The official website of educator Jack C Richards

The role of age in second language learning


Submitted from Iran

What is the role of age in second or foreign language learning?

Dr Richards responds:

It is a common observation that children seem to learn new languages relatively easily, while older learners, particularly adults, are often not so successful. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that adults have the advantage in several important areas, such as those involving cognitive skills, making them more adept, for example, at learner autonomy.

In terms of children’s apparent success, a reason that was offered in the 1970s was that there was a critical period for second language learning (before puberty), and that once learners had passed this period, changes in the brain and in cognitive processes made language learning more difficult. This was the critical-period hypothesis that led some educationists to argue for an earlier start for second and foreign language instruction, in order to capitalize on the special language-learning capacities of young learners. Unfortunately, the considerable amount of research devoted to this issue has not confirmed the theory that younger equals better language learner. It is true that there are some aspects of language learning (such as pronunciation) where younger learners appear to have an advantage; learners who start learning at an older age often retain a ‘foreign accent’ in their English, which is not the case with young learners. However, there are many factors, aside from age-related ability, that account for the apparent ease with which young children often appear to ‘pick up’ a new language relatively easily. In the case of naturalistic language learning, young learners are typically highly motivated to do so; they receive large amounts of input geared to their level of learning, as well as copious amounts of practice. They also receive rewards and benefits for their efforts, since learning the new language is the key to peer acceptance and to the satisfaction of basic needs. These factors are often not the same for adult learners studying English in classroom settings. Dornyei (2009) points out that, in any given situation, there are invariably a multitude of factors involved, and age is often only one of them and not necessarily the most important one. There are also documented examples of unsuccessful child language learning, as well as of successful adult language learning.

Adults, however, may have the advantage, in some respects, because there is evidence for differences in the ways younger and older learners approach language learning. Older learners are particularly good at vocabulary learning, for example , and they can make use of different cognitive and learning skills from children, since they make use of more abstract reasoning and thinking and can often learn more analytically and reflectively. I myself did not start learning a foreign language until I was in my twenties, but, at one stage, was sufficiently fluent in French to use it as a medium of instruction in an applied-linguistics programme in Quebec. Methods used to teach young learners and older learners, consequently, employ different teaching strategies, reflecting the different age-related processes and strategies these learners can make use of, as well as their very different learning needs. The educational implications of the second language acquisition debate about the age issue in language teaching, however, are somewhat minimal, since decisions on when to commence the teaching of English in public education are often made largely on other grounds. They often simply reflect worldwide educational trends or fashions, or they may be linked to the need to prepare students for the use of English as a medium of instruction in secondary school, or to better prepare them for national or school examinations.

Z. Dornyei 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.