Tag Archives: SLA

Am I past it?

cursos para seniorsI had an uncle, Uncle Reid, whose hobby was learning languages. Even into advanced old age, he was forever dipping into books like Teach Yourself Urdu or Tagalog without Tears. I have no way of knowing, now, what his level of proficiency was like in these languages. I suspect that, at best, he had a passing familiarity with the rudiments of the grammar of each one, plus a basic vocabulary. Perhaps he could read simplified texts, but I doubt he could sustain a conversation over any length of time.

Nevertheless, the fact that his age was no deterrent should serve to encourage me, and allay my doubts that I might have left this present endeavor too late.  As motivated as I am, ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near’.  Do I seriously believe I can reconfigure my Spanish, aged 63? Is there any evidence to suggest that I can?

Consult any book on SLA and you’ll find a lot of page space dedicated to the effects of age (or ‘maturational constraints’) on language acquisition. Questions discussed include: Is there an optimal age for learning a SL? What is the effect of different ‘ages of onset’? Are different learning processes implicated at different ages? Is native-like proficiency achievable after a certain age? And so on.

But look closely and you’ll find that all the research cited compares children with adolescents, or adolescents with young adults.  None of the research looks at mature learners, or attempts to address the question: Do maturational constraints increase with age? Or even, Is there an age of onset beyond which second language learning is not predicted?

Italian 50+On the other hand, if you google ‘am I too old to learn a language?’ you’ll find a host of happy-clappy blog posts, webzine articles etc, that – on the basis of only anecdotal evidence at best – are hugely encouraging about the ease of learning French in your retirement, or Spanish at 50. Language schools, too, offer ‘courses for mature students’, on the principle, presumably, that mature students prefer to study together, undistracted by frivolous teenagers, or – more worryingly – that mature students, due to their cognitive impairments, need special attention.

On the subject of older learners and second language acquisition, I managed to turn up only one serious study (Schulz and Elliot 2000). As the researchers point out, most studies of (old) age and SLA focus on language attrition, that is, language loss in multilingual subjects, but not on the acquisition of new languages by older learners. In their study, Schulz and Elliot report on how one of the pair (Renate Schulz, a 57-year-old professor of German) learnt Spanish during a five-month academic fellowship in Colombia.

Prefacing this account with a review of the literature on ‘cognitive aging’, they note that older adults ‘may not be able to retain information in short-term memory as well as they did before, or to process information as quickly…. They may have more difficulties in retrieving language-related information’ (2000: 109). This typically manifests itself as what is called the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ (TOT) phenomenon, whereby a word is temporarily inaccessible. ‘When older learners have a TOT experience, they tend to have fewer persistent alternates, that is, they recall fewer alternate words that resemble, in some fashion, the word they wish to retrieve’ (ibid.).  This seems to be less due to a failure of memory than to a decrease in processing speed.  ‘In summary, the research to date has shown that an older adult requires more time for many cognitive tasks and experiences more word-finding difficulties’ (ibid.)

Schulz’s own diary entries during her spell in Colombia often report some of these difficulties, such as a frustration at her inability to recall verb endings, or the problems of decoding rapid speech.  For example (p. 112):

(May 30) I get the general gist of the message, and only later (sometimes after an interaction with someone is completed and I’m doing something else) I suddenly fully understand what has been said in the previous encounter.

Sometimes I perceive myself as if I comprehend and react in slow motion!

Nevertheless, she also experienced some breakthrough moments:

(April 5) Yesterday I addressed the entire department in Spanish for several minutes before I suffered a “linguistic breakdown” and had to revert to English. Later I participated in the discussions in Spanish as well. Amazing what adrenalin can do!

(June 6) I went to see a play with C. J. I was very pleased how much I understood. I had no problem following the general plot, but did not always get the humour that caused audience to laugh.

In fact, on various objective measures of her vocabulary and grammar, both before and after the experience, she demonstrated significant improvement over the five months, suggesting that, if there were any cognitive disadvantages associated with a being ‘a mature learner’, she was able to overcome them. This is good news for me!cursos senior

Finally, and with regard to the pedagogical implications of their study, the researchers suggest that older learners may be less tolerant of classroom activities that are perceived as frivolous or time-wasting. The following comment (p. 117) chimes precisely with my own classroom experience although I’m not sure that this is necessarily an age-related issue:

Interestingly, Schulz, who in her own teaching and teacher development efforts emphasises the tenets of communicative approaches to foreign language teaching, reacted in her diary occasionally with frustration to role-play and other simulation activities. Group activities which consist of “working on inconsequential, semi-defined tasks with people who are less competent than I am” (diary entry from mid-February) also raised her ire, and in several diary entries she expressed a desire for more challenging and engaging contents.

