Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning: Revisiting the Age Factor

Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning: Revisiting the Age Factor

by Simone E. Pfenninger, David Singleton


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


This book constitutes a holistic study of how and why late starters surpass early starters in comparable instructional settings. Combining advanced quantitative methods with individual-level qualitative data, it examines the role of age of onset in the context of the Swiss multilingual educational system and focuses on performance at the beginning and end of secondary school, thereby offering a long-term view of the teenage experience of foreign language learning. The study scrutinised factors that seem to prevent young starters from profiting from their extended learning period and investigated the mechanisms that enable late beginners to catch up with early beginners relatively quickly. Taking account of contextual factors, individual socio-affective factors and instructional factors within a single longitudinal study, the book makes a convincing case that age of onset is not only of minimal relevance for many aspects of instructed language acquisition, but that in this context, for a number of reasons, a later onset can be beneficial.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783097616
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 04/30/2017
Series: Second Language Acquisition Series , #113
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Simone E. Pfenninger is Assistant Professor of Psycholinguistics and Language Acquisition at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Her research interests include multilingualism, psycholinguistics and the age factor in SLA and she is co-editor (with Judit Navracsics) of Future Research Directions for Applied Linguistics (2017, Multilingual Matters). David Singleton is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Pannonia, Hungary and Fellow Emeritus, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. He has published widely on second language acquisition, multilingualism and lexicology and is co-author (with Vivian Cook) of Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition (2014, Multilingual Matters).

Read an Excerpt

Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning

Revisiting the Age Factor

By Simone E. Pfenninger, David Singleton

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2017 Simone E. Pfenninger and David Singleton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-764-7


Mapping the Terrain

Introduction and Research Goals

Almost 20 years ago, Harley (1998: 27) lamented the fact that no explanation had been provided as to why in school settings 'the additional time associated with an early headstart has not been found to provide more substantial long-term proficiency benefits'. Despite the abundance of critical period studies, maturational state studies and ultimate attainment studies that have been carried out in the meantime (see, e.g. García Lecumberri & Gallardo, 2003; Larson-Hall, 2008; Moyer, 2004; Muñoz, 2003, 2006a, 2008, 2011; for reviews see Lambelet & Berthele, 2015; Muñoz & Singleton, 2011; Singleton, 2005; Singleton & Ryan, 2004), there are still unexplored issues regarding the amount and type of input needed for earlier starters in a school context to surpass later starters and to be able to retain their learning advantages in the long term. In the light of the fact that, since the 1990s, numerous educational authorities in Europe have brought forward the starting age of language instruction in elementary schools, it seems to be particularly important at this point to further analyse the magnitude of the effects of initial age of learning on the end state in a foreign language (FL) classroom.

The introduction of early FLs has given rise to several educational, political and research questions, most of them related to the teaching approach in primary school and the apparent lack of learning success of early classroom learners (ECLs) compared to late classroom learners (LCLs), who, in the past, used to start learning the FL at the beginning of secondary school. In view of their rather unimpressive impact, early FL programmes are currently under scrutiny in Europe (and elsewhere in the world), and the question has arisen as to what extent these investigations relate to what crucially influences the absolute abilities of classroom learners at the end of mandatory school time, and, importantly, how we can exploit an earlier starting age more effectively – a topic that is, at present, still not understood very well. Overall, there has been a tremendous over-reliance on, and blind trust in, the age factor and the amount of time spent learning an FL, at the expense of the conditions of learning. In Ewa Dabrowska's (personal communication, 11 June 2016) words: 'We have become obsessed with age effects'. As Mihaljevic Djigunovic (2014) points out, an early starting age has become something of a given because education policymakers decide on the introduction of second languages (L2s) at an early age irrespective of what research findings suggest and, often, only because of strong parental pressure – a phenomenon that Enever (2004) calls 'parentocracy'. Thus, the urgent problems that research on age effects can help solve concern the understanding by all parties involved (educators, policymakers, parents, politicians, education researchers) of the impact of FL instruction addressed to learners at different ages.

