Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 8 News List

English teaching: check the theory!

By Julie Barff

Recent slanderous articles have claimed that the early teaching of English in kindergartens has a detrimental effect on young children. Two such articles include one by Chen Shu-chin ("English is a blight on young kids," Feb. 17, p. 8) and Jonathan Chandler ("Chomsky would frown," Feb. 20, p. 8), who attempts to explain the famous linguist Noam Chomsky's theory of language acquisition in hypothesizing that "When exposed to two languages with dissimilar sentence structures, such as Mandarin and English, a child's mind may well become confused and even impeded in its natural advancement."

While I highly doubt the seriousness of Chandler's teaching qualification, based on his misinterpretation of Chomsky's theory, he does make one important point, and that is the necessity for policies to be based on valid theory and research and not on the personal concerns of politicians and business owners.

First, it has long been believed that there is a critical or at least "sensitive" period for the acquisition of both first and second languages (Lenneberg, Chomsky, Krashen). In other words, the optimal time for language acquisition is before the age of six, after which the ability declines, meaning complete acquisition of a language will not be possible.

This explains why older children and adult learners always have a degree of difficulty with grammar and word usage in a foreign language (not to mention pronunciation!) no matter how long they learn it.

Chomsky proposes this is due to what he calls a "language acquisition device" and "Universal Grammar" which simply means that as humans we are born with an innate linguistic knowledge base and set of language learning procedures. Acquiring a new language then is as easy as setting the parameters and deducting the grammatical principals of the new language. Only when people begin to learn a language as a young child are they able to learn in this way.

This statement has been supported by Ping Li of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who says that given a linguistic environment for a limited number of years, children are able to learn their target language (first, second or third language) without much trouble.

This is difficult to apply to adult second-language learners because they approach the language learning task using different learning methods (ie, general problem-solving strategies) and most adult learners, if not all, fail to achieve perfect competence in the language, no matter how hard they try and for how long.

A great deal of research has also been conducted over the last five decades to determine the effect of bilingualism on cognitive development, an example of which are evaluations conducted over the last 30 years of Canada's French immersion programs.

Through this study, Cummins has shown that students in these programs who were educated through 100 percent French instruction in kindergarten and grade one, with only one period of English introduced in grade two, and equal instruction time introduced only in grade five, were able to add a second language to their repertory of skills at no cost to the development of their first language, English. There was also no cost to their English academic skills, due to the transfer of cognitive and literacy-related skills across languages, possible under Cummins's "Linguistic Interdependence Principle."

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