From my experience in teaching English in a great number of mixed-age classes at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology foreign language center, I have received completely contrasting feedback from my students at the end of every course. By applying the same teaching method when I work with both young learners and adult learners, I discover a big gap in the result of their learning. In the pronunciation section, younger learners acquire successfully and effectively while older learners seem to fail in learning English sounds. From what I observe, most of young learners in my classroom have native-like pronunciation. In contrast, the complexity of English phonological system leads to adult’s failure in getting phonology accuracy when they have to fight with many non-existent sounds in their mother tongue. Unlike pronunciation, the success in learning vocabulary and grammar is in a reverse order. Adults find it easy to understand and use almost complicated vocabulary as well as grammar structures whereas young learners often make mistakes when learning new words and doing grammar exercises. Indeed, older learners feel at ease with most English grammar points while younger learners claim that vocabulary and grammar are beyond their reach. These differences lead me to the wonder whether or not there is a correlation between age and second language acquisition (SLA). Hence, my paper examines the role of age in SLA in terms of the rate and success of learners’ linguistic knowledge. From the explanation of the effect of age, I suggest some implications to help not only young learners but also older learners to acquire their language knowledge perfectly.
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“SLA refers to the process of learning of individuals and groups who are learning a language subsequent to learning their first and that language” (Saville-troike, 2006, p. 3). In learning a second language, a number of variables influence students’ actual acquisition including age, personality, motivation, learning style, group dynamics, aptitude, attitude to the teacher and course materials and so on. Among them, age – the most frequently discussed factor – has been paid much attention by many linguists. Countless studies and researches have recently been conducted on this topic in order to know how age affects second language acquisition It is a common belief that children are more successful L2 learners than adults. Meanwhile, many linguistic researchers argue that the older are better. However, the belief about SLA in different ages is actually equivocal. Saville-Troike (2006) explained this controversy in his study.
Some studies define success as initial rate of learning where older learners have an advantage while other studies define it as ultimate achievement where learners who are introduced to the L2 in childhood indeed do appear to have an edge. Also, some studies define success in terms of how close the learner’s pronunciation is to a native speaker’s where children are superior to adults, others in terms of how closely a learner approximates native grammaticality judgments where older learners are better than younger learners (p. 82)
In terms of the effect of age on the rate of SLA, according to Ekstrand (1976), Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle (1978) and Snow (1983), in naturalistic situations, “children normally have a slower rate of development in the target language and do not perform as well as older learners in the short term, but they quite often surpass older learners in the long run” (as cited in Miralpeix, 2007, p. 62). Undoubtedly, younger learners are better at SLA in the long run while older learners are better at learning languages in the short run.
Concerning grammar and glossary, Krashen, Long and Scarcella’s research paper pointed out that “adults proceed through early stages of syntactic and morphological development faster than children” (p. 573). In comparison with younger learners, older learners have an initial advantage in the rate of SLA when they deal with a complicated system of syntax as well as morphology. Ellis (1985) supported advantages of older learners that when we take the rate into consideration, “older learners are better then younger learners as they can reach higher proficiency levels if learners at various ages are matched according to the amount of time they are supposed to the target language” (p. 105).
However, other studies suggest that adults do not make progress as rapidly as children when acquiring pronunciation. According to Harmer (2007), “children who learn a new language early have a facility with pronunciation which is denied by older learners” (p. 81). Also, Cochrane (1980) gave a clear illustration to this belief.
He investigated the ability of 54 Japanese children and 24 adults to discriminate /r/ and /l/. The average length of naturalistic exposure was calculated as 245 hours for the adults and 193 hours for the children (i.e. relatively little). The children outperformed the adults. (as cited in Ellis, 1994, p.486)
In general, adults seem to be able to acquire grammar as well as lexis more quickly than children and vice versa in the field of pronunciation.
