Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2005 12:06:01 -0500 From: Mitsuyo Sakamoto Subject: Language Acquisition: The Age Factor, 2nd ed.
AUTHOR: Singleton, David & Ryan, Lisa TITLE: Language Acquisition SUBTITLE: The Age Factor, 2nd edition SERIES: Second Language Acquisition 9 PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2004
Mitsuyo Sakamoto, Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
This volume consists of seven chapters, beginning with a historical view of age-related research in language acquisition. Logically, the authors survey research concerned with L1, then extend the discussion to L2. Theoretical perspective is discussed in detail, providing readers with ample research findings which illustrate the complexities involved in defining the critical age for second language acquisition. The book ends with practical implications for actual language teaching.
First chapter is a short introduction which visits the common notion "younger is better" in learning a language, followed by a brief discussion on innateness, universality, and uniqueness of human capacities to acquire languages.
The authors explain the resurgence of popularity in age-related research in terms of applied dimension, where countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Ireland and Scotland are now introducing early foreign language teaching. This trend reflects the popular belief in Critical Age Hypothesis (CAH; or Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH)), but the authors are quick to provide both evidence for and against CAH. This provision of both perspectives is an overall characteristic of this book, guiding the reader through an exploratory inquiry in age-related issues in language acquisition.
Chapter 2, "Evidence of speech milestones" is a collection of first language acquisition research findings, beginning with the research on newborns. The first year of vocalization process is explored with the focus on phonological development based on baby's babbling, cooing and crying. Interestingly, all newborns are described to adhere to an unitary sequence in terms of vocalization development. However, at the same time, babies are reported to produce phonemes idiosyncratic to their parent language in the first year of life.
The discussion continues onto the comprehension of first and subsequent words on the part of infants. Classic seminal works in this domain are introduced, including that of Brown (1973), Crystal et al. (1976) and Wells (1985), with helpful tabulated summary of findings from each study. It is reported that a considerable unity is observed among infants in terms of syntax development, but not for lexical, semantic and pragmatic aspects.
The discussion of "what children can do when" is then extrapolated in Chapter 3 to the domain of CPH explored in terms of L1-related evidence. The classic discussion of Lenneberg's (1967) neurological account of critical period is provided, while providing the reader with evidence that supports the notion of CPH as well as counter-evidence that questions the existence of a clear cut-off point in language learning. This is done via discussion of various research, including the study of the deaf, feral children, and children with Down Syndrome. The discussion is extended to the learning of L1 after puberty, including the learning of slangs and new vocabulary, well-formedness and lengths of sentences, and even pronunciation. Overall, evidence shows that the development in these domains is continuous, even after puberty.
Chapter 4 explores CPH with respect to findings in SLA research. This chapter begins with an inquiry in the rather simplistic assumption "younger is better" in terms of language learning, followed by a discussion of the other extreme notion, "older is better". The two notions are aggressively scrutinized, again weighing the plethora of evidence in support of as well as against CPH. Then the discussion shifts to a more convincing and somewhat neutral notions, "younger is better in some respects" and "younger is better in the long run". Throughout the chapter, the reader is introduced to, and somewhat inundated with, classic works in the area of age and SLA, for example, Patkowski's (1980) investigation of the English grammatical competence of 67 immigrants in US, Harley's (1986) study on different varieties of immersion programs in Canada, Seliger et al.'s (1975) survey on English and Hebrew proficiency among immigrants in US and in Israel, Oyama's (1976, 1978) research on Italian immigrants to the US, investigating the English accent and listening comprehension skill, Mägiste's (1987) study of response time needed in a naming task for German speakers residing in Sweden, Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle's (1979) seminal work on English speakers learning Dutch, and Johnson and Newport's (1989) findings from oral grammaticality judgment test they conducted with language learners of different age groups, just to name a few.
Chapter 5 is titled, "Theoretical perspectives", and provides a rather vast exploration on the biological as well as social and cognitive factors that impact language learning. For example, the deterioration of sensory acuity as well as cerebral hemispheral specialization with increase in age is discussed. Affective domains of language learning are explored through the discussion of studies such as Guiora et al.'s (1972) work on language ego and Schumann's (1975) study on the socio-psychological distance between L1 and L2. The qualitative differences in input that children and adults receive are also discussed in this chapter. While it is noted that the Child Directed Speech (CDS) is often tuned to the infant to supply abundant cues and comprehensible vocabulary to aid comprehension (e.g., Hatch, 1978), adults are noted for their ability to obtain more input (e.g., Scarcella & Higa, 1982) thereby allowing them to learn the language more quickly compared to younger learners.
Chapter 6 extends the discussion to a pedagogical paradigm, concentrating the discussion on providing L2 curriculum in primary schools and teaching L2 to older adult learners.
By weighing the research evidence provided in earlier chapters, the authors come to conclude that early exposure to L2 is important in SLA, not necessarily due to maturation constraints, but simply for the amount of input one may gain from early L2 learning. That is, earlier one starts, the more language contact one gets.
As for the older adult learners, general processing of information may be slower, and their ability to handle oral-aural material may be limited. They may also have problems with phonetic coding due to their decreased hearing acuity. These needs should be addressed and curriculum designed accordingly.
The final chapter is a short one, illuminating the complex role age plays in language acquisition. Given a vast but varied research findings in the area, the authors contend that it is not possible to claim a clear cut-off age in our abilities to learn a language. In fact, they provide a rather seemingly pessimistic statement on the research of age and language acquisition, claiming that perhaps "the idea of a critical period specifically for language development may well have had its day" (p. 227). Their stance however is not an abandonment or a dismissal of research in this area. Rather it reflects the acknowledgement as well as appreciation on the part of authors for their understanding of language acquisition "result(ing) from the interaction of a multiplicity of causes and that different phenomena may have different combinations of causes" (Ibid.). The authors conclude with a call for further longitudinal detailed studies that investigate the effects of early and late L2 programmes.
