Equity & Diversity

Study: Language-Learning Ability Is Strong Until Late Teens

By Corey Mitchell — May 08, 2018 4 min read

Scientists have long posited that there is a “critical period” for language learning, but new research suggests that the time frame stretches on much longer than previously thought.

The study, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that children remain skilled at learning the grammar of English up to the age of 17 or 18, the time at which many students graduate from high school.

The finding injects new evidence for the decades-long debate over the “critical period” that had centered on whether the decline in language-learning skills begins at age 5 or at the onset of puberty.

The research could have implications for K-12 schools, where the number of English-as-a-second-language speakers is on the rise, but the quality of education those students receive has faced increased scrutiny. The findings could be especially relevant for the education of newcomer immigrant and refugee English-learners who arrive in the United States as middle and high school students.

"[The work] should raise teachers’ sense of self-efficacy ... that they do have a tremendous impact on second-language learners who are in their secondary school years,” said Shannon Daniel, a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education whose work focuses on improving English-language-learner-education in U.S. schools.

The same MIT study also found that it is difficult for people to achieve proficiency in English similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language much earlier, by the age of 10. People who start learning a language between the ages of 10 and 18 will still learn quickly, but since they have a shorter window before their learning ability declines, they’re less likely to reach the proficiency of native speakers, the researchers found.

“It takes work on the part of the parents, but, as far as the child’s concerned, it’s quite easy to become bilingual,” Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral scholar at MIT. “That’s when you’re best at learning languages. It’s not really something that you can make up later.”

What Is Bilingualism?

A March 2017 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine detailed how underresourced schools and underprepared educators hinder efforts to help students learn and master English. The report’s authors contend that teacher- and principal-preparation programs must adapt their curricula and training to ensure that K-12 educators are ready to work with an ever-diversifying student population, especially older students who come to the United States knowing little, if any, English.

“A really important question that’s raised is what precisely do we mean when we say someone has proficiency in the second or foreign language,” Daniel said.

In other words, does a deep knowledge of grammar equate to language proficiency?

Not necessarily, said Judith Kroll, the director of the Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain Lab at the University of California, Riverside.

“Is the goal to become a monolingual-like native speaker? No, the goal is to become a proficient, bilingual-like speaker of two languages,” said Kroll, a professor of psychology and linguistics.

While it’s typical for children to pick up languages more easily than adults, researchers have struggled to study this phenomenon in laboratory settings.

The latest research findings are based on an analysis of results from a 10-minute online grammar quiz.

To avoid the costly and time-consuming process of following test subjects as they learn a new language over many years, the researchers tried a different approach: They used the online quiz to measure the grammatical ability of many people of different ages who started learning English at different points in their lives, in hopes of gathering enough data to come to some meaningful conclusions.

The response was overwhelming; nearly 670,000 English-learners participated.

Defining Goals

In that quiz, the MIT research team focused on grammatical rules most likely to confuse a non-native speaker and wrote questions that could trip them up. To entice more people to take the test, Hartshorne also included questions that were not necessary for measuring language learning but were designed to reveal which dialect of English the test-taker speaks.

After taking the quiz, users answered questions about their current age and the age at which they began learning English, as well as other information about their language background.

As the results rolled in, the researchers spent nine months developing and testing a variety of models to see which was most consistent with their results. They came to the conclusion that grammar-learning ability remains strong until the late teenage years, at which point it drops precipitously.

“Teachers have to be really careful to avoid the assumption that grammatical competence is equivalent to proficiency in English,” said Daniel, who has worked with English-learner students in schools and colleges in the U.S. and abroad.

“It’s certainly more important for teachers to recognize if someone [can] communicate with others, to accomplish their goals on a day-to-day basis, rather than being able to identify the prescriptive grammar rule,” Daniel also said.

Though adults are still good at learning foreign languages, the chances of reaching the level of a native speaker are slim if they begin learning as a teenager or as an adult, the MIT researchers found.

But the research team still does not know what closes the window on the so-called “critical period.”

Hartshorne will embark on several related studies, including one that will compare native and non-native speakers of two additional languages: Spanish and Mandarin.

Like English, those two languages have millions of non-native speakers trying to learn one or the other of them.

“We’re interested in language learning, not specifically English learning,” Hartshorne said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Study: Language-Learning Ability Is Strong Until Late Teens

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion Are Our Schools Any Closer to Equity?
Schools are trying to focus on equity, but a slew of new legislation is preventing that focus from becoming a reality.
Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher
4 min read
E20D8BC6 ED5F 43B7 817C 5FA00DCA5904
Shutterstock
Equity & Diversity Spotlight Spotlight on Critical Race Theory
In this Spotlight, learn what critical race theory is, what it isn't, and how it's a practice, not a curriculum.
Illustrations.
Mary Hassdyk for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Interactive Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack
This national map tracks where state legislatures are attempting to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom.
2 min read
Equity & Diversity Opinion I Am an Indian American Man. I Had Anti-Racist Work to Do
When adults reflect on who they are and where they come from, their awareness leads to better learning outcomes for their students.
Anil Hurkadli
5 min read
Abstract drawing of the profile of a head, clouds of thoughts and radiance from the eyes.
Elena Medvedeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus