Middle school or high school: When is best time to begin study of foreign language?

Middle school or high school: When is best time to begin study of foreign language?Many students could become more fluent and confident speakers of a new language if they started learning it in middle school rather than high school, according to a new study in Foreign Language Annals.

Students who begin learning a foreign language in middle school have greater oral proficiency and motivation than students with similar levels of language experience who start learning it in high school, researchers found.

“While many foreign language teachers, researchers and stakeholders have long believed this to be true, the data reported here provide empirical evidence to support the claim,” the researchers write.

For the study, a total of 117 middle school and high school students completed the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Assessment of Performance Toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL), a widely used measure of oral proficiency. The students also completed an online survey that measures student motivation to pursue foreign language study.

Seventy-one participants (61%) had completed Level 1 instruction in a language in middle school and 39% or 46 students had completed it in high school.  All students were enrolled in Level II language instruction at one school in the southeastern US.  Students who began the study of the language in middle school scored higher on both measures than students with similar levels of language experience who began Level I instruction in high school, according to the study.


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Foreign language study in middle school

Foreign language instruction is largely optional in most middle schools and, as a result, many students tend to delay studying another language until high school, a trend that has been on the rise. Middle schools should consider requiring at least one foreign language course, the authors write, because late starts in studying a foreign language are a missed opportunity.

In middle schools that offer it, only 36% of students take advantage of foreign language instruction. Fewer middle schools are making foreign language instruction available to their students. In 2008, only 58% of middle schools offered it compared with 75% in 1997, according to the study.

Previous research comparing language proficiency of individuals based on the age at which they began learning the language has been difficult to apply to the United States school population, the authors write. Many studies were conducted in other countries where people have greater exposure to language outside the classroom or with immigrant children, who have a more immersive language experience than students only exposed to another language in class. This is a US-based study that includes only students learning another language in a classroom setting.

Advantages of learning a language at a young age

Why are there such advantages to learning language at a younger age? Research supporting this “critical period” hypothesis provides the following explanations:

  • Older language learners experience a decline in procedural memory leading them to rely more on rule-based learning
  • Greater interference from the first language makes it more challenging for older students to develop native-like skills
  • Lateralization (assignment of different tasks to spheres of the brain), a process completed at puberty, interferes with language acquisition
  • Younger children have greater tolerance for ambiguity and are better able to accept information that is conflicting and even contradictory
  • Older children are much more egocentric and much more concerned about how they are perceived by others while speaking the second language

Other research has suggested that adults have certain advantages as well.  They have superior memory skills and are also better than children at learning explicit structures of language.

Why were middle schoolers in this study more motivated to learn the second language than those who began in high school?  Researchers selected 8 students  for individual follow-up interviews to help them interpret their quantitative data. Based on these interviews, researchers report that students compared themselves with peers who had started earlier and were in more advanced classes and that they also felt overwhelmed by the greater demands of high school.

“Middle School Foreign Language Instruction: A Missed Opportunity?” by Scott Kissau et al., Foreign Language Annals, 2015; Volume 48, Number 2, 2015; pp. 284-303.

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