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Review of  Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language

Reviewer: Laura Loder Büchel
Book Title: Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language
Book Author: M. Pilar García - Mayo Maria Luisa Garcia Lecumberri
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 14.2720

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Date: Wed, 08 Oct 2003 10:34:28 +0200
From: Laura Buechel <>
Subject: Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language

García Mayo, María del Pilar and María Luisa García Lecumberri, ed.
(2003) Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language,
Multilingual Matters, Second Language Acquisition series.

Laura Loder Büchel, Pädagogische Hochschule Zürich and Schaffhausen,

"Age and the Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language" offers
several in-depth studies in the field of foreign language (FL) learning
in an early integration setting. In a compilation of nine articles, the
first three offer an overview of research about the Critical Period
Hypothesis (CPH) and other age related factors in FL learning and the
following six are detailed studies of the factor of age and success in
different aspects of FL learning. In comparison to much research on
foreign language acquisition done with immigrants, or those who have
access to the FL outside of the classroom, these studies were carried
out in a population of Basque (and Catalan in the case of the last two
articles) - Spanish bilingual communities where English has been
introduced as a foreign language in the public school setting, and with
students who don't have extra-curricular access to it. Questions
concerning differences in level attained in English (grammar, speaking,
listening comprehension, among others) based age in which students had
started their formal education in English (age of onset) were
researched. This book could well be used as a graduate level textbook
and is also relevant to language planners and those making decisions
about the early integration of foreign languages in the public school

Chapter 1: Critical Period or General Age Factor(s)
David Singleton
In this chapter, Singleton does not stray from his interpretation from
his 1989 hypothesis that there are perhaps many age effects in general
learning, and other factors which influence FL learning such as
motivation and exposure and because of this, the idea of a CPH cannot be
supported. He discredits many studies which supported or developed the
idea of a CPH because in many of them, language development in subjects
does not discontinue after a given age, which would be the case if there
were a critical period. Moreover, reasons individuals do not acquire
language after a certain age, as in the cases of "wolf-children", for
example, may be due to a hindrance in general cognitive development,
which is thus reflected in language development, therefore also not
specifically supporting a CPH.

Chapter 2: Phonological Acquisition in Multilingualism
Jonathan Leather
In this chapter, Jonathan Leather looks at the CPH in regards to the
acquisition of native like speech in FL learners. He provides a review
of recent research and covers theoretical frameworks from the
structuralist paradigm and Natural Phonology to Optimality Theory,
Autosegmental Phonology and more. He discusses the possible effects of
native language (L1) on further FLs. He concludes that there are many
individual factors, such as motivation, aptitude, etc... which need to
be taken into consideration and it is difficult to draw general rules
from so many variables, thus not supporting the CPH. He also implies the
need for more longitudinal studies that combine phonetic and
phonological issues.

Chapter 3: Know Your Grammar: What the Knowledge of Syntax and
Morphology in an L2 Reveals About the Critical Period for Second/foreign
Language Acquisition
Stefka H. Marinova-Todd.
After a brief introduction to the CPH and to the idea of "sensitive
periods" for FL acquisition, Marinova-Todd presents a review of
literature about the role of grammar in FL acquisition. Due to recent
literature that shows older learners demonstrating equal skills or even
outperforming younger ones in FL acquisition, it should not be assumed
that children are the best language learners. Moreover, the CPH cannot
be justified because there are simply too many exceptions. Furthermore,
these studies emphasize the need for better programs for adult language

Part 2: Fieldwork in Bilingual Communities
Chapter 4: The Influence of Age on the Acquisition of English: General
Proficiency, Attitudes and Code-mixing
Jasone Cenoz
This study questions whether the introduction of a third language in
early educational settings is too much for a child in terms of language
mixing. The author looked at achievement by learners who started
learning English at different ages and had different amounts of
instruction, the rate of learning of those who started at different ages
but had the same amount of instruction and the change in attitudes and
motivation. This study confirms other studies which find that older
learners achieve proficiency more rapidly than younger ones. Reasons for
introducing foreign languages into the primary classroom, then, are due
to other factors such as motivation, which younger learners show more
of, but not because they are better language learners.