What is more, as multilingualism no longer presents an exception but the rule in Europe (see, e.g. Cenoz & Jessner, 2009), the interest in early multiple FL acquisition and multilingual schooling has been heightened in recent years. In Europe, language use and language rights have long been central concepts of European Union (EU) citizenship, and language skills have become economic assets and a series of targeted agendas. A central aim of EU educational policy is the '1 plus 2' model, which aims to provide EU citizens with 'real opportunities to learn to communicate in two languages plus their mother tongue' (European Commission, 2008: 566; see also European Commission, 2005, 2012). The study of the age factor in multilingualism is a particularly complex issue because there is great diversity in the process of acquiring several languages and numerous individual differences are involved. To date, research is still far from the goal of providing a clear understanding of the role that age of onset (AO) plays over an extended period of time in an input-poor (or 'minimal input') environment where several FLs are taught. This calls for systematic and critical examination and discussion of the age factor in multilingual education and acquisition, particularly based on longitudinal studies with a respectable number of participants.

The present study is the first and only longitudinal study in Switzerland that systematically and empirically explores issues regarding the unique profiles of early vs late starters, the significance of school contexts and the amount and type of English input needed for early starters to retain the advantages conferred by their learning head start in the long term. In conformity with so many ministries of education throughout the world before them, the Swiss Conference of Education Directors (Schweizerische Konferenz der Kantonalen Erziehungsdirektoren [EDK]) decided to recommend to the cantons that they should revise their curricular policies by moving the teaching of French and English from the secondary to the primary level in 1989 and 2004, respectively (EDK, 2004).

Using cross-sectional data from over 200 Swiss learners of English as a third or fourth language, as well as longitudinal data from an additional 200 Swiss learners between 2009 and 2015, has made it possible for us to examine in real time, and in a thorough and detailed manner, the relationships among (1) onset variables; (2) the full array of learners' experience, contexts, attitudes and orientations as well as the correlation between learners' first language (L1) mastery and target language (TL) proficiency; and (3) school achievement at the end of the period of normal schooling in Switzerland. It also enables us to put the 'older=better in a classroom' hypothesis to the test: by revisiting the achievements of earlier vs later learners of English as a foreign language (EFL), it is hoped to discover whether there is indeed a long-term trend for late starters to catch up with the performance of early starters. Note, however, that the issue at stake here is not to shed light on the ultimate attainment of FL learners, but rather to analyse how what happens in the course of mandatory instructional time can be optimised for long-term benefits to unfold before the end of secondary education, given that we know today that 'the necessary length of the relevant period of instruction [to reach native-likeness] is not within the bounds of possibility' (Singleton & Skrzypek, 2014: 6). In order to be able to present solutions and new perspectives, it is vital to first identify the factors that do not work in young learners' favour and that prevent them from profiting from their extended learning period, as well as understanding the mechanisms that provide late starters with the well-documented kick start; i.e. the fast learning rates in the initial stages of learning, which enable the late starters to catch up with the early starters relatively quickly (see Muñoz, 2008; Muñoz & Singleton, 2011; Singleton & Ryan, 2004). These are questions of considerable theoretical and practical significance, as they are at the heart of the debates revolving around age as one of the most powerful and misunderstood variables in the research on FL learning and teaching. They are also integral to designing effective FL pedagogy. Clearly, for educators, teachers and policymakers, as well as for theorists, it is of compelling interest to know more about the end state of the FL instruction process, as such research has important implications for multilingual education in relation to decision-making about (1) early instruction in different languages at primary level and (2) later instruction in and through different languages at secondary school. Furthermore, the comparison of English and French as FLs is expected to yield pedagogically relevant results not only in Switzerland but also for other European countries where French is still an important language.

