Learning in the world language classroom
Although there is a lot of research that shows that children learn languages quickly and effectively in naturalistic settings, there’s less to support that classroom learning of language is as helpful to young children’s acquisition as naturalistic learning. In fact, some researchers (e.g., Patkowski, 2003) argue that the CPH applies only to naturalistic learning contexts in which language acquisition occurs mostly by exposure.
In many parts of the world including the United States language programs are often described as “drip-feed” instruction, meaning that students receive a small number of hours of instruction per week over a period of several years. This approach produces small proficiency gains (see, for example, Davin, Rempart & Hammerand, 2014), and starting earlier does not seem to make a difference (Muñoz & Spada, 2019). In a large study that examined the impact of children’s ages on classroom language learning, the Barcelona Age Factor (BAF) project, this finding was confirmed. The BAF project examined students learning English at ages 8, 11, 14 and over 18, and the researchers looked at students’ progress after 200, 416 and 726 hours of instruction. The results of the BAF project showed that older starters made faster progress initially but that the younger learners caught up with the older learners in listening and speaking over time; the overall number of hours of exposure was more important than the age at which the children started (Muñoz, 2006). Other authors have similarly suggested that a key factor in L2 learning is the quantity and quality of exposure to the target language (Flege, 2018).
In addition to developing language proficiency, language instruction has been associated with other academic benefits. For example, Armstrong and Rogers (1997), comparing elementary students over one semester who had three Spanish lessons per week versus those who had not learned Spanish, found that the Spanish students had significantly better scores on math and language. Similarly, Taylor and Lafayette (2010) compared students who had 30 minutes of world language instruction per day with those who had not, across Grades 3,4, and 5, in Louisiana. They examined the student test scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program for the 21st Century. The authors demonstrated that, for each additional year of world language instruction and controlling for other factors, the world language students significantly outperformed their non-world language counterparts at every level.