How much English do non-english children learn outside the classroom?

This morning my colleague Vanessa De Wilde shared her first soon to be published scientific paper with me and I like to share the insights here too as they can be relevant to other people too. The study is soon to be published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition and was co-authored by Marc Brysbaert and June Eyckmans.

I first want to share with you the abstract as it already summarizes the study clearly:

In this study we examined the level of English proficiency children can obtain through out-of- school exposure in informal contexts prior to English classroom instruction. The second aim was to determine the input types that fuel children’s informal language acquisition. Language learning was investigated in 780 Dutch-speaking children (aged 10-12), who were tested on their English receptive vocabulary knowledge, listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Information about learner characteristics and out-of-school English exposure was gathered using questionnaires. The results show large language gains for a substantial number of children but also considerable individual differences. The most beneficial types of input were gaming, use of social media and speaking. These input types are interactive and multimodal and they involve language production. We also found that the various language tests largely measure the same proficiency component.

But I want to share some of the findings more in depth:

“The mean score for the receptive vocabulary test was 65% (53% when cognates were left out of the test), attesting to the degree of vocabulary that can be acquired when children areexposed repeatedly to a language through activities that do not focus on language learning but on the negotiation of meaning (e.g. while playing a game).”

“English is seen as a high-status language by the participants in our study (733 participants answered they think English is a fun language, only 27 claimed not to like English), which probably means that they enjoy engaging in (digital) interactions in English.”

“…our findings show the high divergence in the scores obtained, a finding that was also present in Lefever (2010). About a quarter of the students did not pick up much English (yet). ”

A considerable part of the differences in test results could be explained by the amount of exposure the children had received (exposure to the language explained 22% of the variability in the children’s overall proficiency scores). Other variables likely to be involved are individual differences in intelligence and language aptitude (Paradis, 2011; Sun, Steinkrauss, Tendeiro & De Bot 2016; Unsworth, Persson, Prins & De Bot, 2014), which unfortunately could not be addressed in the present study.

“…the two most regularly investigated in studies on contextual learning in a formal context did not turn out to be the most important. These are reading L2 books and watching subtitled television programs. Although both variables are positively correlated with L2 knowledge, the correlations are much lower than those of three other variables.”

“The three most important types of input for children’s language proficiency were: use of social media in English, gaming in English, and speaking English. These three types of exposure are the types which offer ample opportunities for social interaction and authentic communication in contrast with watching television, listening to music, and reading, which are far less interactive. Apparently, passive perception of a language is less effective than active use of the language,…”

“…listening to English music seems to have a negative influence on children’s contextual language learning, when the effects of the other variables are partialled out. This is in line with the finding that productive and multimodal types of input are more effective. The fact that the negative effect is significant is probably due to the nature of the input. Listening or even singing along to a song does not necessarily lead to understanding and learning the language. Furthermore, it takes away time from other activities that are more effective. At the same time, even though the variable is significant, it only explains some 1% of the variation.”


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