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Second Language Learning
and Language Teaching

Page 158

8.4 Age: are young L2 learners better than old
learners?

Age: are young L2 learners better than old learners? 147

● What do you think is the best age for learning a new language? Why?
● How would your teaching of, say, the present tense, differ according to

whether you were teaching children or adults?

Focusing questions

critical period hypothesis: the claim that human beings are only capable of
learning language between the age of 2 years and the early teens

immersion teaching: teaching the whole curriculum through the second
language, best known from experiments in Canada

Keywords

Undoubtedly, children are popularly believed to be better at learning second lan-
guages than adults. People always know one friend or acquaintance who started
learning English as an adult and never managed to learn it properly, and another
who learnt it as a child and is indistinguishable from a native. Linguists as well as
the general public often share this point of view. Chomsky (1959) has talked of the
immigrant child learning a language quickly, while ‘the subtleties that become sec-
ond nature to the child may elude his parents despite high motivation and contin-
ued practice’. My new postgraduate overseas students prove this annually. They
start the year by worrying whether their children will ever cope with English, and
they end it by complaining how much better the children speak than themselves.

This belief in the superiority of young learners was enshrined in the critical period
hypothesis: the claim that human beings are only capable of learning their first lan-
guage between the age of two years and the early teens (Lenneberg, 1967). A variety
of explanations have been put forward for the apparent decline in adults: physical
factors such as the loss of ‘plasticity’ in the brain and ‘lateralization’ of the brain;
social factors such as the different situations and relationships that children
encounter compared to adults; and cognitive explanations such as the interference
with natural language learning by the adult’s more abstract mode of thinking (Cook,
1986). It has often been concluded that teachers should take advantage of this ease
of learning by teaching a second language as early as possible, hence such attempts
to teach a foreign language in the primary school as the brief-lived primary school
French programme in England. Indeed, the 1990s saw a growth in the UK in ‘bilin-
gual’ playgroups, teaching French to English-speaking children under the age of 5.

Evidence for the effects of age on L2 learning
Evidence in favour of the superiority of young children, however, has proved sur-
prisingly hard to find. Much research, on the contrary, shows that age is a positive
advantage. English-speaking adults and children who had gone to live in Holland
were compared using a variety of tests (Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle, 1977). At the

Page 159

end of three months, the older learners were better at all aspects of Dutch except
pronunciation. After a year this advantage had faded and the older learners were
better only at vocabulary. Studies in Scandinavia showed that Swedish children
improved at learning English throughout the school years, and that Finnish-speak-
ing children under 11 learning Swedish in Sweden were worse than those over 11
(Eckstrand, 1978). Although the total physical response method of teaching, with
its emphasis on physical action, appears more suitable to children, when it was
used for teaching Russian to adults and children the older students were consis-
tently better (Asher and Price, 1967).

Even with the immersion techniques used in Canada in which English-speaking
children are taught the curriculum substantially through French, late immersion
pupils were better than early immersion students at marking number agreement
on verbs, and at using ‘clitic’ pronouns (‘le’, ‘me’, etc.) in object verb construc-
tions (Harley, 1986). To sum up, if children and adults are compared who are
learning a second language in exactly the same way, whether as immigrants to
Holland, or by the same method in the classroom, adults are better. The apparent
superiority of adults in such controlled research may mean that the typical situa-
tions in which children find themselves are better suited to L2 learning than those
adults encounter. Age itself is not so important as the different interactions that
learners of different ages have with the situation and with other people.

However, there are many who would disagree and find age a burden for L2 learn-
ing. These chiefly base themselves on work by Johnson and Newport (1989), who
tested Chinese and Korean learners living in the USA and found that the earlier
they had arrived there, the better they were at detecting ungrammatical use of
grammatical morphemes such as ‘the’ and plural ‘-s’, and other properties of
English such as wh-questions and word order; indeed, those who arrived under the
age of 7 were no different from natives. DeKeyser and Larson-Hall (2005) found a
negative correlation with age in ten research studies into age of acquisition and
grammaticality judgements, that is, older learners tend to do worse.

Usually children are thought to be better at pronunciation in particular. The
claim is that an authentic accent cannot be acquired if the second language is
learnt after a particular age, say the early teens. For instance, the best age for Cuban
immigrants to come to the USA so far as pronunciation is concerned is under 6, the
worst over 13 (Asher and Garcia, 1969). Ramsey and Wright (1974) found younger
immigrants to Canada had less foreign accent than older ones. But the evidence
mostly is not clear-cut. Indeed, Ramsey and Wright’s evidence has been challenged
by Cummins (1981). Other research shows that when the teaching situation is the
same, older children are better than younger children even at pronunciation. An
experiment with the learning of Dutch by English children and adults found imi-
tation was more successful with older learners (Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle, 1977).
Neufeld (1978) trained adults with a pronunciation technique that moved them
gradually from listening to speaking. After 18 hours of teaching, 9 out of 20 stu-
dents convinced listeners they were native speakers of Japanese, 8 out of 20 that
they were native Chinese speakers.

