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LINGUIST List 24.1518

Thu Apr 04 2013

Review: Language Acquisition; Sociolinguistics: Andrew (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 15-Feb-2013
From: Trini Stickle <tsticklewisc.edu>
Subject: The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language Learners
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-288.html

AUTHOR: Patricia Andrew
TITLE: The Social Construction of Age
SUBTITLE: Adult Foreign Language Learners
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Trini G. Stickle, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Patricia Andrew’s “The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language
Learners” is an adaptation of the author’s dissertation, an ethnographic study
on how personal and cultural conceptions of age affect the learning experience
of seven adult learners enrolled in a Foreign Language (EFL) program in

The text is organized into two sections. Part 1 consists of three chapters
that introduce the conceptual frames of the study: Second Language Acquisition
research (SLA) (chapter 1), social approaches to age, age identity, and age
discourse (chapter 2), and Social Constructionism (SC) (chapter 3). Part 2
consists of three data chapters, each representing an age category within
which Andrew’s seven adult learners are placed. Andrew documents how students
position themselves or are positioned by their teachers and fellow students
into one of the three categories: later adulthood (chapter 4), “middle”
adulthood (chapter 5), or young adulthood (chapter 6). The author concludes
with a final chapter on the implications of age identity research for both
second language pedagogy and acquisition studies, and as a methodology for
studying age identity within other contexts.


In her introduction, Andrew sketches out the impetus, organization, and goals
for her study. She describes her motivation as both personal and professional.
Pursing her doctorate in SLA later in life led her to question the importance
of age identity on learning in general. Drawing on her experiences teaching
English as a foreign language, she began to question the importance of age
identity for students in second language classrooms; particularly, within the
cultural context of Mexico, the site of her L2 instruction.

As a second language researcher, Andrew distinguishes herself and her approach
from the biological-cognitive focus that has occupied SLA for the last forty
years. In differentiating age as “a particular place or position a person has
at a given moment in time” (i.e., chronological age) from aging, “a
multidimensional process that is physiological, psychological, social and
cultural” (p. xiv), she aligns her work with social themes current in SLA
research. For Andrew, however, the construction of age as it affects the
second language (L2) learner is her foremost concern; the context of the L2
classroom, second. Andrew states, “My concern was less with the issue of
linguistic attainment than with what the experience means in the larger
context of [the learners’] worlds” (p. xi). Andrew employs ethnographic
observations of the classroom and individual interviews to document how age
identity and language learning connect.

Andrew provides four objectives for her study: 1) to show that adult learners’
perceptions of age and age identity contribute to the language acquisition
process; 2) to initiate interest in age as a socially constructed identity
that interacts with other social features such as gender, ethnicity, and
social class, 3) to demonstrate social constructionism as a lens for future
age studies; and 4) to document how social interaction contributes to the
development of social discourse. Andrew intends to contribute equally to the
“fledging field of age studies” (p. xv) and to the second language community
of researchers, instructors, and curricula developers.

Part 1 provides the conceptual basis for looking at age as a social context
within the second language classroom, and as a social feature that is
co-constructed through interactions along with gender, ethnicity, and social

In Chapter 1, “The Age Factor and Second Language Acquisition”, Andrew
provides an overview of traditional age-related research within SLA, inquiries
which are primarily focused on the biological constraints of language
learning. She includes key findings from critical hypothesis research from the
1970s to more recent work, and notes that while no definite conclusions
regarding a critical period have yet been supported, the underlying question
has led to productive investigations on the role of Universal Grammar and
other cognitive factors, the context of learning -- classroom or naturalistic
settings -- and social and affectual factors. Andrew concludes that if
differences in second language acquisition are caused by maturational
processes, these “constraints operate in conjunction with a number of other
affective, psychological and social factors” (p. 15). Andrew then provides a
review of sociocultural approaches to second language acquisition, including
activity theory (Kramsch, 2000; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006), Atkinson’s work on
cognitive and social aspects of second language learning (2002), and the
influence of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). She situates her
own view of age effects on L2 learning within SLA’s fairly recent turn to
situated learning and the role of identity, or rather, identities of the
learner (e.g., Block, 2007; Norton, 2000, Toohey, 2000). Andrew’s work adds to
these studies the importance of age identity.