The bulk of the data were collected during a period of transition when students, who were subject to one or the other of two educational policies that were implemented before and after the Swiss Conference of Education Directors issued its new set of guidelines for FL instruction throughout Switzerland, coexisted for some time (see EDK, 2004). The ECLs were schooled according to the new model and learned Standard German from first grade onwards, English from third grade onwards and French from fifth grade onwards, while the LCLs were schooled in the old system without English instruction at primary level, learning only Standard German from first grade and French from fifth grade onwards. This constellation of learners provided a unique window into the benefits of early versus late FL learning.

Research goals

In general, multiple FL programmes from an early age are complex and raise a number of interesting and important issues: how effective are they? Are they effective for students in diverse learning situations? What is the developmental relationship among the languages known by the learner? Does the sequencing of FL instruction matter? Do the power and status of one FL have negative consequences for students' motivation to learn another FL? Does early FL instruction have a negative impact on the development of L1 (literacy) skills? As recent findings have cast doubt on the over-emphasis of the importance of biological and strictly cognitive dimensions of early FL learning in a formal, instructional setting (see research review below), the main aim of this project is to focus on the interaction of age with non-maturational factors (hence the title of this book), such as situation of learning (e.g. type of instruction, cohort effects), socio-affective variables (motivation, strategy use), the roles of L1 literacy skills and knowledge of additional languages (notably French), as well as institutional problems such as streaming and the transition from primary to secondary school, while making use of the most advanced techniques and statistical methods in quantitative and qualitative approaches to the age factor. The following general research questions will be addressed:

(1) What is the strength of the association between superior FL performance and starting age, on the one hand, and socio-psychological, contextual and individual factors, on the other, in learners with a long learning experience (up to 11 years)?

(2) Which input measures (length of instruction in years, type and intensity of instruction and informal, extracurricular contact with the TL) are more strongly associated with superior long-term oral and written performance?

(3) Are L1 literacy skills and crosslinguistic influence (e.g. the influence of Swiss/Standard German or the intervention of the influence of French as an additional FL) affected by the AO?

It is important to mention that as recent research has challenged the notion of construing FL 'success' as the attainment of native-likeness (Muñoz & Singleton, 2011), the upper limits of competence are not compared here to the competence of native monolinguals (for a recent study that includes a native-speaker dimension, see Tavakoli & Foster, 2010). We thus refrain from using monolingual native-speaker proficiency as the yardstick for evaluating the attainment of early and late FL learners. As we have indicated, the notions of 'long-term' and 'ultimate FL achievement' in the present context refer to the end-state or 'final product' of obligatory EFL instruction at the termination of secondary education (see Hammer & Dewaele, 2015), the natural limit of most students' FL learning process (see Muñoz, 2008: 583). Needless to say, such an interpretation might lead to attainment becoming confounded with rate effects, as the amount of instructional time may not be considered sufficient for the study of long-term benefits (e.g. Birdsong, 2004, 2006; DeKeyser, 2000; Muñoz, 2008). However, the issue at stake here is not to focus on very long-term attainment in FL learning, but to analyse how the length of mandatory instructional time can be optimised for benefits to unfold.

Another major goal of this project was to address the issue regarding the limited availability of convenient and successful methods for analysing age effects. For instance, so far only minimal attention has been paid to the interaction between person and context in quantitative age research. We are going to provide a non-technical but hopefully accessible account of statistical models that focus on the learner as a developing system on their own, rather than as a generalized hypothetical representative of a larger sample. Another criticism is raised by Moyer (2014: 458), who suggests that because AO has a significant relationship to experience, the nature of that relationship must be clarified in future research: 'research needs to open up to the relative "messiness" of introspective methods' if we are to understand the social implications of age-related learner outcomes. As Pica (2011) rightly points out, the heavy emphasis on age in making decisions about school policy and practice has overlooked the abundant research on psychosocial factors, such as learner personality and motivation, that have been shown to impact language learning in school context:

A range of social, cognitive, and affective factors, especially those that bear on the ability to learn and apply SLA skills and strategies, is relevant to explaining why, for so many, early L2 schooling is not necessarily better, and initiation of formal learning at a somewhat later time might be best. (Pica, 2011: 260)

Thus, we aim to also draw on methodological advancements in studying AO and subjective well-being in the classroom by combining large-scale quantitative methods that account for both participant and item variability with individual-level qualitative data. Such a mixed methods approach, that is, the meaningful merging of qualitative and quantitative approaches, offers a radically different new strand of research methodology that suits the multilevel analysis of complex issues, because it allows investigators to obtain data about both the individual and the broader societal context and brings out the best of the qualitative and the quantitative paradigms while also compensating for their weaknesses (Dörnyei, 2009: 242; Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2011: 205).

In a quantitative perspective, multilevel analyses (a subgroup of linear mixed effects regression modelling) are performed to investigate to what extent late starters' long-term achievement in instructional settings matches the supposedly advantaged performance of early starters and to analyse how social, psychological and contextual variables factor into this (see Chapter 3). In order to complement and triangulate the quantitative findings and to capture psychological elements of learning EFL from different ages and at different levels that are internal to the learner, such as memories, beliefs and experiences, language experience essays produced by the participants are used to help identify aspects of early and late EFL instruction that seem salient to particular individuals at the beginning and end of secondary school, and, thus, to help constrain the multitude of influential factors that play a role in L2 development beyond age effects. Such a holistic approach considers the combined and interactive operation of several different elements/conditions relevant to specific situations, rather than following the more traditional practice of examining the relationship between well-defined variables in relative isolation (Dörnyei et al., 2014: 1). We also believe that this approach can better account for the interaction of AO and other 'often hidden variables' (see Muñoz, 2014a: 466) than an approach solely focusing on learners' long-term outcomes as a function of AO. The methods described in this study may thus provide a much-needed convenient way to study the age factor in a way that solves many of the difficult problems facing previous methods. Note, however, that we do not aim to provide a detailed overview of research designs, methodologies and instruments for investigating the age factor. The principal focus will be on the broad conceptual profile of the statistical models in question, rather than the technical details.

Finally, a few words are in order concerning our sample of secondary school students. Secondary education in Switzerland comprises six years (Grades 7 to 12), and, on average, students study around 13 school subjects per academic year. The school track under investigation here, which we refer to as the 'academically oriented secondary school' category, represents the main – but not the only – university entry pathway. It is a selective, publicly funded school category, representing one of three main secondary school tracks (the highest, in terms of educational level). In the canton of Zurich, admission is based on students' average grades and an entrance examination. The number of those taking the matura or maturité exam (i.e. the final graduation exam) has increased in recent years. Between 1986 and 2013, the percentage of students awarded this certificate almost doubled to 20% ( There are three main reasons why it was decided to assess the development of EFL skills in this group of learners:

(1) This particular secondary school track is roughly equivalent to grammar schools, baccalaureate schools and high schools in other countries in terms of length of instruction (six years until graduation), institutional design (e.g. number and kinds of compulsory subjects, assessment of students, final certificate) and purpose (e.g. they do not lead to professional qualifications, but prepare students for tertiary-level education programmes). This is important for comparisons with related previous work in Europe and elsewhere.


Excerpted from Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning by Simone E. Pfenninger, David Singleton. Copyright © 2017 Simone E. Pfenninger and David Singleton. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Chapter 1: Mapping the Terrain Chapter 2: The Current Empirical Study Chapter 3: Age and (Statistical) Analysis Chapter 4: Age and Rate of Acquisition Chapter 5: Age and Affect Chapter 6: Age and Cross-Linguistic Influence Chapter 7: Age and Impact of Differential Input Chapter 8: Age and Educational Implications Chapter 9: Conclusion and Future Perspectives References Index

Customer Reviews