Our Series Editor and Author, Simone E. Pfenninger, Wins Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Prize

This month we were delighted to hear that co-editor of our series Second Language Acquisition, co-editor of Future Research Directions for Applied Linguistics and co-author of Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning, Simone E. Pfenninger, has been awarded the 2018 Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Prize.

The Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Prize is a Swiss prize that is given annually to up to three recipients (an artist, a literary author and a scientist). Simone received the award for her work on the project “Beyond Age Effects”, which she conducted in Switzerland between 2008 and 2017. Parts of the results of this project were published in her 2017 book with David Singleton, Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning.

The large-scale longitudinal project, undertaken in Switzerland between 2008 and 2017, focused on the effects of age of onset (AO) vis-à-vis the learning of English that manifest themselves in the course of secondary schooling. The two main goals of the project were to identify factors that prevent young learners from profiting from their extended learning period, as documented in numerous classroom studies, as well as to understand the mechanisms that provide late starters with learning rates in the initial stages of learning which enable them to catch up relatively quickly with early starters. These are questions of considerable theoretical and practical significance, since they are at the heart of debates revolving around age – one of the most controversial variables in foreign language (FL) learning and teaching research.

Over 800 secondary school students (636 of them longitudinally over a period of five years) were tested, who had all learned Standard German and French in primary school, but only half of whom had had English (their third language, L3) from third grade (age 8) onwards, the remainder having started five years later in secondary school. This constellation provided a unique window into the benefits of early versus late FL learning.

Advanced quantitative methods in classroom research (e.g. multilevel modeling) were combined with individual-level qualitative data, rather than examining the relationship between well-defined variables in relative isolation (as in ANOVA-type analyses). The findings cast some doubt on the importance of maturational and strictly durative aspects of FL instructional learning: success mostly does not relate to AO or length of the exposure. Close analysis of the interplay of variables showed that a number of variables are much stronger than starting age for a range of FL proficiency dimensions, e.g. (1) effects of instruction-type, (2) literacy skills, (3) classroom effects, (4) extracurricular exposure and (5) socio-affective variables such as motivation. The findings also suggest that different learner populations (monolinguals, simultaneous bilinguals, sequential bilinguals) are differentially affected by L3 starting age effects, partly due to individual differences (e.g. (bi)literacy skills), partly due to contextual effects that mediate successful L3 outcomes (e.g. language environment at home, classroom effects and teaching approach).

Congratulations to Simone for this brilliant achievement!

If you found this interesting, you might like to read Simone’s book co-authored with David Singleton, Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning.

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