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Age and Second Language Acquisition inAdulthood: The Learning Experiences andPerceptions of Women Immigrants

Wendy Wang

Although considerable evidence indicates that age of onset for second languageacquisition is related to second-language proficiency outcomes among adultlearnersJew studies have actually looked at how adult learners ofdifferent agesexperience and perceive second language acquisition. This study presents 30women immigrant learners' accounts of their experiences and perceptions oflearning English as a second language in the Canadian context. Findings fromthis study reveal the complexity of adult L2 acquisition, which involves factorspertaining not only to the learners themselves, but also to the social context inwhich the second language is learned. Implications ofthesefindings are discussedin relation to the second language curriculum development and classroom prac-tice.

BackgroundMuch of the research concerning the role of age in second language acquisi-tion has centered on identifying the close of an alleged critical period for L2acquisition, indicating that there is gradual linear decline in learners' ul-timate attainment! in L2 as a function of age, and this decline continues untilpuberty (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Flege, 1992; Oyama, 1976; Palij, 1991;Patkowski, 1980; Thompson, 1991; see Long, 1990; Singleton, 1989, forreviews). These findings have been interpreted as "evidence for a critical orsensitive period, a maturationally determined point of heightened recep-tivity to environmental stimuli" (Bialystok, 1997, p. 116). It is argued thatbeyond the critical or sensitive period, age ceases to have a systematic effecton L2 acquisition. Instead there is great variability and a lack of linearity inL2 attainment among adult learners (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Patkowski,1980). However, Bialystok and Hakuta's (1994) recent reinterpretation ofJohnson and Newport's (1989) study, the latter considered by many secondlanguage researchers to have provided decisive support for a sensitiveperiod in the acquisition of L2, emphasized that "there is a linear decline inperformance with age of arrival, although the decline is steeper for theyounger than the older arrivals" (p. 69). In fact, "the steepest decline occursin a linear fashion before age twenty, at which the decline becomes less steep"(p. 72, emphasis added). This suggests that there is a general pattern of lower


attainment in L2 associated with increasing starting age; however, "thispattern does not appear to come to an end at around puberty but may persistinto the 20s at least, with a continuing, somewhat less precipitous pattern ofdeclining outcomes across mature adult starting ages" (Harley & Wang,1997, p. 37). Bialystok and Hakuta's (1994) observation finds its support inthe accumulating evidence from adult learners suggesting that differentialproficiency outcomes in L2 continue to be related to learners' age of arrival inthe L2 environment, although the declining outcomes with increasing start-ing age have been reported to be most strongly manifested in the aural-oralaspects of L2 proficiency (d'Anglejan & Renaud, 1985; von Elek & Oskarsson,1973; Klein & Dittmar, 1979; Scott, 1994; Seright, 1985; Wang, 1998).

A predominant method of studying the age issue in these studies hasbeen the use of statistical analyses. Quantitative data in these studies areimportant in uncovering the linear relationship between declining L2 profi-ciency outcomes with increasing age, yet there is no agreement as to whatmay underlie the effect of age on adult L2 acquisition. Klein and Dittmar(1979) found a strong inverse relationship between age of arrival and L2 oralsyntactic proficiency ratings and concluded that age may co-vary with ex-posure to the L2, as the younger adults (aged 18 to 21) they studied had morecontact with native speakers than the older ones (aged 30+). Like Klein andDittmar, Scott (1994) associated the higher achievement in L2listening com-prehension by the younger adult learners (aged 21-25) in her study withgreater contact with native speakers. It is worth noting that Scott did not findsignificant differences between the younger and older adults on the measureof short-term memory capacities, but concluded that reduced hearing acuityamong the older adults (aged 50-71) might have contributed to their lowerachievement in L2 listening comprehension. Seright's (1985) study demon-strated a strong age effect in adults' (aged 17-41) achievement in listeningcomprehension, but failed to reveal what may underlie the age effect otherthan the pre-test scores. D'Anglejan and Renaud (1985), who explored therelative importance of a variety of learner variables with respect to in-dividual differences in overall achievement in French as an L2, suggestedthat nonverbal intelligence along with years of schooling, age, and use ofFrench accounted for the greatest proportion of variance in overall achieve-ment in French. In addition, the researchers speculated that the inverserelationship between age and French achievement found in their study waspresumably due to "little motivation to learn the second language amongolder immigrants who live within the confines of tightly knit and protectivefamily units or ethnolinguistic groups" (p. 13). Wang's (1998) recent study oftwo age-of-arrival groups of adult learners demonstrated a strong effect ofstarting age on learners' oral English proficiency outcomes. A comparison ofthe two groups was conducted on the measures of several learner variablessuch as L2 contact, intelligence (crystallized and fluid intelligence2), memory,


