Extending language learning

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: There’s Extra Time to Learn a Language / View Guide

These questions are based on the article There’s extra time to learn a language.”

1. What was one new result about language learning?

Possible student response: People who started learning English in an English-speaking country by age 10 to 12 ultimately learned English, as well as people who had learned English and another language from birth. People who began learning English after age 10 to 12 were not as fluent.

2. What had previous research suggested?

Possible student response: The ability to learn grammar peaks in early childhood, up to around age 5. If that were true, people who begin learning a new language after this peak learning age would ultimately not be able to achieve the same level of fluency as people who began learning the new language before age 5.

3. Until what age does peak language learning ability last, according to the researchers?

Possible student response: Although most language learning happened in the first 10 to 20 years of life, modest amounts of grammar learning could still happen up to age 30 or so.

4. What methods did the researchers use to generate data?

Possible student response: The researchers created a 132-item Facebook quiz about English grammar that used a person’s responses to guess his or her native language and dialect of English. After completing the quiz, respondents filled out a questionnaire asking for information such as where they had lived, languages they had spoken from birth, the age at which they began learning English and the number of years they had lived in an English-speaking country. The researchers received 669,498 answers from native and nonnative English speakers, and used statistical calculations to estimate at what ages people with varying amount of experience speaking English reached peak grammar ability.

5. Based on the survey results stated in the article (and without reviewing the primary research article), what populations do you think were defined and compared in the study?

Possible student response: I predict the main populations were: English as a second language learners between approximately 7 and 12 years old, English as a second language learners between approximately 12 and 17 years old, English as a second language learners between approximately 17 and 30 years old, and English-only speakers. I think that all populations were living in an English-speaking country.

6. Compared with previous studies, what made this study unique?

Possible student response: Earlier studies have had much smaller sample sizes, typically no more than about 250 monolingual and bilingual participants. Hartshorne’s study had 669,498 participants that were native and nonnative English speakers.

7. Other researchers expressed concerns about how well the survey reflected the overall ability to learn a language. What reservations did psycholinguist David Barner have?

Possible student response: Language skills may not develop along a single timeline — different elements of grammar might be learned at different rates. The responses of volunteers to an online, 132-item grammar test may not accurately indicate how well the volunteers actually speak English.

8. What reservations did linguist David Birdsong have?

Possible student response: Language learning may involve more than just a critical window for acquiring grammar. For example, growing up speaking two languages at once puts still poorly understood strains on the ability to grasp grammar. In the study, the grammar scores of people who were bilinguals from birth were lower than the scores of English-only speakers, which is consistent with evidence that bilinguals cannot easily turn off one language while speaking another. Interactions between two languages spoken by one person may slightly depress how much can be learned about both languages.

9. What questions do you still have after reading the article?

Possible student response: What are the best ways to learn and teach a language? What are the best ways to assess students’ progress in learning a language? What are the best ways to assess the rates at which a person masters various aspects of a language?

10. Review the answers to all of your questions and summarize the main idea of the article.

Possible student response: A new study suggests that the ability to learn grammar of a second language may flourish until around the age of 17, when grammar-absorbing ability plummets. Modest amounts of language learning for native and second-language speakers may continue until the approximate age of 30, but the majority of grammar-learning occurs within the first 10 to 20 years of life. Previous studies indicated that the ability to learn grammar lasted only until the age of 5.