Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 7 : 6 June 2007
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
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         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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The Effects of Age on the Ability to Learn English As a Second Language

Mariam Dadabhai, B.A. Hons.


The idea that there is an age factor in language development has long been, and continues to be a constant debated topic. In this dissertation which examines the relationship of age to second language acquisition, we begin by a literature review, followed by briefly revisiting some of the early perspectives on the issue of age being a factor in language development and it goes on to explore some of the relevant findings which emerged when comparing the English language of two adults of different ages, who migrated from India. These two participants were tested on a wide variety of structures of the English language, by analysing their conversations in English in a natural situation, demonstrating a clear and strong advantage for young age over the older age. The dissertation concludes with a short discussion - in the light of the foregoing - of the notion that there may be not one, but a number, of age-related factors that affects second language acquisition.

Substantial interest surrounds the question of how age affects second language acquisition. This is a particularly intriguing question for educators who must develop appropriate curricula and instructional strategies for refugees and immigrants of different ages who are entering this country. Unfortunately, too little is known about language acquisition in general to allow us to say definitively that X or Y makes acquisition easy at one age or difficult at another.

A word of caution is necessary at the outset: generalisations about the relationship of age and language acquisition are treacherous for two obvious reasons. First, people of the same age do not share all the same characteristics. We can speak of a typical 16-year-old or an average 41-year-old, but we have to keep in mind that a norm or an ideal may be as much fiction as fact in the real world. Among people of the same age, differences in attitudes, abilities, knowledge, and skills make generalisations about learners' indefinable. Second, there is no uniform pattern of development that everyone follows. Even if we could say that everyone eventually achieves certain characteristics, it is clear that there is no common route to be followed. Knowledge and skill are acquired by each of us according to a highly individual map.

2 Introduction

The term second language is used to mean a language that is learnt after the native language is relatively established. Learning is defined as a deliberate, conscious attempt to master a language. Acquisition is defined as a less deliberate, subconscious process of mastering a language. First language is also referred to as L1 in the literature. L2 is the second language. Target language is the second language, the language being learned by the learner.

The communicative approach to language learning fosters the use of appropriate and positive learning strategies. In today's world communicative language teaching and learning have become a significant feature in ESL contexts across many countries. Also the adult learners, especially in the target language situation directly benefit from the use of communicative skills. Many theoretical and research studies in second language learning strongly suggest that good language learners utilise a variety of strategies to improve their communicative ability. From the practical perspectives, speaking strategies are one of the most important aspects in dealing with communication skills, particularly in second or foreign language situations, as they enhance learners' confidence and fluency. 'The communicative approach implicitly encourages learners to take greater responsibility for their own learning and to use a wide range of language learning strategies' (Oxford, 1989: 29).

This dissertation consists of a literature review which discusses the issues related to the acquiring of English as a second language. The literature review looks at existing literature and research which shows the problems and difficulties an adult may have when acquiring English as a second language.

The dissertation itself looks at the comparison of the spoken English of two people, one who came from India to live in England at the age of 16, who is now 25 years of age and the other who came from India to England at the age of 32, who is now 41 years of age. Neither of them were taught any English whilst they were in India and both attended Hindi school during their time in India. Since they came here, they have been trying to fit into the job market and at the same time adjusting themselves in the target language situation as well. This dissertation investigates how they are coping with the target language communication, and, specifically in speaking, what strategies they are employing when faced with some difficulties.

As a conclusion to this dissertation, it refers to whether a person's age has any effect on the ability of learning English as a second language.

2.1 Purpose and rationale

Gaining good communicative skills has always been considered as one of the most important factors in settling down in a new society for the immigrants, especially in a monolingual country like England. In a recent study some participants stated that 'if immigrants are not fluent in English before they arrive in England they face a real barrier when finding work and communicating with people in the wider community' (Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, 2: 51), here strategy use in communication can enhance language proficiency in many ways. Bialystok (1983: 117) states clearly, 'the effective use of appropriate strategies is an important aspect of communicating in an imperfectly learned language'. Studies show highly proficient learners are more likely to use strategies in communication than less proficient learners. This strategy use in communication may vary in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, motivation, personality and nature of job. Many research studies emphasised on the strategy instruction and the conscious use of strategies in communication. However, I have not found any relevant research though I assume that a few such studies might have been carried out in dealing with speaking strategies to overcome communication problems for the adult migrants.

Communication competence is one of the crucial issues in many countries for the learners from non English speaking backgrounds. On the other hand, 'strategies depend on the speaker's language knowledge and the linguistic competence of the interlocutor in the topic discourse' (Corder, 1983: 15). Controversy still exists among the researchers as to what extent learning strategies and communicative strategies are different. However, from their elaborate discussions it is apparent that strategies in learning and communication are not radically different but rather complementary to each other.

Exploring the communication difficulties and strategy use within a particular community may become clear on how they are coping with the communicative language situation. This dissertation involves the study and comparison of two people living in the Midlands to identify their speaking difficulties and the strategies they use to overcome communication problems or to carry on communication.

2.2 Research questions

It is generally assumed that adult learners engaged in target language communication often have problems of various kinds and try hard to cope with them. Thus this dissertation mainly addresses two research questions, as follows:

  1. Does age affect the ability to learn English as a second language?
  2. How does age affect the acquiring of English as a second language?

Apart from these two questions, it is expected that some additional issues may come out of this study, such as culture, gender, religious values and motivation factors in relation to strategy use in communication.


Languages of School-going Children - A Sample Survey in Mysore | A Brief Study of Koya Folk Songs of Orissa | The Effects of Age on the Ability to Learn English As a Second Language | Literature in the Curriculum for Engineering Students | Learning English as Third Language -
A Comparative Study between Iranian and Indian Bilinguals
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Mariam Dadabhai, B.A. Hons.

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