Chapter 5
Age, Length of Exposure and Grammaticality Judgements in the Acquisition
of English as a Foreign Language
Maria del Pilar Garcia Mayo
In this study, three questions were addressed. First of all, addressing
whether or not length of exposure in a foreign language setting has any
influence on target-like performance in a grammaticality judgement task,
it was found that yes, the longer the exposure, the better the
participants performed on these tasks. Secondly, the question was posed
of whether earlier exposure increases performance in these tasks and
here, it was found that older subjects outperformed younger ones in
several types of tasks. Finally, from the question of whether higher
cognitive development is related to a higher degree of metalinguistic
awareness, if was found that the learners who were exposed to English at
a later age (11-12), were more able to find the mistake in a sentence
and also provide an appropriate correction.

Chapter 6
English FL Sounds in School Learners of Different Ages
Maria Luisa Garcia Lecumberri and Francisco Gallardo
In their research, the authors find a direct relationship between age
and perception skills - the older (within the scope of public school
setting), the better. Older students portray a better perception
concerning vowels and consonants and they are considered to be easier to
understand and to have a weaker foreign accent, or are more
intelligible. Moreover, intelligibility is also not favored by an
earlier starting age. The main factor which explains learner group
differences are native language interference. Other factors also involve
cognitive strategies used by students at different ages. While it is
commonly acknowledged that older learners are at an advantage for
morphology and syntax, this is one of few studies which confirm the same
for pronunciation.

Chapter 7
Maturational Constraints on Foreign-language Written Production
David Lasagabaster and Aintzane Doiz
At the time of the study, the three groups being researched had
approximately the same number of hours of instruction, but had started
learning English at three different age brackets. Respecting the changes
in theory about error analysis, the authors scored both holistically
(the general impression of the text) and through counting defined errors
(grammatical, lexical, etc...). The authors found that students who
started learning English later scored significantly better using both
approaches, most likely because their L1 skills are more developed. In
analysis of the types of errors made by age, they found that younger
starters made more basic errors and older starters, due to the
complexity of their expression, made more complex mistakes such as

Chapter 8
Variation in Oral Skills Development and Age of Onset
Carmen Munoz
In the first research question, the author asks if early starters in a
Catalan-Spanish school setting show a similar, poorer or higher
performance than late starters in oral and aural communicative skills.
It was found that except in receptive skills in aural recognition, where
no significant difference was found, early starters performed poorer
than later starters. Secondly, it was asked if there is a relationship
between length of instruction and language development in students with
different ages of onset. According to the research, later starters
performed persistently better, and that, from the number of hours of
instruction they were allotted, the earlier starters still hadn't
"caught up". This is best summed up in the author's own words "If no
change in trend is observed at the end of secondary education, it should
then be concluded that the current system of formal education does not
provide enough exposure to students in order for the early starters to
outperform the late starters... (p. 178)."

Chapter 9
Learner Strategies: A Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Study of Primary
and High-school EFL Learners
Mia Victori and Elsa Tragant
The authors here have undertaken a very complex issue which they say is
a call for more researchers and educators to take up the issue of
strategy use and age in FL acquisition. They first looked at if there
were significant differences between the strategies used by FL learners
of different age groups. They found that as learners get older, they use
a wider range of strategies that are increasingly more complex than
their younger counterparts and they do not rely as much on memorization.
Secondly, they looked to see if there is a developmental trend of
strategy use as students grow older and if so, if they occur
progressively with age or are there specific periods when change occurs.
Here, they found that strategy use did not steadily progress as students
grew older and there was much variability among learners.

This concise volume is worth three times its weight in gold in regards
to valuable research and findings. The studies are well planned and the
literature reviewed is well-chosen and up-to-date. The set up of the
book, with first a review and then studies related to different skills
and strategies, makes it cohesive. The findings, however, could be very
controversial because many communities that are in a similar situation
as in Spain have invested a lot of time and money into the decision to
integrate foreign languages into the primary school. These studies have
implications for a very large population of school children in Europe
and throughout the world learning English as a third or more language.

The authors were very aware of their limitations, for example in that
although younger language learners may not be the best learners in
general, that there are other reasons for integrating foreign languages
into the primary school. Every author has also emphasized the need for
more longitudinal studies and studies from other populations in a
similar situation to Spain. The need was stressed, as well, for
reflecting on how foreign languages are being introduced -through which
methods - with different age groups.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Laura Loder Büchel is teacher trainer in the fields of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and English. She completed her M.Ed. in Bilingual Education from Northern Arizona University in 2000. Her research interests include the advantages of simultaneous first and second language acquisition and early foreign language acquisition in public school settings.

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