Communication and Culture: The Benefits of Beginning Foreign Language Study Early

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Communication and Culture: The Benefits of Beginning Foreign Language Study Early

As global awareness increases, American interest in the

study of languages other than English increases apace. Unlike early

programs which did not teach “languages…primarily to learn oral/aural

communication, but to learn for the sake of being ‘scholarly’ or, in some

instances, for gaining a reading proficiency in the foreign language”

(Brown 18), the twentieth century began to focus on communicative

goals, and a variety of new theories and methods for teaching were

put forth. A common goal has emerged, and modern programs push

students towards fluency. Therefore, more research is being conducted

into the best possible ways to create competent communicators. The

Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics defines

communicative competence as “the ability not only to apply the

grammatical rules of a language in order to form grammatically correct

sentences but also to know when and where to use these sentences and

to whom” (Richards, Platt, and Platt 65). As scholars search for the

best ways to achieve communicative competence, they emphasize the

importance of beginning language study early.

The critical period hypothesis first put forth by Lenneberg

in the late 1960’s holds “that there is a limited developmental period

during which it is possible to acquire a language…to normal, nativelike

levels” (Birdsong, 1). At the most generous estimate, this critical period

is thought to extend from the age of 2 only until puberty, and some

estimates posit a much narrower window (for more information on the

possible causes of the critical period, see Birdsong, 7-9). According to

Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, although “adults and older children in

general initially acquire the second language faster than young children

(oldest-is-better for rate of acquisition), …child second language

acquirers will usually be superior in terms of ultimate attainment

(younger-is-better in the long run)” (574). This eventual attainment

includes superior pronunciation skills (Fledge 101) when compared with

learners who began their study later in life.

Although “starting age determines the levels of

[communicative] accuracy achieved, particularly in pronunciation” (Ellis

qtd. in Nunan 41), beginning young has an additional advantage. The

young learner has many years of schooling left in which to explore this

new language, and “the number of years’ exposure contributes greatly to

the overall communicative fluency of the learners” (Ellis qtd. in Nunan

41). Although the pace of the young learner may be slower than that

of the older learner, “when language learning begins earlier, it can go

on longer and provide more practice and experience, leading ultimately

to greater fluency and effectiveness” (Curtain and Pesola, Languages and

Children 3) than is generally achieved when study begins after puberty.

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