What is the best age to start learning a second language?

Graduation Thesis

Presented to

the Faculty of the Department of

English Language and Literature

Notre Dame Seishin University

In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirement for the Degree

Bachelor of Arts


Sachiko Konishi



Chapter One: English is an international language

Abstract 1


1.1. Introduction 3

1.2. Learning English is a global phenomenon 4

1.3. Why teach a second language at primary level? 5

1.4. Is a second language acquisition the same as a first language acquisition? 6

1.4.1. Schema 7

1.5. Stages of language acquisition 8

1.6. Summary 9

Chapter Two: Questionnaire

2.1. Introduction 10

2.2. The questionnaire

2.2.1. Introduction 11

2.2.2. Method

a) Subjects 13

b) Test design – the questionnaire 13

c) Procedure 14

2.2.3. Results 14

2.3. Summary 19

Chapter Three: Results of the questionnaire

3.1. Introduction 20

3.2. Summary of the results of questionnaire 20

3.2.Discussion of the results 21

3.2.1. Background of subjects 21

3.2.2. Second language acquisition 22

3.2.3. What are differences between children and adults? 23

3.2.4 Advantages for adults 24 3.2.5. Disadvantages for adults 24

3.2.6. Advantages for children 25 Critical Period Hypothesis 25

3.2.7. Disadvantages for children 26

3.2.8. What is the best age to start learning a second language? 26

3.2.9. Effective ways of studying 27

3.3. Implications 28

3.4. Limitations of the Experiments 29

3.5. Further research 29

3.6. Conclusion 30

Appendices 32

References 38


In Japan,the most common second language is English now, and English education normally starts when we enter junior high school. Many people may feel that we cannot acquire English completely. What arethe factors that prevent this? One of these is age. Age is greatly related to second language acquisition. It is generally said that starting to learn a second language after 13 years old (this age is entering junior high school) is too late to acquire native-like ability. But we are not sure of exactly the right age to start learning.What is the best age to start learning a second language?

English is regarded as a common language when we communicate with others who are from different countries. Therefore, English education at primary level has been being world phenomenon. To acquire it completely, it is often thought it is better to start at a younger age rather than older age.

In Chapter One, we looked at what it is generally said about second language acquisition. English education is a global phenomenon and the number of countries with early English education has been increasing. The reasons why this phenomenon had happened were also stated. We also looked at the differences between first language acquisition and second language acquisition.

In Chapter Two, we presented the results of thequestionnaire about people’s attitude to language learning and age. I gave the questionnaireto people who receive or had received a second language education. The questionnaire was made about second language acquisition. The subjects answered those questions and we showed those results in this chapter.

In Chapter Three, we discussed the results of the questionnaire in detail. Subjects had their own opinions about second language acquisition. We compared the results with the facts. Moreover, we thought about a second language education in the future.

In this thesis, we focused on the needs of English as a second language and what is the best age to start learning a second language.


Chapter 1: English is an international language

1.1 Introduction

These days, international barriers are being broken down rapidly and people can more easily come into contact withpeople who live in other countries, or who have other cultures and languages. The world seems to be becoming more globalized. Languages are the most important way for us to communicate with others. We can express our feelings, considerations, opinions and so on by using languages.

There are about more than 3000 languages in the world now, and each of them is special and precious. Recently, the number of people who can speak their mother tongue plus another language has been increasing. Normally, we start acquiring a language after birth. First, of course, we cannot speak well, we can only cry or babble. Gradually, we get new vocabulary and language rules by imitating our parents or from experiencing several events. Our language growth will explode after entering kindergarten. That language willbecome our mother tongue. When we become elementary school students or junior high school students, we may start learning another language which will be our second language. However, to communicate with people who are from different countries, we have to speak a common language. If we can speak two languages but both languages are minor, we may not communicate with them.

Today, English truly is theglobal language. English is spoken on all six continents: Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa. English is used as an important daily language in more than 100 countries and areas. There are 350 million people who speak English as a first language. If we include speakers using it as a second language, the number will be double. It is said that a third of the population of the world speak English as a first language or second language.

