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AGE AND SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING How does age affect Language Learning, especially Second Language Learning? Different considerations that are to be taken into account when teaching different age groups.

Mara Ikwat

Contents Page Introduction p.3 Age of acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) p.4 Rate of learning p.6 The beginning of formal Second Language (L2) instruction p.7 L1 Interference in Adults p.8 Different age groups and their implications for teachers p.9 Bibliography p.11

Introduction Schools of thought, such as the Structuralism/ Behaviourism (1940s1950s), the Rationalism/ Cognitivist (1960s-1970s) and the Constructivism (1980s, 1990s and early 2000) have all made significant contributions that made it possible to build a Theory of Second Language Acquisition. Building such a theory is extremely complex, as it has to be general enough to encompass all the different variables, but at the same time, it has to be detailed in order to be meaningful. In this assignment I will try to deal with the different aspects of learning a second language, and how they vary depending on the age of the learner. To do so I will make reference to different authors who adhere to the different schools of thought. I consider of vital importance defining SLA before exploring its implications in accordance to age. According to Ritchie and Bhatia (1996; p-1), SLA is the acquisition of a language after the native language has already become established in the individual. It is useful to remember then that the L2 learner differs from the L1 learner in two critical ways: A) the L2 learner begins the process of acquisition at a time when he or she has matured past the age when the L1 is normally acquired, and B) the L2 learner has a language system in place. As a starting point I would like to quote some assumptions stated by Penny Ur (A course in Language Teaching Theory and Practice): 1) Younger children learn languages better than older ones, children learn better than adults; 2) Foreign language learning in school should be started at as an early age as possible; 3) Children and adults learn languages basically in the same way; 4) Adults have longer concentration spans than children; and 5) It is easier to motivate children than adults.

Age of acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) When comparing child and adult learners it is important to consider, not only biological factors, such as the differences suggested by the CPH, but also the conditions in which language learning takes place. When focusing on the latter one should bear in mind, as pointed out by Lightbown & Spada (2006; p-67), that young learners learning in an informal setting are often exposed to a great amount of the L2, they have plenty of opportunities not only to hear the language, but also to use it in an environment in which they are not threatened; hence, they do not experience strong pressure to speak fluently and accurately from the beginning. This will allow them to build up their confidence and gain proficiency along the way. What is more, they are encouraged from the beginning, to speak even if they make mistakes; these are even often praised. On the other hand, older learners are usually required to use more complex language and expressions because of the situations in which they are made to use the L2. Adults often feel frustrated due to their lack of mastery of language to express what they really want to say. This will lead them to develop a feeling of inadequacy, affecting their motivation and willingness to place themselves in situations in which they will need to use the L2. Lenneberg defined Critical Period as a biological period of life when language can be acquired more easily and beyond which time, language is increasingly difficult to acquire. Based on readings from different authors, it is possible to say that there are several critical periods throughout the process of SLA. According to Krashen, Long & Scarella (1979), older learners tend to acquire a second language faster than younger ones, but, in the long-term young learner become more proficient than the former. Oyama (1976) demonstrated that the younger the child started the process of acquisition the less accent-like speech he or she would present. Patkowski (1980) claimed that pre-puberty learners had greater ability to acquire morphology and syntax. 4

Further evidence is offered by Johnson and Newport (1989) on the existence of different critical periods (sensitive periods) for the different linguistic demands of morphology and syntax . Johnson and Newport carried out a case study in which they compared L2 performance from several immigrants arriving in the US by the age of 15 with a second group who had arrived later. They asked both groups to perform grammaticality judgement tasks. They concluded that there is a linear relationship between age of arrival and success in such tasks in the first group, but they could find no relation at all in the group who arrived after puberty. This led them to think that age effects take place during the Critical Period, but once it ends success in morphology and syntax is random. To round up this aspect, I would like to state a consensus: the younger a child is when he or she begins the process, the more likely he or she is to end up being undistinguishable from native speakers () but it is within this group of learners that the issue of different critical ages for different components of grammar arises. (Jacquelyn Schachter, Handbook of SLA, Chapter 5: Maturation and the Issue of Universal Grammar in SLA, Child L2 vs. Adult L2 p-179; 1996)

Rate of learning As mentioned above, learners belonging to different age groups will acquire language at a different pace, and the conditions in which learning takes place will also vary with age. Some researchers suggest that older learners have an important advantage compared to younger ones: they seem to learn faster in the early stages of L2 learning (Lightbown and Spada p-72; 2006). Based on a research study, Snow and Hoefnagel-Hgel published an article in 1978. Such study assessed different age learners in pronunciation, auditory discrimination, grammatical functions, sentence-translation, vocabulary, story comprehension and story-telling. They concluded that both adults and adolescents learned faster than children in the first year of L2 development. Still, young children were catching-up and, evidence from other studies suggests that they would probably surpass older learners if they continued to have proper opportunities to use the L2. The opportunities for learning, both inside and outside the classroom, together with motivation and individual aptitudes for language learning will determine both the rate and the eventual success the learner will have.

