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SecondLanguageLearning andCognitiveDevelopment

SeminalandRecentWritingintheField
JosephDicks SecondLanguageResearchInstituteofCanada UniversityofNewBrunswick January2009

SecondLanguageLearningandCognitiveDevelopment 1 Therelationshipbetweencognitiveabilityandsecondlanguagelearningiscomplex andsubjecttoconsiderabledebateinthefield.In1976,thehighlyrespected Canadiansecondlanguageeducator,Dr.HH.Stern,warnedagainstthedangerof simplifyingtheissueofageandsecondlanguagelearning.Sternwrote: Ondevelopmentalgrounds,eachageinlifeprobablyhasitspeculiar advantagesanddisadvantagesforlanguagelearningInthesixtiesthe mistakewasmadeofexpectingmiraclesmerelybystartingyoung.The miracleshavenotcomeabout.Startinglateisnottheanswereither. Thisbriefessaywillexaminethistopicthroughanexplorationoftheissueofage andsecondlanguageacquisition,particularlyasagerelatestocognitivematurity. Thequestionofwhetherthereisastartingageoridentifiableperiodduringwhich secondlanguageacquisitionismoreefficientandeffectiveisreferredtoasa sensitiveperiod(Oyama,1979).Thisperiodisbasedonthebeliefthatthereisa languagespecificacquisitionprocessthatisseparatefromgeneralcognitive functioning.Generally,theargumentisthatthecloserthecommencementof languageacquisitionistotheonsetofthesensitiveperiod,themoreefficient languageacquisitionwillbe(Long,1990).Thisperiodisgenerallyconsideredtobe endaroundpuberty.Whetherthissensitiveperiodexists,however,isopento debate.Essentiallytherearethreecamps:(1)thosewhoclaimevidenceexiststo showchildrenoutperformadultlearners;(2)thosewhobelievethatthereisan advantageforolderlearnersoverchildren;and(3)thosewhobelievethedataare mixedandambiguous.Infact,thereissometruthinallthreepositions.Therestof thisessaywillexaminethequestionofwhetherandtowhatextentageandmaturity impedeoradvancethesecondlanguagelearningofyoungchildreninschool settings. In1988,CharlesWilliamTwyfordoperatedtheNationalClearinghouseforBilingual EducationandtheSpecialIssuesAnalysisCenterundercontracttotheU.S. DepartmentofEducation.InanarticleentitledAgeRelatedFactorsinSecond LanguageAcquisition,Twyfordarguedthatmiddlechildhood,definedasaround 812yearsofage,wasaparticularlygoodtimeforsecondlanguagedevelopment. TwyfordsthinkingisinlinewiththatofVirginiaCollierwhonotedthatduetothe Piagetianshiftfrompreoperationaltoconcreteoperationalstage,aroundtheageof 6or7,educatorshavegreatersuccessredirectingthelanguagebehaviorof8to12 yearoldsthan4to7yearolds(Collier,1987).Collierprovidesevidencefroma numberofresearchstudiesthataround8yearsofagechildrendevelopaconscious awarenessoflanguagethatallowsthemtothinkaboutit,judgeit,andmanipulateit muchasadultsdo.Collier(1989,p.517)states:olderchildren(ages8to12)who havehadseveralyearsofL1schoolingarethemostefficientacquirersofL2school language,exceptforpronunciation.

Twyfordconcludesthatbybeingalerttothecognitivevariablesactiveinthe childrenwhoenteranyclassroom,educatorscanbaseinstructiononwhatthe individuallearnersarereadytoaccomplish. In2002,RichardJohnstone,aprofessorattheUniversityofStirling,Scotland, preparedaguidefortheCouncilofEuropeforthedevelopmentoflanguage educationpoliciesinEurope.Inthatguide,Johnstone(2002,p.13)notesthat,given theappropriateconditions,youngerlearners(inthiscasedefinedasages69)have thefollowingadvantages: theyarelikelytofinditeasiertoacquireagoodcommandofthesoundsystem ofthelanguage,notonlythepronunciationofindividualsoundsbutalso patternsofintonation; theyarelikelytobelesslanguageanxiousthanmanyolderlearnersandhence maybemoreabletoabsorblanguageratherthanblockitout; theyarelikelytohavemoretimeavailableoverall.Ifyoungbeginnersatage5 arecomparedwitholderbeginnersatage10thenafteroneyeartheolder grouparelikelytobeahead.However,ifbothgroupsarecomparedat(say) age14,thentheyoungerbeginnersstandabetterchanceofbeingahead,in partbecauseofthegreateramountoftimeavailableoverall; anearlierstartenablesproductivelinkstobemadebetweenfirstand additionallanguages,whichcanhaveimportantbenefitsforachildslanguage awarenessandliteracy; arangeofacquisitionalprocessescancomeintoplay,e.g.largelyintuitive processesatanearlyage,complementedbymoreanalyticalprocesseslater. Thispotentiallyallowstheadditionallanguagetobecomemoredeeply embeddedintheperson; therecanbeapositiveinfluenceonchildrensgeneraleducationaldevelopment (e.g.cognitive,emotional,cultural)andontheformationofamultilingualand interculturalidentity. Johnsonnotes,however,thatolderlearners(age10andabove)alsohavecertain advantages:Aswellasthefollowingadvantagesforolderlearners: theymaybeabletoplottheirnewlanguageontoconceptsabouttheworld whichtheyalreadypossessfromtheirfirstlanguage.Thiscanhelpgreatlyin vocabularyacquisition,c.f.Ausubel,1964 theymaybemoreexperiencedinhandlingthediscourseofconversationsand otherlanguageactivities,andthusmaybemoreadeptatgainingfeedback 2

SecondLanguageLearningandCognitiveDevelopment 3 fromnativespeakersorteachersandinnegotiatingmeaning,e.g.Scarcellaand Higa,1982; theyarelikelytohaveacquiredawiderrangeofstrategiesforlearning,e.g. notetaking,useofreferencematerials,searchingforunderlyingpattern.This, alliedtotheirestablishedliteracyintheirfirstlanguage,mayhelpthem becomemoreefficientlearners; theymayhaveaclearersenseofwhytheyarelearninganadditionallanguage andmaythereforebeabletoworkpurposefullytowardsobjectivesoftheirown choosing.

