On December 27, 2021, the Taipei Times published an editorial written by Professor Rongwen Huang of National Changhua University of Education titled “The Best Bilingual Education Starts Early.”
Commenting on the implementation of bilingual education in Taiwan, Professor Huang’s suggestion is as follows: “Tsai’s bilingual education plan should start from the roots and focus on preschools and elementary schools.”
One common idea about language learning is that younger learners learn languages faster than older learners. But is it true? Research over the last half-century suggests not.
In 1978, Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle published a study showing that language learners in the 12–15 age group and the adult group had a faster rate of learning than the groups with younger learners. Since then, many studies have confirmed these findings: older learners have a faster rate of language learning than younger learners.
The general public usually points to anecdotal evidence of adults failing to learn a foreign language to justify their thinking that younger is better. However, one should keep in mind, there are A LOT of reasons one may fail to learn a language—motivation, time, energy, and the list goes on. Age, as a single factor, typically isn’t considered by experts to be one of them.
That being said, might Professor Huang have a point that starting bilingual education younger may be more successful if considering other factors? Perhaps.
Likely the most convincing reason for starting with younger learners in bilingual education, which is content-based, is the gap between cognition (demand of content learning) and language proficiency. This gap is substantially less at younger ages, making learning content through the foreign language less taxing for younger learners who may have come to the classroom with lower proficiency.
But we cannot ignore a critical factor in language learning—teachers.
Less than a month ago, my colleague Tzu-Bin Lin called for the lowering of the English proficiency threshold to B1 for bilingual teachers. Why? There are simply not enough qualified teachers to fill the demand for bilingual education in the Taiwanese public school system.
Given the lack of human resources, the suggestion of starting in preschool and primary school may not be feasible or ideal.
With the current teacher pool, making sure that students are receiving quality English education in secondary school should be the priority before allocating teachers to preschool and primary school. The issue of quality, not age, is the likely reason why Taiwan has been unsatisfied with its previous English achievement levels.
Unless there are enough teachers to fill every level of schooling with quality English education, then the optimal allocation within the public system would be to put the available teachers with the older learners first, since they learn more efficiently.
If we were to allocate the available teachers to the youngest students and left the older students without capable teachers, there is a risk that these resources would be used in vain. We cannot forget that it is very easy to lose a language, and if the students receive quality English education in primary school and nowhere else, they very likely will lose the English proficiency they gained. As the saying goes, if you don’t use the language, you lose the language.