Perhaps this proves merely that teachers make demanding learners!


Schulz, R.A., & Elliot, P. (2000) ‘Learning Spanish as an older adult,’ Hispania, 83/1, 107-119.

Fatal attractors

sauleda 01Me, in a pastelería (cake shop)

¿Qué es eso?


Ese pastel, allí.

Tarta de manzana.

¿Y aquella aquí… ¿Qué lleva?


Si, quiero una de este.

Which translates, more or less, as:

What is that?


This cake, over there.

Apple tart.

And that one here, what’s in it?


Yes, I want of one of this.

The translation is meant to convey the fact that the demonstratives (eso, ese, aquella, etc) are all over the place – literally – and only accidentally coincide with where I’m pointing, and with the gender or number of the thing pointed at. And, more tellingly, were I to have the same conversation again tomorrow, I might well use a whole different combination, plucked off the shelf, as it were, in a similarly random fashion.

This is as good an instance as any of how my Spanish, or pockets of it, functions in a state of ‘free variation’.

At some point, I must have been aware of the range of choices available for identifying objects near to me, near to you, and distant from both of us, and how these demonstrative adjectives and pronouns are also sensitive to number and gender, such that any decision to use one requires making a selection from 15 different options (see table below).

Understandably, I resisted learning the rules of a system that seemed impossibly complicated (three deictic points, three genders, as well as singular and plural). Instead I simply pulled demonstratives out of a hat, applying them indiscriminately, and sometimes throwing in a Catalan one for good measure. Of course, the physical context of the situations in which these items are typically used meant that pointing and eye-gaze made up for whatever incoherence resulted from my capricious grammar. Hence, there was little or no feedback as a result of miscommunication. I got the cakes I wanted.

pastelesAnd so the system (or lack of system) became entrenched. The same thing, more or less happened with past tense forms, with dependent prepositions, with clitic pronouns, with por and para, and with ser and estar. There are even sets of like-sounding words that I also deploy in free variation, the verbs planear, plantear, plantar, and planificar being a case in point. These wildly chaotic sub-systems seem to co-exist alongside other systems that are relatively stable.

In complexity theory, the fluctuations between relative stability and instability within dynamic systems are well attested. As Lewin (1993. 20-21) puts it:

Most complex systems exhibit what mathematicians call attractors, states to which the system eventually settles, depending on the properties of the system. Imagine floating in a rough and dangerous sea, one swirling around rocks and inlets. Whirlpools become established, depending on the topography of the seabed and the flow of water. Eventually, you will be drawn into one of these vortexes. There you stay until some major perturbation, or change in the flow of water, pushes you out, only to be sucked into another. This, crudely, is how one might view a dynamical system with multiple attractors.

Language learning is similarly ‘chaotic’: as Larsen-Freeman (2006: 592) notes, ‘There are no discrete stages in which learners’ performance is invariant’. And she adds (p. 593) ‘Learners do not progress through stages of development in a consistent manner. There is a great deal of variation at one time in learners’ performances and clear instability over time’.

The transition from one attractor state to another is called a phase shift, and one definition of fossilization might be ‘the absence of phase shifts’. Thus, Ellis (1999: 472) argues that ‘fossilization arises when learners fail to resolve the inherent variation in their interlanguage’. Witness my demonstratives.

But proponents of complexity theory would argue that any such stasis is an illusion: there is no permanent ‘end state’ in evolving, dynamic systems.  Hence ‘if there is no end state to language, it may be unhelpful to think in terms of fossilization as an end state to second language learning’ (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008: 10).

In a study of five Chinese learners of English, Larsen-Freeman tracked the ‘messiness’ of individual learning trajectories – a messiness not dissimilar to my random use of demonstratives. Larsen-Freeman conjectured that this very messiness might be indicative of the ‘instability that precedes a phase shift’ (2006: 611). And she adds, suggestively, ‘It is here where a pedagogical intervention might be optimal’ (ibid.).sauleda

What kind of pedagogical intervention?

I am drawn back to one of my favourite language learning accounts. Christopher Isherwood (1977:76), the writer, describes how he overcame a gap in his linguistic competence:

…Humphrey said suddenly, “You speak German so well – tell me, why don’t you ever use the subjunctive mood?” Christopher had to admit that he didn’t know how to. In the days when he had studied German, he had left the subjunctive to be dealt with later, since it wasn’t absolutely essential and he was in a hurry. By this time he could hop through the language without its aid, like an agile man with only one leg. But now Christopher set himself to master the subjunctive. Very soon, he had done so. Proud of this accomplishment, he began showing off whenever he talked: “had it not been for him, I should never have asked myself what I would do if they were to — etc., etc.” Humphrey was much amused.

