LINGUIST List 24.1518

Thu Apr 04 2013

Review: Language Acquisition; Sociolinguistics: Andrew (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 15-Feb-2013
From: Trini Stickle <>
Subject: The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language Learners
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Patricia AndrewTITLE: The Social Construction of AgeSUBTITLE: Adult Foreign Language LearnersSERIES TITLE: Second Language AcquisitionPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2012

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


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

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


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

As a second language researcher, Andrew distinguishes herself and her approachfrom the biological-cognitive focus that has occupied SLA for the last fortyyears. In differentiating age as “a particular place or position a person hasat a given moment in time” (i.e., chronological age) from aging, “amultidimensional process that is physiological, psychological, social andcultural” (p. xiv), she aligns her work with social themes current in SLAresearch. For Andrew, however, the construction of age as it affects thesecond language (L2) learner is her foremost concern; the context of the L2classroom, second. Andrew states, “My concern was less with the issue oflinguistic attainment than with what the experience means in the largercontext of [the learners’] worlds” (p. xi). Andrew employs ethnographicobservations of the classroom and individual interviews to document how ageidentity 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 acquisitionprocess; 2) to initiate interest in age as a socially constructed identitythat interacts with other social features such as gender, ethnicity, andsocial class, 3) to demonstrate social constructionism as a lens for futureage studies; and 4) to document how social interaction contributes to thedevelopment of social discourse. Andrew intends to contribute equally to the“fledging field of age studies” (p. xv) and to the second language communityof researchers, instructors, and curricula developers.

Part 1 provides the conceptual basis for looking at age as a social contextwithin the second language classroom, and as a social feature that isco-constructed through interactions along with gender, ethnicity, and socialclass.

In Chapter 1, “The Age Factor and Second Language Acquisition”, Andrewprovides an overview of traditional age-related research within SLA, inquirieswhich are primarily focused on the biological constraints of languagelearning. She includes key findings from critical hypothesis research from the1970s to more recent work, and notes that while no definite conclusionsregarding a critical period have yet been supported, the underlying questionhas led to productive investigations on the role of Universal Grammar andother cognitive factors, the context of learning -- classroom or naturalisticsettings -- and social and affectual factors. Andrew concludes that ifdifferences in second language acquisition are caused by maturationalprocesses, these “constraints operate in conjunction with a number of otheraffective, psychological and social factors” (p. 15). Andrew then provides areview of sociocultural approaches to second language acquisition, includingactivity theory (Kramsch, 2000; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006), Atkinson’s work oncognitive and social aspects of second language learning (2002), and theinfluence of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). She situates herown view of age effects on L2 learning within SLA’s fairly recent turn tosituated learning and the role of identity, or rather, identities of thelearner (e.g., Block, 2007; Norton, 2000, Toohey, 2000). Andrew’s work adds tothese studies the importance of age identity.

In Chapter 2, “Present-Day Approaches to the Study of Age,” Andrew focuses onrecent studies of age. She first introduces the reader to socialconstructionism (SC), which posits that all social reality is constructedthrough discursive interaction. As SC has been instrumental in documenting howgender, ethnicity, race, and social class are jointly created and negotiatedthrough talk, Andrew adds aging as a social construct that is related to butdistinct from biological processes associated with age.

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

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

In Chapter 3, “Viewing Age through a Social Constructionist Lens”, Andrewdiscusses current approaches to age, particularly the meaning of age aspresented within Western culture. She presents findings within socialconstructionist research that document how the biological processes of declineand decrement concurrent with age have been appropriated as the social view ofaging. This view of decrement, Andrew notes, has led to both Ageist andanti-Ageist views. Consequently, as people negotiate their age identitiesthrough interactions, the cultural views of age often arise as competingnarratives. 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 representedby the university classroom of mixed-aged learners studying English as aforeign language.

In Part 2, Andrew uses several types of discursive data to document how theseven adult language learners position themselves and are positioned by otherswithin one of three age categories: later adulthood, middle adulthood, andyoung adulthood. She uses transcript excerpts from the semi-instructedinterviews and from the recorded classroom interactions as students engagedwith each other, their instructor, and with the curriculum. Additionally, shehas each student create a hand-drawn sketch that depicts the student’s view ofthe life course. Andrew connects these snapshots of age identity and assignseach adult learner to a particular age category.

