Which matters more when learning a foreign language? Starting age or experience

Contributor: Hoan Nguyen | Reviewer:  Daniel Holden | Date: 2021-11-09

Photo by olia danilevich on Pexels.com

Overview of the Study

This study investigates whether starting age or language input matter more when it comes to learning a foreign language. Previous research has found that due to the lack of input as in a naturalistic setting, the long-term advantage of learning a new language at an early age may not be observed in a foreign language context. Research also demonstrates the cognitive advantages for adolescents over young children in language learning. This led the researcher to investigate the effect of age as well as input on foreign language learners’ oral language performance.

Research Methods

160 undergraduate students from two universities in Spain were recruited in this study. Most of them knew more than two languages (as multilinguals) and had at least 10 years of experience learning English. Their English levels varied from intermediate to advanced. Participants were asked to complete the following tasks: 1) language history background questionnaire in which they provide information about their age of onset of instruction, the amount of input they received (quantity and quality) both in and outside of the classroom at different education levels; 2) Film retelling oral narrative task in which they watched a movie and were asked to retell the movie content. The author transcribed the narrative and analyzed it by structural and lexical complexity, as well as fluency and accuracy.


No significant correlation was found between starting age and the oral performance measures. However, input measures such as number of hours in an English-speaking country abroad, current frequency of naturalistic exposure, etc. appear as a good predictor for learner performance measures. Therefore, the data had shown language experience to be the more crucial factor when learning a foreign language.

Practical Implications/Significance

This study supports the idea that learning a foreign language at an early age with limited language input might not be as advantageous as learning a new language in the naturalistic setting. Therefore, children with limited input cannot take advantage of implicit learning as they normally would in the naturalistic context. Starting to learn a foreign language when the use of their L1 is prominent may create a stronger background for learning a second or foreign language in the class setting due to their cognitive maturity.

Original Text:  Muñoz, C. (2014). Contrasting effects of starting age and input on the oral performance of foreign language learners. Applied Linguistics, 35(4), 463–482. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amu024

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