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SLARG Meeting, 15 May 2003

Costas Gabrielatos

Summary of
1. The article: Marinova-Todd, S.F., Marshall, D.B. and Snow, C.E. 2000: Three Misconceptions About age
and L2 Learning. TESOL Quarterly 34, 1: 9-34.
2. The response: Hyltenstam, K. and N. Abrahamsson 2001: Age and L2 learning: the hazards of matching
practical 'implications' with theoretical 'facts'. TESOL Quarterly 35, 1: 151-170.
3. The counter-response: Marinova-Todd, S.F., Marshall, D.B. and Snow, C.E. 2001: Missing the point: a
response to Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson. TESOL Quarterly 35, 1: 171-176.

Parameters believed to affect SLA

1. Onset of SLA 4. Language environment 6. Cognitive abilities
2. Time of exposure to L2 (L1/L2 ratio) 7. Learning strategies
3. Richness of exposure 5. Type of exposure / learning 8. Motivation
context 9. Expectations

Critical Period Hypothesis

The article
• There is no consensus re. the existence of a critical period (CP) in SLA.
• Research has been biased in favour of the CPH.

The response
• The existence of CP is an open question, but there is more substantial support for than against its existence.
• The research they cite is not clearly relevant (i.e. it doesn’t test the CPH), nor are the results clear-cut or

Problem 1: Misinterpretation

The article
• High ultimate attainment does not necessarily mean that learning is fast or easy. Adults are faster and more
efficient language learners than children, in the initial stages.
• Effects of age (i.e. onset of learning) are not the same across the board. They may be structure-specific.

The response
• Research seems to indicate that adult learners are better at learning some language features.
• The learning efficiency of adults in learning those features may have to do with their “more sophisticated
pattern recognition skills and their ability to transfer these patterns from one language to another, and not
the result of their greater learning abilities” (: 155)1
• Some tasks are more difficult for children.
• Some children may not have developed test-taking skills.
• AO is the only factor that can account for the variation of outcomes between younger and older learners.
• Current CP claims do not include higher speed of acquisition for young learners.

The counter-response

Isn’t pattern recognition a component of learning abilities?

Reading aloud tasks favour children over adults. The response • Differences in localisation may be related to SLA outcomes . Problem 2: Misattribution The article • Brain activation patterns (as identified by MRI) when using L1 and L2 are not reliable indicators of low proficiency. the language of interaction. That is. high proficiency children may have been compared to low proficiency adults. aptitude and instruction become more important. rather than successful. cognitive ability and motivation have not been taken into account (at least not consistently). • There may be an optimal localisation of language processing in the brain. motivation. or predictors of the level of ultimate attainment.if it did both groups should show similar degrees of variation. • They didn’t discard the field of brain-imaging studies.and low-proficiency subjects. 2 • Speed of acquisition is still used to determine teaching/educational decisions. but recent SLA research has shifted the focus on such adults . The counter-response • The variation in the performance of adults as opposed to the lesser variation in the performance of children indicates that a CP does not exist . The differences in the localisation of brain activity may have to do with the differences between the language processing of high. The evaluation norms were neither well defined nor consistent. children and adult L2 learners. would show a near-native profile. • If a CP exists.research is still in the initial stages. or native-like proficiency in some areas. Imitation tasks don’t take into account the possible decline of auditory capabilities with age. (: 174) • The majority of native speakers. The response • It is true that there have been studies that under-represent adults who have attained native-like proficiency. • Studies on adults with native-like proficiency indicate that adults can achieve near-native proficiency in a number of aspects. “To discard all individual research results and observations in the field until one knows exactly how the different neural subsystems contribute to language learning would be unwise” (: 160)2. 3 What are these “relevant aspects”? . but the adult subjects in the studies were poorly selected. they only advised caution when interpreting results. • The authors are not consistent in their stance towards proficiency and localisation (: 160) The counter-response • Research in this area hasn’t convincingly related localisation and language proficiency. Different patterns may indicate that adults and children attend to different aspects of language in different ways. adult L2 learners. but there has been no report of adults who demonstrate native-like proficiency “in all relevant aspects of the L2” (: 158)3 • UA is uniform in young learners. Problem 3: Misemphasis The article • Studies have given much more attention to unsuccessful. but varies “enormously” in adults. if subjected to detailed linguistic tests. • The role of the linguistic environment. • The evaluation of adult learners’ pronunciation has been problematic. 2 It would be equally unwise to accept them. then issues of social context. The evaluators’ judgement may well have been influenced by preconceptions re. • Attainment of native-like proficiency by adults is more relevant to the CPH than adults’ average performance in tests .it shows that factors other than biological ones are (also?) involved.

• Research reports talk about ‘children’ and ‘adults’ without making it clear if they refer to the onset age (OA). they largely agree with the proposal. have all subjects learnt the L2 through mere exposure (i. • Still. The response • It is not wise to draw practical implications from an unresolved theoretical debate or theoretical research. • Research on the CP has focused on. but because the proposals “follow from applied empirical research that directly addresses the practical issue of when to introduce a new language in the school curriculum” (: 153). it will result in shifting the low expectations from adults to children. Reservations and questions • The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) concerns naturalistic. using the term presupposes that we accept that the critical period exists. syntax and pronunciation. • “We simply do not believe that the attainment of nativelike proficiency is a relevant goal for second/foreign language teaching” (: 164). the success in learning/using specific aspects of language. Practical implications The article • Decisions on when to start learning an L2 should not be made solely on the assumption ‘the younger the better’. • Arguments for/against the existence of a CP do influence the language teaching policies and practices in a number of countries. that is the age when the subjects started learning the L2 (within or after the CP) or to the actual age of subjects during the tests. The counter-response • They reject the distinction between theoretical and applied research. not because they agree that a CP does not exist. and conclusions have been drawn from. • A language course for children should plan to “cover only half as much material in a year as the middle school course” (: 28)4 • Teachers of children should be native or have native-like command. language learning. 3 • The focus of SLA should shift from the examinations of groups to the examination of successful adult language learners. particularly morphology. because the CPH does not address the question of learning rate and it concerns itself with the ability to attain native-like proficiency from mere exposure to the language. how valid are the results of these studies)? How valid or helpful is it to derive implications for instructed SLA from the results of studies on the CPH? • The notion of “ultimate attainment” is biased. as ‘ultimate’ implies that language development ceases after a certain age. In other words. 4 If this recommendation is taken on board. not instructed.e. . rather than the overall effectiveness of language use in context. In the research reported in the three articles. • Foreign language instruction in elementary schools may not be the most productive allocation of learning time. • The issue of CP doesn’t have “immediate and specific implications for teaching practice” (: 154).