Chapter 4, “Constructing Age in Later Adulthood,” presents the experiences ofthe two oldest members of Andrew’s study: Hector, age 69 and Felix, age 68.Although their chronological ages contribute to their later adulthoodcharacterization, Andrew shows that factors such as their retired status,previous professions, and consequential social class exert greater influencein constructing their age identities. Both their own talk and remarks fromothers, including instructors, evidence how age is salient and oftennegatively portrayed in the classroom. Similarly, the inapplicable age-gradedtopics in the curriculum such as dating, preparing for a career, or parent orsibling interactions highlight their different life stage. Andrew posits thatthrough these interactions the negative construction of later adulthoodidentity colors the learners’ goals and expectations of second languagelearning 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 thestories of the four women in her study: Elsa, Gilda, Adela, and Berta. Thesewomen fit themselves and are fitted into a distinct middle adulthood category,despite the fact that no concept of “middle age”, and thus no equivalent termor phrase, exists in Mexico. Andrew makes clear that the one feature the womenshare is that they are all of working age with social responsibilities. Theirchronological ages range from 34 to 59; some are married; some have children;one is nearing retirement. Yet comments from their instructors and theirengagement with ill-fitted curriculum topics make salient their professionaland personal identities that exist outside the classroom. Like theexperiences of Hector and Felix, occasional ageist comments depict the womenas less than capable learners. However, unlike the older men, the women viewlanguage learning, and learning English, as part of their on-going narrativesof professional development, and this narrative leads to positive learningexperiences.

In Chapter 6, “Constructing Age in Young Adulthood”, Andrew presents David’sstory; the youngest member in her study and the one who best fits the typicaluniversity student profile. David positions himself as a young adult bychoosing to engage with fellow students closer to his own age, avoidinginteractions with the older learners, and interacting least with hisinstructors. David is also able to fully engage with the curriculum as hislifestyle matches closest to the topics and contexts presented in theactivities. Andrew shows how David, like many of his college peers, takeEnglish learning as a given; they are motivated by social and professionalreasons.

In her last chapter, “Final Reflections”, Andrew returns to her originalquestions and summarizes the implications of her findings. The data provideample evidence of the construction of participants’ age identity within theclassroom. Andrew notes that while the traditional age categories of older,middle, and young were uncontested in the data, a few remarkable resultsemerged. First, chronological age was less influential than were socialidentities such as employment and gender-related roles such as parental andmarriage status. Second, ageist discourse in the forms of humor, agesegregation, and adultism (i.e., references to normative life stageexperiences) often occurred within the classroom. Such social discourse ofdecrement did, according to Andrew, affect the learning environment. Last,Andrew proposes that her methods and types of data could be used to documentage identity construction and emerging discourses (e.g., the concept of middleage in Mexico) in other contexts.

Andrew concludes with the implications this work has for SLA pedagogy andresearch. She challenges both instructor and researcher “to no longer seeadults as predetermined chronological ages or age categories, but rather asindividuals whose age identity is socially constructed in a variety of wayswith others” (p. 160). She suggests that both teachers and researchersapproach their populations with sensitivity to their complex identities, thatthey not ascribe ability or disability based on predetermined categories suchas age, and that they keep check on their own attitudes and behaviors that mayunwittingly reflect prejudicial attitudes. Similarly, she suggests thattextbook authors and publishers show sensitivity to potentially problematicage issues.


Andrew’s study contributes to our understanding of age as a social factor thataffects learners of second languages and, by extension, learning within manycontexts. She shows how learners’ social identities such as gender and socialclass interact and contribute to their age identity. Additionally, Andrew’srich use of interview and observational data provide two powerful ways todocument social constructionism within a particular context.

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

One minor critique I have is the use and explication of the students’ sketchesof the life course. I did not find the inclusion of these drawings terriblyinformative to the study. It may be that the task of asking students to drawtheir visualization of the life course was instrumental in getting them toverbalize their view of aging; however, the commentary about the drawings lentvery 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 eachsection. The data excerpts and narratives of the seven learners make it aninsightful exploration of age discourse within the L2 classroom, within aclassroom setting, and as an exemplar of age studies.


Atkinson, D. (2002). “Toward a sociocognitive approach to second languageacquisition.” 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 sociocognitiveperspective.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44, 714-725.

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

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

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

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

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


Trini Stickle is a PhD candidate in the Program of English Language andLinguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests arelanguage use in the interactions between persons with dementia and theirnonimpaired coparticipants. Her dissertation investigates the co-constructionof epistemic stance in the talk of persons with dementia.

Page Updated: 04-Apr-2013