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Adult Disadvantage in Learning English

The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) states that there is a “biological timetable” which determines the ease or difficulty people face in learning a language (Brown, p. 54). As such, I'm interested in understanding CPH because the implications are massive. If the timetable exists and post-pubescent teens and adults truly lack specific abilities to acquire an additional language, educational paradigms should shift immediately. Obviously this is a huge issue, and it's a concern a majority of my adult students hold.

 

So I pose the question:

 

Increase in Age, Decrease in Ability? (Join the discussion on LinkedIn!)

 

Among most non-academic circles, it’s widely believed that children make superior language learners. For example, eavesdropping on conversations between university students at a university, one would expect to hear, ‘If only I’d learned [insert language here] as a child!’ Similarly, listening to parents we might hear one bragging about how their child is learning now – while it’s still ‘easy!’

 

These ideas are rooted in commonly-held beliefs and CPH supports them. Though CPH was initially intended to describe first language (L1) acquisition, the hypothesis has been applied more commonly in research to second language/s (L2). Think about it - if age determines the likelihood of success or failure people have in learning an additional language or aspects of language, we will need to change how we educate language learners. Adults may give up learning due to loss of motivation, teachers may see them as a lost cause or may place emphasis on areas they believe adults can actually learn, etc. And on the opposite side, early childhood education in SLA may see a substantial uptick in interest, enrollment, funding, and so on.

 

So here we'll move on to my own experiences and then to research. When I first began teaching CPH seemed plausible, but the skeptic in me had always said not so fast! As I got into tutoring adults privately on the side in 2011, I noticed that most of my students were highly determined but pessimistic. They harbored so much negativity (and you’ll have to excuse my poetic touch here) that they seemed to think they were fighting a fierce battle against a relentless current of impossibility. How tragic! Simultaneously, I engaged with dozens and dozens of young learners who were clearly nowhere near fluent in English (despite years or "learning"), and I met even more former child language learners who had not achieved fluency.

 

So while sympathetic to the idea that some aspects of language learning seemed more challenging for adults, I had by no means given up on my adult learners. In fact, it would have been crazy to give up since I myself was learning Korean at the time! On the contrary, to me CPH felt defeatist and damaging and I tried to dissuade people from believing adults were going to struggle and likely never achieve proficiency.

 

I didn't just oppose CPH on principle, there were many issues which were easily detectable in real-world scenarios. For instance, anyone who has taught adults recognizes that a majority of them lack confidence and are overly inhibited (without appropriate coaching). Furthermore, another obvious distinction which can get glossed over is the dissimilarity between a child’s education and an adult’s – there’s often no comparison. For example, children are often in an immersion environment at school as immigrants or students with a different L1, and they are forced into the language. Relatively few adults experience this lack of choice, instead experiencing language through more conventional language courses (perhaps for only 1-2 hours a week!). Beyond these issues, I also wondered if adults really are doomed in phonics/phonetics. Of course children seem to pick up this characteristic of language without trouble, but perhaps adults are capable and language instruction has simply been misguided/insufficient in teaching linguistic aspect. (I’ve personally had great success in teaching pronunciation to adults, adolescents and young learners alike. I know my friend Judy Thompson has accomplished this as well - www.thompsonlanguagecenter.com) I also reflected on the concept that perhaps adults should be better learners because they’ve developed learning strategies, typically understand explicit instruction better (for grammar, pronunciation, syntax, etc.), and so on. So there are four concepts which already challenge CPH and were apparent to me during my first couple years of teaching. Of course, I’ve excluded numerous others due to spacing constraints.

 

Looking at the research here, we can expand on these ideas. For instance, oftentimes children are immersed in language in a “natural, meaningful context” whereas adults are not (Brown, 63). This happens even in school where young children aren’t focusing on studying grammar and practicing listening comprehension exercises but are instead studying subjects, interacting with friends and their teacher(s), playing, etc. Adults often study language in a way which bores them and lacks the ‘meaningful’ factor.

 

On the other hand, adults have special capabilities absent in children; adults can self-correct better, learn from explicit directions more easily, etc. As an example, a study of Japanese adults and children (with similar input exposure to English) saw the young learners distinguish between L and R better. However, after teaching how to distinguish phonemically, adults outperformed the young learners (Nejadansari and Nasrollahzadeh, p. 20). As for children, they are far less aware of their ego and self-identity (Brown, 64). That means these students will jump into conversations and try out new formulations far less inhibited than older students. There are plenty of advantages for each group, and thus unequivocal assumptions seem impossible here.

 

There are issues which provide challenges to my observations and some research I’ve read. Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson, for instance, note issues with early studies which didn’t track language learners’ progress long enough to thoroughly evaluate learners “eventual outcome[s]” (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson, p.153). Additionally, studies which analyzed substantial enough time periods and which indicated adult learners as capable if not better learners possessed shortcomings. For instance, the study may have only evaluated one or two aspects of a language (syntax, phonetics, etc.) instead of a more thorough evaluation (Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson, p. 154). This obviously leads to biases which don’t truly disprove CPH.

