, and states that they are capable of learning it fluently. His primary point seems to be that for a person to learn a second language after the “critical period” s/he will have to employ different strategies.

However, nowhere could I find any research denying the fact that that there is period after which learning a second language is more difficult.

“Robert DeKeyser works with critical period theory to understand how cognitive development affects SLA. While people often assume that there is a “tipping point” in early childhood after which learning a second language is a real struggle, language-learning cognition is more complicated. After a “critical period,” typically near adolescence, the brain functions differently while acquiring a new language. Before this critical period, the brain learns a second language much like it learns the first language; after this critical period, the brain works differently. […] DeKeyser’s work considers learner aptitude in adult language learners. He has shown that, contrary to popular and some scholarly opinions, adults can obtain syntactic fluency in a second language. The process is just different from natural language acquisition, so instruction should be different too."


Linguist Eric Lennegerg’s 1964 theory of Critical Period Hypothesis, which believes that a critical period of language acquisition ends around the age of 12, has been called into question. Lennegerg and Chomsky are proponents of the Nativist Theory of Language development, which supports the idea that children have a hard-wired “Language Acquisition Device”. Robert DeKeyser, and others, have tried to update the hypothesis by arguing that due to the role of language aptitude, adults can learn a second language perfectly at least syntactically, despite this critical period (see below).

“A more up-to-date view of the Critical Period Hypothesis is represented by the University of Maryland, College Park instructor Robert DeKeyser. DeKeyser argues that although it is true that there is a critical period, this does not mean that adults cannot learn a second language perfectly, at least on the syntactic level. DeKeyser talks about the role of language aptitude as opposed to the critical period.”



Here is an url to an interview with Professor Laura-Ann Petitto, a cognitive neuroscientist teaching at Dartmouth College, where she also serves as Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory for Language & Child Development in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, and as a Professor in the Department of Education:


My primary take-aways are:

1) Exposure to multiple languages (at least in very young children) does NOT result in language acquisition delays or confusion.

"Through a series of studies over a period of ten years, we mapped out the milestones for young children acquiring two languages -- and were quite surprised to find that they are not delayed at all. In fact, a child who's exposed early in life to two languages achieves each and every milestone on the same timetable as the other language -- and also on the same overall timetable as a monolingual child."

2) Early language exposure (as late as aged nine, at least has a positive impact on multi-language mastery.

“In accordance with brain development and neuroplasticity, children who were exposed to two languages early in life do extremely well in reaching full language mastery in two languages. […] Even when children were relatively late exposed to the second language, [as late as nine years old] they were highly likely to become fully bilingual - whether it was home or community exposure.”

Note: One caveat on the above seems to be that the exposure must be systematic and very rich.

3) There are benefits to early dual language learning, including cognitive advancement.

"[There is value in…] dual language exposure. We're finding that young children who have rich and early exposure to two languages are remarkably -- and this is quite an exciting finding - cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers on certain highly sophisticated cognitive tasks to do with attention and abstract reasoning. And we think it's because they are switching languages and have access to multiple meanings, have part of their brain massaged like a muscle. Then there's the spillover of that amazing honing of their linguistic abilities, making them more cognitively advanced. […] So we're finding even how the brain neurally organizes the brain for language is impacted based on the age the child is exposed, and earlier is better. When I speak today, I wonder how many people in the room were exposed to another language in high school, and what percentage of them can raise their hands and tell me that they're totally fluent in that language? The reason we're not going to have a lot of people raise their hand is because their brain reached certain periods of maturational development after which they were not going to learn it with the agility and openness that they would have as a child. It's not just a social/attitudinal thing. It's really how the brain's wired. When you learn languages later, after these distinct periods of brain growth, then you're learning it in a different way."


Below are some quotes taken from a paper exploring the Optimal Starting Age for a Second Language (in this case, ESL taught to Hong Kong school children).

I consider this paper to be reasonably unbiased and note that it presents the complexity of current viewpoints. One can probably find some support for the viewpoint that language acquisition is not markedly hindered by age, in this article, but here are the points of interest and note, for me:

1) There are certainly many researchers who believe language acquisition facility declines with age.

“It is popular belief that young children have a special aptitude for learning foreign languages and that this aptitude declines with age. Chomsky (1959, dp. 49) spoke of the gift of the young learner: " It is a common observation that a young child of immigrant parents may learn a second language in the streets, from other children, with amazing rapidity . . . while the subtleties that become second nature to the child may elude his parents despite high motivation and continued practice."

