Popular wisdom has long held it that the younger you are the easier it is to learn a foreign language. Whether expat or immigrant, parents of small children have long noticed, often to their own chagrin, how quickly their offspring become bilingual. It’s a phenomenon the Swiss have long exploited in order to preserve the multi-lingual nature of their country which is considered a key to national cohesion.
The importance of learning foreign languages at the primary school level has become the subject of much controversy in Switzerland in recent years. Since the 1990s, all 26 cantons have followed federal education guidelines that called for teaching a second national language at the primary level. A decade later English has become the main foreign language taught at primary schools in the majority of German speaking cantons, a phenomenon loudly protested in Suisse romande.
In an attempt to introduce some empirical evidence into what has until now been primarily a political debate, the Institute of Multilingualism at the University of Fribourg published a review in September that indicates that early language learning may be a red herring. “In the school context, available studies show that after 200 hours of teaching, a younger child will know less than an older child,” said Amelia Lambelet, research manager at the Institute. “This is related to maturity and the fact that general cognitive abilities improve with age, whether in languages or math. Young children are slower in learning structure.”
The Institute reviewed all the studies they could find on the subject of early language learning, including several from North America, the UK and Spain. The most important research on this subject came from the University of Barcelona where schools teach in Spanish and Catalan. Language abilities remained the same despite lowering the age at which students learn English. The studies agreed that whether beginning earlier or later, most students reached the same level of proficiency in language.
Young children are likely speak the language or dialect of their parents at home and at least one other at school, whether they are Swiss, expat or immigrant. Many families point proudly to the multi-lingual capabilities of their children, some of whom may speak four or five languages. Many studies point to the fact that it is the phonetic aspect of language that gives younger children the edge. However, according to Lambelet, if children of different ages in the same family are tested every three months or so the child who is 15 will be learning faster than the child of six. It is when overall knowledge of language grammar and structure become more important than pronunciation and accent that older students surpass their younger siblings.
“The problem in Switzerland is the way languages are taught,” said Lambelet. “For example, I studied German, but the way it was taught there was very little input or participation by me andthe German I speak is mostly due to the fact that I work in Fribourg.” She believes this pedagogy is more important than the fact that German speakers tend to speak a dialect at home and need to study standard German at primary school, making the study of a “third” language such as French an extra burden.
“They are saying they don’t want to teach French at primary school because the children will be overloaded with Swiss-German, High German, English and French – that children have too much to study as it is”. Lambelet believes dropping French to ease this burden is an excuse being used for political reasons.
“All we’re saying is that the age factor is not really important in making decisions about which language should or should not be taught. Age is not the point and learning earlier is not better but it’s also not worse. It is irrelevant and should not be used as an argument about teaching foreign languages in schools. In Switzerland the symbolism of language is important and we need to preserve the cohesion that we have all agreed to in the Concordat.”
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service, and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo