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AGE-RELATED FACTORS IN LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
By Stefania Poli
GENERAL OVERVIEW:
My attention will focus on the age variable in second language acquisition,
investigating whether or not age can be considered a fundamental factor
affecting the acquisition process.
I will consider various contributions researchers have offered up to now,
beginning my study from the “classical” Lenneberg position of 1967, which can
be considered as the starting point of all issues related to age and language
acquisition. From this major contribution to the problem, other questions have
raised (see specific section).
The problem of accessibility of the Universal Grammar, a concept developed by
Noam Chomsky, will also be taken into consideration in my research, since I
deem it a fundamental issue in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Proving or
disproving the accessibility theory, in fact, could change the whole perspective
on SLA because of the influence it can have on both SLA theory and pedagogy.
FINAL QUESTIONS:
Major question:
- Is age a fundamental factor in language acquisition?
Related questions:
- Is it possible to pinpoint different abilities (or difficulties) at different ages for
SLA?
- How does the concept of Universal Grammar relate to first (and second)
language acquisition?
- Is Universal Grammar (UG) still accessible after childhood?
- Should the educational practice follow different patterns depending on the age
of the learners?
In our textbook we read some statements that might sound very discouraging to
adult learners: M. Nash states that “ the ability to learn a second language is
highest between birth and the age of six, then undergoes a steady and
inexorable decline.” ( page 5) This position is also supported by other authors,
and common belief seems to confirm the “younger-the-better” position in
language education. Selinker and Gass* maintain that “In second language
acquisition (at least, adult second language acquisition), not only is complete
knowledge not always attained, it is rarely, if ever, attained. Fossilization (…) is
frequently observed” (p. 124).
However, I read some articles that seem to debunk these statements, as they
maintain that adult learners can be better learners than children thanks to their
higher cognitive development. These controversial positions on the second
language learning process have stimulated my interest for two main reasons:

Informal interview with my two adult learners. as well as more recent ones (Byalistock.Literature review: I reviewed the literature about the issue of age and language acquisition in order to assess whether or not a clear relationship can be established between the two factors. Bongaerts et al.Internet resources – for additional articles and essays – Since I was not completely satisfied with the material I found in the library. The research. MOST SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS: Major question: . This issue is actually extremely interesting for the purposes of my research as it gives an original. a medical doctor and his wife. alternative and potentially “revolutionary” explanation to the language acquisition process. however. Twyford (1988) argues that “because of their conscious awareness of language and ability to formalize linguistic rules. The other is to ground in educational research my opportunities of being a better teacher for adult learners. 1997). I began my study from Lenneberg’s “Critical Period Hypothesis” (1967). who will spend some months in Italy. not age of first exposure is the key-factor in language acquisition. older learners can outperform younger learners in the early stages of language acquisition. I also reviewed important articles written in the Eighties by Collier and Twyfold. . I went on the Internet to look for more answers to my questions and. . I found references to an issue I overlooked at first: the Universal Grammar. especially in production tasks (writing and speaking)”. points out that the . METHODOLOGY: . I asked them to describe the teaching method they favor (and why).One is to know whether or not the “younger the better” position is still maintainable after all the research (sprung from Lenneberg’s work) that has been made on this issue. Collier (1988).Is age a fundamental factor in language acquisition for academic purposes? The tenet that younger children (2-6 years of age) have an advantage on older learners (7-13 years) in language acquisition is supported by empirical evidence. I give private Italian lessons to two adult learners. since a) it can be considered as a milestone in the study of this issue and b) because much of the later literature treating the problem of age and language acquisition relates to Lenneberg’s work. next year. which all move along a line of skepticism about Lenneberg’s hypothesis. however. browsing the various “electronic libraries”. is less categorical on this point: a thick body of studies demonstrate that length of exposure. 1997.

