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Second language refers to any language learned in addition to a persons first language. Second language acquisition then is the process by which people learn a second language. Based on the demographic data collected by the California Department of Education, one fourth of California's public schools' students are English learners. That means that these students primary language is not English and they need to learn the English language in order to do well in school. Once they have learned enough English to succeed in school, they are redesignated out of the EL program. Redesignation is a term used for classifying students who have tested at the Advanced level on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT).
According to the California Department of Education, redesignation takes place when EL students have met the multiple criteria to classify them as having the same proficiency in English as native speakers. During the 2010-2011 school year, there were 43,604 English Learner students in Fresno County alone. Of these students, only 5,250 were redesignated as Fluent English Proficient, meaning they had acquired enough of the English language to do well in their academics. Of the remaining students, 26,000 are waiting to meet the criteria for redesignation or to exit the EL program, while about 12,000 of them are still learning the English language and not yet ready for redesignation ( ).
is as complex as the number of languages spoken in the world today Every student without a mental disability is able to acquire their primary language, yet only some of these students become proficient in a second language. Educators as well as researchers in the field of education and linguistics continue to have questions about factors that enhance or hinder second language acquisition. One of the most asked questions is why are some students able to learn a second language with little effort, while others are not as successful in learning a second language (Moyer, 1999).
Educators have been baffled by this phenomenon for decades and numerous researchers have investigated the issue, however, no one has been able to pinpoint the major causes for the delay or acceleration in learning a second language. There are a multitude of variables that come into play when looking at second language acquisition. Between 1950 and 1970, various studies were conducted in different countries and found that, in many cases, aptitude and motivation contributed to the successful learning of a second language (Shumann, 1975). While some researchers originally thought that age may be one of the major factors in the success or failure of obtaining a second or foreign language, others think there are a number of variables that affect second language acquisition (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1999). The critical period hypothesis will be looked at closely in this literature review and what part of language learning is impacted by the age factor.
Current Research Goals
How do students who speak a language other than English become proficient in the English language or a second language and what are the variables that impact their second language learning? Do students' ages have an impact on how successful they become in acquiring a second language? And if so, how much does the age factor impact students' ability to learn a second language?
The purpose of this literature review is to take a closer look at what the evidences say about second language acquisition. Again, California has a huge population of English Learners, which means that they speak a primary language other than English and are learning English as their second language. However, many of these students are not able to achieve mastery of the second language which is English, therefore, cannot exit the English Learner program and be classified as a Redesignated Fluent English Proficient (RFEP) student. Specifically, the topic to be explored further deals with the age factor and how that affects the EL students' in the Fresno County schools to succeed in their academics. How much is the age variable contributing to or hindering students from becoming proficient in the second language learning arena?
Factors Affecting Second Language Acquisition
According to Schumann's study, factors such as language shock, culture shock, attitude, motivation, instructional method, age, and empathy all affect the learning of a second language. However, Schumann chose to look at just three variables: attitude, motivation, and empathy. He found that students' attitude towards the target language determines how much or how little they can learn that language. Also, he pointed out that students' motivation to learn another language is the key to learning a second language whether it be for fulfilling coursework or for communication reasons, and last of all he says that "empathic" people are able to learn another language more so than people without the "empathic personality" (Schumann, 1975).
Another research was done by Marinova-Todd, Marshall, and Snow about the three misconceptions about age and second language learning. In this study, they suggested that when looking to support the critical period hypothesis, researchers have misinterpreted, misattributed, and misemphasized their findings. Oftentimes, people assume that students are quick learners compared to adults through pure observations. Other times, we turn to neuroscientist to back us up on language learning; yet, their findings do not confirm how languages are learned. Lastly, adults are hindered from their ultimate attainment because of the lack of motivation, commitment and support from their environment and not necessarily because they cannot learn. So, it is sound to say that in the end, it's not that there is a critical period in which all language must be learned, but that a person's social, psychological and educational arena affect one's second language proficiency (Marinova-Todd, Marshall, & Snow, 2000).
The popular belief that children acquire a second language more easily and at a quicker rate than adults has been around for half a century. Also, is the critical period hypothesis, claiming that children have this window of opportunity to learn a language before their puberty years. (Abello-Contesse, 2009). Certain studies assert that younger children acquire a higher second language proficiency and are superior in "ultimate attainment" in the second language, however, older students or adults can acquire the second language faster than younger children but their actual attainment of the second language may not be as good as that of the younger children (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979).
