Age and Language Learning
What exactly is the relationship between age and language learning? There are numerous myths and misconceptions about the relative abilities or inabilities of language learners of different ages. Do children learn language faster? Is it impossible for adults to achieve fluency? In a word – no. These and other common beliefs are simply not true. Children do not necessarily learn faster than adults and, in fact, adults may learn more efficiently. Furthermore, there is no loss of language ability or language learning ability over time.
Age is not a detriment to language learning, and by all accounts, learning a second (or third etc) language actually keeps the older language learners mind active. People of all ages can benefit from learning languages.
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It is generally believed that younger learners have certain advantages over older learners in language learning. The common notion is that younger children learn L2 easily and quickly in comparison to older children (Ellis, 2008; Larsen-Freeman, 2008; Mayberry & Lock, 2003). The relationship between age and success in SLA is linked to the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).CPH, also known as “the sensitive period,” is defined as” a period of time when learning a language is relatively easy and typically meets with a high degree of success. Once this period is over, at or before the onset of puberty, the average learner is less likely to achieve nativelike ability in the target language” (Richards & Schmidt, 2002, p.
145). The notion of critical period for a second language acquisition has been associated with several hypotheses. Some researchers have focused on the view that the younger learners as the better learners whereas others opine the older learners as the better learners.However, there are different perspectives on how the children and adults learn a foreign or second language. Adults naturally find themselves in such situations that demand more complex language and expression of more complicated ideas whereas children lack pressure and maturity in second language learning. David Singleton (1989) offered a number of proposals related to age and second language acquisition. The most popular notions are “the younger =the better” and “the older =the better” (Singleton, p.
31). He, on the basis of previous studies and research on age factor, focused on learners’ pronunciation skill and other linguistics features.There are a number of researches to support “the younger the better” hypothesis. Yamanda et al. (qtd. in Singleton, 1989) studied 30 Japanese elementary school pupils of seven to ten ages old. These students did not have any previous experience of English.
The researchers used a list of 40 English words and recorded the rate of success of the students. Their finding was that the older the age the lower the score. A further immigrant study appeared in support of “the younger the better” hypothesis. Johnson and Newport (qtd. in Lightbown & Spada, 2008) selected 46 Chinese and Korean experimental subjects in their research.They tested some rules of English morphology and syntax among the participants of aged groups from three to 15 and with those aged groups from 17 to 39. The result was that those who began learning later did not have native like language abilities and their performance on the test varied more widely.
Robert Dekeyser (2000) conducted a replication of the Johnson and Newport with a group of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. On the contrary, he concluded that adult learners were better than the younger ones. The second strong hypothesis is that older learners are more successful than younger language learners in SLA.This notion was highly supported by a number of short term experimental researchers. These studies and research were based on teaching projects and second language immersion programs. Some of these studies have highlighted adolescents and adults of different ages where results have indicated that the older learners are far better than the younger ones. In 1967 Ashor and Price (as cited in Singleton, 1989) have carried out an experiment with 96 students from the second, fourth and eighth grades of a school and 37 undergraduate students from a college.
The subjects did not have any previous knowledge of Russian, the targeted language. After three short trainings conducted in Russian language, the results showed that the eight graders performed significantly better than the second graders and the fourth graders. They also noticed a consistently positive relationship with advancing age because of above average mental ability of the adults. Politzer and Weiss (as quoted in Singleton, 1989) have conducted another study in which they found that an advantage of SLA for older learners than younger ones. Their subjects were second, fifth, seventh and ninth graders.The experimental procedures were consisted of an auditory discrimination test, a pronunciation test and a reading test among 257 pupils. They recorded a gradual improvement of scores with an increase age in all three tests.
Other researchers of SLA interested in assessing phonological skills of learners suggest a common belief that younger learners acquire a native like accent in the target language. Dunkel and Pillet (reported in Singleton, 1989) compared the proficiency in French between elementary school pupils and beginning students of French from the university.They found that the younger learners’ pronunciation was better than that of the older ones. However, in both written and aural tests, the university students had better performance than the younger ones. In another study, Fathman and Precup (reported in Singleton, 1989) tested oral proficiency in English on 20 children and 20 adults in a formal setting in Mexico. Their finding also brought a similar conclusion that the children scored better in English pronunciation than the adults but the adults scored better than the children in syntax.While considering younger learners in long run, Stephen Krashen (1979) has forwarded three proposals in the domain of morphsyntax.