Byialistok (1997) maintains that “ age differences in second language acquisition abilities are inconsistent. is not supported by later studies. . the critical period seems to be around the age of 15. The mind of a child. a very interesting study by J. Twyford also states that although children aged 4-7 do not have problems to learn a language in a natural setting. Rather. She cites a study by Long (1990) that shows that age 6 represents the beginning of the downward slope for phonology. but as mechanism with a linguistic predisposition that allows the child to acquire the complexity of his or . She states that maturational effects are evident on the area of morphology and syntax and recommends to consider the critical age issue in a focused way. not only at early stages of language learning as Twyford suggests. In fact.advantage for older learner is maintained over time. but as discrete critical periods for different components of the language. As for morphology and syntax. However. on the contrary. The existence of a critical period for language acquisition from age 2 to 13.How does the concept of Universal Grammar relate to first (and second) language acquisition? Universal Grammar is a concept developed by Noam Chomsky and can be defined as a set of innate principles peculiar to human mind that allow human beings to access the deep structure of the language. they seem to be slower learners compared to 8/12 years old as far as formal language (the language necessary for school) is concerned. cannot be considered as a blank slate. while older learners tend to retain their foreign accent. as stated by Lenneberg (1967). . there is no uniform pattern of development and individual abilities vary tremendously. but appearing only on certain kinds of tasks that assess specific aspects of knowledge. Studies conducted to evaluate the interactions between age and pronunciation ability seem to confirm the existence of an optimal period for accent acquisition: the ability to speak a foreign language with a native accent seems to be directly correlated to the learner’s age. Schachter contends that it is necessary to look at the issue not as a global period. sometimes to the advantage of older learners. they are quite ordinary occurrences that emerge when conditions are favorable”. seem to acknowledge that older children (around puberty) have an advantage over younger children in second language acquisition for school. The documented cases of perfect mastery of a second language achieved by late learners are not an anomalous exception to a biological law (…).Is it possible to pinpoint different abilities (or difficulties) at different ages for SLA? Authors tend to deny the possibility of establishing a clear relationship between age and particular abilities in language acquisition. Most researchers. The common sense tends to support the “younger-the-better” hypothesis because the accent of younger learners is often native-like. consequently. The conscious awareness of the language production is the key-factor that makes older learners perform better than younger ones in a second language. Schachter (1989) shows that some aspects of language learning are indeed age-related.

Should the educational practice follow different patterns depending on the age of the learners? The research I read tends to demonstrate that the more the child matures. These considerations seem to call for a revision of “the younger-the-better” position because research demonstrates that second language learning can be a difficult and frustrating experience also for a young children. claiming that UG is still accessible after childhood. The “indirect access” hypothesis occupies and intermediate position. to be considered a proficient speaker. For the “direct access” hypothesis. That’s why the teacher should help the young learner in a L2 setting also by means of his or her L1. must have a much deeper knowledge of the target language than a child. . according to BleyVroman’s analysis. a learner acquires a second language in the same way he or she had acquired the first language.Is Universal Grammar (UG) still accessible after childhood? There is no final answer to this question and the positions about this issue are essentially three. being L2 acquired through formal instruction or imitation. . a more decontextualized and abstract language than the one used in everyday communication. but only through the first language. The “no access” model. Perhaps this misconception is due to the fact that the criteria to judge language proficiency are different for children and for adults. The interview I made with my two adult students seems to support this conclusion: they both prefer a grammar-based approach rather then a whole language one. which is used by the learner to make assumptions about the structures of the target language. But acquiring a second language for school. This spontaneous learning might lead to the ability to communicate effectively in familiar situation. and should look with suspicion to the most radical whole-language approaches that postulate that young children can easily absorb a second language through simple immersion in a L2 environment. the evidence that their language learning is goal-oriented. The same conclusion is applicable to adult learners who. the tenet that language acquisition is easy and natural for young children might be misleading. Moreover. have definitively lost the capacity to learn a language in context. Consequently.her fists language in an accurate way. I thought I would have reached different results!). suggests that formal and oriented instruction is the most effective pedagogical strategy for adult learners. Barry McLaughlin (1989)* states that an adult. in an amazingly short period of time and despite the lack of formal or complete instruction. One of the most debated points about Universal Grammar is whether or not it is still accessible after childhood. on the contrary. They both feel they have a better grasp on the language only if . where a wide range of paralinguistic and situational cues are used to support the context of the discourse. maintains that first and second language learning are completely different tasks. is a long process that requires the active support of a guide and second language teachers should be aware of this. the more his or her linguistic skills are enhanced (honestly.

