Review of Age, Accent and Experience in Second Language Acquisition
Date: Wed, 09 Mar 2005 13:00:21 -0600
From: Jenifer Larson-Hall
Subject: Age, Accent and Experience in Second Language Acquisition
AUTHOR: Moyer, Alene
TITLE: Age, Accent and Experience in Second Language Acquisition
SERIES: Second Language Acquisition 7
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
Jenifer Larson-Hall, University of North Texas
[This review was originally submitted in June 2004 but not received. We
apologize to the reviewer, author and publisher for the delay in posting
Moyer's new book continues and expands upon the theme of her 1999 article:
That critical period effects can best be explained through other factors
that are related to age, not age itself (or only age indirectly), and that
an investigation of the phonological abilities of adult second language
learners will help us uncover those factors.
The book basically contains an article based upon new research done with
25 advanced learners of German as a second language. The first chapter
consists of a short overview of the project, while the second chapter
contains an in-depth introduction to the issue of a Critical Period (CP)
and other factors which might possibly influence learners. These include
aptitude, style, transfer, self-monitoring, motivation, acculturation and
Chapter 3 launches into the quantitative analysis portion of the study,
with a description of participants, materials, results and conclusions.
Briefly, Moyer found that 3 of her native speakers of German (n=9) scored
at the level of 2 (on a 1-6 scale, where 1=definitely native and
6=definitely non-native), and "several" NNS received a mean rating that
was within this zone (exactly how many 'several' includes is not clear
from the text). Using the top 5 variables (out of 31) with the strongest r
correlation value to the total mean score on the speaking tasks,
regression analyses were run. Moyer found that while a model that included
length of residence (LOR) and age of onset (AO) accounted for 56% of the
variance, a model using only 'Personal motivation to acquire German'
and 'Satisfaction with own phonological attainment' accounted for 74% of
the variance. Moyer concludes that social-psychological variables "are as
strong (or stronger) in their predictive power as are AO and LOR
_combined_" (p. 81).
Chapter 4 presents a qualitative analysis of interviews conducted with the
NNS participants. In this chapter, Moyer is able to present more in-depth
information about the way that the NNS gain a "sense of self" in German.
One factor she emphasizes is frequency and strength of contact with NS.
Although Moyer indicates that the strength of relationships with NS
enhances language ability (p. 125), she discusses the case of 'Dora', who
scored within NS range but does not have extensive contact with NS in
Germany. Instead, she seems to spend large amounts of time involved in
passive language activities (such as watching TV or reading books), but
her motivation level is high and she feels positively toward German
culture, which may help her make up for the lack of interaction. Moyer is
also interested in attitudes toward the culture and how they may influence
ultimate attainment. She acknowledges that measuring attitude may be
difficult, but nevertheless tries to show in the interviews how those who
are most comfortable in German society are those whose language abilities
are the strongest, and vice versa, while acknowledging the potential
circularity of these factors. Another strong theme in this chapter is that
the intention to stay in Germany correlates with better mean ratings.
Moyer thinks this intention may be connected with other factors such as
motivation, attitude and identity.
Moyer concludes that much work remains to be done in determining what
balance of biological, social, psychological, cognitive and experiential
factors may better explain the variety of outcomes found in adult SLA.
This book is an interesting exploration of the factors that may affect
exceptional phonological learning in adult L2 learners. One factor Moyer
finds to be highly correlated with success is motivation. This seems
reasonable, given that Dornyei & Skehan (2003) say that motivation and
aptitude are the two factors besides age which have been found to have
significant predictive power (aptitude was not tested in this study).
Frequency of contact with native speakers is another factor that seems
very reasonable, although this may certainly be a case of very unclear
causation-does abundant contact with native speakers lead to better
phonology, or do those who have better phonology feel more confident about
contacting native speakers? Moyer acknowledges these circularities but
thinks future researchers should try to investigate these factors more
clearly. On the other hand, the usefulness of a third
factor, "Satisfaction with attainment", seems questionable. One regression
model showed that just the two factors of "Personal motivation to acquire
German" and "Satisfaction with attainment" accounted for 74% of the
variance in the scores. However, can one increase their proficiency by
becoming more satisfied with their pronunciation? It seems that the
causality in this case would stem from actual performance levels, rather
Moyer leads the way in using tasks that are challenging for non-native
speakers. Many investigations of exceptional learners in phonology only
ask their participants to read sentences (Bongaerts, Mennen, & van der
Slik, 2000; the second experiment in Bongaerts, van Summeren, Planken, &
Schils, 1997), while Moyer used 4 tasks, which involved reading a word
list, reading two different paragraph-length texts, describing a personal
situation, and reading a list of proverbs. Certainly if an adult learner
of German were able to pass for a NS on all of these tasks, this would be
convincing evidence that that participant's phonology had reached a native
level. Moyer recruited her participants in Berlin and advertised for
advanced speakers of German. She felt they were well-situated to be able
to "defy the critical period".
Moyer, however, does not convince this reader that she has found any
exceptions to a Critical Period Hypothesis. She reports that 2 or 3
learners scored within NS levels on a mean score over all tasks, but these
participants may have been the 2 learners in the experiment who heard and
spoke German from birth! No individual data is given to identify the
subjects who were able to 'pass' for native speakers.
In general, it seems with an entire book length venue in which to report
on this experiment, much more detailed information about individuals and
their scores could have been presented. I would have liked to have had
detailed information about the background factors, scores on tasks, and
scores on other questionnaire items such as motivation and satisfaction
listed for all of the participants, not just group scores. Also, the
appendix with the questionnaire containing the background questions was
entirely in German, although Moyer quickly provided me with an English
version upon request.
There is one other glaring methodological problem with this experiment.
This is that Moyer conducts regression analyses in order to see which of
the multiple factors she measured best predict scores on the phonological
productions. Porte (2002) states that statisticians agree that multiple
regressions should not be applied to small samples with less than 30
subjects for each independent variable. As Moyer has only 25 subjects (or
23 when the 2 early bilinguals were excluded) it is not clear that
regressions should have been run at all.
However, the book is clearly an important contribution to the field in
that it tries to explore what kinds of factors help learners to progress
to extraordinary levels in an L2, and it does this through both
qualitative and quantitative methods. Certainly, including a qualitative
side is a welcome addition to the literature.
Bongaerts, T., Mennen, S., & van der Slik, F. (2000). Authenticity of
pronunciation in naturalistic second language acquisition: The case of
very advanced late learners of Dutch as a second language. Studia
Linguistica, 54(2), 298-308.
Bongaerts, T., van Summeren, C., Planken, B., & Schils, E. (1997). Age and
ultimate attainment in the pronunciation of a foreign language. SSLA, 19,
Dornyei, Z., & Skehan, P. (2003). Individual differences in second
language learning. In C. Doughty & M. H. Long (Eds.), The Handbook of
Second Language Acquisition (pp. 589-630). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Moyer, A. (1999). Ultimate attainment in L2 phonology: the critical
factors of age, motivation and instruction. Studies in Second Language
Acquisition, 21, 81-108.
Porte, G. K. (2002). Appraising research in second language learning: a
practical approach to critical analysis of quantitative research.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jenifer Larson-Hall is an assistant professor of linguistics at the
University of North Texas. Her interests include the second language
acquisition of phonology, Critical Period effects in phonology, language
forgetting and relearning, and bilingual acquisition.