In much the same way, I’m approaching the ‘holes’ in my own competence. How? A good old-fashioned students’ grammar, and a workbook of exercises. Hopefully, I will be able to find opportunities to activate, in real contexts (like the pastelería), the explicit knowledge gained from this mechanical practice, and trigger some kind of phase shift.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005)

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005). Click to enlarge.



Ellis, R. (1999) ‘Item versus system learning: explaining free variation’, Applied Linguistics, 20/4, 460-80.

Isherwood, C. (1977) Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939, London: Eyre Methuen.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) ‘The emergence of complexity, fluency, and accuracy in the oral and written production of five Chinese learners of English,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4, 590-619.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewin, R. (1993) Complexity: Life on the edge of chaos, London: Phoenix Books.

Sánchez Pérez, A. y Sarmiento González, R. (2005) Gramática práctica del español actual, Madrid: SGEL.

Expensive reading?

dictionaries 03I’m about to embark on another long conference crawl, so I’ll be away from any direct contact with Spanish for two weeks. How can I maintain the momentum (that already seems to have been flagging since I took my intensive course at the end of the summer)?

One obvious answer might be to pop a novel or two into my carry-on luggage, and do some sustained reading. However, I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of the extensive reading that I have done to date. It doesn’t seem to have paid big dividends, given the time I’ve put into it.

Let me explain.

I read El País, a Spanish national newspaper, daily. At a conservative estimate, I calculate (on the basis of 200 words per 15 column centimetres) that I read around 5000 words a day. Subtracting the days each year that I might not have access to El País (fewer now that it is online, of course), let’s say I read 5000 words 300 days a year. That makes my annual exposure to written Spanish in the region of 1.5m words of running text (ignoring whatever other reading I might also be doing). What gains might I expect to accrue, given this amount of input?

Bill Grabe (2009: 273), citing recent research into the benefits of extensive reading, says:

If students read approximately a million words of running text a year, and if they know 96-98 per cent of the words, they will be exposed to 20,000 to 40,000 new words… If students learn one word in ten through context, they will learn somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 new words through extensive reading in a year.

It follows, therefore, that, in the 25 or more years that I have been reading El País daily, I should have increased my vocabulary by, minimally, 50,000 words. This would give me the (receptive) vocabulary of a fairly well educated native-speaker.

Is this in fact the case?

dictionaries 04Estimating vocabulary size is not easy (see a discussion at my other blog here), and there seem to be no freely available online tests (that I can find) that will help me do this in Spanish. So, instead, I did a fairly quick-and-dirty test using a learners’ Spanish-English dictionary. This involved simply counting the number of known words on every tenth page of the 385-page Spanish section, and then multiplying the result by 10. By ‘known words’ I mean the words that I could reliably translate into English. This gave a sight vocabulary of roughly 10,000 words (although of those 10,000 many are proper nouns, like Chile or Rusia, while even more are cognates or compounds that I don’t recall having ever seen in a text but which are easily unpacked on the basis of their morphology, e.g. inmutable, autoadhesivo etc).

10,000 words is consistent with Nation and Gu’s (2007: 103) finding that, ‘in general learners need to know around 9000-10,000 words before most texts become easily accessible for unassisted reading’. But it is a long way from the 50,000 I ought to have accumulated, according to Grabe’s figures. This is not to say that I didn’t amass these 10,000 words through reading. Only that there seem to be diminishing returns.

Why?  Are the texts too difficult? That is to say, do I know too few of the words I have been reading, i.e. less than the critical mass of 96% that are necessary in order to guess the meaning of the words I don’t know?

To check the percentage of words I typically know when I’m reading El País, I made a mini-corpus of 5000 words from the online version of last Tuesday’s edition, selecting from the world news, national news, local news, opinion, education and culture sections – i.e. a fairly representative sample of what I would typically read. Of these 5000 word tokens only 35 were unfamiliar, giving me a text coverage score well over the 98% that Nation and Gu (2007) argue is the prerequisite for ‘adequate comprehension’.

So, it seems that I’m well within the optimal zone for vocabulary acquisition. So, why do I feel that I’m not acquiring any more new words?