In Japan, we start learning English as a second language when we become junior high school students, or about the age of 12. English is added as a new subject in junior high schools. There are a lot of countries apart from Japan, learning English as a second language when we become about the age of 12. Teaching English in schools is a very popular phenomenon in the world, because English is regarded as an important way to communicate with people who are from many kinds of countries.

Until recently, however, English education in many countries did not begin until junior high school. These days, governments all over the world encourage their citizens to learn English and decided to learn it at primary level because it is said that younger learners can acquire a language easier and quicker than older ones. It is a widespread belief. Many people say that starting learning a second language about the age of 12 is too late. Why is this too late? Is early second language education more effective than a later one? What is related to age and acquiring a second language?

In thischapter,we focused on second language education at primary level in the world and a second language education. Early secondlanguage education has been a raging phenomenon in the world. Why has this phenomenon happen? What arethe good points of early second language education and what are the differences between first language and second language, and the stages of language acquisition?

1.2 Learning English is a global phenomenon

Nowadays, many countries have started learning English in primary schools. For example, parents in Greece and Taiwan want the number of English private schools to grow rapidly at primary or secondary levels. Such countries are only two in the world. In Taiwan, parents are very aware of competitive education. In this country also, educational competition is very strong too. Many young students are faced with the results of tests or examinations of English. Their motivation for learning English seems very strong.

There are other countries where English is taking the role of a second language, for example, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. European governments consider teaching English at primary level to be a national priority asEnglish is the main language of international communication. People in European countries regard English as a part of the public and family environment. We can see English in any places, especially, on television, in newspapers, cartoons, magazines, films, music and so on.

1.3 Why teach a second language at primary level?

There are a few advantages of teaching second language at primary level. One reason for teaching a second language several years earlierat primary level instead of secondary level, is simply to increase the total number of years spent learning that language. Learning language is based on how long it takes to learn a second language. Taking regular short pleasurable lessons several times during a week is likely to be more effective than one long time once a week. It is important to study regularly with pleasure. Secondly, young children seem to have a great facility of understanding and imitating what they hear than junior high school students. Young children’s brains are more plastic than adult ones so they can learneverything automatically. They can memorize new things easily and quickly.

Before 9 to 12 years old, they can learn two or three languages without pain and become native speakers naturally unlike adults who often have to work really hard to master a second language. Children are specialists in learning to speak. After 9 to 12 years old, the human brain becomes progressively inflexible and rigid. So starting to learn a second language at an early age is very effective. If we want to be like native speakers, we have to start learning it at the latest before 12 years old.

On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to learn a second language at a primary level. One reason is that children do not have enough information about languages or they have not had enough experiences yet. They cannot understand difficult words, grammar rules, sentences and so on, especially if they are taught in abstract ways. Before five years old, children do not know them but after that, they begin to understand them. Another reason is that they do not know the background knowledge of that language. Background knowledge helps us to learn that language easier.

Initially, older learners are more efficient and successful in learning a second language, because they have already known languagesystems or rules and they have had much experience. However, in the long run, younger learners will be more efficient and successful and will have a better outcome.

1.4 Is a second language acquisition the same as a first language acquisition?

There are some exceptions, but adults cannot acquire a second language simply. If not they study hard, they will not become proficient in a second language. Except someone who has great innate ability to learn languages, adult learners cannot achieve communicative competence like natives in a second language, especially in pronunciation. They have already acquired their first language so it prevents them from pronouncing correctly. They make errors which are dissimilar to the errors of children. For example, adult learners often make word order errors, especially early in their development.

In many cases, children can acquire a second language successfully, on the other hand, adults vary considerably in their ability to acquire it. There are some people who are very talented language learning, others are hopeless. Most of us are in the middle. To be successful in acquiring a second languagedepends on several factors such as talent, motivation, environment, and particularly age. First language acquisition is not related to talent, motivation, age and so on because we can acquire it in our daily life naturally. The biggest difference between first language acquisition and second language acquisition is conscious or unconscious learning. When we learn a first language, we are not conscious of learning. First language may be a part of dairy life. For all these reasons, it is said that second language acquisition is something different from first language acquisition.