Yet another question lingers: does the school system take the indications that emerge from this kind of study seriously? Early immersion programs for immigrant children. by granting to children only an advantage in terms of a better accent. Adult language learning resembles general adult learning” (p. of course. does not apply only to the issue about language acquisition and age but to several aspects of the educational practice. tailored on the learner’s particular needs. however. Is it only a matter of accent that deceives the listener. or do children have a cognitive advantage on adult learners (higher brain plasticity)? The latest research tends to deny this evidence and to contradict Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis. I would for sure keep in mind the suggestion of using the children’s first language as a helpful support for second language learning. I wonder.they know and understand the grammar rules on which the language is organized. dissuades against immersion curricula even at a young age. seem to head in the opposite direction from the one suggested by research. because I thought that the majority of authors would acknowledge the easiness of second language learning for children. So. . in fact. The research on second language acquisition in children. LINGERING QUESTIONS The whole body of research that debunks the “younger-the-better” tenet cannot dissolve the evidence that children are better learners of a foreign language than adults. the studies I reviewed confirm what I expected to find: whole language approaches do not appear to be the most effective strategy for adults. can have an impact on my teaching. in fact. IMPACT OF INQUIRY ON MY TEACHING The result of my research left me very puzzled. Bley-Vroman (1989). while encouraging a gradual introduction to the foreign language. I am not convinced about this issue and I would like to deepen my knowledge about it. Unfortunately. On the contrary. the majority of the studies demonstrate that for young children (up to around 7 years of age). curricula and educational psychology too often seem to follow different paths. even if grammar might not be so significant in order to actually speak the language. They acknowledge this evidence. As far as adult teaching is concerned. If I ever come to teach to young children. adopting a “no-access” standpoint suggests that “first language development is controlled by an innate acquisition system that no longer operates in adults.55). and yet they are unable to divert their efforts to a more global approach to language learning. seems to be the most motivating and effective strategy to teach a second language to adult learners. This conclusion. This question. A goal-oriented instruction. second language learning for school can be a difficult and frustrating task. The Universal Grammar issue has really caught my attention and I would like to know more about it.

NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. and Hannigan S. The structure of age: in search of barriers to second language acquistion. E. Hillsdale. Wheaton. J. Vol. C. (1988) The effect of age on acquisition of a second langage for school.ncbe.is it possible not to loose the mechanism that enables children to learn their first language? Can a constant engagement in language learning from a young age keep it alive? RESOURCES: Age-related variance in Language Acquisition: Bialystok. In S.gwu. V.511-523 Bley-Vroman R. Twyfold.gwu. (1989) Testing a proposed universal. MD: National Clearinghouse for bilingual education. (1984) Second Language Acquisition in childhood. Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition. (1989) What is the logical problem of foreign language learning? .htm Critical period.htm Different abilities at different ages: Collier. K. Obler L. universal grammar and question whether or not children have an advantage over adults in learning a second language McLaughlin B. (winter 1987/1988).edu/ncbepubs/classics/focus/02aage. W. Schachter (Eds). In S. Cambridge University Press . Pp. Schachter. (1997). Gass and J.: The process of L2 acquisition Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Also on the website: http://www. 116-137 McLaughlin B. Cambridge University Press. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition. 1.ncbe. Second Language Research 13(2). Vol. Schachter (Eds). Gass and J. (1984) Second Language Acquisition in childhood.edu/ncbepubs/classics/focus/02bage. 1. Hillsdale. MD: National Clearinghouse for bilingual education Also on the website: http://www.