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RUNNING HEAD: SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

Second Language Acquisition in Older Adults


Kinza Iqbal
212104089
PSYC 3490 A
Heather Jenkin
November 12th, 2014
York University

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

Many of us would love to learn a second language. To be able to choose any language
and attain its entire vocabulary is quite impressive. A child can pick up and learn more than two
languages when they are young but that seems to decrease as we get older. Ageism, as described
by Cavanaugh, Blanchard-Fields and Norris (2008), is the myth of aging that leads to negative
stereotypes of older people. Second language acquisition may become a slower process as we
age but to say that older adults are poor second language learners would be a huge
misconception. There is no lack in the capacity to learn a new language in older adults. If an
adult does not acquire a second language successfully, it is probably because of intervening
cognitive or affective variables and not the absence of innate capacities (Housen & Kuiken,
2009). There are many reasons as to why this deficiency may occur. Specialists say it is because
we become slower at associating with age and thus create greater interference attendant on our
brains. Children can accommodate more memories and material faster because they live with less
interference. While there is no single cure to this issue, there are many ways in aiding and
slowing down the effects of age on second language acquisition, individually and as a society.
Getting rid of age myths and understanding the older adult mind will help older people with not
just second language acquisition specifically, but also with their entire lifestyle.
According to the journal by Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2008), adult second language
learners actually hold a very high degree of language learning aptitude. The journal also greatly
discusses the Critical Period Hypothesis. This explains that during an important stage in the life
span of a human, it acquires a particular developmental skill that is essential in their life span.
Children go through many critical periods before puberty and it is the same in which they can
attain a new language. However, with accumulating evidence children have an advantage in
ultimate learning, not in the rate of learning and decline of language learning ability does not

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

suddenly occur around puberty but seems to take place gradually from ages 6 or 7 to 16 or 17
and beyond (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2008). There definitely are critical periods in our life
span for language acquisition but it can only be applied to implicit learning. Between the ages of
67 and 1617, though, everybody loses the innate capacity required for acquiring a new
language. Thus, it can be safely said that it is not the adult brain that suddenly loses the ability to
learn a new language but much earlier ages that lose their critical periods. Moreover, adults
must take a new approach to learning due to physical, cognitive and motivational factors that
may inhibit the learning of a second language. Hearing loss can lead to an emotional and difficult
process. Memory and cognition also plays a huge part in the learning process. Episodic memory,
working memory and semantic memory all play a major role in cognition as mentioned by
Cavanaugh, Blanchard-Fields and Norris (2008). For example, semantic memory, which is
defined as the retention of facts, knowledge and beliefs, affects cognitive abilities in older
people; many have problems in the retrieval of previously learned material. However, semantic
memory actually increases over the lifespan and older adults test as well as younger adults. This
is an important advantage for language learning in older people. In general, older adults are fully
capable of learning second language; although it is well known that there is a decline in the
short-term memory and in the speed of processing. It has been said that adults are able to learn
as well in their forties and fifties as in their twenties and thirties, when and if they can control the
pace of learning (Kormos, Kiddle, Csizer, 2011).
The greatest obstacle to older adult learning is the stereotype that suggests older people
cannot learn as well as younger adults or kids. Most people assume that the younger the better
applies in second language learning. Some older adults even feel the need to apologize for being
old, as if they have some control over this issue! As irrational as it may be, older adults develop a

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

lack of self-confidence that is essential in learning and progressing. Self-efficacy and motivation
must be taken into account when dealing with older adults. Self-efficacy means the strength of
ones belief to complete tasks and reach goals, and in order to build high self-efficacy, one must
let go of any negative stereotypes, as described by Cavanaugh, Blanchard-Fields and Norris
(2008). Society, as a community, must get rid of the negative stereotype that they have with
older adult learning in order to help with progression. Confidence is important for any adult
second language learner and gives him/her a sense of assurance and control. Adult learners may
initially be optimistic and have full intentions of learning but may soon be discouraged if they do
not learn quickly enough. This may lead to giving up, especially if they did not expect to
succeed in the first place having internalized the stereotype of older adult learning (Ellis, 2008).
When creating an environment for older adult learners, one must keep the needs of the learner in
mind and programs or classes should be given careful thought to for the individuals culture and
lifestyle.
There are many ways in which we can overcome and progress with this issue. Although
there is no direct cure, with proper training, language instruction and care, most adults will be
able to learn a new language. For example, being aware of the effects of fatigue and stress
roles encouraging learners to go at their own pace and giving training in learning strategies
are all forms of aiding the learning process as discussed by Kormos, Kiddle and Csizer (2011).
Since adults can no longer rely on their innate ability for language acquisition, they need to rely
on alternative, problem solving mechanisms that can be taught through training and aid.
Furthermore, most adults have already developed a learning strategy that proves useful to them
in other learning contexts. The same strategies can be applied to second language learning as
well. Trainers or teachers should allow flexibility and the use of different approaches to learn,

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

said by Ellis (2008). Nonetheless, much more information needs to be attained in order to
advance in this area. Older adults and younger adults alike must be encouraged to learn a new
language due to many obvious advantages such as improving decision making skills and
increasing brain power. Similarly, studies have shown that being bilingual can increase
performance on IQ tests! The extra mind power and constant learning thats required to learn a
new language helps keep the brain alive and working and consequently, may help with possible
future aging problems such as Alzheimers or dementia. Teaching adults and interacting with
them should be an enjoyable experience. Housen and Kuiken (2010) stated that their own self
directedness, independence and life experience should serve as a useful strategy in motivating
and providing advantages in their learning outcomes. Society that meets and understands the
needs of older adults will lead to rapid second language acquisition.
While a great deal of research has been done on how and why older adults learn
differently, more research needs to be conducted on how to solve this issue. Campaigns or
marketing strategies should be used to decrease negative stereotypes of older adults and the
elderly. Classes and programs that teach second language to older adults should be made
available and easily accessible. The same should be integrated and into nursing homes and
assisted living facilities and encouraged as a choice of interest or activity/past time to pursuit.
Kormos, Kiddle, Csizer (2011) conferred that every effort possible should be made to
incorporate older adults into society. As they develop relationships and connections with the
people around them, their motivation to communicate and get involved will increase, thus,
progressing as a community together.

SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISTION IN ADULTS

References
Abrahamsson N., Hyltenstam K. (2008). The Robustness of Aptitude Effects in Near-Native
Second Language Acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 30 (1), 481-509.
Cavanaugh, J. C., Blanchard-Fields, F., & Norris, J. E. (2008). Adult development and aging (1st
Canadian ed.). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Nelson Education Ltd.
Ellis, N.C. (2008). The Dynamics of Second Language Emergence: Cycles of Language Use,
Language Change, and Language Acquisition. The Modern Language Journal. 92 (2),
232-249.
Housen, A., Kuiken F. (2009). Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency in Second Language
Acquisition. 13 (1), 12-18. doi: 10.1093/applin/amp048.
Kormos, J., Kiddle, T., Csizer, K. (2011). Systems of Goals, Attitudes, and Self-related Beliefs
in Second-Language-Learning Motivation. Applied Linguistics. 32 (5), 495-516.