It is popularly thought that adults may be less capable than children or adolescents in mastering a second language. Investigation of studies, however, show that this may not be so clearly the case and that in fact language constraint of acquiring L2 may be as ore even more likely attributable to situational limitations. The following proposal draws up a literature review on the subject whilst elaborating with a proposed qualitative study that aims to test the hypothesis that situational rather than age factors may determine age characteristics of acquisition of L2.
It is well-known that a critical age exists for L1 acquisition and that beyond that it is much harder for the individual to learn / acquire the language (Marinova-Todd et al., 2000). Existence of this same situation for acquisition of L2, would necessitate that teachers / instructor prefer to teach L2 up to and rarely beyond a certain age in order to guarantee acquisition of the language. It is therefore important - for teacher, student, and national policy - that we test whether or not L2 can be feasibly acquired beyond a certain age or whether age characteristics limit possibility of teaching language beyond a certain age.
Penfield and Roberts (1959) were the first to argue that language acquisition should be acquired before a particular age since later " the human brain becomes… stiff and rigid" (p.9). Lenneneberg (1967) urged language during but not beyond puberty due to developing lateralizaiton of the brain and superior neural plasticity that is only available during adolescence. Other researchers disagreed, but none posited the possibility of feasible acquisition of L1 in post puberty stage.
Although studies and real life seems to show that the same situation exists in L2 (i.e. that children and adolescents seem to display faster proficiency in L2 than adults do), significant research in the1970s show that older learners seem to be factors in acquiring the early stages of L2 (see review McLaughlin, 1985). This has been corroborated by many later studies such as that by Rivera (1998) who found that adolescents performed better than children during the early stages of phonological acquisition. Apparently, older learners are well able to acquire L2 -- at least in its initial stages -- well after puberty and despite neural physiological changes.
The fact that neural development may have nothing to do with adult facility in language acquisition of L2 may be attributed to the fact that older learners -- as other neurobiological studies indicate - process L2 information differently from younger learners and therefore different regions of the brain are plausibly effected. More so, it is a well-known fact that neural plasticity continues regardless of age and, in fact, is retained and enhanced by consistent learning and practicing of skill. An older learner's attempts to master an additional language should, consequently, only enhance and reinforce her neural plasticity hence increasing her ability to actually master it. That older learners process information differently than younger learners do was demonstrated by Weber-Fox and Neville (1992) who, using brain-imaging techniques, showed neural differences in activation whilst language was being processed. Localization and pressure of localization between the way that the two different groups (younger and older) learned the language indicates that L1 and L2 are acquired in different ways and that differences in proficiency of language cannot be attributed to age-related differences in neural localization.
Furthermore, a significant factor that has been overlooked is that fact that it may be situational -- rather than age-related factors - that hamper adult acquisition of L2. Champane-Muzar et al. (1993), for instance, showed that adult's learners could acquire native like proficiency in pronunciation of L2 language if they adhered to a total silent period whilst listening to an L2 speech. Younger learners -- given their freedom of time and relative lack of stress -- are, conceivably, more able to adhere to such a regimen (uninterrupted learning and peace of mind) than older learners can. It may well be that the emotional and physical stress as well as economical and work-related concerns that overwhelm an older learner may well hamper his or her ability to acquire L2. Hence theoretical age-related differences that exist between the younger and older ages may more plausibly be related to situational constraints rather than to existence of a critical period in language acquisition. Similarly, too, living in an environment where L2 is regularly spoken may help certain learners pick it up more facilely than others.
In short, whilst age may be a factor in influencing language acquisition, it is likely that other characteristics such as environment (particularly labor and time constraints as well as stress-related concerns) may hamper the older learner's ability in acquiring the language as facilely as the younger learner does. To that end, therefore, rather than age being the determining factor, it is environment characteristics that interfere and, once removed, no age differentiation in language acquisition may be seen.
The following study, therefore, wishes to test the hypotheses:
1. H1: That stress in a learner's environment will decrease level of L2 acquisition and that differences will be seen in ability of picking up language between younger and older learners
2. H0: That stress in a learner's environment will make no difference between the ability to acquire L2 and that both ages (younger and older) will show differentiation in language acquirement despite stress.
Two age groups will randomly be selected from a local language instruction school that teaches a diversity of ages ranging from adolescent to adults 60+. Participants will be mixed gender and of ethnic diversity (70% white, 20% Black, 10% other races). They are lower to middle class and all are high-school graduates with approximately 60% who have attended college. I will center in one class in order to ensure the same level of L2 comprehension and ability and the same format of instruction in acquiring that language. The director of the school as well as the instructor of the specific class and the students themselves will be approached ahead of time for permission to conduct the study. The students will be told that the study is voluntary, that they can drop out whenever they wish, that their anonymity will be retained, and that no harm will befall them.
Students will be randomly divided into two groups, the first group consisting of ages 14 -- 29; the second group consisting of older learners between 30-60+. Consideration of 3 groups (further dividing the ages between young adult, adult, and elderly) may be conducted at a later stage but at this stage it will only introduce complications both statistical and otherwise. Arrangements will be made that all students receive a month of uninterrupted solitude from their other concerns (work and school related as well as family) so that they can focus uninterrupted on progressing to the next stage in their L2 acquisition. Study of the next stage will be conducted in a peaceful, preferably rural environment that is distanced from their regular environment where learning has been done until now. Coverage of this month's 'vacation' will be covered by a grant specifically solicited for this purpose.
Baseline testing of student's language ability skills will be conducted at the start of the study. Further testing, as instruction of L2 progresses, will be conducted per week, with a final exam held at the end. Simultaneous with each testing will be a survey that will record possibilities of stress occurring during that interval, for instance participants may be asked whether and to which extent they were involved in any serious family concerns during that time; whether they were troubled by any health / family problems and so forth. Interference of any stress will occasion dropping out of that individual from study so as not to corrupt results. The facilitators of the study (myself, instructors and 2 assistants) will also observe that stress be excluded from study.
A final exam will test retention of L2 material at the end of the month. A t-test will then be conducted in order to assess whether significant contrast occurred between the two age groups. Objective assistants will score the examinations and surveys. Students will be debriefed at the end of the study.
Conclusion: Discussion and Implications
Whilst age may be a factor in influencing language acquisition, it is likely that other characteristics such as environment (particularly labor and time constraints as well as stress-related concerns) may hamper the older learner's ability in acquiring the language as facilely as the younger learner does. To that end, the above proposal wishes to test the hypothesis that situational factors -- rather than age related factors -- may be responsible for introducing differences in acquisition of language. Testing of this hypothesis will be conducted by excluding all stress from study for the interval of a month and by testing language proficiency at baseline, during, and at conclusion of the study. If differences between the groups were discovered with baseline testing and these differences stayed or increased later…