One answer might be, not that the texts are too hard, but that they are too easy: I already have enough words to get by and therefore I don’t experience sufficient ‘incomprehensible input’ to trigger noticing.  Or it may be that my reading is too superficial: because I’m normally satisfied if I get the gist of what I’m reading, problematic words are easily overlooked and not given the attention they require in order to register in working memory. They simply fall below the radar: an indictment of skimming and scanning as reading tasks, incidentally. Fluency comes at the expense of continued learning.

In the end, extensive reading itself may not be enough. As Nation (2001: 155) admits, ‘Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then the learning will be lost.’  But he adds (p. 238): ‘Learning rates can be increased considerably by some deliberate attention to vocabulary’. Such attention might include dictionary use, and it’s significant that I seldom if ever consult a dictionary when I’m reading the paper, often because I’m reading on the train or on the bicycle at the gym, and don’t have a dictionary to hand. Moreover, the constant interruption that dictionary use involves would seem to run counter to the principles of extensive reading, defined as ‘reading in quantity and in order to gain a general understanding of what is read’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002: 193).

dictionaries 05And yet a dictionary might make all the difference. In a recent study, Ronald (2009: 94) found ‘substantial reliable evidence of the effect on a language learner’s vocabulary of monolingual dictionary use during reading’. Grabe and Stoller (1997: 119) make a similar point, based on Bill’s own experience of reading newspapers in Portuguese: ‘The use of a bilingual dictionary in a consistent and appropriate manner would appear to have a positive impact on vocabulary learning and reading development’.  Conversely, in a study by Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) where readers were deprived of the opportunity to consult a dictionary, or even to linger on unfamiliar words, vocabulary gains were minimal.

So, I’m going to pack some Spanish novels into my carry-on. But I’m going to take a dictionary too. Fortunately, this needn’t add extra bulk. I’ve just uploaded a reputable Spanish-English dictionary on to my iPad. Let’s see if I use it!


Grabe, W. (2009) Reading in a Second Language: Moving from theory to practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W. & Stoller, F.L. (1997) ‘Reading and vocabulary development is a second language a case study,’ in Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (eds) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

dictionaries 01Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998) ‘Beyond a Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading,’ Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2).

Nation, P., & Gu, P. Y. (2007) Focus on Vocabulary, Sydney: Macquarie University.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Roland, J. (2009) ‘Repeated L2 reading with and without a dictionary,’ in Fitzpatrick, T. & Barfield, A. (eds) Lexical Processing in Second Language Learners, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Special thanks to Tom Cobb, Steve Neufeld, and James Thomas, for advice on data collection and analysis.

Fossilization: is it terminal, doctor?

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

If there were ever to be an SLA ‘Hall of Fame’, prime candidates would be Alberto and Wes, both of them icons of fossilization, each in their different ways.

Alberto (Schumann 1978) was a Costa Rican immigrant to the US, who had little or no contact with English speakers, and whose rudimentary English not only remained static over the 10 months he was studied, but seemed impervious to any instructional interventions. His researcher attributed this stasis to his unwillingness to ‘acculturate’, i.e. to integrate into the dominant English-speaking culture.

Wes (Schmidt 1983), a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii, likewise showed little or no grammatical development over the 3-year period in which his English was tracked, but he did exhibit a high level of communicative competence, including the capacity to manage conversations. He did this through a variety of means, such as paraphrase, use of formulaic language, and repair strategies, impelled always by his conviction that it was as much the responsibility of his interlocutors to understand him as it was his responsibility to make himself understood to them. Given that he was fully immersed in, and positively inclined towards, the host English-speaking community, the apparent fossilization of his English is attributed less to social than to psycholinguistic factors: his inability, for example, to attend to linguistic form.

A third – less well-known – candidate for the Hall of Fame might be Patty (Lardiere 2000): an Indonesian of Chinese origin who lived in Hong Kong before emigrating to the US, marrying first to a Vietnamese and then to an English speaker. Her English was tracked over 10 years, and, while it showed a high degree of syntactical accuracy (i.e. word order), there were no gains in terms of morphological features (word endings, plurals etc). The researcher attributed this to the relatively late age of contact with English, and the concomitant inability to perceive (and hence generalize from) the details. (In language acquisition, the devil is indeed in the details). Patty’s written English, it should be noted, was more accurate than her spoken.

These three stories (and there are many more, less well documented ones) tend to underscore the fact that, as Ellis (2008) puts it: ‘Fossilization is not an all-or-nothing phenomena. First, there is considerable variation in the extent to which individual learners fossilize.… [Moreover] it is perfectly possible for a learner to be fossilized in some aspects of the L2 but to continue to develop in others’ (Ellis 2008, p. 28).

