A Fresh Look at an Old Question: The Age Factor in a New Methodological Light

This month we’re publishing Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning by Simone E. Pfenninger and David Singleton. In this post Simone and David discuss the controversial topic of the age factor in second language learning, as explored in their book.

Both of us – from the beginning of our respective careers – have been fascinated by the question of the age factor in second language learning. As we all know, this is a controversial topic; for example, the debate surrounding the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) has not gone away and is not likely to any time soon. There is, however, more consensus than many people realize between CPH sceptics (like Carmen Muñoz) and CPH advocates (such as Robert DeKeyser). The area in which this happy consensus reigns is that of the effects of an early start to L2 instruction in school, which most SLA researchers of all affiliations have for many decades agreed does not yield the advantage one might expect.

There is a sharp difference between the CPH debate and the discussion concerning the optimal age in a formal, educational context. Whereas the CPH question is interesting theoretically, the issue of the best age for starting a foreign language in school (to which, for various reasons, most CPH supporters these days see the critical period notion as irrelevant) is not just intellectually teasing but is also heavy with practical, socio-economic, political and ideological implications. Clearly, for educators, teachers and policy-makers it is of compelling interest to know more about the end state of foreign language instruction, since such research has important implications for multilingual education when making decisions about (1) early teaching of different languages in elementary school and (2) later instruction in different languages in secondary school.

Our book reports on some further long-term findings to this effect, which we explore and expatiate on in relation to a range of variables which, in the instructional context, turn out to be markedly more influential than age. We talk about recent developments and improvements in the methodological aspects of investigating individual difference variables such as age, as well as our observation that in the formal educational setting the age variable is overshadowed to the point of invisibility by other factors. Such factors include contextual effects (e.g. school effects and the transition from primary to secondary school), the effects of instruction-type and intensity of instruction, effects of extracurricular exposure, the influence of literacy and biliteracy skills, and the impact of socio-affective variables such as motivation. A role for starting age is in fact extremely hard to establish. With regard to the school situation, in other words, we can blithely put aside the maturational question, and all agree that when instruction happens is incomparably less important than how it proceeds and under what circumstances.

Actually such findings regarding the effects of early instruction go back a long way. Thus the idea of introducing L2 instruction into primary/elementary schools in the 1950s and 1960s was dealt a severe blow by the findings of research in the 1970s which cast doubt on the capacity of early instruction to deliver higher proficiency levels as compared with later instruction (e.g. Burstall, Jamieson, Cohen, & Hargreaves, 1975; Carroll, 1975; Oller & Nagato, 1974). The disillusionment occasioned by such findings seems, however, to have been rather short-lived, and more recent and continuing negative results in this connection have also been largely ignored. Our own endeavour has been (1) to try to convince the members of the general public that the time is ripe for closer integration between SLA research and L2 pedagogy and (2) to educate them about recent trends in the age factor tradition in SLA research. Our strong view is that consistent and intensive collaboration between practitioners, politicians and researchers is needed in order to understand and address mutual interests and concerns through shared discussions, data collection, analysis and interpretation.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you liked this, you might also be interested in Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition by Vivian Cook and David Singleton and Future Research Directions for Applied Linguistics edited by Simone E. Pfenninger and Judit Navracsics.

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