Where success is concerned, it goes without saying that “the longer the exposure to the L2, the more native-like L2 proficiency becomes” (Ellis, 1985, p. 106). Actually, Ehrman and Oxford (1995) pointed out “younger learners are more likely to attain fluency and native-like pronunciation, while older learners have an advantage in understanding the grammatical system and in bringing greater ‘world knowledge’ to the language learning context” (p. 68). Hence, it is likely that younger learners will pronounce in a more natural way than older learners. Most young individuals who begin their studies of the L2 at the early age do achieve native-like fluency. The earlier they start the more professional at pronunciation they become. Supporters of this belief claim that children are able to learn second language pronunciation easily, automatically, effortlessly and gain an indistinguishable frequency level from that of native speakers. As Ellis (1994) indicated, “learners who start as children achieve more native-like accent than those who start as adolescents and adults” (p. 489). Oyama (1976) also supported the younger-is-better notion in her investigation of 60 male immigrants settling down in USA at various ages from 6 to 20. She found that the youngest arrivals performed in the same range as native-speakers control (as cited in Ellis, 1994, p. 489).
Conversely, some adult learners may succeed in acquiring “native levels of grammatical accuracy in full linguistic competence” (Ellis, 1994, p. 492). When the success of second language lexical acquisition, “younger learners do not perform as well as older learners in the short term” (Muñoz, 2006, p. 90). Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle (1978) conducted a research in the Netherlands with English learners of Dutch and then showed that “adolescent and adult learners’ results in the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test were better than those of the younger learners.” (as cited in Muñoz, 2006, p. 90)
We clearly see that there is a great difference in the rate and success of SLA between adult learners and young learners in the aforementioned empirical researches. Hence, the question “Why do the contrasting results exist?” is raised. When we know the causes we will know how to deal with the problems both younger and older learners encounter in SLA. A number of studies in the light of explaining the role of age in SLA point out that neurological, cognitive and affective factors account for this issue.
Many longitudinal and cross-sectional researches assert that the ability to learn a foreign language is biologically linked to age. The biological factor is supported by the Critical Period Hypothesis which claims that “learners past the age of puberty are in all probability unable to achieve native-like pronunciation in any case” (Saville-Troike, 2006, p. 142). There is a time when language acquisition is easy and complete. However, beyond that time SLA is difficult and almost incomplete. If SLA takes place during that period, in all likelihood learners will achieve native-speaker ability. That is why Pujol (2008) divided the hypothesis into two versions. “The strong version is that language must be learned by puberty or it will be never learned from subsequent exposure; the weak version is that after puberty language learning will be more difficult and incomplete” (p. 13). Various studies about the critical period hypothesis suggest that younger learners are superior to older learners as they acquire a foreign language before the puberty. Penfield and Robert’s (1959) study explained why it is easier to learn the target language within the first ten years of life.
During this period the brain retains plasticity, but with the onset of the puberty this plasticity begins to disappear. We suggested that this was the result of the lateralization of the language function in the left hemisphere of the brain. That is, the neurological capacity for understanding and producing language, which initially involves both hemispheres of the brain, is slowly concentrated in the left hemisphere for most people (as cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 107).
With regard to pronunciation acquisition, Seliger (1978) indicated that there are many “critical periods for different aspects of language. The period during which a native accent is easily acquirable appears to end sooner than the period governing the acquisition of a native grammar” (as cited in Ellis, 1994, p. 492). Actually, learners who begin studying L2 as adults are unlikely to have native-speaker competence in pronunciation.
Not only neurolinguistic studies but also affective researches have been carried out to explain that children are better than adults. As Brown (1980b) proposed, “SLA is related to stages of acculturation including initial excitement and euphoria, culture shock, culture stress and assimilation” (as cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 109). The ability of learner to relate and respond easily to the foreign language culture strongly determines the success of SLA. Schumann came to conclusion that “the learner will acquire the second language only to the degree that he acculturates” (n.d., p. 29). Valdes (1986) offered a more persuasive account of the notion “the younger, the better”.
