Three Misconceptions About Age and L2 Learning
Complete reference: Marinova-Todd, S., Marshall, D., Snow, C. (2000) Three Misconceptions About Age and L2 Learning. TESOL Quarterly 34 (1).
In this fascinating and comprehensive review of research into L2 acquisition and age, the authors work to dispel a number of commonly believed myths about the link between age and success in learning a second language. The most common of these would be something along the lines of “children are so much better at learning languages than adults – they just soak it all up!”
The article takes a number of influential research findings and shows how the misinterpretation of results have helped to propagate belief in a ‘critical period hypothesis’ for L2 acquisition. According to this belief, a second language cannot be learnt to a high level of proficiency after this period (which coincides with the onset of puberty), perhaps due to reduced plasticity in the brain. Marinova-Todd et al show how, after considering a multitude of other factors in various studies, there is in fact no evidence whatsoever for the existence of a ‘critical period’.
Fallacy 1 – Children are quick at picking up languages
In fact, all the data show that children learn languages more slowly and with much more effort than adolescents or adults. In particular, studies on immersion programmes (Rivera 1998) continually show that adolescents (late immersion) are faster and more efficient in the early stages of acquisition than children (early immersion).
Fallacy 2 – Language proficiency is related to the development of the brain
In brief, despite many studies, the current state of knowledge on brain function is completely inadequate to guess the connection with language acquisition.
Fallacy 3 – Most adults do not achieve proficiency in an L2, therefore it is not possible
In fact, adults frequently do reach native or near-native proficiency in a second language and that success in doing so is dependent on the situation of learning rather than the capacity to learn. Adults that achieve such success do so because they have a high degree of motivation to learn the language, exposure to a naturalistic environment, and pay conscious attention to grammatical form.
Although it is true that many adults do not reach high proficiency in a second language (which itself is the cause of the frequent belief that it is impossible for them to do so), the paper suggests that this has much more to do with variables such as cognitive aptitude and beliefs about oneself than with age. As the authors state candidly:
Most adult learners fails to engage in the task with sufficient motivation, commitment of time or energy, and support from the environments in which they find themselves to expect high levels of success.
This fact has persistently misled researchers and laypersons to focus on age as the key factor in L2 acquisition. The authors suggest that the truly informative cases are those adults who do reach proficiency in an L2 and much more research is needed focusing on their methods for success rather than those who are unsuccessful.