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LINGUIST List 25.244

Tue Jan 14 2014

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Granena & Long (2013)

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

Date: 30-Sep-2013
From: Jessica Cox <jgc48georgetown.edu>
Subject: Sensitive periods, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2544.html

EDITOR: Gisela Granena
EDITOR: Mike Long
TITLE: Sensitive periods, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment
SERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 35
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Jessica Cox, Georgetown University


Gisela Granena and Mike Long lay out the purpose and contents of the volume in the introduction. According to the two authors, age of onset (AoO) and aptitude are the two greatest predictors of non-native language learning. Their interest is in the role of aptitude in naturalistic learning settings, not traditional classrooms, and of the effect of high or low aptitude on ultimate attainment, not rate of learning. This marks a step away from previous decades of aptitude research, which focused on the importance of aptitude for progressing quickly in non-native language learning in a traditional classroom. Part I considers a variety of issues related to age differences and maturational constraints. Part II then considers aptitude constructs and measures, including the LLAMA Language Aptitude Tests, working memory, phonological short-term memory, and the High-level Language Aptitude Battery (Hi-LAB). Part III combines the topics of the first two sections by reporting on empirical studies investigating the roles of aptitude and AoO in advanced L2 proficiency. Finally, Part IV relates the topics of maturational constraints and aptitude to society: the implications of when to introduce foreign languages in schools and the importance of aptitude-treatment interactions in real-life classrooms.

Chapter 1: Maturational constraints on child and adult SLA (Mike Long)

Rather than simply summarizing the existing literature on maturational constraints in SLA, Long identifies issues that plague the field and why they have led to a lack of consensus amongst researchers regarding the specific nature and causes of sensitive periods and maturational constraints. He also identifies ways in which the research has improved over the decades, pointing to a promising future. Long’s hypotheses for maturational constraints are that native-like attainment is possible, but not guaranteed, for all domains with an AoO ranging from 0-6, possible but less likely from 6-early teens, and impossible beyond that. Lack of consensus amongst researchers comes from factors including, but not limited to, overreliance on census data, comparison of correlation coefficients rather than using regressions to identify breakpoints in slopes, and use of untimed tests which allow for access of explicit knowledge rather than forcing participants to rely on implicit, native-like knowledge. The list of ten improvements to the field leaves one with the positive feeling that increasing sophistication of research design (methodology, participant selection, specificity of hypotheses) will yield interesting and informative results in the rest of this volume and in the near future.

Chapter 2: Maturational constraints on lexical acquisition in a second language (Katherine Spadaro)

Spadaro reports on an empirical study that investigated how AoO (age 0-6, 7-12, or 13+) relates to ultimate attainment in the lexical domain. Participants spoke English as a second language and fully participated in life in the English-speaking community either through work or school. These participants were compared to ten native speaker controls. All participants completed the Kent-Rosanoff word association task, seven written production tasks (filling in blanks, discriminating nonce words, and others), and an oral production task (retelling a story from a video). The experimental groups, especially those with older ages of onset, had difficulty using core vocabulary items in collocations and seemed to have a “considerably smaller repertoire of ‘memorized chunks’” (p. 63) available to them. Many of these were trends rather than significant differences between groups, but still suggest that findings for maturational constraints in L2 morphosyntactic learning (e.g., Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2008) extend to the lexical domain.

Chapter 3: Age of acquisition effects or effects of bilingualism in second language ultimate attainment? (Emanuel Bylund, Kenneth Hyltenstam, & Niclas Abrahamsson)

According to the authors, the Bilingual Turn proposed by Ortega (2010) (which states that the goal of developing bilinguals is not to be a native-like monolingual in the L2 but rather a balanced bilingual) implies that ultimate attainment should be defined by the effects of two or more languages coexisting in the mind (i.e., level and control of bilingualism) rather than AoO. According to this view, it is not an individual’s language-learning ability that decreases with age, but rather an increase in the interference from L1 (given that L1 proficiency increases with maturational development). While Bylund et al. (2012) found that bilinguals’ proficiency in L1 and L2 differed from that of native speakers’ in each language, the correlations between L1 and L2 proficiency were positive, not negative: higher proficiency in one language occurred with higher proficiency with the second; moreover, both correlated positively with aptitude scores. Thus, they argue that it is degree of aptitude, not interlingual interference or degree of bilingualism, that leads to ultimate attainment. Moreover, the authors argue that the lack of specificity on native speaker controls in studies of ultimate attainment may mean that controls are somewhat bilingual themselves, so the contrast is not as great as some critics say. Finally, since many ultimate attainment studies use immigrant populations, it is unclear to what extent the L1 is maintained and used. Finally, the scarcity of studies investigating bilingual effects on ultimate attainment impedes formulation of specific hypotheses for the various multiple sensitive periods that researchers currently propose: the magnitude of any effect may vary by linguistic domain and may coexist with maturational constraints.