A young child, because he has not built up years and years of cultural-bound view and view of himself, has fewer perspective filter to readjust, and therefore moves through stages of acculturation more quickly, and of course acquires languages more quickly. (as cited in Tallapessy, n.d., p. 16)
At the early age, young learners have socio-cultural resilience as they are much less culture-bound than older learners. Thanks to their strong resiliency, children can overcome stages of acculturation quickly and then acquire the target language rapidly. In addition, as Ellis concluded, “child learners are more strongly motivated to communicate with native speakers and to integrate culturally. Also, child learners are less conscious and therefore suffer less from anxiety about communicating in an L2” (1994, p. 494). They learn a foreign language because of the need to be accepted by the native community. That is why most of younger learners can successfully achieve native-like pronunciation as they are exposed to the first language environment.
Besides the biological and emotional factors aforementioned, various cognitive abilities between younger learners and older learners lead to their differences in SLA. Leaver, Ehrman and Shekhtman (2005) defined cognition as “thinking. There are many processes involved in thinking, and all of them are considered part of cognition. Some examples are noticing, paying attention, making guesses and hypotheses, monitoring what you say, interpreting what you read or hear, and so on” (p. 38). Cognitive strategies enable the students’ thinking process to be unique. This uniqueness is called high level control i.e. consciousness. Ellis (1985) noted that “older learners can learn about the language by consciously studying linguistic rules and apply these rules when they use the language whereas younger children consider language as a tool for expressing meaning” (p. 108). According to Halliday (1973), “the young child responds not so much to what language is as to what it does” (as cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 108). Additionally, Rosansky (1975) believed that L2 development can take place in two different ways. “While the young child sees only similarities, lacks flexible thinking and is self-centered older learners are predisposed to recognize both common and different features about the language, to think flexibly and to become increasingly de-centered” (as cited in Ellis, 1985, p. 108). Understandably, most social attitudes towards the use of a certain language in younger learners have not been developed, Furthermore, at the early age, children often lack meta-awareness, which results in their open cognition of a new language. Unlike children, older learners own a strong meta-awareness and hold social attitudes towards the target language. That is the reason why Ellis (1994) pointed out that “adults possess more fully developed cognitive skills, which enable them to apply themselves studiedly to the task of learning a L2” (p. 493). Thus they will experience more negotiation of meaning and better input by using general and inductive learning abilities.
Actually, various studies and researches show that adults are better language learners because they have not only better cognitive skills but a better memory as well. Whenever they deal with syntax and morphology system they will memorize them quickly and easily. Moreover, many teachers commonly notice that adults have a longer concentration span than children. Children cannot concentrate on certain activities as long as adults. As Hermar explained, “older learners do exhibit noticeable superiority because they tend to be more self-disciplined.” (2007, p. 288)
From the analysis of the strong correlation between age and SLA, I clearly realize that my teaching methodology should be various when I work with younger learners and older learners although I carry out the same lesson about pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary. With the same content, I should change my teaching way in order to suit students of different ages.
On the basis of the theoretical framework, younger learners are more intelligible then older learners in the process of acquiring native-like pronunciation. The former are not strongly affected by old habits of their mother tongue whereas the latter find it difficult to form new habits of L2 because of the influence of the first language. Nevertheless, adults have higher awareness than children. As a result, when I teach pronunciation I usually use some kinds of explicit explanation to enable adults to use their critical thinking. For sound formation, I use a sketch of mouth to describe the pronunciation of sound in terms of lips, tongue, teeth, etc. For example, when I teach the target sound /Î¸/, I will show the following picture and give the description. In order to pronounce it, you should put your tongue between your teeth. Then blow out air between your tongue and your top teeth. Explicit explanation will be followed by demonstration, imitation and practice.
(Baker, 2003,p. 133)
Moreover, older learners feel at ease with distinguishing two similar sounds thanks to their problem-solving talent. That is why I consider minimal pairs as a powerful tool to draw their attention to differences among some English sounds. Let’s take the vowel /I/ as an example. Firstly, I ask them to say the sound /i:/ by opening the mouth a little and lengthening it. Then open the mouth a little more to make the sound /I/. Contrasting two seemingly similar sounds will help adults produce the sounds more accurately.
