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Review of  Teaching L2 English at a very young age

Reviewer: Christina Nicole Giannikas
Book Title: Teaching L2 English at a very young age
Book Author: Vanessa Ruth Lobo
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 25.1306

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“L2 Teaching at a Very Early Age: A study of Dutch schools” is a doctoral dissertation that describes the early language learning situation in The Netherlands. The project was motivated by the researcher’s involvement in and commitment to early language learning theories and practices, and compares the Dutch situation to that of the rest of the European Union. The author presents the policy of the Dutch government on the matter, which support the notion of ‘younger is better’.

The study began in 2006, a time when early language learning in The Netherlands was not as widespread as at present. Since then, the government has funded research projects and has shown interest in teacher training, assessment of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and provisions for earlier EFL instruction. The purpose of the present classroom-based experimental study is to introduce a method for implementing English Language Teaching (ELT) in lower primary grades. The researcher aims to integrate new teaching methods where English is not considered another school subject. She concentrates on the subjects of arts and crafts and Physical Education (PE), which were delivered via the foreign language.

Lobo compares two starting ages in her study, grade 1 and grade 3, subject content and lesson frequency. The main question in the current project is whether the Dutch early bird can catch the worm. The participating students were taught ten hours of art and crafts or PE in English, concentrating on improving L2 vocabulary, students’ pronunciation in the L2, the behavior of the children and their interaction with the teacher, the participants’ opinions of the learners L2 learning experience and language learning in primary education. In order to address the research questions, the researcher applied the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and an 11-word Imitation task. The two tests were not part of the curriculum. Practical issues yielded information on how and when the foreign language should be taught within the context in question. Evidence was gathered on three levels: the child, the classroom and the school level. Parents, teachers and students took part in the study and contributed their knowledge and viewpoints on the issue.

Lobo provides a detailed description and analysis of the project. Chapter 1, which is the Introduction of the dissertation, discusses the pervasiveness of ‘the earlier the better’ belief and the links made between age and language learning, additionally, the research questions of the study are presented, raising the issues of L2 vocabulary, pronunciation, behavior and opinions of other stakeholders, such as teachers and parents. The introduction of the book also discusses and describes the diverse nature of education systems in the European Union in order to make to make direct comparisons of research outcomes. In Chapter 2, ‘Dutch Primary Education’ the Dutch primary school system is presented, against the background of the native language and the two foreign languages policy supported by the European Union. The early foreign language learning situation in The Netherlands is presented in more detail, where particular attention is paid to the changes of the past decade. More specifically, the author focuses on the growth of the early language learning provision in Dutch education. In Chapter 3, ‘The Age Factor’, the age factor is briefly discussed and reviewed, and an early start is justified. The author describes the principles of the Critical Period Hypothesis and relevant research on the age effect in the language education setting. Chapter 4, ‘Research Design and Method’, describes the research methodology used, along with practical issues and considerations that arose as a result of the design. In Chapter 5, ‘Results at the Child Level’, the author addresses the first two research questions: did the English lessons have an effect on receptive vocabulary development and L2 pronunciation? The use of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and Imitation Tasks, which was used to measure the participant children’s knowledge, are presented. The current chapter presents the results of the overall vocabulary development and the outcomes of an 11-word imitation task which was used to measure L2 pronunciation. Chapter 6, ‘Results at the Classroom Level’, presents an analysis of the L2 interaction process, where there was specific focus on the behavior of the students and their reaction to L2 exposure at the initial stages of their learning and the level of their enjoyment of this exposure. The results on the school level were discussed in Chapter 7, ‘Results at the School Level’ where the researcher analyzes children’s and teachers’ interviews, and parental questionnaires. A summary of the main study is presented in chapter 8, ‘Discussion and Conclusion’, where the author also discusses the implications of the study in relation to the wider context of early language learning in The Netherlands and proposes recommendations to the research community, educational practitioners and policy-makers.

The documentary evidence and the outcomes of the study suggest that there are benefits to starting language learning early. This, however, is not new to the research community in the field of applied linguistics. More intriguing for researchers is the subject of ‘the later the better’. As mentioned earlier, the research focuses on first and third graders, and the data gathered was compared, leading to the conclusion that even though children should start learning foreign languages at a young age, there should be a definition of how young they should be for them to benefit. The innovative twist this study carries is that arts and crafts and PE are taught using English as the medium of instruction, and data is collected through the teaching/assessment of these two subjects, whereas, in most studies data derives from the English language class where the focus of the lesson is entirely on the L2.

The book presents the reader with more than a description of a research project. A large portion of the study is devoted to applying teaching methods that will increase students’ linguistic skills and improve their language learning behavior. At the same time, it integrates an appropriate approach that will enhance the benefits of an early start. Researchers who have studied this specific age group in Europe will be familiar with the points the author makes. The optimal starting age has been a subject of great discussion, however, the optimum conditions have not always been provided. This book develops valuable insights regarding Dutch language learning policies, and contributes to our understanding of primary EFL in Europe. The book also provides a vivid description of the research design employed that could be used as a design model in a similar context in European countries and future doctoral studies. Additionally, the text is written with great clarity and coherence, which makes it widely accessible.

The book will be of great interest to language teachers, policy makers and researchers in applied linguistics, especially to those who focus on this particular age group. There has been a great focus on early language learning and optimizing children’s learning potential. Whether or not young learners are exposed to beneficial learning conditions has raised great concerns in Europe and beyond., resulting in more data and a fuller picture of the early language learning situation and needs, another research project could bring about more data as to why third graders enjoyed language lessons more than the first graders, for instance. Furthermore, the current study has great potential and can be adapted for use in other European countries as well. The context may differ, but the research design can be adjusted to fit the needs of any educational system.

The researcher is well aware of the limitations of the study. For example, as noted in Chapter 5, the author informs her readership of problems encountered with rating imitation task samples. The author emphasizes on the need to distinguish between bilingual and foreign language learners, and bilingual and foreign language education in relation to early language learning in early primary education in The Netherlands and beyond. Lobo not only describes early language learning, but explores a number of L2 learning phenomena and settings, which makes the book a valid contribution with a view to improving and developing the language learning situation on an international level.
Christina Nicole Giannikas, PhD, is a researcher at the Cyprus University of Technology and the Social Media Coordinator for IATEFL YLTSIG. She has taught English to adults and young learners in the UK and Greece and was a seminar tutor/guest lecturer at London Metropolitan University. Dr. Giannikas was also an assistant researcher for the ELLiE project (Early Language Learning in Europe). Her research interests include communicative language teaching, the use of the mother tongue in language teaching, diglossia, educational policies, early language learning and the use of new technologies in the foreign language classroom.