 

Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson also noted that one of the major methods for refuting CPH should be finding language users with native proficiency who learned after puberty. However, little has come of scholars’ searches. Though some learners who have accomplished this feat have been identified, simply finding a few learners who have achieved “native-like” or even native proficiency doesn’t nullify CPH (p. 156). Rather, researchers would need to find a significant portion of a sample size.

 

Moving on to Singleton and Muñoz’s critical review of work centered on CPH we get a real treat. From the outset, Singleton and Muñoz posit that CPH has generated important debate, but that the one of the problems is that we are still using native L1-type language attainment as the gold standard (Singleton and Muñoz, p.3). Why is native-like proficiency the goal? Aside from serving as a power structure to ‘other’ people and exclude them for socioeconomic and cultural reasons, is there a good reason? Well it turns out the answer is not really. (See this article for more on English varieties in "native" countries.)

 

In fact, the question of what it means to be a native speaker isn’t even set in stone theoretically speaking. For instance, many regions around the world are multilingual and the idea of native fluency is complicated by that concept (they might speak 2, 3, 4 even a dozen languages or more in a region!). What’s more, there are a considerable number of people who live their young lives in one language only to replace it with a new language as a result of immigration (Singleton and Muñoz, p.8). When young people move to the place where another language is dominant, they often shed their own. My wife’s case is actually similar to this in that she left Korea for Scotland to start elementary school and used English most of the time (though she did still use Korean at home). Her dominant language in which she ‘lived’ much of her life became English for a period of about 6 years. In those cases and others where the initial L1 is completely dropped, what is the L1? Finally, for many people, simply obtaining functional capacity in a language would be more than sufficient.

 

So Singleton and Muñoz propose setting a different standard whereby we compare later L2 learners to young L2 learners (Singleton and Muñoz, p.5). They argue for this with Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson’s 2000 work as one of their pieces of support. That study states that even young L2 learners (compared to natives) show “subtle differences.” So while late L2 learners can be differentiated from natives, so too can younger learners. If these differences are present across learners, why do we continue to unfairly compare them to natives?

 

The next significant challenge comes as a result of the lack of consensus on when the critical period is. That is, where is the tipping point after which native attainment is no longer possible? Decades and decades have passed without unanimity. “The fact that there is so much DISagreement about this matter casts severe doubt on the whole idea of a critical period for language” (Singleton and Muñoz, p.9). Some suggest an early age of 6 or 7 while others place it around 10-13. With such ambiguity, it’s hard to put faith in CPH.

 

From here, the argument shifts into a lot of the ideas I posed early in this section. For instance, Singleton and Muñoz question the amount of input and output language learners processed. They ask questions such as did the learners speak the L2 only at school, home, with teachers or with friends (p.12)? And to analyze contrasts between young learners’ language experience and adults, they cited a study abroad scenario which compared 10 and 11 year-olds to young adults. The children lived in homestay environments versus residence halls/dorms for older learners. As a result of that and social patterns of the adults, the 10/11 year-olds spent more time with native speakers. Actually, they averaged nearly 30 hours of language experience versus 7 for young adults (Singleton and Muñoz, p.12).

 

Beyond these studies and ideas, Singleton and Muñoz offered a few more stories I’ll discuss here. One kind of obvious idea they noted was that learners who were close friends with or were married to native speakers clearly had an advantage (p.13). Anyone who has been in love with someone (or in lust!) who speaks another language can clearly see the motivational factors at ‘play.’ Another of the more interesting studies they relayed was about a Polish boy who immigrated to the US with his family and lived in a rural area. He developed spoken proficiency quickly in around a year. His proficiency was much higher than students in urban areas who had access to tailored ESL programming and classes (p. 15). The suggestion here again is that being forced is helpful to some students (although obvious this is one child, not a reasonable sample size for a valid study).

 

There are obviously still many questions unanswered regarding CPH, but Singleton and Muñoz were smart in suggesting we move the dialogue away from who can be like a native speaker to something more practical. The standard learners, evaluators and teachers hold for demanding native fluency is not only unreasonable but counterproductive. With so much competing information too, the emphasis should be on motivating and building confidence in all learners regardless of age. From my personal experience, almost anyone with proper motivation, time and input/output in another language can succeed.

 

~Adapted from a final project for Josh's UC M.Ed. course.

 

References

 

Brown, H. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). White Plains, N.Y.: Prentice-Hall.

 

Hyltenstam, K., & Abrahamsson, N. (2000). Who can become native-like in a second language? All, some, or none?. Studia Linguistica, 54(2), 150.

 

Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. (2011). A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44(1), 1-35. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0261444810000327

 

Nejadansari, D., & Nasrollahzadeh, J. (2011). Effects of age on second language acquisition. Studies in Literature and Language, 3(3), 19-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/916254419?accountid=2909

 

 

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