In Chapter 2, “Present-Day Approaches to the Study of Age,” Andrew focuses on
recent studies of age. She first introduces the reader to social
constructionism (SC), which posits that all social reality is constructed
through discursive interaction. As SC has been instrumental in documenting how
gender, ethnicity, race, and social class are jointly created and negotiated
through talk, Andrew adds aging as a social construct that is related to but
distinct from biological processes associated with age.

Andrew delineates five themes of social constructionism that provide the
framework for her study of age within the language learning context. First,
social reality, or meaning, is created and discoverable through relationships
with others. Accordingly, age is ascribed social meaning in relation to the
ages of others, Citing Gee (2001), Andrew states that the social reality of
multiple identities are constantly being enacted, negotiated, and constructed
among the participants and within interaction. Second, the enactment,
negotiation, and construction of identities occur largely through language and
discourse. As people engage in dialogue, they are jointly constructing
multiple identities situated within the discourse context. These moments of
talk are “key in unlocking the complex, interwoven relationship between
language and the sociocultural context within which communication occurs” (p.
43). Last, continuity is maintained through the narratives we use to tell our
stories and reference our identities.

Andrew uses these five themes as points of inquiry in her study: 1) Age is
relational, not absolute and discoverable in the interactions within and
outside the language classroom; 2) Language use provides the primary evidence
of ongoing age construction; 3) Dialogue is the locus for age identity
construction; 4) Multiple identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity, social class)
are being enacted, negotiated, and constructed in each interaction and
contribute to the significance of the context, which is the language
classroom; 5) Continuity of age identity is found within the narratives people
tell. Using both classroom and interview talk as evidence, Andrew investigates
how learners’ interactions construct their identities, how these identities
interact, and how, ultimately, age identity impacts language learning.

In Chapter 3, “Viewing Age through a Social Constructionist Lens”, Andrew
discusses current approaches to age, particularly the meaning of age as
presented within Western culture. She presents findings within social
constructionist research that document how the biological processes of decline
and decrement concurrent with age have been appropriated as the social view of
aging. This view of decrement, Andrew notes, has led to both Ageist and
anti-Ageist views. Consequently, as people negotiate their age identities
through interactions, the cultural views of age often arise as competing
narratives. Andrew’s research investigates whether these competing narratives
(decrement versus ‘experience’) manifest within the L2 classroom and,
specifically, within the cultural context of Mexican society, as represented
by the university classroom of mixed-aged learners studying English as a
foreign language.

In Part 2, Andrew uses several types of discursive data to document how the
seven adult language learners position themselves and are positioned by others
within one of three age categories: later adulthood, middle adulthood, and
young adulthood. She uses transcript excerpts from the semi-instructed
interviews and from the recorded classroom interactions as students engaged
with each other, their instructor, and with the curriculum. Additionally, she
has each student create a hand-drawn sketch that depicts the student’s view of
the life course. Andrew connects these snapshots of age identity and assigns
each adult learner to a particular age category.

Chapter 4, “Constructing Age in Later Adulthood,” presents the experiences of
the two oldest members of Andrew’s study: Hector, age 69 and Felix, age 68.
Although their chronological ages contribute to their later adulthood
characterization, Andrew shows that factors such as their retired status,
previous professions, and consequential social class exert greater influence
in constructing their age identities. Both their own talk and remarks from
others, including instructors, evidence how age is salient and often
negatively portrayed in the classroom. Similarly, the inapplicable age-graded
topics in the curriculum such as dating, preparing for a career, or parent or
sibling interactions highlight their different life stage. Andrew posits that
through these interactions the negative construction of later adulthood
identity colors the learners’ goals and expectations of second language
learning and as a result both Hector and Felix’s attainment is constrained,
not necessarily by cognitive ability per se, but by their age identity.

