Age no factor for proficiency in foreign language

Age no factor for proficiency in foreign language

A Swiss linguist has debunked the myth that the earlier you start learning a foreign language systematically, the better the language level will be in the long run.

Linguist Simone Pfenninger from University of Zurich found that anyone who reads and writes German well is likely to carry over this advantage to English utterly regardless of the age when they start learning the foreign language.

The results from a five-year long study showed students who are given early exposure to English do not maintain a clear advantage for more than a relatively short period over students who begin to learn the language only at secondary level.

In fact, early foreign language learning can even have a negative impact on the first language in the short run.

In order to test their skills in German and English, the literacy skills of 200 randomly selected high-school children in the Canton of Zurich were tested at the beginning and towards the end of their obligatory schooling in the senior grades.

One group had begun English lessons in primary school at the age of eight while the second group had only started English in high school at the age of 13.

The results showed that foreign language lessons at an early age did not have a beneficial impact either in the long or short term.

"Already after six months, learners who had started five years later had caught up with the early learners and sometimes even surpassed them in terms of accuracy, fluency, grammatical judgment and content-related and structural aspects of written expression," Pfenninger noted.

By the second assessment, shortly before the final high-school exams, there were no longer any difference between early and late starters, Pfenninger added.

The results shown that as far as success is concerned, it does not relate for the most part to age of onset or length of the exposure to the foreign language.

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