and attitudes/motivation. The results of the analyses highlight the impor-tance of fluid intelligence and variety of L2 contact and use in learners' oralEnglish development. On these learner variables, which correlated positivelywith learners' oral English proficiency outcomes, the earlier arrivals (aged25-35) had an advantage over the later ones (aged 40-55). However, like Scott,Wang did not find any significant difference either between the two age-of-arrival groups in terms of their short-term memory capacities or in theirattitudes/motivation. In fact, on the measure of attitudes/motivation, bothgroups showed positive attitudes and high motivation to learn ESL.

Although the learner variables investigated in these studies may offersome plausible clues as to what may account for the effect of age on adult L2acquisition, far more information is needed if we are to draw any conclusionsabout how different age groups of adult learners learn and how they mayvary. What is obviously lacking in research on the possible explanations ofthe effect of age in adult L2 acquisition are the views of adult learners whoare involved in the phenomenon under study. Because age of arrival isnegatively correlated to learners' L2 proficiency outcomes as indicated in thestudies reviewed above, studying this phenomenon from the perspective ofthe adult learners may provide important new insights. However, remarkab-ly few studies have actually examined this question from the learners' per-spective. This study, which is a complementary aspect of the quantitativestudy I conducted on the age-related effects in adult second language ac-quisition (Wang, 1998), fills the gap by using an interview approach to obtaindescriptive information on how two different age-of-arrival groups of adultlearners perceived and experienced learning ESL and how they interpretedtheir experiences to construct an understanding of the issue of age and L2acquisition in adulthood.

The Interview as a Research ToolThe interview is a qualitative technique that has been successfully used inmany fields. In recent years, interviews have been increasingly employed instudies of affective factors in L2learning (Price, 1991) and in studies of adultESL literacy (Cumming & Gill, 1992; Klassen & Burnaby, 1993; Mellow,1992). These studies have demonstrated the benefits of using interviews as auseful approach to explore the personal and experiential aspects of thecomplex issue of adult L2 acquisition. The present use of interview as aresearch tool is the first attempt that I know of in studies of age-relateddifferences in L2 acquisition. I selected it for the following two reasons. First,the interview is a natural and generative medium for hearing learners' inter-pretations of lived experiences of learning an L2. Second, the interview canbe used both to obtain an "authentic" description of the interviewees' ownexperiences and to investigate specific questions of interest to the researcher.In recognition that adult L2 acquisition involves many previously unex-



plored and inadequately described variables, I have come to appreciate theinterview as a powerful tool that allows me to gain a sense of how adultlearners perceive and experience learning an L2, and to use their insights asa source of information in addressing the issue of age and adult L2 acquisi-tion.

ParticipantsAs part of my doctoral research on age-related effects in adult L2 acquisition,I interviewed two groups of adult learners: one group of 15 learners whoseage of arrival (AOA) in Canada was between 25 and 35 (referred to as earlierAOA group), and another group of 15 learners whose AOA in Canada wasbetween 40 and 55 (referred to as later AOA group). The 30 voluntaryparticipants were female Mandarin-speaking immigrants learning ESL in theCanadian context. The choice of homogeneous first language (Ll) controlsfor the possible effects of Ll as well as cultural effects on their experiencesand perceptions of learning ESL. These participants were recruited throughthe LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) progr