This is an informative volume which densely packs discussions pertaining to age and language acquisition from multiple perspectives, ranging from that of neurobiological to social. The layout and content is very similar to the first edition (Singleton, 1989), but this volume includes more up-to-date discussions in the field of age and SLA research: The book provides classic studies documented in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as more current research in CPH in recent years (e.g., Birdsong, 1999). It is a wonderful read for those who are unfamiliar with the research in this area, as the authors are skilled in presenting plenty of evidence as well as counter-evidence that supports or negates the existence of CPH. This approach is one that allows readers to engage in profound and meaningful thoughts on the matter. At the same time, I found the approach to be somewhat confusing, and also frustrating from time to time, as I was often left with more questions than answers in terms of CPH. Is there CPH or isn't there?! Readers are left to derive their own conclusions based on the presented research findings.
The manner in which the material is presented is logical and straightforward, allowing the reader to easily follow the discussion. The volume is also comprehensive and balanced in nature, allowing the reader to access an overview of research in this area, from the classics to contemporary. The other side of the coin to this strength, however, is that not any one particular research is discussed in great detail, as that is not the goal of this book. For a closer read of each study, the authors provide an extensive list of references at the end of the volume so that each article can be further searched.
As mentioned earlier, this book tries to present a comprehensive, balanced view; therefore I am reluctant to recommend a partial reading of the book. I fear that this could possibly lead to only a partial, and somewhat distorted view of the issues pertaining to age and language acquisition, which surely is not the intention of the authors.
While the discussed research in the book all pertained to language learning and age, I was puzzled by the seemingly unfit description of certain studies; for example, Braine's (1977) study is described to have investigated the adolescent and adult immigrants' use of Hebrew in Israel based on census data (pp. 71-72). The amount of language use is equated with language learning ability, which I argue is not necessarily the same. Similarly, the discussion of the poor learning of Irish in Ireland on the part of primary school students by Harris (1984) is presented as an evidence against "younger=better" hypothesis (p.82), but the information given reflects, I believe, more of a social reality rather than that relating to age.
As someone who had studied the phenomenon of optimal age for learning languages earlier, I had been convinced for quite some time with the argument of cerebral lateralization proposed by Lenneberg (1967) and its effects on language acquisition. However, ample research findings presented by the authors in this volume afforded me an occasion to re-visit and re-evaluate this notion, questioning my conviction about hemisphere- specificity of our brain and its relation to language-related capabilities. While the discussion was compelling and fascinating, as an applied linguist I found some discussions to be rather scientific and technical, and therefore somewhat difficult to follow, especially the discussion pertaining to the anatomy of the brain and research findings afforded by brain-imaging technology.
One study, which I expected to be included in the volume but nevertheless not mentioned, was Virginia Collier's (1987) study on Limited English Proficient (LEP) students residing in the US. Her study showed how students who arrived in the US after age 12 showed the greatest amount of difficulties in catching up to the national norm. Then again, this study did not look at language acquisition in isolation per se, but rather at academic achievement made (including English acquisition) by L2 learners of different age groups.
Finally, I found the argument that advocates for early L2 learning based on a greater amount of language exposure is somewhat misleading. Basing their claim on findings from the studies by Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle (1979) and Harley (1986), simple mathematical calculation of time of exposure to the target language is measured for those learning L2 in a naturalistic environment versus those studying in a formal setting. For example, the authors claim how "a year's worth of naturalistic L2 learning is equivalent in input terms to something approaching four years of total immersion in a school situation" (p. 201). Given this speculation, the authors call for a more longitudinal research which controls this discrepancy in amount of language exposure between the two groups. While reconceptualizing language acquisition in such a way is fascinating, the sheer fact of multidimensionality and complexity in learning any language, which the authors precisely note themselves at the end of the book, leads one to wonder if controlling the amount of exposure alone will lead to any enlightening revelation pertaining to age and SLA. Naturalistic language learning is not only quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of formal language learning, and any comparisons between the two must address this qualitative difference.
For those who are thinking of embarking on a study pertaining to age and language acquisition, this is an essential, compelling introductory reader. Each chapter except for the introduction and conclusion offers a summary at the end, assisting the reader in understanding the content. For those who are more versed in the area of age-related SLA research, this book will allow one to revisit the notions pertaining to the area, furthering one's inquiry in complex yet fascinating possibilities of critical periods in language learning.
Birdsong, D. (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Braine, M. (1977). The acquisition of language in infant and child. In C. Reed (ed.) The Learning of Language. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Brown, R. (1973). A First Language: The Early Stages. London: George, Allen and Unwin.
Collier, V. (1987). Age and Rate of Acquisition of Second Language for Academic Purposes. TESOL Quarterly 21, 4, Dec, 617-641.
Crystal, D., Fletcher, P. and Garman, M. (1976). The Grammatical Analysis of Language Disability. First Edition. London: Edward, Arnold (Second Edition. London: Cole and Whurr, 1988).
Guiora, A., Beit-Hallahmi, B., Brannon, R., Dull, C. and Scovel, T. (1972b). The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13, 421-28.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Mitsuyo Sakamoto received her Ph. D. in 2000 in Second Language Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She wrote her Master's thesis pertaining to the optimal age for SLA under the supervision of Dr. Birgit Harley of OISE/UT. Her primary area of interest is bilingualism, specifically language acquisition, maintenance, loss, and continuity among immigrant children as well as adults.