The beginning of formal Second Language (L2) instruction Contrasting with one of the assumptions stated in the introduction based on Penny Ur (Foreign language learning in school should be started at as an early age as possible), formal instruction in the L2 could start at different moments depending on the aims of learning the second language. If the aim of the second language learning is to obtain native-like mastery, it would be recommendable for the learner to be completely immersed in the language as early as possible. On the contrary, when the aim is basic-communicative ability, it may be more effective to begin later, when learners are already undergoing the process of mastering their mother tongue. The decision of when to begin Second Language teaching should be an informed one. One should be aware, and realistic, of how long it takes to learn a second language and the amount of contact hours students will actually have with the L2.

L1 interference in Adults (Based on Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, 4th edition, by Brown, 2006; Chapter 3: Age and Acquisition, Interference p-68) In the previous chapters of this assignment I mentioned the fact that adults learning a second language are less likely to become proficient due to the different critical periods they undergo. This will be especially so if the learning of the second language is too distant in time from the first language acquisition. Adult learners of a second language tend to formulate linguistic rules based on whatever linguistic information there is available to them: native language, prior knowledge of the second language, teachers, classmates and peers. Adults learning a second language usually make many of the same errors children make when learning their first language; mainly as the result of a creative perception of the second language, and an attempt to discover the rules of said language in comparison with their mother tongue. This may lead as to believe that learners first language can be used to bridge gaps in the second language that could not be gapped with, for example generalization. Hence, first language could be seen not only as an interfering factor, but also, and most importantly, as a facilitating one.

Different age groups and their implications for teachers I would now state the different implications when dealing with different age groups as an answer to the original question How does age affect second language learning? To do so I will make reference to Harmer (How to teach English new edition, Jeremy Harmer, 2007; chapter 1: Learners, Age p-14). CHILDREN Children not only learn what is being taught, but they also learn from whatever happens around them. Seeing, hearing and touching are just as important for children to learn as the teachers explanations. Children like individual attention from the teacher and look for his/her constant approval. These learners respond well to activities that focus on their lives and experiences. However, their attention span is often fairly short, regardless of the topic. ADOLESCENTS These learners have developed greater capacity for abstract thinking; being now able to talk about more abstract ideas. At their best, they have a great capacity for learning, are passionate for things that interest them. Such characteristics should be exploited as much as possible. Many adolescents understand and accept the need for learning a second language. Adolescence is a period in life where there is a constant search of identity and self-esteem. This will often result in the learners need to be accepted by their peers rather than by the teacher. ADULTS Older learners are often more disciplined and apply themselves to the task of learning. However, they can also be disruptive: they may resist to do

what the teacher asks them, they disagree verbally with both the teacher and his/her peers, they might fail to do homework, among other behaviours. Usually adult learners have a clear understanding of why they are learning things, and can sustain their motivation by perceiving, and holding on to, long-term learning goals.


Bibliography Handbook of SLA, 1996; edited by Ritchie and Bhatia o Chapter 1: Second Language Acquisition p-1 o Chapter 3: Universal Grammar & SLA, Lydia White Child and Adult differences, p-112 o Chapter 5: Maturation and the issue of UG in SLA, Jacquelyn Shachter Child L2 vs. Adult L2 p-179 o Chapter 15: Neurolinguistics of Second Language Acquisition and Use, Obler and Hannigan Criticial or Sensitive Period p511 How Languages are Learned (third edition), 2006; Lightbown and Spada o Chapter 3: Individual differences in Second Language Learning Age of Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis p-67, -Rate of learning p-72, -At what age should second language instruction begin? P-73 Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (fourth edition), 2006; Brown o Chapter 3: Age and Acquisition Interference in adults p-68 How to Teach English (new edition), 2007; Harmer o Chapter 1: Learners Age p-14