Chapter 4: Cognitive aptitudes for second language learning and the LLAMA Language Aptitude Test (Gisela Granena)

This chapter reports on results of an exploratory validation study of the LLAMA, a relatively new aptitude measure. It uses picture stimuli and thus is language-independent, unlike the MLAT. Its subsections include vocabulary learning, sound sequence recognition, sound-symbol association, and grammatical inferencing. Granena’s summary of previous empirical literature concludes that LLAMA scores correlate, above all, with learning outcomes when measured by explicit tests and/or when combined with explicit instruction; only the LLAMA D (sound recognition) correlates with timed assessments. The validation study considered both internal consistency (across items) and test-retest consistency (within individuals after a two-year gap). Both showed acceptable, but not superior, reliability. Validity analysis of the LLAMA showed that the LLAMA D loaded on a component separate from the other subtests, which loaded on one component. A primary component analysis supported the idea that LLAMA D does not reflect explicit, metalinguistic ability whereas the other subtests do. Thus, it is not surprising that LLAMA scores have generally been found to correlate with language learning in more explicit conditions. Separating LLAMA D scores may be a way of investigating more implicit language learning ability in the future.

Chapter 5: New conceptualizations of language aptitude in second language attainment (Judit Kormos)

This chapter takes on the different cognitive factors related to L2 development; namely, intelligence, aptitude, working memory (WM), and phonological short-term memory (PSTM), and considers how they might be related or interact in the language learning process. Language-learning aptitude, as with general intelligence, has historically lacked a theoretical basis and definition because aptitude tests were created via the psychometric approach: by including tests that correlated with achievement, rather than by picking tests based on a theoretical explanation of how they would relate to achievement. WM has been shown to correlate with aptitude, whereas PSTM has not. There are theoretical bases for including both aptitude components proposed by Carroll and Sapon (1992) and cognitive factors such as WM and PSTM in various stages of the language learning process. Kormos concludes by saying there is likely a role for aptitude in both explicit and naturalistic language learning situations, and that there is evidence that being in instructed language learning situations yields an increase in some aptitude components (metalinguistic awareness and phonological sensitivity); however, the importance of non-cognitive factors, such as motivation and personality, should not be forgotten, as likely all interact to determine ultimate attainment.

Chapter 6: Optimizing post-critical-period language learning (Catherine J. Doughty)

This chapter introduces the High-level Language Aptitude Battery (Hi-LAB), a measure of aptitude for high L2 proficiency, presenting its constructs, measures, reliability, and validity. The Hi-LAB aims to predict ultimate achievement rather than rate of progress in classroom settings, given that some learners have been shown to achieve very high proficiency despite being later learners. “High proficiency” was defined as Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR, a scale used by US government agencies) Level 4 (Advanced Professional Proficiency). The theoretical constructs behind the Hi-LAB include working memory (capacity and executive control), long-term memory, primability, perceptual acuity, processing speed, implicit induction ability, explicit induction ability, pragmatic sensitivity, and fluency/automaticity in speech. The version of the Hi-LAB reported on here includes tasks operationalizing working memory through implicit induction. Validity studies compared Hi-LAB performance of highly successful language learners to that of the more average learner, all government employees. The Hi-LAB correctly classified highly successful learners 70% of the time for listening, 60% for reading, and 67% for either-skill attainment. Hi-LAB results are also used to create an aptitude profile for each test taker, evaluating that person’s likely language learning outcome and in what environment they likely will achieve most (e.g., immersion or classroom). The development of aptitude-treatment interaction (ATI) studies based on these profiles is still in development.