Krashen’s positions in SLA are as following: • Adults proceed through early stages of syntactic and morphological development faster than children (where time and exposure are held constant). • Older children acquire faster than younger children (again time and exposure are held constant). • Acquirers who begin natural exposure to second languages during childhood generally achieve higher second language proficiency than those beginning as adults. (qtd. in Singleton, 1989, p. 17) David Birdsong (2006) has studied theoretical issues and empirical findings of age related research of second language acquisition. He had found that brain memory, learning conditions and second language processing speed are connected with age factor.
He has pointed out that morphological changes and cognitive process are different in young and adult learners. The next component besides Critical Period Hypothesis of second language acquisition is the variables related to the age factor. These variables can be motivation, anxiety, self confidence, attitude, learning styles and so on.They are responsible in language acquisition in both children and adults. Their direct relationship to age as an indicator of language learning has been studied by various researchers. Mary Schleppegrell (2008) has focused on health, classroom practices and learning styles as age related factors in second language learning. She says that older adults learn a foreign language for a specific purpose “to be more effective professionally, to be able to service in an anticipated foreign situation or for other instrumental reasons” (Schleppegrell, 2008, p.
3).On the other hand, younger learners may not have extrinsic motivation or may not see a specific goal in learning another language. It is also noticed that children and adults do not always get the same quality and quantity of language input in both formal and informal learning settings (Lightbown & Spada, 2008). It is also hard to say how these variables work as a filter or barrier in learning process of young and adults. As in Collier’s study (1987) (qtd. in Singleton, 1989), the barrier of anxiety sometimes makes the adults less successful in second language.Adult Learners Just what is an adult learner? Malcolm Knowles spent many years and a great deal of energy answering this question.
According to Wlodkowski, Knowles identified adults by two criteria: an individual who performs roles associated by our culture with adults (worker, spouse, parent, soldier, responsible citizen) and an individual who perceives himself or herself to be responsible for his/her own life (1993, p. 5). Characteristics of adult learners characteristics of adult learners include some of the following attributes: · have first-hand experience. have set habits and strong tastes. · have a great deal of pride, but their ways of “showing it” varies. · have tangible things to lose so are very cautious in the educational environment. · have preoccupations outside the learning environment.
· may be bewildered by options (sometimes). · have developed group behavior consistent with their needs. · have established a rational framework (values, attitudes, etc. ) by which they make decisions. · respond to reinforcement, especially positive reinforcement. have a strong feeling about the learning situation. · in most cases can (and want to) change to better themselves.
· may have prejudices which are detrimental to the learning environment or to the institution. · learn from reinforcement (thrive on it). · have a strong need to apply what is learned — and apply it now! · want to be competent in their application of knowledge and skill. · want a choice in what they learn. · like their “creature comforts” in room, furniture, equipment, HVAC, and refreshments.Most adult learners bring a great deal of first-hand experience to the workplace; this can be a real asset during discussion times, or it can be a hindrance, and the effective instructor must know how to encourage as well as to curb “This is how we did it . .
. .” discussions. Many adult learners also have set habits and strong tastes, which may be beneficial if the habit supports a strong work ethic or may be a hindrance during a required diversity training workshop. The Older Language Learner Can older adults successfully learn foreign languages? Recent research is providing increasingly positive answers to this question.The research shows that: –there is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older; –except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss, the age of the adult learner is not a major factor in language acquisition; –the context in which adults learn is the major influence on their ability to acquire the new language. Contrary to popular stereotypes, older adults can be good foreign language learners.
The difficulties older adults often experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments in the learning environment, attention to affective factors, and use of effective teaching methods.AGING AND LEARNING ABILITY The greatest obstacle to older adult language learning is the doubt–in the minds of both learner and teacher–that older adults can learn a new language. Most people assume that “the younger the better” applies in language learning. However, many studies have shown that this is not true. Studies comparing the rate of second language acquisition in children and adults have shown that although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children in the early stages (Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979).These studies indicate that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language may actually be easier and more rapid for the adult than for the child. Studies on aging have demonstrated that learning ability does not decline with age.
If older people remain healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline (Ostwald and Williams, 1981). Adults learn differently from children, but no age-related differences in learning ability have been demonstrated for adults of different ages.OLDER LEARNER STEREOTYPES The stereotype of the older adult as a poor language learner can be traced to two roots: a theory of the brain and how it matures, and classroom practices that discriminate against the older learner. The “critical period” hypothesis that was put forth in the 1960’s was based on then-current theories of brain development, and argued that the brain lost “cerebral plasticity” after puberty, making second language acquisition more difficult as an adult than as a child (Lenneberg, 1967).More recent research in neurology has demonstrated that, while language learning is different in childhood and adulthood because of developmental differences in the brain, “in important respects adults have superior language learning capabilities” (Walsh and Diller, 1978). The advantage for adults is that the neural cells responsible for higher-order linguistic processes such as understanding semantic relations and grammatical sensitivity develop with age. Especially in the areas of vocabulary and language structure, adults are actually better language learners than children.
