Age in second language acquisition by Birgit Harley

By Birgit Harley

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1969) has argued on the basis of measured L2 achievement in formal educational settings that time is the most important variable in the acquisition of an L2. Given that young learners will over the course of their school career have more time to acquire the L2, he suggests that an early start to L2 education is desirable. In his view, "the amount of competence one achieves is largely a matter of time spent in learning, rather than the actual age of starting" (Carroll, 1969:63). Burstall et al. " A different perspective is offered by Walberg, Hase & Pinzur Rasher (1978:429) who argue that the rate of L2 acquisition by children of any age in a natural setting (and maybe in the L2 classroom too) is likely to diminish with time.

McLaughlin's view of the acquisition process suggests that this process will be fundamentally similar in children and older learners. Both younger and older L2 learners may be expected to make L1 transfer errors and to overgeneralize L2 rules, for example. At the same time, there may be differences in operating procedures which will distinguish the older and younger learners' performance: older learners may have greater vocabulary skills, for example, and be more correct in their use of formal rules than children.

Thus Ausubel and Ervin-Tripp would see an overall advantage for older learners in the area of L2 syntax and vocabulary, while Cummins focusses more on the relative difficulty for younger learners of context-reduced types of tasks, recognizing at the same time that there may also be cognitively demanding aspects of context-embedded communication that would be easier for older learners to cope with before such aspects of L2 communication become automatized. Zobl's hypothesis brings up a more general possibility that immature aspects of L1 development may give rise to particular kinds of negative L1 transfer among child L2 learners.

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