However, there are some similar aspects between first language acquisition and second language acquisition. We cannot acquire them overnight. Even children, the process of language acquisition is fast, but it is not instantaneous. We always go through stages. We need time to some extent to learn languages.

1.4.1 Schema

We have beenbuilding up several kinds of information as we live. We can get information through a lot of experiences soolder people have much more information than younger people. Much of this information and many of the experiences are useful for learning languages. Adults can remember many things when they are given a word. For example, when adults are given a word, “Christmas”, they will come up with these words. For instance, Christmas tree, Santa Claus, snow, present, bell, turkey, color of red and green, cake and so on. All this information is interconnected in a knowledge group, or network. We call it schema. Wecan see that we store information in categories. Schema increases as we grow and its connections become stronger. They are built by previous knowledge and give us a framework to predict the future. Deep schema have really strong connections, it is not easy to break these connections. Schema helps us to learn languages so adults are advantageous in this aspect, because they have much information.

1.5 Stages of first language acquisition

Language acquisition evolves in developmental stages. First, children, around theage of one to three or four, they cannot understand well what people who are around them say. They grasp only sounds and rhythms on the whole. Children feel comfortable when they hear sounds or songs and they feel like playing games. Next, when children become elementary school students aged six to nine, they come to be able to grasp sounds by the sense of the body. They become ten to twelve years old, they can understand system of sentences, words order, inflections and so on. They can also understand difficult language rules. Children who start learning a second language in this time can come up with children who started it more early age. Around these age children, they have acquired their first language to some extent and they can understand things around them. Therefore, they can learn everything well.

Adult learnershave already had a fully developed grammar of their first language. Linguistic competence is an unconscious knowledge. So in the case of starting learning a second language when we became adults, we tend to rely on their first language to some extent, especially at the beginning stages of acquiring their second language. This phenomenon often appears in the field of phonology.

It is generally said that learning grammar and meaning relation are appropriate after puberty and pronunciation is before puberty. After puberty, we are incapable of acquiring a native-like accent. If we want to speak like native speakers, we have to start learning it before the age of six at the latest. Grammar and meaning relations are a little difficult so it is best to study them after puberty. There are appropriate times or ages to start each field.

1.6 Summary

English is used as a common language when we communicate with people who live in other countries. English is a very useful language. So to acquire it completely, early English education is taken in the world now. The reasons why younger learners can have a lot of studying time and they have great ability to learn languages. Second language acquisition is different from first language acquisition. When we learn a second language, we cannot acquire it easily.

In the next chapter, we present the experiment I did, and the results of this. The questions of this experiment were made from those things we mentioned above.


Chapter 2: Questionnaire

2.1 Introduction

In Chapter One, we discussed several topics about global English education and it is generally said about second language acquisition. English is spoken all over the world as a first language or a second language. Moreover, it is used as a common language when we talk with people from other countries. Therefore, English is regarded as an important language in the world and the number of countries to teach English at primary level has been increasing.

In Japan, we start learning a second language in junior high school generally, and that is usually English nowadays. Junior high school is compulsory education in Japan, so all Japanese people start learning English 12 years old at the latest and everyonereceives English classes. Until a fewseveral years ago, we could not learn English exceptgoing to a private school or so.

These days, the number of primary schools which have English classes has been increasing. Also there are some primary schools that teachers teach a few subjects in English. The aims of teaching English early age is to get children accustomed to it early in their life, so they can take advantage of the special gift children have for learning foreign languages. The number of people who want to study English also has been increasing every year. If we can speak English or communicate with foreign people in English, it is very useful for our business, in our daily life and so on. Adults go to an English conversation school, and they also have their children go to an English conversation school of kids. These tendencies will be more common in the future.

A lot of Japanese people may feel the necessity of English today. We feel that English is more and more familiar to us. What do people think of these tendencies?

I did an experiment about second language acquisition because I wanted to know opinions of the public. I gave a questionnaire to 75 people at random. We discuss the experiment and the results in this chapter.