Study calls into question benefits of early English

A University of Zurich study has found that early English learning may not be as advantageous as thought, the NZZ am Sonntag reports. Its findings come at a difficult time in the language debate.

There is currently much discussionexternal link on how many languages should be taught at primary schools and which one first: English or the national language French. On May 21external link voters in canton Zurich are to decide on a people’s initiative calling for primary schools to teach one language,external link the latest in a series of cantonal votes on the issue.

“At precisely this moment canton Aargau has published a controversial study,” the NZZ am Sonntagexternal link article said.

Aargau’s success

The report was carried out by Institute for Education Evaluationexternal link, an Associated Institute of the University of Zurich, compared pupils in the cantons of Aargau, where English is introduced earlier (after three years of primary school), and Solothurn, where it is taught during lower secondary education (after the age of 11). The comparison was made at the end of obligatory school, so when they were aged around 15.

The Aargau pupils were found to have done better: more had reached an advanced level of English and most had fulfilled the curriculum’s goals. In canton Solothurn, twice as many pupils did not reach the lowest level in reading and writing for English.

These results were deemed a success by canton Aargauexternal link when it published the study on February 28. It said that English was now established in primary schools in the canton.

Doubts put forward

But according to the NZZ am Sonntag, the Institute for Education Evaluation study casts some doubts as to the efficacy of early foreign language learning.

“If the total teaching time is counted, the relation between effort and result for early English lessons is rather unfavourable,” the newspapers quotes the authors as writing.

The study found that the Aargau pupils were only between six months and a school year ahead of their Solothurn counterparts. This was despite the Aargau pupils having seven years’ English and the Solothurn students just three at the point at which the research was carried out.

The study comes after the linguist Simone Pfenningerexternal link found that Gymnasium (upper secondary) pupils who started English from scratch soon caught up with those who had learned English early. She concluded that the intensity of the lessons was more important than the age at which learning started or how many years of lessons there had been.


The Zurich study’s results have been welcomed by the backers of the Zurich foreign languages initiative, the article added.

It is better to concentrate on one language at primary school they argue and add a second one later. Pupils will catch up quickly, they say.

However, the Zurich cantonal education authorities, while not commenting on the Zurich study directly, said they believed in the benefit of learning foreign languages early.

Swiss Info


Related posts