When is the critical period?

ELTNews have put up a nice interview with David Nunan. In case you’ve not heard of him, he’s sold over 700 million textbooks in China (which is more than Harry Potter has in the world!) and has just had an institute named after him at Anaheim University in the US.

Although some of the interview is the back and forth nature of linguistics research (should we teach grammar? or vocab? etc.) some nice parts are….

…about Task Based Learning:

In a task-base approach you don’t start with the language, you start with the learners and you layout … what the kinds of things that they may potentially or actually need to do with the language. So instead of having a list of grammar items you have a list of tasks — the things the people want to do with the language.


And on whether to start from 5 or 9 years old…

there is this theory called the “critical period hypothesis” that something happens to the brain around about puberty and that if you start learning a language prior to puberty you are given a comparative advantage, but starting at very young age doesn’t give you an advantage.


Interesting take on the critical period there. You can see why that makes some people nervous about starting English too early in schools.

But then he says:

Now, I think the jury is still out because I think that one of the problems is that a lot of young learners programs are not specifically designed for young learners so they have just imported a curriculum that’s been designed for older learners and given it to young learners.


Which I think I would tend to agree with.

Anyway, have a read of the full article and let’s discuss it in the comments below!

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. When I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. Now I help teachers just like you teach amazing lessons and double your incomes!

6 Responses to “When is the critical period?”

  1. yorkii

    This really was an interesting article. I was surprised as Dr. Nunan said I would be by the fact that starting to learn at a younger age doesn’t show and real benefits to language learning.

    As a teacher of EFL to young learners like Richard of genki english here, I would love to know what Dr. Nunan thinks needs to be incorporated into a curriculum which is suitable for younger learners.

  2. richard

    This was the thing that I found interesting as well. I think, and I could be wrong, he’s referring to things like the Burstall report which showed that if kids learn a language in elementary school but then enter a normal high school they don’t do any better.

    What worries me is that he says it’s fine to start at 10 or 11, which we all know is the absolute worst time to start learning a language for communication because that’s the last thing the kids want to do at that age!

  3. Flossy

    I too found this very interesting. I suppose the article is not saying it is wrong to teach young children, but about what they should be taught. As I mentioned I use Genki from age 3 and it really is very successful. For the last two years some of my former students have entered school. They have so much more knowledge and are already really excited about English!! Well thats using the GE method!

    I had a new student, who was 10, last week and had never really done anything other than text book english at her previous school. She didnt look to excited about me being in her class. At the end of the 25 minutes session she said she now thought English was really great and fun. I think it matters when children start to want to be ‘cool’. I find children sometimes dont want to join in as much as they did when they were younger!

    I myself only started to learn French when I went to a secondary school, many years ago! It was hard, very text book based and I cannot remember ever singing or having fun. It was difficult and although I did it to o level it was not my favourite subject. Many of my fellow students hated it.

    I personally believe that children should be encouraged from an early age. I do not think they should be forced to learn something like dancing, football or languages if it is not fun and they are not making progress. I trully believe that many very small children are so open to learning and it is such a shame to think that a second language would only start at around age 10.

  4. Carol

    I have read just about every article that David Nunan has ever written and even chose “Go for it” for the one junior high school here. What a giant!

    What really hit me was that the emphasis needs to be put on vocabulary! Kids will learn the vocabulary if they need to use it. Just learning a string of nouns for example isn’t very exciting either, but if you need them to talk about something they like,for example, it changes everything. I think that how teachers go about teaching L2 to little kids is still being developed and is changing. I do not think waiting for them to be 10 is realistic.

    However, I suspect that hearing and practicing speaking while very young can help with reducing a foreign accent in speech and lead to better comprenhension. My one year nephew lives in a non-English speaking environment yet plays with those LeapFrog English speaking toys my mother-in-law bought on clearance here all the time. He will not listen to or obey his mother or his grandmother, yet if I talk to him in English, he seems to understand and obeys me!!

  5. Yumiko Kusunoki

    I often hear mothers (in Japan) complain that their kids never make any progress although they go to language schools for many years. I have always thought that’s because of the defective system and lack of motivation (In Japan, kids don’ο½”γ€€have to speak a foreign language once they get out of the classroom).
    And Dr. Nunan’s research tells starting at a very young age doesn’t make a difference.
    When teachers’ teaching abilities, kids’ learning situations, motivation, etc. vary, isn’ο½”γ€€it difficult to draw such a conclusion?
    I believe teaching kids on the right track at their early ages benefit them. I believe it more and more since I started to teach Genki English to younger kids.

  6. cj

    Children are never too young to begin learning a foreign (or second) language. I think the β€œexperts” now believe that optimal conditions rather than optimal age are what help children learn. As far as I know, David Nunan expertise is not in the field of young or very young learners. From my own experience raising my children bilingually and as an elementary school EFL teacher and teacher trainer, I know that if you want young children to be successful language learners they have to have enough exposure to the foreign (or second) language in many varied, interesting settings.

    The following articles explore the different positions on β€˜is younger is better?’

    Issues into Research into Early FL Programmes in ‘Research into Teaching English to Young Learners’ Ed Moon and Nikolov University Press Pecs 2000 by Marianne Nikolov

    ‘Is younger better?’ ETP Issue 28 2003 Carol Read

    ‘Optimum age or Optimum conditions…?’ by Shelagh Rixon
    If you put this adress into the Internet Archive Wayback Machine it will turn up.

    Look at # 8, “One cannot achieve native-like (or near native like)
    command of a second language in one hour a day”
    in the following article:
    SLA research in the classroom/SLA research for the classroom
    Lightbown, P.M. (2003) Language Learning Journal, 28, pp 4-13

    This next article is in French. If you can’t read it at least check
    out the references which are mostly in English

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