Research at the Language Academy
Research on second language acquisition has shown that the age a person starts to learn a second language is correlated with their degree of mastery. The younger the start, the better. Unlike adults, children can reach native like competence in the second language provided they receive continuous exposure and use the language from childhood to adulthood.
When is the Optimal Age to Learn a Second Language?
Very little is known about the optimal age in childhood to start learning a second language, and an answer to this question has implications for language education in childhood and educational policies. Even less is known about how children start and how they develop with different structural properties of the target language during the time they are learning a language.
Like adults, children who learn another language already have knowledge of their native language, but unlike adults they may deploy more implicit language learning mechanisms. An issue that is not clear is whether transfer from the native language is as evident and strong as it appears to be in adult L2 acquisition or whether it depends on the age of the child.
To address these questions, the University Language Academy is conducting research on the very early development of the grammatical system of Spanish as a second language (at the pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar level) by school age children ages 4-9 taking Spanish as a second language at school. The University of Illinois Campus Research Board provided initial funding for this research project. The team is led by Prof. Silvina Montrul (Spanish and Portuguese and Linguistics), and includes Tania Ionin (Linguistics), Melissa Bowles (Spanish and Portuguese), Andrei Cimpian (Psychology), all at the University of Illinois, along with former teacher and alumna Alexandra Morales Reyes (now Assistant Professor of Spanish at Universidad de Puerto Rico Mayagüez) and graduate students Begoña Arechabaleta (Spanish and Portuguese) and Rejane Días (Curriculum and Instruction).
Our research combines longitudinal observations in the classroom to examine how Spanish instruction from teachers and student interaction contributes to their language development and experimental methodologies (comprehension and production tasks) targeting vocabulary, pronunciation, and basic grammatical knowledge (word order, gender, number, articles, ser and estar). We also examine how children develop language awareness and metalinguistic skills, which aid with the acquisition of literacy in their first and second languages. To date, about 30 children from the University Language Academy have participated in our research projects.