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.

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.