JohnstoneconcludesthatInprincipleitisnevertooearlytobegin,butequallyitis nevertoolatetobegin.Thebigadvantageinstartingearlyisthatonecantapinto childrensintuitivecapacitiesforsecondlanguageacquisition.Johnsonemphasizes, however,thatinsuchcasesitisimportanttoprovidesufficienttimetoallowfor inputandinteractionandarangeofcrosscurricularactivities In2008,RobertVanderplank,directoroftheLanguageCentreatOxfordUniversity, arguedinanarticlewrittenintheJournalAppliedLinguisticsthatmiddlechildhood, inthiscasedefinedastheperiodfromages5to9yearsofage,isinmanyways moreconducivetoschoolbasedlanguagelearningthatearlierorlaterperiods. Vanderplankassertsthatbetweenages5and9childrenpossesscertainattributes thatenhancesecondlanguagelearning: 1) developingadultlikememorytheabilitytomemorizeconsciously,both verballyandvisually,thenretainandrecallthisinaflexibleway(Wood, 1998) 2) aninnervoiceandmindseye:innervoiceorinnerspeech(Vygotsky,1986) developsduringtheperiodfrom5to9yearsthisinnervoiceallowsoneto uselanguageasatoolforthinking.Themindseyeallowschildrentolearn andrecallinrandomorder(theydonotneedtorelyonsongsandnursery rhymesforsequencesandstringsofwords). 3) Makingconnections:forexample,theconceptofwordasdistinctfrom meaningdoesnotappeartobefullydevelopeduntilage6or7. Vanderplankmaintainsthatagreatdealoflanguagedevelopmentoccursinmiddle childhoodandthatthisiscloselylinkedtoschooling.Vanderplankwrites:Asthey steadilydeveloptheknowledge,skillsandattributesdescribedabove,childrenare becomingmorelikeadults,equippedwiththecognitiveandlinguistictoolsfor undertakinglargelearningtasks,reflectingontheirknowledgeandexperience. p.719 3

Vanderplankconcludesthat: Inthefivetonineperiod,childrenareintheprocessofgainingmasteryovertheir language,learningthroughsocialinteraction,developinglanguageskillswithexplicit supportfromteachers,parentsandothers,practicingtheseskillsagreatdealtothe pointwheretheybecomeinternalizedandavailableforinstantuse. Theimportanceofthe5to9periodisthatlanguagedevelopmentisnotjustamatter ofnurture,althoughschoolingobviouslydominatesmostchildrenslives.Duringthis periodtherearealsocriticaldevelopmentalmilestoneswhicharerecognizedinthe L1literaturebutaremissingfromtheL2literature.Achievingthesemilestones enableschildrentobecomeadultlanguagelearnerslateron. Thisbrieflookatseminalandrecentwritingsonage,cognitiveabilityandsecond languagelearningclearlyshowsthattheissueiscomplexanddeservescareful consideration.Thereare,clearly,asSternindicated,advantagesforsecond languagelearnersofdifferentages.Inparticular,evidencefromcognitive psychologyandschoolsettingssupportsthepositionthatmiddlechildhoodisa propitiousperiodforschoolbasedsecondlanguagelearning. REFERENCES: Ausubel,D.(1964).Adultsversuschildreninsecondlanguagelearning: psychologicalconsiderations.TheModernLanguageJournal.,48. Collier,V.P.(1987).Ageandrateofacquisitionofsecondlanguageforacademic purposes.TESOLQuarterly,21,617641. CollierV.P.(1989)HowLong?Asynthesisofresearchonacademicachievementin asecondlanguage.TESOLQuarterly23,3,509531 Johnstone,R.2002.AddressingTheAgeFactor:SomeImplicationsforLanguage PolicyCouncilofEurope.Strasbourg. Long,M.(1990).Maturationalconstraintsonlanguagedevelopment.Studieson SecondLanguageAcquisition.12,251285. Oyama,S.(1979)Theconceptofthesensitiveperiodindevelopmentalstudies. MerrillPalmerQuarterly,25,83103. ScarcellaR.&Higa,C.1982.Inputandagedifferencesinsecondlanguage acquisition.In:Krashen,S.,ScarcellaR.,Long,M.(Eds.)Childadultdifferencesin secondlanguageacquisition.Rowley,Mass:NewburyHouse 4

SecondLanguageLearningandCognitiveDevelopment 5 Stern,H.H.1976.Optimumage:mythorreality?CanadianModernLanguage Review,32. Twyford,C.W.1988.AgeRelatedFactorsinSecondLanguageAcquisition. OccasionalPapersinBilingualEducation.TheNewFocus.No.2.National ClearinghouseforBilingualEducation Vanderplank,R.2008.TheSignificanceofFirstlanguageDevelopmentinFiveto NineYearOldChildrenforSecondandForeignLanguageLearning.Applied Linguistics Vygotsky,L.1986.ThoughtandLanguage.Cambridge.MA.MITPress. Wood,D.1998.HowChildrenThinkandLearn.Oxford:Blackwell.