The Illogic of U.S. Foreign Language Education

In November of 1970, a thirteen-year-old girl arrived, accompanied by her mother, at a California family aid office. The girl, who is known publicly by the name “Genie,” walked hunched with her hands raised in front of her like paws. According to Susan Curtiss, author of Genie: a Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day Wild Child, she weighed only 59 pounds and spat incessantly. In addition to her decrepit physical appearance and bizarre social habits, Genie seemed incapable of producing normal language – only ever uttering a few isolated words.

For the ten years leading up to that day in November, Genie had been confined to a single room – strapped, by day, to a “potty chair,” and, by night, to the inside of a sleeping bag. During that time, Genie had very limited human contact, and – of particular interest to the psychologists who studied her for the eight years to follow – almost no exposure to language. This fact – the occasion of Genie’s tragic abuse – gave scientists the opportunity investigate a question that could never have been probed through direct experimentation: does one lose the ability to acquire a first language?

Cases like Genie’s suggest that the answer is yes. While children who were deprived of linguistic stimuli up until age six have gone on to possess normal language, others, like Genie, whose deprivation continued past this point, have not had the same success. Genie did learn the meanings of many words, but she was never able to piece them together into sentences with normal syntax. Instead, she formed statements like “Applesauce buy store” and “I like elephant eat peanut.” Although controversies remain regarding Genie’s case (for instance, allegations of inconsistency in the documentation of Genie’s progress), the apparent linguistic limitations of so-called “feral children” offer strong evidence for a “critical period” after which it is impossible to acquire normal language.

The critical period hypothesis, which refers exclusively to first language acquisition, in turn suggests that children possess certain innate faculties which are crucial for (and, perhaps, specific to) the acquisition of language. This notion, which was brought to mainstream attention by Steven Pinker in his 1994 bestseller, The Language Instinct, is accepted in some form by most psycholinguists. However, a related question – one with even greater practical relevance – remains a point of controversy: does one lose the ability to acquire a second language?

A critical period for second language acquisition?

The notion that there is a critical period for the acquisition of second languages is frequently invoked. Failed students of a foreign language blame their parents for not exposing them to it during childhood, when they “would have picked it up naturally,” and some parents encourage foreign babysitters to speak exclusively in the child’s non-native language for this reason. But, if it is the case that we lose our ability to acquire a second language, then why is it that the majority of U.S. schools teaching foreign languages do not begin to do so until high school, when the critical period (if it does exist) has likely ended?

As it turns out, the evidence regarding age effects on the acquisition of second languages does not point to a critical period – at least not of the kind that exists for the acquisition of first languages. The most obvious fact undermining this theory is that certain adults do acquire second languages (some to the degree that they are indistinguishable from monolinguals). This seems to negate the existence of a critical period in the strict sense. However, more moderate – but, indeed, significant – claims about age effects may hold true. For instance, it may be that these individuals, who acquire non-native languages during adulthood, are exceptional: while most of us lose the faculties, which, during childhood, facilitate the acquisition of language, these lucky few retain such abilities, enabling them to pick up additional languages later in life.

Though plausible, David Birdsong, a leading scientist in the field of second language acquisition, and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, believes this theory underestimates the capabilities of most people. While various empirical accounts have corroborated the popular notion that younger learners are ultimately more likely to become competent in a second language, Birdsong argues that “[t]here’s a fallacy in the way we’ve done the comparison between the first and second language contexts.” When we consider second language acquisition during adolescence and adulthood, we tend to think of it as taking place in an academic setting. And, though surprisingly little data exists on the competency rates of high school language learners in the United States, these efforts are generally understood to bear little fruit. Thus, we conclude that learning a second language during adulthood is difficult to impossible.

However, Birdsong argues, when the circumstances for adult acquisition do resemble those commonly encountered by younger learners – namely, when an individual is immersed in a foreign-language – the rate of success is surprisingly high. So, he suggests, given the right environmental and motivational factors, most adults are capable of acquiring a second language.

Still, even among individuals who are immersed in a foreign-language, acquisition does seem to correlate with age. Hakuta et al. (2002), for instance, analyzed the relationship between age and English-competency for 2.3 million immigrants with Chinese and Spanish language backgrounds as reported to the 1990 U.S. Census. The authors concluded that although the results did not support the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition (i.e. there wasn’t a particular age at which acquisition became markedly less common), they did reflect a general decline in the likelihood of acquisition based on age.

The success of early immersion

In addition to possible cognitive advantages, there are social factors that may make it easier for young children to acquire a second language. “In most places in this country, if students have an experience learning a second language it doesn’t happen until the middle or high school level, around the time when…your body [is] diminishing in its ability to make native-like sounds in another language; but it’s also a time when students are very aware of being different,” explains Marty Abbott, Director of Education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Paula Patrick, President of the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL), also cites the impediment of social factors: “…in the United States…we get started with teaching foreign language right at that age where students are very self-conscious about making funny sounds, or about being wrong, or being different.” But, she says, younger children are “not afraid at all.”

This confidence may help explain the success of foreign-language immersion programs, which begin on the elementary school level. In addition to explicitly teaching a foreign language, these schools instruct students in other subjects by communicating in the target language. So, half the day is spent speaking English, while the other half is spent speaking some other language. According to Nancy Rhodes, Director of Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), the immersion model “is by far the best way that the United States has ever found to teach languages to students in a school setting.”

It stands to reason that children who take part in these programs (as opposed to non-immersive ones) will be more likely to acquire a second language because they will have spent significantly more time engaged in it. But it may also be that immersion methodologies utilize our natural language acquisition faculties in a way that explicit, rule-based learning cannot. As Therese Sullivan Caccavale, former President of NNELL and a doctoral student in second language acquisition, explains, immersive methodologies are effective because they are “paired with the way children learn to begin with.” In order to have the best results, she says, “we need to understand the process of language acquisition and how it works in children and come as close as we can to actually simulating an environment for acquisition instead of learning at the early stages.”

Caccavale emphasizes that immersion strategies may also help older students achieve competence in a foreign language, but it would be impractical to implement the half-day system beginning in high school. Imagine arriving at your 9th grade math class to find that it was being taught in a language you’d never learned. But, according to Rhodes, students in elementary school language immersion programs “achieve academically at grade level or above.”

So, while it is certainly not impossible for older individuals to learn a second language, it may for various reasons – biological, social, and practical – be easier for younger children to do so. Our linguistic fates are not circumscribed like Genie’s, but, until we implement early immersion programs on a wider scale, our second language abilities may be just as bad.