(Baker, 2003,p. 6)
On the contrary, when I teach children pronunciation, I overuse imitation and repetition with a model video clip of English sounds. As you know, children are quick at imitating a certain sound even when the sound does not exist in their mother tongue. As a result, I often use clips from the program “English have a go” in which a native speaker “Professor Say It” will pronounce the target sound slowly enough for young children to imitate. Because the lecturer in the clip has a good sense of humor to add fun to pronunciation, I find it useful especially when I work with younger learners.
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As I know both children and adults suffer a lot from such boring pronunciation lessons, I always think of some games to arouse students’ interest and let for them relax during the lesson. They will not have a feeling of suffering from language learning. “Who is a poet?” is a common game in my teaching pronunciation. I ask my students (intermediate level) to make a poem with the last word containing the target sound. I will begin with the sentence “Jim has a wife” (the diphthong /ai/ is the objective of my lesson). Then my students make a poem like this.
Jim has a wife
She is very nice
She is only 25
She has big eyes
They have a happy life
But Jim suddenly died
Then she ends her life
They never say goodbye
Wish them happy life
In the paradise
In regard to teaching grammar, “three very most important sources of interest for children in the classroom are pictures, stories and games to enhance young learners’ intrinsic motivation” (Ur, 1996, p. 288). Hence, when teaching my younger learners I use a great number of pictures to contribute towards their interest in learning process. As a result of children’s low cognitive capability, I conduct mechanical drills, gap-fills, and sentence transformations to familiarize them with the structure and help them have the confidence to use it in a controlled environment. These tasks can be made into games through which they can get enjoyment, fun and pleasure. For instance, I ask my young children (Let’s go) to recognize verbs of past tense in terms of regular ones and irregular ones by marking them with different colors as children are keen on coloring very much. Firstly, I set the rule “regular verbs = green, irregular verbs = blue”. Secondly, I divide the class first into teams and then show them sentences one by one. In the end, the group which can get the most correct answers is the winner.
Conversely, so as to make adults learn structures thoroughly and produce correctly, I use a sequence of activities from accuracy-oriented exercises in the beginning to fluency tasks for the free use of the grammar in a certain context in the end. As Ur (1996) suggested, there are “seven types of grammar practice like awareness, controlled drills, meaningful drills, guided, meaning practice, free sentence composition, discourse composition and free discourse” (p. 84). These kinds of activities focus mainly on both form and meaning practice with the aim of promoting adult’s cognitive skill and self-discipline.
In terms of vocabulary, I consider visual aids a useful artifact to convey the meaning of the new word when I teach younger learners vocabulary items. I put a lot of efforts in preparing the pictures as well as concrete objects for my young children to learn effectively as what we hear, we forget; what we see, we remember. In contrast, older learners are provided with concise explanations, detailed descriptions, antonyms, synonyms, hyponyms or co-hyponyms whenever they study vocabulary items. Another difference in my vocabulary teaching between children and adults is that I draw the former’s attention to the form, meaning, spelling and grammar of a new word while I further introduce the latter the denotation, connotation and appropriateness of a vocabulary item.
In short, we can clearly see that age differences have a strong influence on SLA between younger learners and older learners. While children who start to learn a language at the early age have a facility with the pronunciation while adults possess high cognitive abilities which help them benefit from abstract language teaching approaches. We can jump to conclusion that an early start to foreign language learning is likely to lead to better long-term results. Start as early as you can. Furthermore, the age of students is a major factor in our decision about what and how to teach. Students of different ages will have different advantages and learning styles in acquiring L2 linguistic knowledge. As teachers, we should know their strength and weakness to guide them study more efficiently and effectively. Thanks to this paper, I know I should adjust my teaching approach in a way more flexible and appropriate to students of various ages, thus I can be a better language instructor. In this way, I should ensure that my materials and tasks are age-appropriate so that all individuals can learn best regardless of being young and old.
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