The article deals with some controversial aspects of early English language learning (early start from the first grade) in the conditions of the updated education. Despite the data of psycholinguistic, pedagogical and physiological studies concerning the most favorable age for the development of language ability of students of foreign languages, early learning of foreign languages (teaching children 5–12 years) remains the least studied in foreign language education. At present, in accordance with the updated program foreign language training has been conducted for the fourth year, teaching languages begins from the first school year (Kazakh, Russian, English). The author tries to consider the validity of early start of a foreign language learning by the search for the optimal age to start learning a foreign language and the hypothesis of a critical period in the early language learning.
Keywords: early language learning, updated program, optimal age, hypothesis of a critical period.
В статье рассматриваются некоторые спорные аспекты раннего изучения английского языка (ранний старт с первого класса) в условиях обновленного образования. Несмотря на данные психолингвистических, педагогических и физиологических исследований, касающихся наиболее благоприятного возраста для развития языковой способности учащихся иностранных языков, раннее изучение иностранных языков (обучение детей 5–12 лет) остается наименее изученным в иноязычном образовании. В настоящее время в соответствии с обновленной программой обучение иностранным языкам ведется уже четвертый год, обучение языкам начинается с первого учебного года (казахский, русский, английский). Автор пытается рассмотреть обоснованность раннего начала изучения иностранного языка путем поиска оптимального возраста для начала изучения иностранного языка и гипотезы о критическом периоде в раннем изучении языка.
Ключевые слова: раннее изучение языка, обновленная программа, оптимальный возраст, гипотеза критического периода.
Conditions of deepening globalization processes, growth and competitiveness require special attention to the status of the English language in our country, as participation in the processes of intercultural integration, the world economy and politics at the international level requires high-quality and professional foreign language skills. Currently, Kazakhstan is carrying out an educational reform aimed at adopting an updated model of secondary education, which will bring it into line with the European model of 12-year education. Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed the timeliness of the reforms implemented in the country's education system and separately focused on the process of transition to trilingual education: «Learning English at school should be given special attention, as it is the language of science and technology. It conducts most of the research in the economy and business. Knowledge of English opens up great prospects for a person. This is a requirement of the time, which we must treat with understanding» . A special role in the implementation of the updated content of education in secondary school is given to the teaching of English: the introduction of trilingual education involves the teaching of basic subjects in English, which in turn raises the question of its early study in secondary school. This determines the understanding of the pedagogical community of the need to adopt the strategies of early learning in secondary education. The problems of learning a foreign language and age factor are reflected in the scientific works of local and foreign methodologists, and as a consequence, in modern educational complexes. However, despite the data of psycholinguistics, pedagogical and physiological studies concerning the most favorable age for the development of language ability of students of foreign languages, early learning of foreign languages (teaching children 5–12 years) remains the least studied in foreign language education, including Russia and Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that in accordance with the updated program foreign language training has been conducted for the third year, there are still disputes about the validity of learning a foreign language from the first grade, along with the Kazakh and Russian languages. The search for the optimal age to start learning a foreign language and the hypothesis of a critical period in early language learning will help to find a scientific basis for this problem.
The search for the optimal age to start learning a foreign language
There is a popular belief that children as foreign language learners are ‘superior’ to adults , which means, the younger the learner, the quicker the learning process and the better the result. There are different scientific opinions on the optimal age of starting to learn a foreign language. Nevertheless, a closer examination of the ways in which age combines with other variables reveals a more complex picture, with both favorable and unfavorable age-related differences being associated with early and late-starting language learners . Tentatively, the age of ten approximately is the dividing line, before this age speech habits in the native language are not so fixed as to interfere seriously with the learning of new speech habits. It has been noted, for example, that foreigners who go to the English speaking countries before the age of ten, approximately, learn to speak English without an accent. Those who go later usually speak with an accent, which is the more marked the older they were on arrival. According to the Modern Language Association of Foreign Languages Bulletin, on the bases of different scientific research and collected evidence the group of scientists proposed tentatively the optimum age for beginning the study of modern languages. They determined an optimum age, from the standpoint of the child's physiology and psychology. It was inclined to think that ideally, the best starting age is at birth . However, since the group of scientists was considering language learning in relation to the school period and since the first language is normally 'set' by the age of four or five, it was decided to select four as the earliest age to be recommended. As is stated below, the years from four to eight are regarded as very favorable. The imitative capacity of the child in this early period of starting learning is considered by Dr. Ilg as the best for language learning. The scientist added that at the age of eight the child is group-minded, expansive, and receptive. At this age, when expansion and imitation are at their height level, the child can under favorable conditions be expected to learn a second language with a rush. At the age of eight, the child begins to hold on to patterns and functions and at the age of nine, he fixes them. Therefore it was drafted the following consensus: «The optimum age for beginning the continuous learning of a foreign language seems to fall within the span of ages four through eight, with superior performance to be anticipated at ages eight, nine, ten. In this early period, the brain seems to have the greatest plasticity and specialized capacity needed for acquiring a foreign language. The specialized capacity includes the ability to mimic accurately the stream of speech, sounds, rhythm, intonation, stress, etc. and to learn and manipulate language patterns easily. Support for the conviction that the brain has greater plasticity for speech learning during the first decade of their life comes from the fact that, in cases of gross destruction of the cerebral speech areas, the return of normal speech occurs much more rapidly and more completely than at a later age.
