Dinnyés Éva – The Cognitive Characteristics of Early Second Language Learners

Nowadays several people encourage their children to go to nursery schools where they learn English and later, some of these children will also go to bilingual schools. Why is this so important?  When it comes to second language learning in order to increase success, it could be fruitful to pay attention to individual differences. It is essential, mainly, because some of these differences are unchangeable for example sex and age. Paying attention to the age group of the learners can enhance the success of the language learning. So in this article I would like to focus on the cognitive characteristics of early language learners and decide whether they possess any cognitive advantage in second language learning or not.

Firstly, let us reflect upon their cognitive characteristics, which focuses on the learning process that takes place in their brain. It’s said that young children rely more on memory-based processes, which is based on their utilization of their exemplar-based declarative system, which is a large memory system. This means that their learning is less characterised by rule-based learning and relies more heavily on examples. According to these discoveries it is not useful to teach grammar in the traditional way.

Secondly, another distinctive feature of language learning is linguistic competence. Linguistic competence is essential in language learning because with its help we’re able to use proper grammatical structures unconsciously. Age has an effect on linguistic competence in two ways: biologically and cognitively. The biological effect is “the plasticity of the procedural memory for language gradually decreases after about age 5” (Nikolov and Djigunovic, 2006, 235). The procedural memory is more characterised by unconscious usage. This idea, that younger students rely more on unconscious learning, is also supported by two case studies in Canada which discovered that younger immersion students relied more on memory rather than on their analytical language ability. Because children are this characterised by unconscious language usage they profit more from these kinds of tasks, so teachers should take advantage of these activities.

Thirdly, another important feature of younger students according to research is that they benefit more from meaning focused activities. Meaning focused activities are intended to imitate every day communications. The aim of these activities is to understand what others want to say. Role playing could be beneficial for this reason. Another surprising feature is that young children develop their language skills slower. On the other hand, they can achieve higher proficiency than adults in the long run. It is crucial to note, because teachers should not be disappointed if young learners do not develop easily. Thus teachers should stay motivated because dedication will be remunerative. Another positive effect of early language learning could be that these experiences may enhance children’s cognitive control which results in a more flexible decision making.

When it comes to the cognitive advantages of early language learners the main one is that it mostly happens unconsciously due to it seems easy. So younger learners have some benefits concerning language learning and teachers can utilise this advantage with specific tasks. So what’s the most important is that language teachers can enhance the success of the learners if they plan activities based on the age of their students.

Source of images: wannabees.com.au and corpshumain.ca


  • Abello-Contesse, C. (2008). Age and the critical period hypothesis. ELT Journal, 63(2), pp.170-172.
  • ThoughtCo. (2017). What Is Linguistic Competence?. [online] Retrieved : https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-linguistic-competence-1691123 [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • Nikolov,M.,& Djigunović, J. M. (2006). Recent Research on Age, Second Language Acquisition, and Early Foreign Language Learning.  In Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, (pp. 234-260). USA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Science, L. (2017). Declarative Memory: Definitions & Examples. [online] Live Science. Retrieved: Retrieved https://www.livescience.com/43153-declarative-memory.html [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • the hands up project. (2017). Meaning-focused activities. [online] Retrieved :https://handsupproject.org/2017/02/23/meaning-focused-activities/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • Alipour S.  (2014). Metalinguistic and Linguistic Knowledge in Foreign Language Learners. In Theory and Practice in Language Studies (pp. 2640-2645). Finland: Academy Publisher.

One thought on “Dinnyés Éva – The Cognitive Characteristics of Early Second Language Learners

  1. When it comes to the cognitive advantages of early language learners the main one is that it mostly happens unconsciously due to it seems easy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *