An Early Start in English as a Foreign Language Doesn’t Help

To make them easier to find, several items originally included in the now-defunct ‘This Week in Language Education’ series are being reposted over the next few weeks.

Jeaekel and his colleagues (2017, paywall) followed two large cohorts of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students in German schools for a period of seven years. One “Early Starter” group (N=3,340) got EFL instruction beginning at age 6-7 (Year 1), while the “Later Starter” group (N=2,632) didn’t begin receiving instruction until two years later (Year 3). Both groups were tested in English again at Year 5 and Year 7.

The Early Starter group got a total of 549 hours of instruction by the time they reached Year 7, compared to only 444 hours for the Later Starters. In Year 5, the Early Starters were clearly better in English than the Late Starters, but by Year 7, the situation had reversed: Late Starters did significantly better than Early Starters, although the effect was smaller for listening (d = .17) than reading (d = .35) (Table 2, p. 16). The researchers concluded that starting English early was actually worse for students.

This is not a new finding (see Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979). Older children (and adults) acquire languages faster than younger children, contrary to all of the misinformation found in the popular media.

The researchers also looked at the effect of sex, parental income, nonverbal IQ, and the number of books in the home on the students’ English scores. Interestingly, controlling for other factors, books in the home was a positive predictor of English scores.

This make sense: children who read more in their L1 have more background knowledge to help make the L2 instruction more comprehensible, and more developed L1 literacy skills to transfer to the new language – in other words, they get the benefits of bilingual education.

Jaekel, N., Schurig, M., Florian, M., & Ritter, M. (2017 (online)). From Early Starters to Late Finishers? A Longitudinal Study of Early Foreign Language Learning in School. Language Learning.

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