Older learners have more highly developed cognitive systems, are able to make higher order associations and generalizations, and can integrate new language input with their already substantial learning experience. They also rely on long-term memory rather than the short-term memory function used by children and younger learners for rote learning. AGE RELATED FACTORS IN LANGUAGE LEARNING Health is an important factor in all learning, and many chronic diseases can affect the ability of the elderly to learn.Hearing loss affects many people as they age and can affect a person’s ability to understand speech, especially in the presence of background noise. Visual acuity also decreases with age. (Hearing and vision problems are not restricted exclusively to the older learner, however. ) It is important that the classroom environment compensate for visual or auditory impairments by combining audio input with visual presentation of new material, good lighting, and elimination of outside noise (Joiner, 1981).
CLASSROOM PRACTICES Certain language teaching methods may be inappropriate for older adults.For example, some methods rely primarily on good auditory discrimination for learning. Since hearing often declines with age, this type of technique puts the older learner at a disadvantage. Exercises such as oral drills and memorization, which rely on short-term memory, also discriminate against the adult learner. The adult learns best not by rote, but by integrating new concepts and material into already existing cognitive structures. Speed is also a factor that works against the older student, so fast-paced drills and competitive exercises and activities may not be successful with the older learner.HELPING OLDER ADULTS SUCCEED Three ways in which teachers can make modifications in their programs to encourage the older adult language learner include eliminating affective barriers, making the material relevant and motivating, and encouraging the use of adult learning strategies.
Affective factors such as motivation and self-confidence are very important in language learning. Many older learners fear failure more than their younger counterparts, maybe because they accept the stereotype of the older person as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language.When such learners are faced with a stressful, fast-paced learning situation, fear of failure only increases. The older person may also exhibit greater hesitancy in learning. Thus, teachers must be able to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence in the learner. Class activities which include large amounts of oral repetition, extensive pronunciation correction, or an expectation of error-free speech will also inhibit the older learner’s active participation. On the other hand, providing opportunities for earners to work together, focusing on understanding rather than producing language, and reducing the focus on error correction can build learners’ self-confidence and promote language learning.
Teachers should emphasize the positive–focus on the good progress learners are making and provide opportunities for them to be successful. This success can then be reinforced with more of the same. Older adults studying a foreign language are usually learning it for a specific purpose: to be more effective professionally, to be able to survive in an anticipated foreign situation, or for other instrumental reasons.They are not willing to tolerate boring or irrelevant content, or lessons that stress the learning of grammar rules out of context. Adult learners need materials designed to present structures and vocabulary that will be of immediate use to them, in a context which reflects the situations and functions they will encounter when using the new language. Materials and activities that do not incorporate real life experiences will succeed with few older learners. Older adults have already developed learning strategies that have served them well in other contexts.
They can use these strategies to their advantage in language learning, too.Teachers should be flexible enough to allow different approaches to the learning task inside the classroom. For example, some teachers ask students not to write during the first language lessons. This can be very frustrating to those who know that they learn best through a visual channel. Older adults with little formal education may also need to be introduced to strategies for organizing information. Many strategies used by learners have been identified; these can be incorporated into language training programs to provide a full range of possibilities for the adult learner (Oxford-Carpenter, 1985).Motivating the Adult Learner Another aspect of adult learning is motivation.
At least six factors serve as sources of motivation for adult learning: * Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for associations and friendships. * External expectations: to comply with instructions from someone else; to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority. * Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work. Personal advancement: to achieve higher status in a job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors. * Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine of home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life. * Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind. Barriers and Motivation Unlike children and teenagers, adults have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning.
Because of these responsibilities, adults have barriers against participating in learning.Some of these barriers include lack of time, money, confidence, or interest, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, “red tape,” and problems with child care and transportation. Motivation factors can also be a barrier. What motivates adult learners? Typical motivations include a requirement for competence or licensing, an expected (or realized) promotion, job enrichment, a need to maintain old skills or learn new ones, a need to adapt to job changes, or the need to learn in order to comply with company directives.The best way to motivate adult learners is simply to enhance their reasons for enrolling and decrease the barriers. Instructors must learn why their students are enrolled (the motivators); they have to discover what is keeping them from learning. Then the instructors must plan their motivating strategies.
A successful strategy includes showing adult learners the relationship between training and an expected promotion.