The hypothesis of a critical period in early language learning
The ‘critical period hypothesis’ is a particularly relevant case in point. This is the claim that there is, indeed, an optimal period for language acquisition, ending at puberty. However, in its original formulation , evidence for its existence was based on the relearning of impaired first language skills, rather than the learning of a foreign second language under normal circumstances. Early formulations of the critical period hypothesis rested entirely on biological factors. Particularly, during childhood, the children’s brain undergoes huge growth and changes. The number of synapses and the amount of grey and white matter increases significantly. For example, the number and differentiation of synapses reach a high point between ages two and four then decreases and reaches a steady state between the ages of ten and fifteen. Stabilization of the chemical transmitters in the brain does not occur until puberty . Many researchers believe that there is also a biologically based critical or sensitive period for second language acquisition. While the precise mechanisms underlying brain activity are not yet known, these physical findings seem to indicate that children are in a learning phase which ends with the onset of puberty. Furthermore, although the age factor is an uncontroversial research variable extending from birth to death , and the critical period hypothesis is a narrowly focused proposal subject to recurrent debate, ironically, it is the latter that tends to dominate second language acquisition discussions , resulting in a number of competing conceptualizations. Thus, in the current literature on the subject , several scientific opinions can be found on multiple critical periods: each based on a specific language component, such as age six for second language phonology, the non-existence of one or more critical periods for foreign language and native language acquisition, a ‘sensitive’ yet not ‘critical’ period, and a gradual and continual decline from childhood to adulthood. It therefore needs to be recognized that there is a marked contrast between the critical period hypothesis as an issue of continuing dispute in a foreign language acquisition, on the one hand, and, on the other, the popular view that it is an invariable ‘law’, equally applicable to any second language acquisition context or situation. In fact, the research indicates that age factor effects of all kinds depend largely on the actual opportunities for learning which are available within overall contexts of foreign language acquisition and particular learning situations, notably the extent to which initial exposure is substantial and sustained . Thus, most classroom-based studies have shown not only a lack of direct correlation between an earlier start and more successful and rapid foreign language development but also a strong tendency for older children (ages eight to twelve, which is still early language learning) and teenagers to be more efficient learners. For instance, in research conducted in the context of conventional school programmes, Cenoz and Muñoz have shown that learners whose exposure to the second language began at the of age eleven consistently displayed higher levels of proficiency than those for whom it began at four or eight . Moreover, comparable limitations have been reported for young learners in school settings involving innovative, immersion-type programs, where exposure to the target language is significantly increased through subject-matter teaching in the foreign language . In general, as Harley and Wang  have argued, more mature learners are usually capable of making faster initial progress in acquiring the grammatical and lexical components of a foreign language due to their higher level of cognitive development and greater analytical abilities.
In terms of language pedagogy and psychology, it can be therefore be concluded that there is no single ‘magic’ age for an early foreign language learning, both older and younger learners are able to achieve advanced levels of proficiency in a foreign language, and the general and specific characteristics of the learning environment are also likely to be variables of equal or greater importance.
Having considered the scientific literature on finding the optimal age for learning a foreign language and the critical period hypothesis, it can be revealed that the most scientists inclined to the period of the age of eight to eleven. The scientific bases of this statement have been made on different psychological, physiological and psycholinguistic researches. Therefore, learning a foreign language from the first grade (the age of six or seven) according to the newly updated program is not valid, because the native language is normally 'set' by the age of five or six which corresponds to the first grade. The newly updated curricula consider the start of learning of Kazakh, Russian and English languages at the same time causing the «mess» and interference of three languages. As it is stated before the ages from eight to eleven when the cognitive abilities of children are well developed and the native language abilities are set it can be suggested that the third or the fourth grades are effective to start to learn a foreign language as it is still considered as early language learning.
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