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on the sensitive or critical period hypothesis, if true (and it has been difficult to
refute), would support a universal optimum age for starting a second or foreign
language, namely as early as possible, in order to allow for possible acquisition as a
native speaker. (See the discussion in Chapter 2 of research by Bialystok.)
An early start for second- and foreign-language learning at school is not unusual.
Foreign-language teaching in the elementary school in the USA, French in the UK
primary school, languages other than English in the Australian primary school: these
are well-known examples of the willingness among educational planners to (1)
extend the length of explicit language learning and (2) take advantage of the greater
plasticity of young children in automatising new skills and internalising new
knowledge. Such aims are plausible. Why then the doubts and the reversals of policy
such as the on off programmes found in the UK? Why the doubt, among pro-
fessional language educators as much as among administrators, that spending longer
teaching a language and starting earlier are not necessarily beneficial? How could
they not be?
Research into second-language learning suggests that there may be no optimum
age since adults can learn as efficiently as children and indeed more quickly. What
matters are local conditions. To illustrate the applied linguist s insistence on the
need to take account of local conditions I refer to three very different contexts: an
Australian private girls school; the Nepal government school system; and French
immersion in Canada.
5.1 Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC)
This school, in Melbourne, is a large independent girls school (N=1200) with both
primary and secondary departments. It offers six languages at secondary (Years
7 12). One foreign language, French, is also offered in the primary school (Hill
et al. 1997).
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70 An Introduction to Applied Linguistics
Observations by the language teachers had indicated that after two years in the
secondary school girls who had studied French in the primary school appeared to be
performing at the same level in all four skills as those who had begun French in the
secondary school. The only observed advantage for early starters was in pronun-
ciation. Differences of course there were, but these appeared to be individual rather
than group related.
The primary campus of PLC offers French from pre-Prep (three-year-olds) to
Grade 6 and the senior campus both Beginners French and Continuing French in
Years 7 and 8 and then combines the two streams in Years 9 12.
The usual practice at PLC is to separate beginners from continuing learners in
order to maintain and develop the advanced skills of the more experienced learners.
As has been said, by the end of Year 8, in the view of the teachers, there is no longer
any need to keep the two strands separate. Both use the same textbooks inYears 7 8;
both start at the beginning of new texts in Year 7. It is, however, expected that the
continuing learners will treat the earlier parts of the textbooks as revision and move
faster than the beginners.
If the critical period hypothesis is correct, then we might expect those children
who start French early (in the primary school) to be at an advantage when they reach
the secondary school. They appear not to be. Teachers are sceptical (indeed second-
ary teachers are often sceptical of primary school language learning). They may be
wrong to be sceptical but to the applied linguist their scepticism is one factor in the
situation: it contributes to the  language problem as do the qualifications of teachers
in the primary and secondary department, the teaching materials used in both, the
measures used to determine progress and the aims of the French teaching programme
in the primary and the secondary schools, whether they are in harmony or not. It is
possible that what counts as doing well at French in the primary school (being
communicative in the spoken language for example) differs from doing well in the
secondary school (accuracy in the grammar of the written language, perhaps).
The situation of a private girls school, with its own primary and secondary
departments, where there is keenness to learn French and resources are ample is
on the face of it an ideal setting for the critical period to operate. It appears not to.
For the applied linguist this is a problem that invites explanation and that neatly
combines theoretical interest and practical involvement.
5.2 English teaching in Nepal
Until the early 1960s English was widely available in the Nepal school system; the
basic medium of instruction was Nepali but English was taught everywhere as a
foreign language and there were private schools in which English was the medium of
instruction. In the early 1970s Nepal withdrew from English for purposes of nation
building (it should be noted that Nepali, the national language, is itself a colonising
language, introduced only about 300 years ago). English medium schooling was
forbidden. But English did not go away. In the 1980s the ban was lifted, to avoid the
unfortunate situation whereby middle-class parents were procuring English for their
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