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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 YEAR: 2004
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 it. --Eds.]
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 identity.
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 than vice-versa.
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, 447-465.
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.