In Chapter 5, “Constructing Age in ‘Middle’ Adulthood”, Andrew presents the
stories of the four women in her study: Elsa, Gilda, Adela, and Berta. These
women fit themselves and are fitted into a distinct middle adulthood category,
despite the fact that no concept of “middle age”, and thus no equivalent term
or phrase, exists in Mexico. Andrew makes clear that the one feature the women
share is that they are all of working age with social responsibilities. Their
chronological ages range from 34 to 59; some are married; some have children;
one is nearing retirement. Yet comments from their instructors and their
engagement with ill-fitted curriculum topics make salient their professional
and personal identities that exist outside the classroom. Like the
experiences of Hector and Felix, occasional ageist comments depict the women
as less than capable learners. However, unlike the older men, the women view
language learning, and learning English, as part of their on-going narratives
of professional development, and this narrative leads to positive learning

In Chapter 6, “Constructing Age in Young Adulthood”, Andrew presents David’s
story; the youngest member in her study and the one who best fits the typical
university student profile. David positions himself as a young adult by
choosing to engage with fellow students closer to his own age, avoiding
interactions with the older learners, and interacting least with his
instructors. David is also able to fully engage with the curriculum as his
lifestyle matches closest to the topics and contexts presented in the
activities. Andrew shows how David, like many of his college peers, take
English learning as a given; they are motivated by social and professional

In her last chapter, “Final Reflections”, Andrew returns to her original
questions and summarizes the implications of her findings. The data provide
ample evidence of the construction of participants’ age identity within the
classroom. Andrew notes that while the traditional age categories of older,
middle, and young were uncontested in the data, a few remarkable results
emerged. First, chronological age was less influential than were social
identities such as employment and gender-related roles such as parental and
marriage status. Second, ageist discourse in the forms of humor, age
segregation, and adultism (i.e., references to normative life stage
experiences) often occurred within the classroom. Such social discourse of
decrement did, according to Andrew, affect the learning environment. Last,
Andrew proposes that her methods and types of data could be used to document
age identity construction and emerging discourses (e.g., the concept of middle
age in Mexico) in other contexts.

Andrew concludes with the implications this work has for SLA pedagogy and
research. She challenges both instructor and researcher “to no longer see
adults as predetermined chronological ages or age categories, but rather as
individuals whose age identity is socially constructed in a variety of ways
with others” (p. 160). She suggests that both teachers and researchers
approach their populations with sensitivity to their complex identities, that
they not ascribe ability or disability based on predetermined categories such
as age, and that they keep check on their own attitudes and behaviors that may
unwittingly reflect prejudicial attitudes. Similarly, she suggests that
textbook authors and publishers show sensitivity to potentially problematic
age issues.


Andrew’s study contributes to our understanding of age as a social factor that
affects learners of second languages and, by extension, learning within many
contexts. She shows how learners’ social identities such as gender and social
class interact and contribute to their age identity. Additionally, Andrew’s
rich use of interview and observational data provide two powerful ways to
document social constructionism within a particular context.

Andrew’s work provides a reminder to all instructors that learners are
affected by the ways in which they are characterized within the classroom, and
that characterizations can color the learning process in and beyond the
classroom. Likewise, textbook and curriculum writers should consider
age-neutral topics, particularly for classrooms that are, often, represented
by people at various stages of life.

One minor critique I have is the use and explication of the students’ sketches
of the life course. I did not find the inclusion of these drawings terribly
informative to the study. It may be that the task of asking students to draw
their visualization of the life course was instrumental in getting them to
verbalize their view of aging; however, the commentary about the drawings lent
very little to the powerful and compelling discourse data.

Andrew’s presentation and organization of her study make it an enjoyable read.
The book is well organized to include concise previews and summaries of each
section. The data excerpts and narratives of the seven learners make it an
insightful exploration of age discourse within the L2 classroom, within a
classroom setting, and as an exemplar of age studies.


Atkinson, D. (2002). “Toward a sociocognitive approach to second language
acquisition.” Modern Language Journal, 91, 169-188.

Block, D. (2007). “The rise of identity in SLA research, post Firth and Wagner
(1997).” Modern Language Journal, 91, 863-876.

Gee, J. P. (2001). “Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive
perspective.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44, 714-725.

Kramsch, C. (2000). “Second Language Acquisition, applied linguistics, and the
teaching of foreign language.” Modern Language Journal, 84, 311-326.

Lantolf, J. P. & Thorne, S. L. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of
Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Periphery
Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and
Educational Change. Harlow: Longman.

Toohey, K. (2000). Learning English at School: Identity, Social Relations and
Classroom Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.


Trini Stickle is a PhD candidate in the Program of English Language and
Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests are
language use in the interactions between persons with dementia and their
nonimpaired coparticipants. Her dissertation investigates the co-construction
of epistemic stance in the talk of persons with dementia.
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