Age and Language: Final Thoughts

Essayist Responds


To the Editor:

I am writing in response to several letters inspired by my recent Commentary ("Is There a 'Child Advantage' in Learning Foreign Languages?," Feb. 9, 2000). The focus of the letters on learning in young children underscores the importance of drawing attention to the literature confirming that older learners also have the capacity to acquire a second language. This was clearly the emphasis of my article, which was originally titled "Foreign-Language Learning: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore."

In his letter, Kent Jones ("In Language Learning, Earlier Is Better," Letters, Feb. 23, 2000) does not address the topic of linguistic ability and age, but does broach the fascinating subject of "language in the mind" and how language may influence our perception of the world. John Lucy has recently done some extensive research on this issue, often referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and his work suggests that learning other languages may have the benefit of broadening one's perspectives (see Grammatical Categories and Cognition, 1992, as well as Language Diversity and Thought, 1992).

As for Gladys Lipton's letter ("Foreign Languages: The Scales Tip in Favor of Starting Early," Letters, March 1, 2000), the aggressiveness of her response is made all the more puzzling by her focus on issues completely irrelevant to my argument. As Ms. Lipton is well aware, the study she cites by Eileen Rafferty (1986) concludes by stating: "This finding supports the notion that, beginning as early as the 3rd grade, second-language study facilitates the acquisition of minimum skills in the native [my emphasis] tongue." These results are very encouraging, but they in no way concern linguistic ability in the foreign language. Similarly, Ms. Lipton refers to children's acquiring "greater openness to other cultures." This is a key advantage to foreign-language study at any age, but is certainly a poor example of "solid" evidence in favor of a biological child advantage in acquiring linguistic skills.

Concerning the focus of my Commentary, there are indeed, as Ms. Lipton writes, a number of researchers who have concluded that a child's brain is somehow more receptive to learning the linguistic elements of a foreign language. In "Three Misconceptions About Second Language Learning" by Stefka Marinova-Todd, Catherine Snow, and me, on which my piece was based, we provide one of the most comprehensive reviews to date of studies both for and against a biological critical period for foreign-language acquisition (TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring 2000). This article demonstrates how conclusions in support of a biologically based "child advantage" are not always in keeping with evidence provided in the studies.

For example, in his March 1 letter, Jorge Amselle mentions work by Norman Relkin for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cornell University Medical College. Interestingly, in my Commentary, I cite such a study under the primary author, Karl Kim. As I wrote, and as is explained in greater detail in our TESOL Quarterly article, Mr. Kim, Mr. Relkin, and their colleagues show clear brain differences, but do not link them to language proficiency. Similarly, Harold Chugani's interesting work, which I also refer to in my Commentary and which Ms. Lipton mentions, does not link age differences in glucose metabolization to better language skills. In other words, these impressive biological differences have not been shown to be linguistic advantages.

Patricia Kuhl, also cited by Mr. Amselle, has done extensive work on infant auditory perception revealing that language exposure does indeed have a positive effect on sound discrimination, but this occurs during the first year of life and thus seems remotely related to academic language instruction. There is, of course, a correlation between age and good pronunciation of a second language. Yet, as our TESOL article demonstrates, there is no convincing evidence, not even in the studies by Stephen Krashen and Michael Long to which Ms. Lipton refers, that any biologically limited period such as puberty is the crucial cutoff point for acquiring a good accent.

As Mr. Amselle points out, I wrote that adults face far more obstacles (environmental, psychological, and others) than do children when learning another language. This is why many more adults than children have problems with second languages. These problems, however, are not due to some biological "critical period" which condemns older learners to certain failure. Research shows that children, in general, have an important learning advantage, but not, as Mr. Amselle writes, a "natural language advantage." Adults who master foreign languages, as well as children who do not, do indeed disprove the rule that age alone determines linguistic success.

Rather than be interpreted as biased criticism of early foreign-language exposure, this should be seen as encouraging both for young children and for the majority of learners who start acquiring a second language later in life. There are many reasons to start learning foreign languages at an early age. Yet is it misleading to suggest that the cause is lost if one does not, or that later learners are at a biological disadvantage. We should thus be optimistic that proficiency in a new language is a reachable goalónot just for young children, but for everyone.

Brad Marshall

Acting Course Head and Teaching Fellow in French

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.




Age and Language: Final Thoughts

'Cited Inaccurately'


To the Editor:

It is a rare privilege to be cited inaccurately in two letters to the editor on two different topics in the same issue of Education Week (Letters, March 1, 2000).

Jorge Amselle claims that I think literacy skills transfer equally easily from first to second languages, regardless of the differences between the two. Not so. When the alphabets are similar, transfer will be greater. Correlations between reading in the first language and second language are, for example, higher for Spanish and English than for Chinese and English; Tregar and Wang found that for 4th graders, the correlation between English and Spanish reading was spectacular, r = .95; for Chinese and English reading, it was lower, r = .4, but still present ("The relationship between native and second-language reading comprehension and second-language oral ability," in C. Rivera, ed., Communicative Competence Approaches to Language Proficiency: Education and Policy Issues, 1984).

What is interesting, however, is that there is still a robust transfer effect even when the writing systems are very different: Children who are literate in their native language have a much easier time developing literacy in a second language compared to children without literacy in the first language, regardless of the alphabets used. This conclusion is supported by psycholinguistic research showing that the processes of reading and learning to read are very similar in languages with different orthographies (Krashen, Under Attack: The Case Against Bilingual Education, 1996).

In her letter, Gladys Lipton cites our edited collection (Krashen, Scarcella, and Long, Child-Adult Differences in Second Language Acquisition, 1982), which, as she points out, contains papers indicating that those who begin second-language acquisition as children tend to develop better accents than those who begin as adults. But it also contains papers showing that in beginning stages of second-language acquisition, older is faster than younger: Older children progress more quickly than younger children, adults more quickly than children.

Because of the tremendous practical importance of English in the United States, the finding that older children acquire more quickly than younger children in beginning stages does not mean that English should be delayed in the case of children acquiring English as a second language. This is an argument for bilingual education, not against it: Well-designed bilingual programs provide more rapid development of English than all-English alternatives. This is supported by the results of several meta-analyses (for example, Willig, Review of Educational Research, 1985; Greene, Bilingual Research Journal, 1999).

In the case of foreign-language acquisition, Ms. Lipton, in my view, makes a very important point: If it is the case that those who start younger have more openness and better attitudes, this may be more important than any differences in rate. In my view, our goal in foreign-language education is to help students reach the intermediate level and give them the tools they need so they can continue to improve on their own. Does it really matter how quickly they make it to this level as long as they do so? If those who start younger have better attitudes, perhaps they will be more likely to continue their efforts in second- language acquisition.

Stephen Krashen

Rossier School of Education

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, Calif.



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