Although many earlier researchers claimed that there is this critical period in which language has to be taught to students, Francis disagrees. He stated that if the critical period hypothesis was true and if there was such a thing, all younger second language learners would all speak like the natives and there would be no chances for the older learners. However researchers had documented near native performances by older learners and those very young learners could be picked out from native speakers. Francis confers that if students are able to learn their primary language normally, this also transfers over to the success they have in learning the second language (Francis, 2005). Abello-Contesse reaffirms many of the studies mentioned above that there is no critical period for learning, therefore, no magic age for acquiring a second language. He also notes that older and younger learners are able to achieve the same level of proficiency depending on the learning environment (Abello-Contess, 2009).
Birdsong takes a selective look at age and second language acquisition and processing. Brain based and behavioral data are looked at to get a better picture of the difficulties surrounding second language acquisition. He concludes that the aging brain does in effect contribute to some difficulties in second language acquisition. By looking at adult second language learners and comparing that to first language learning of children, there are many aspects of learning that is age related and affects the acquisition of the second language (Birdsong, 2006).
In addition to the critical factors of age and motivation, instruction was evaluated by Moyer to see what the outcome was for ultimate attainment in a group of motivated graduate student instructors who used German on a daily basis. The findings indicate that many variables play a role in second language acquisition along with age and that age alone is not the cause of ultimate attainment of second language learning. This study was to counter the critical period hypothesis as believed by previous researchers (Moyer, 1999).
Furthermore, Bialystok's research in support of recent evidence of a sensitive period for second language acquisition found that the most important factor affecting acquisition is the language structure between the first and the second language. In one case, the age at which the second language was acquired does not seem to have an impact on acquisition as much. However, in one of the studies, the length of residence or time spent speaking the second language seemed to be of great significance. The research contradicts other previous findings since it states that if there is a sensitive period in the first language then having had that period would make it easy to learn the second language. Also, if there is a sensitive period in learning the second language then there must be a sensitive period in the first language. In conclusion, there is not enough evidence in this particular research to support the fact that second language learning is determined by maturational factors and that at this time, there is not a resolution to second language learning yet (Bialystok, 1997).
Munoz and Singleton wanted to address the age related attainment effect on second language learning and whether that could be explained by the critical period. Before that they took a look at the other factors that are involved in second language acquisition. They found that the amount and quality of input, learner's orientation and attitude, the conditions for learning, and the critical period hypothesis are some of the factors affecting the acquisition of a second language. A popular view of success in second language learning they found is the closeness to native speaker performance and in relation to the age question. The common observation is that in non-instructional settings, early acquirers tend to end up indistinguishable from native speakers whereas later acquirers do not (Munoz & Singleton, 2011).
Catherine A. Snow does not believe in sensitive period hypothesis. She stated that sensitive period only exists for speech perception. The age differences in second language acquisition abilities are inconsistent, and sometimes to the advantage of older learners. It is believed then that the successful learning of a second language could be a possibility for all those who have acquired the first language naturally and could learn a second language when the social and educational experiential arenas are made possible (Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978).
Some other factors found to have an impact on second language acquisition are: identify with the second language, language aptitude, attitude towards the second language, and the closer the language structure from the native language to the second language. There is a great variability in views of critical period hypothesis by the different researchers. While one researcher says that the critical period ends at nine years of age, another one says that it's five years of age. Still one claims that the period ends at puberty. Cummins proficiency models of BICS and CALP says that an average of 2-3 years will be needed to learn basic interpersonal communication skills or BICS, while it may take 5-7 years for children to be able to be fluent English speakers or have acquired the necessary cognitive academic language proficiency or CALP. He concluded that older students who are literate in their native language can transfer the content knowledge from the native language to the second language thereby expediting the second language acquisition or SLA process (Cummins, 1981).
Collier based her study on age on arrival, English proficiency level, basic literature and mathematics in the native language, and the number of years of schooling in English to establish second language proficiency. She learned that Limited English Proficient students between the ages of 8-11 years of age were the fastest achievers. It only took them between 2-5 years to reach the 50th percentile on standardized tests, whereas the 5-7 years old students were 1-3 years behind the 8-11 years old. Lastly, she found that the 12-15 year olds had the greatest difficulties and will need an average of 6-8 years to reach grade level norms (Collier, 1987).
Looking at age of immigration, length of residence and age at testing is the other approach that Stevens took in finding evidence to support the critical period hypothesis. She believes that the age at immigration is the onset of the second language acquisition period. Since most research is on ultimate attainment, researchers tend to look at adults and less on children. There seems to be a negative relationship between the second language proficiency and age. It was noted that the longer a person resides in a country, the higher the score was so then the length of residency is proportionate to the level of second language proficiency. After reading Hakuta's research (as stated by that there is a biological process associated with aging due to the steady decline in the successes achieved by older students thereby indicating that there is no critical period.