2) L2 language learning does not hinder L1 language learning (academic orientation); In fact, language learning in one language actually benefits both languages and in particular, language acquisition skills.

"[…Spending time learning in one language does not slow down the development of language proficiency in another language, at least not that aspect of proficiency which is related to success in school . Or to put it another way, spending time learning in one language benefits both languages equally with respect to developing those language related skills essential to academic success. Furthermore, some writers have noted the positive role that LI experience plays in L2 learning, particularly in relation to the learner's overall ability to approach language learning. As Singleton puts it, "the beginning second language learner is more mature than the beginning first language learner not only physically, mentally and emotionally, but also linguistically.”

3) There are some (unspecified, here) advantages to learning a second language early (according to this article “early” is before age 9).

“Having extensively reviewed the studies concerned with age-related differences in second language acquisition, Singleton concludes that "the best one can say on this score is that, given the right learning conditions, learners exposed to early second language instruction probably have some advantage in the very long run over those whose exposure begins later" (Singleton 1989, p. 267)

4) There is no proven advantage to learning later than age nine, nor are there proven disadvantages to learning early.

"Research in SLA has not confirmed a phenomenal advantage for the older learner. Studies on early bilingualism and early immersion have not shown any negative effects (e.g . on Ll development) either."

Key Sources:

Chomsky, N . (1959). Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behaviour.
Language, 35, 26-58.

Singleton, D. (1989). Language acquisition: The age factor.
Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.


Here is the link to a summary of the book, An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research (1991), the intent of which is to introduce readers to second language acquisition (SLA) research.


Of note:

"Chapter 6 addresses individual learner variables and differential L2 achievement. The issue of age and SLA is extensively treated, and the conclusions uphold the sensitive age hypothesis, supporting the idea that "younger is better" for optimal L2 study and acquisition."


  1. I have long had great interest in this topic.Thanks for posting this fascinating summary of the research on second language acquisition.

  2. This is also an area that I have long been interested in.

    Based on everything I read, we decided to raise our child as a bilingual from birth which was no easy feat since neither parent was a real bilingual and both were dominant English speakers.

    None the less, it has worked wonderfully and effortlessly.

    I think Karl Bundy has some of the best resources on this, so thought I would post this in case you have not seen it. Many of these books were very helpful to us. He has a lot of experience in learning language as an adult and also raising bilingual children.


  3. Each of my older children has been engaged in learning multiple languages; it's a family hobby of sorts, and one that they truly enjoy. So far, I haven't seen any negative effects, except perhaps the fact that it takes them a little longer than a true "immersion" method might to pick up grammar vs. vocabulary.

  4. As someone who studied foreign languages as a kid and as an adult, I say it's way easier as a child!! I honestly think it's the greatest gift you can give your child.

    As an adult it seems like we have one highway in the brain called "language," and it doesn't move around easily...

    I love that you're blogging, Lisa. :)


  5. My follow-up, almost two-years later...

    When reading my this follow it's important to take into consideration that I am not a very rigorous hs'ing parent, teacher (or person, for that matter) so my kid's SL2 acquisition is slow.

    We are currently traveling in France and I am, by far, the one getting the most benefit from being here! I have much more french than anyone in the family, so I'm the one constantly practicing. Still, I'm happy that my kids are getting it into their brains, hearing French daily and I'm consoling myself with the thought that if my French is improved it will be easier to continue to support their learning when we go home.

    I'm finding a lot of first-hand support for Robert DeKeyser's position that "...after a 'critical period', typically near adolescence, the brain functions differently while acquiring a new language. Before this critical period, the brain learns a second language much like it learns the first language; after this critical period, the brain works differently."

    My 5 year old has a much better accent that does my 11 year old, but he has a much better vocabulary, largely as a result of years of voracious reading and a large English vocabulary. She is learning more like a child would, through hearing and speaking, while he needs to see it on the page in order to parse individual words, understand the grammar and "translate" between languages. In some ways, he is learning faster but he is far more self-conscious about speaking and will probably never have as nice an accent.

    I wrote a brief post on my Travel Schooling blog which reiterates some of this and provides some other learning resources at:

    My current approach assumes that any, and every way one can work on language is beneficial. In general, the more multi-faceted the approach, and the more consistency, the better. SLA is definitely a commitment, which takes away from time spent on other things, but I think it's a very worthwhile pursuit.