Dinnyés Éva – The Cognitive Characteristics of Late Second Language Learners

People tend to imagine that learning a second language as an adult is not as easy as learning it at an early age. However, as specified by some studies, we acquire a second language more or less the same way as the mother tongue. Contrary to this, the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) states that there is an optimal age for language acquisition and this optimal age is below puberty. As a language teacher, the question often comes up: if the CPH is true, then what is the point of language teaching after a certain age? I’d like to advocate that even though some may say language learning is more difficult in adulthood it’s just slightly different from early language learning.

But now, I would like to address the cognitive characteristics of late language learners. It is said that adult learners are more characterized by rule-based learning because they utilise their rule-based analytic procedural system more. This means that adults can understand the explanations of grammatical structures easier. Moreover, our memory system is also affected by age: “reliance on conscious declarative memory increases both for learning in general and for learning a language from about age 7.” (Nikolov and Djigunovic, 2006, 235). The declarative memory stores facts that can be consciously recalled. As has been established, adults are conscious and active learners and it is supported by the decline of procedural memory, which forces late second-language learners to rely on explicit learning. Besides consciousness, there is another factor which leads to progress: motivation. They were eager to learn the target language because most of them needed it for some reason, for example for a job.  So according to these discoveries, I think the best tasks for adult learners are those where the motivation is high and they can actively participate. For example, quizlet.com is a really useful website for that.

Most of the successful adult language learners possess unusual memory capacity, which is not surprising because memory is generally important for successful learning. Besides that, some studies indicate that those learners who possess native-like proficiency utilise their learnt language frequently, for example, due to marriage. One of the most important factors of successful language learning is practice in my opinion. For example, teachers should encourage their students to help out foreign tourists. Even though there are advantages to early language learning, later learners can compensate by relying on metalinguistic knowledge. This is useful because with the help of metalinguistic knowledge the learner is able to correct his or her errors. What is more surprising in my opinion is that classroom-based studies demonstrate that older children and teenagers tend to be more efficient learners. This is not that surprising if we consider that adults are better at avoiding different kinds of mistakes.  Compared to young learners, adults tend to make fewer mistakes when it comes to spelling. To sum up, contrary to some people’s presupposition, older L2 learners do not face as many difficulties as thought and they can be outstandingly successful.

Although the CPH is believed to be crucial in L2 learning by many people, according to recent researches this is not that relevant. Late second language learners do face some difficulties during language learning, but they do possess advantages too. Even though it is believed that adults face a huge difficulty while L2 learning there are still several cases of successful language learners. In my opinion, perseverance and hard work are the key factors for older language learners and language teachers can enhance the success of the learners if they plan activities based on the age of their students.

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  • Abello-Contesse, C. (2008). Age and the critical period hypothesis. ELT Journal, 63(2), pp.170-172.
  • ThoughtCo. (2017). What Is Linguistic Competence?. [online] Retrieved : https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-linguistic-competence-1691123 [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • Nikolov, M.,& Djigunović, J. M. (2006). RECENT RESEARCH ON AGE, SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, AND EARLY FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING.  In Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, (pp. 234-260). USA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Science, L. (2017). Declarative Memory: Definitions & Examples. [online] Live Science. Retrieved: Retrieved https://www.livescience.com/43153-declarative-memory.html [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • the hands up project. (2017). Meaning-focused activities. [online] Retrieved :https://handsupproject.org/2017/02/23/meaning-focused-activities/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
  • Alipour S.  (2014). METALINGUISTIC AND LINGUISTIC KNOWLEDGE IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNERS. In Theory and Practice in Language Studies (pp. 2640-2645). Finland: Academy Publisher.

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