Chapter 7: Reexamining the robustness of aptitude in second language acquisition (Gisela Granena)

This chapter extends previous research on aptitude and SLA, which in the past has been restricted to SLA in instructed conditions, by investigating aptitude in naturalistic learning contexts. Tests were grammaticality judgment tests (GJTs; aural and written, with aural being timed and written untimed) with two types of items (simple or complex syntax) and the LLAMA as a measure of aptitude. Participants were L1 English-L2 Spanish residents of Barcelona or controls who were Spanish/Catalan bilinguals. Results showed that the difference in accuracy between the experimental and control groups was greater on the aural GJT than the written, although control outperformed experimental in both cases. For the experimental group, aptitude played a role in accuracy for written items, but not auditory. Reaction time (RT) analyses showed that controls were faster than the experimental group in both GJTs. However, within the control group, RT was slower in the auditory GJT than in the written, whereas within the experimental group, RT was slower in the written than the auditory. Aptitude did not moderate RT outcomes nor did it interact with sentence complexity for accuracy. Granena concludes that whether tests are timed or untimed is crucial for SLA: high-aptitude L2 speakers had significantly higher accuracy when they were given time to think, with RT analyses corroborating this explanation by showing that L2 learners did take more time when possible.

Chapter 8: Memory-based aptitude for nativelike selection: The role of phonological short-term memory (Cylcia Bolibaugh & Pauline Foster)

The authors present an empirical study whose results suggest that phonological short-term memory (PSTM) limits both the initial rate of learning a second language for adult learners as well as their ultimate attainment. They argue that for aural input to be remembered as a chunk, it must first be held in PSTM. Participants were Polish immigrants to the UK who arrived after the age of 18 and had been in residence at least 10 years, and a native speaker (NS) control group. They completed texts describing a video they had just seen (nativelike selection of lexical entries) and a nonword repetition task (PSTM), as well as a background questionnaire that asked after their frequency of use of L1 and L2 and attitudes toward interacting with English speakers. Hierarchical regressions showed that level of interaction with English speakers, PSTM, and attitude toward interacting with English speakers were all significant predictors of nativelike selection of lexicon. Finally, comparing the scores of the four immigrants who scored within the native-speaker range showed that greater ability in one domain (e.g., level of interaction with NS) can offset weaker ability in another area (e.g., PSTM). Therefore, unlike in studies of child language acquisition, the nature of the environment, as well as individual differences, is crucial for adult learners.

Chapter 9: High-level proficiency in late L2 acquisition: Relationships between collocational production, language aptitude, and personality (Fanny Forsberg Lundell & Maria Sandgren)

This empirical study compares the relationship between high L2 proficiency and aptitude (as measured by the LLAMA) and that of high L2 proficiency and personality. High L2 proficiency was measured by tests of collocations and grammaticality judgment. Participants were 13 L1 Swedish/L2 French speakers who began learning French late (after age 12) and had spent at least five years in France. L2 collocation score correlated with LLAMA-D score, cultural empathy score, and open-mindedness score. LLAMA-D also correlated with the same two personality measures. LLAMA-D is related to phonetic memory, so it makes sense that that aptitude subcomponent would be related to acquisition of L2 collocations. It is less clear what the correlations between LLAMA-D and personality subcomponents mean, but the authors suggest a root construct of openness to new sounds and experiences. As in the previous chapter, the conclusion is that both aptitude and additional factors (here, psychosocial ones) need to be considered to predict adult learning, especially at high proficiency.

Chapter 10: Some implications of research findings on sensitive periods in language learning for educational policy and practice (Mike Long)

Long begins this chapter by acknowledging that the policy implications for sensitive periods in language learning are highly dependent on the context and the individuals. Many countries have begun to introduce foreign languages at earlier and earlier ages in schools, but that type of exposure is unlikely to be of sufficient quantity to make the most of younger childrens’ advantage in implicit learning. Thus, it might be better in some cases to either wait until the children are slightly older and better able to take advantage of focus-on-form instruction or to develop more age-appropriate approaches to early childhood education in a second language. This is where context comes in: in the case of immigrants, one is not going to wait to begin their ESL education; rather, ESL classes for young children should be focused on providing rich input with minimal instruction. In contrast, in cases of foreign language instruction, there may be no harm in waiting to begin instruction. Long also highlights the need for applied research in these areas rather than relying on basic research investigating the effects of AoO at a later age.

Chapter 11: Aptitude-treatment interaction studies in second language acquisition: Findings and methodology (Karen Vatz, Medha Tare, Scott R. Jackson & Catherine J. Doughty)

This chapter reviews existing literature on ATIs to identify trends in the findings and to critique the current methodology, with an aim to improving research design in future studies. Studies have generally used one of two designs: in the first, learners’ cognitive aptitude is measured and the researcher deliberately assigns each participant to a treatment that either matches or mismatches their aptitude, to observe the resultant learning outcome. The second option for a research design is assigning participants to treatments arbitrarily and then analyzing the role of aptitude in the learning outcomes of each treatment in a post hoc manner. Although many studies have not had ATI as their primary goal, they do generally report differential outcomes within treatments due to aptitude. However, the operationalizations of both aptitude and type of treatment vary so widely that it is difficult to consolidate findings, much less perform a meta-analysis. The authors also discuss different patterns of interactions found: studies can find that treatments affect both high and low aptitude learners differentially (a rare finding), that aptitude has a role in one treatment but not another (in which case the second is preferable for being fair to all learners), or that one treatment’s superiority is carried by the high aptitude learners. Thus, implications for pedagogy need to be cautious based on the type of interaction found.


