There is a number of theories which enable us to develop a deeper understanding of how foreign languages are acquired and how this process influences children’s cognitive development across languages. Taking into account all the information flow gained through the examination of different theories, teachers may have a better understanding of the second language acquisition in order to determine the types of tasks and activities that suit the needs of our learners. 

What is Threshold Hypothesis?

Jim Cummins’ theory of Threshold Hypothesis is among well-known theories which concentrate on the acquisition of foreign languages and how it influences a child’s linguistic and academic competence. 

According to Cummins, in learning a second language a certain minimum ‘threshold’ level of proficiency must be reached in that language before the learner can benefit from the use of the language.  The theory, which was postulated by Jim Cummins in 1969, essentially has two thresholds. The first threshold is a minimum for children to reach in order to avoid the negative effects of bilingualism.  Below this level, we witness the cases when children have limited competency in both languages. Between the two thresholds, children are competent in one language; but are not yet able to transfer skills between the two languages. However, it is also important to note that according to the theory the more developed the first language, the easier it will be to develop the second language. On the contrary, the lower the competency level in the first language, the harder it is to achieve bilingualism. A strong first language can support the development of a second language. The second threshold gives room for positive cognitive effects in both languages. Specifically, individuals with high levels of proficiency in both languages experiment advantage in terms of cognitive and linguistic flexibility while low levels of proficiency in both languages result in cognitive deficits.

The table below illustrates the main concepts of threshold hypothesis.

Threshold Hypothesis Learning Foreign Languages scaled Skyteach

What the threshold hypothesis reveals is that students need to develop proficiency in a language so that they can gain access to the curriculum. Research results report that the best way to do this is to support students in developing and maintaining literacy in their native language. In addition, students must be given tasks that should be cognitively demanding. Helping students develop cognitive complexity will increase the likelihood of growth in their linguistic skills in both languages. 

Teachers should think carefully about the learning tasks they assign bilingual students. Will the demands promote cognitive and linguistic development? What must the child bring to the task to be successful? 

Some activities to promote linguistic and cognitive development. 

Cognitive development (CD) skills include, but aren’t limited to;

  • Sequencing (determining the logical order of events in time);
  • Predicting (guessing what will happen next);
  • Comparing (discovering differences and similarities in data);
  • Reasoning (making deductions based on data);
  • Identifying (separating relevant from irrelevant data);
  • Interacting with others (expressing );
  • Evaluating (drawing conclusions from data). 

Here is an example to show how to develop linguistic and cognitive development: the teacher gives students a list of phobias and their definitions. Students learn the names of phobias (linguistic development). As further refinement teachers assign students to go online and find the strangest phobia you can find. Write down the key points and present to your group and decide which phobia is the strangest of all. That involves cognitive development skills such as interaction, reasoning and identifying. 

So according to the threshold hypothesis, while learning foreign languages both languages have access to the same store of knowledge, available to learners regardless of how the knowledge was acquired in the first place. 

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