However, of the three case studies cited, only Patty’s really qualifies as a case of true fossilization (and, to be fair, neither Schumann nor Schmidt use the term in their own studies) since hers was the only study that was conducted over long enough a period to suggest that the non-target-like nature of at least some of her interlanguage grammar was immutable. That, after all, is what fossilization means, surely.

Or does it?  As Long (2003) reminds us, ‘For many, “fossilization” has simply become a general, non-technical name for non-target-like ultimate attainment, that is, a performance descriptor, a broad-brush method of characterising what a learner did not do, not a competence issue, a matter of what he or she could not do, which is what made the original claim interesting’ (p.513, emphasis added).  And he adds, ‘If fossilization is to have value as a construct in SLA theory, it must refer to something other than this general age-related decline in the capacity to acquire any language’ (p.519).

doughty & longIn other words, Long is asking us to distinguish between ‘failure to acquire’ (a widespread phenomenon) and ‘loss of ability to acquire’, a much more slippery notion, since what exactly is it that is lost, and how can you prove a negative anyway?  How do we know that Patty won’t suddenly (or even slowly) make a tiny incremental change in the direction of the target?  For all these reasons, SLA scholars prefer the less terminal term stabilization: ‘Stabilization refers to a state of L2 development where fluctuation has temporarily ceased. Many L2 learners are familiar with the situation where they appear to plateau, failing to develop despite their continuing efforts to do so, and then make a ‘breakthrough’ sometime later’ (Ellis, op. cit: 30).

Ellis adds that ‘there is also another reason for preferring “stabilization” to “fossilization”. Talk of fossilization positions L2 learners as failures but, in fact, many achieve very considerable success in acquiring an L2’ (op. cit: 13). Indeed, the whole notion of a finite ‘end state’ in language acquisition has been challenged in recent years, along with the idea that native-speaker proficiency should be the measure by which learners should be judged.

From a dynamic systems perspective, that is, one in which language acquisition is viewed as an open and continually evolving system, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) argue that there can be no ‘end state’ as such, and hence no such thing as fossilization. This is not to say that there is no inertia in dynamic systems, only that it is not permanent.  ‘Any fossilized form should be seen against a backdrop of the boundlessness of potentiality that is the hallmark of an open, dynamic system, one in which learners actively transform their linguistic world, not just conform to it’ (p. 142, emphasis added).

In the end, as Ortega (2009: 135) summarises it, ‘the notion of fossilization, while strongly intuitive, has proved to be extremely problematic to pin down’.   If I’d thought twice, I might have called this blog ‘The (De-) Stabilization Diaries’ – but, then, would anyone have known what I was talking about?

Be that as it may, and inspired by ‘the boundlessness of potentiality’, I have enrolled in two weeks of intensive Spanish classes.  More on that shortly.


Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lardiere, D. (2000) ‘Case and tense in the “fossilized” steady-state’, Second Language Research, 14.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. (2003) ‘Stabilization and fossilization in second language interlanguage development’, in Doughty, C., and Long, M. (eds.) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding Second Language Acquisition, London: Hodder Education.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in  Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Schumann, J. (1978) The Pidginization Process: A Model for Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

The (de-) fossilization diaries


Selinker (1972) noted that most L2 learners fail to reach target-language competence. That is, they stop learning while their internalized rule system contains rules different from those of the target system. This is referred to as ‘fossilization’. It can also be viewed as a cognitive process, whereby new learning is blocked by existing learning. It remains a controversial construct with some researchers arguing that there is never a complete cessation of learning.

(Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 963)

I’ve been living in Spain for nearly thirty years, and my Spanish (never very good to start with) appears to have fossilized. That is to say, if someone who had interacted with me in Spanish twenty years ago were to talk to me again now, it’s unlikely they would detect much improvement.  Worse, they may even note a distinct regression (aka attrition): not so much fossilized, as atrophied!

But, taking heart from Ellis’s comment that ‘there is never a complete cessation of learning’, I am going to attempt to redress the rot, as it were, and to ‘de-fossilize’. I am going to do this using a number of means, including formal instruction, vocabulary memorization, extensive reading and (if I can find it)  informal interaction.  At the same time, I plan to inform the process by occasional reference to the literature on second language acquisition (SLA), including such issues as motivation, age effects, aptitude, exposure, fluency, error correction, and identity formation. I imagine that there will be implications to be drawn in terms of language teaching methodology.

In short, I am going to devote as much time and effort as I can possibly manage towards dispelling the myth that language learning just stops.

This blog will be a record of that journey.

(Go to Contents to see previous posts).

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