This volume brings together a wealth of information on its topics of focus: sensitive periods, language aptitude, and ultimate attainment in the L2. Much of the research reported is cutting-edge; for example, by investigating acquisition on collocations and lexical development (Chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9) and testing the reliability of recently developed aptitude measures (the LLAMA and the Hi-LAB, Chapters 4 and 6, respectively). Many chapters also bring new perspectives to very current debates in applied linguistics, some long-standing (e.g., Chapter 1, on the nature of maturational constraints) and some newer (e.g., Chapter 3, on the “bilingual turn” in SLA and its implications -- or lack thereof -- for proposed sensitive periods). Finally, the implications for real-world educational practices are clearly discussed in both empirical and theoretical chapters (e.g., implications of the Hi-LAB in government language training in Chapter 4, issues of educational policy in Chapter 10, and the future of ATIs in Chapter 11). Therefore, this volume will be of value not only to applied linguists who already work on these topics, but also those looking to make a future contribution to the field (perhaps by using a more recent aptitude test, targeting an understudied linguistic domain, or investigating deliberate rather than post hoc ATIs) and for educational practitioners and policy makers.

This volume may be of particular use for aptitude researchers, as the three chapters in Section II are very explicit in the theoretical constructs behind their aptitude tests and how they are operationalized in the tests. In the past, researchers have theorized about constructs (e.g., Skehan, 2002) or proposed tests without a clear theoretical background (e.g., the MLAT, Carroll & Sapon, 2002), but rarely are the two as well integrated as they are in these chapters.

Nevertheless, some of the chapters are narrow in their view of what fits the authors’ definitions, especially in terms of nativelikeness in ultimate attainment. Chapter 1 sets the trend in this regard by rejecting evidence of NNS nativelikeness in untimed L2 tests, stating that such tests allow for explicit reflection rather than requiring use of implicit knowledge. It is not clear why explicit knowledge, especially if automatized and thus nearly identical to implicit knowledge in practice (i.e., Segalowitz & Segalowitz, 1993) is not acceptably like a native speaker. Empirical studies in this volume, as in this subfield in general, focus on the tests that show non-nativelikeness in near-native speakers to the detriment of the tests that show nativelikeness. From a scientific perspective, both findings are informative.

Finally, in embracing current trends in SLA to focus on lexical acquisition and collocations, previously understudied domains, the current volume has little to say about aptitude and ultimate attainment in morphosyntactic or phonological development. Pragmatics is mentioned in the chapter on the Hi-LAB, but pragmatic knowledge is not assessed in any chapter of the volume.
Overall, this volume makes a clear contribution to the field and will be very useful to practitioners, regardless of their level of experience in the field. The breadth and depth of its contents is impressive for an edited volume.


Abrahamsson, N. & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). The robustness of aptitude effects in near-native second language acquisition. “Studies in Second Language Acquisition” 30, 481-509.

Carroll, J. B. & Sapon, S. (2002). “Modern Language Aptitude Test: Manual, 2002 Edition”. Rockville, MD: Second Language Testing, Inc.

Segalowitz, N. S. & Segalowitz, S. J. (1993). Skilled performance, practice, and the differentiation of speed-up from automatization effects: Evidence from second language word recognition. “Applied Psycholinguistics”, 14, 369–385.

Skehan, P. (2002). Theorising and updating aptitude. In P. Robinson (Ed)., “Individual differences and instructed language learning”, pp. 69-93. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


Jessica G. Cox is a PhD Candidate in Spanish Applied Linguistics at Georgetown University. Her dissertation, partly funded by a Language Learning dissertation grant, investigates the effects of two internal variables, bilingualism and cognitive aging, and one external variable, instructional conditions, in the initial development of non-primary morphosyntax. She also considers the roles of IDs (cognitive control, aptitude, and implicit sequence learning ability) in L2 learning. Cox currently teaches Spanish language and linguistics at Georgetown University and has studied in Mexico, Costa Rica, China, and Brazil.

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