It has become common to distinguish short-term benefits of youth from long-
term disadvantages of age. David Singleton (1989) sums up his authoritative
review of age with the statement:

The one interpretation of the evidence which does not appear to run into contradic-
tory data is that in naturalistic situations those whose exposure to a second
language begins in childhood in general eventually surpass those whose exposure

Individual differences in L2 users and L2 learners148

Page 316

task-based learning 4, 7, 17, 158, 162,
168, 230, 257, 257–63

listening 129–30
teaching materials 259–60, 261

tasks 249, 257, 257–8, 259–60, 261
Taylor, L. 32, 51–2, 61
teachability hypothesis 28, 31
teacher talk 155, 157–8
teachers 185–9
teaching

applications of SLA research 8–10,
216–18

assessment 137–8, 144–5
classroom interaction 155, 155–69,

226–7, 249
goals 205, 206–9, 232
independence from SLA research 11–12
mixed-ability groups 146
motivating students 138–40, 159, 224
terminology 12

Teaching English Pronunciation (1987) 84–5
Teaching Listening (1989) 129
teaching materials 2, 79–80

audio-lingual method 242–3, 246
authenticity 130, 158–60, 254–5
communicative teaching method

248–9, 253–4
conversational exchanges 166
corpus-based 46–7, 49, 59
goals 211
grammar 20, 21–2, 31–2, 37, 41, 216,

239, 264–5
listening 129, 130, 131
portrayal of L2 users 143, 173, 208
pronunciation 70, 80, 81, 84–5
reading 124
‘smile factor’ 253
strategy training 118
target audience 139, 150, 211
task-based learning 259–60, 261
and use of first language 181, 184
vocabulary 46–7, 49, 54, 59, 61, 63
writing 100–1

teaching methods 3–5, 17, 162–4, 208
and culture 163–4, 200, 201, 249–50,

251
effect of interlanguage hypothesis

14–15
feedback 155, 156, 158, 225–8
grammar-translation 17, 180, 238
immersion teaching 147, 148
listening-based 131–3, 162
reciprocal language teaching 183, 187
total physical response method 4,

131–2, 148, 149, 162, 253

use of first language 4–5, 110, 152,
177–85, 233

teaching styles 3–5, 235–71
academic (grammar-translation) 17,

180, 237–42, 238
audio-lingual method 242, 242–7
communicative teaching method 17,

162, 201, 247–56
and culture 249–50
definition 235
EFL mainstream style 263–6
humanistic/alternative 267–70
task-based learning 257, 257–63

teaching techniques
age appropriateness 149–50
audio-lingual method 242–3
communicative teaching method

248–50
conversational exchanges 166
definition 235
drills 22, 222, 242, 243
grammar 5, 31, 32, 36–43, 40–1, 42–3
information gap exercises 111–12, 247,

248–9, 261
listening 129–33
pronunciation 80–5, 148, 246
reading 123–4
repetition 60–1, 70, 81–2, 222, 244–5
scaffolding 227, 228, 229–30
strategy training 117–19
substitution tables 21, 263, 264
tasks 249, 257, 257–8, 259–60, 261
teacher talk 155, 157–8
vocabulary 62–5, 110–12, 123–4, 240
writing 98–102

technical writing 204
temporality 54
Terrell, Tracey 132, 133, 162
tests 137–8, 144–5, 178, 223
‘th’ rule 91, 92
three-letter rule 91, 92
Timmis, Ivor 186
titles rule 91, 92
Tomasello, Michael 7, 13
tone languages 83, 83–4, 85
top-down parsing 125, 126–8
total physical response method 4, 131–2,

148, 149, 162, 253
Touchstone (2005) 61, 139, 248, 253,

261
tourists 203, 208–9
TPR method 4, 131–2, 148, 149, 162, 253
Tracks (1979) 211
traditional grammar 19, 20–1, 24, 240
traffic light metaphor 54

Index 305

Page 317

transfer 13, 71, 75, 76–7, 94–5
as communication strategy 107, 110

transitional L2 teaching 205, 206–7
translation 239 see also grammar-trans-

lation method
tree diagrams 21, 25
True to Life (1995) 124, 253
Tucker, G.R. 183
turn-taking 168

UG see Universal Grammar (UG)
Underwood, M. 129, 130
UNESCO 12
Universal Grammar (UG) 33, 36, 214,

214–18, 233, 250
universals, language acquisition 77–8
Ur, P. 184
usage-based learning 7
Using Intonation (1979) 84–5

validity 145, 259
values 10, 210
variation in language 38, 64–5, 83, 172–3

spelling 99–100
Verbal Behavior (1957) 221
verbs, argument structure 50, 63, 217
vocabulary 46–66 see also meaning

acquisition of words 49–52, 60–2
formal models 217
grammatical categories 50
learning strategies 51–2, 57–62
lexical relations 54–5, 60, 63–4
and linguistic relativity 56–7
mental word-stores 52–3, 61–2
retrieval 126
structure words 24, 25, 26, 28, 47
teaching materials 46–7, 49, 54, 59,

61, 63
teaching techniques 62–5, 110–12,

123–4, 240
word frequency 46, 46–9

voice onset time (VOT) 69, 72, 77, 128
Voix et Images de France (1961) 46–7
vowel correspondence rules 92–3, 94
Vygotsky, Lev 228–9

Wallerstein, N. 210
Watson, I. 72
Webster, Noah 91
Weeks, F. 204
Weinreich, Ulrich 194
Welsh 56
wh-movement 29–30
wh-questions 45
while-listening stage 129
White, Lydia 35, 42
Wieden, Wilfried 71
Wight, J. 248
Wilkins, David 166
Williams, Jessica 42
Williams, L. 72
Willis, D. 129, 258, 261
Willis, J. 129, 258, 259–60, 261
Winitz, H. 132
word building 51
word coinage 107, 108, 110
word frequency 46, 46–9
word order 18, 29–30, 45, 218, 219
word spaces 96
words see vocabulary
Words You Need, The (1981) 54
Wright, C. 148
writing 87–104

characteristics 4
correspondence rules 87, 89, 91–3,

94
direction of 90
meaning-based systems 87, 88, 89,

90
orthographic regularities 90, 91
punctuation 19, 95–7
scientific writing 200–1, 204
sound-based systems 87, 88–90
spelling 19, 50, 70, 90–5
teaching materials 100–1
teaching techniques 98–102
technical writing 204

Yelland, G.W. 209

zone of proximal development 228, 229

Index306

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