The Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages

Learning English as a second language in adulthood


Hein Schafer

31 May 2012




This essay will examine and define a number of processes associated with Adult second language learning. References and comparisons to the learning process in children are used to highlight the specific learning needs of adult learners.






No other species on the planet uses language or writing — a mystery that remains unsolved even after thousands of years of research. Italian cardinal Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti is said to have spoken more than 38 languages fluently and read a further 12, at the time of his death in 1849. If only he had left us with some magic formula to learn so many languages. However, he did study conscientiously, daily, for years. Most adult learners do not have many years to study language, so in order to learn English as a second language, new and even revolutionary teaching methods are called for.


The process of language learning is incredibly complex and even more so when learning a second language. To understand learning English as second language it is necessary to be aware of the differences in the learning process in adults and children. There seem to be as many hypotheses as there are linguists. Experts suggest an innate capacity in every human being to acquire language. It is argued that the human mind is hardwired to learn language; we just add our own specific language content.


This seems to correspond with Krashen’s theory (as quoted in Krashen, S.D. and Terrell, T.D. (1983)) that defines two independent systems of second language performance in adults; 'the acquired system' and 'the learned system'. The 'acquired system' or 'acquisition' is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. This this form of language communication is also referred to as playground language or natural communication in which speakers are interested only in “getting the message across”. Form is only of value in as much as it aids this. The 'learned system' or 'learning' is the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge of the form of language, for example knowledge of grammar rules.


This poses the question why this process is, or is perceived to be, so much more complex and difficult in adults than in children. This article will examine the neurological, cognitive, affective and linguistic differences between adults and children learning English as second language. Due to the restraints of this essay, each contributing factor cannot be discussed in all its complexity, but it is attempted to highlight the most important.


In this essay, it is accepted that the purpose of acquiring a second language is communicative competence, that is, the ability to use the language correctly and appropriately to accomplish communication goals. The desired outcome of the language learning process is the ability to communicate competently, not the ability to use the language exactly as a native speaker does.


Neurological Considerations



There has been extensive debate on whether there is a cut-off period, after which language learning is near impossible or at least extremely difficult. The Critical Period Hypothesis, as suggested by numerous researchers, is a window period in early development, when language learning seems to be achieved without particular effort. Lenneberg (1967) stated that after the “critical period” the two brain hemispheres become specialized in function, in a process called cerebral lateralization. This results in a decrease of brain plasticity. There are different thoughts on when this process is complete, some researchers believe as young as age 5; others believe 12 or even 16 years of age.


There is no empirical proof of this hypothesis, but if there had been, would these difficulties prove insurmountable? Science Daily (June 15, 2005) — Our ability to hear and understand a second language becomes more and more difficult with age, but the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. This finding, reported by Dr Paul Iverson of the UCL Centre for Human Communication, at the "Plasticity in Speech Perception 2005" workshop - builds on an important new theory that the difficulties we have with learning languages in later life are not biological and that, given the right stimulus, the brain can be retrained. Dr Iverson said: "Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language 'warps' perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that 'warps' the way we see foreign languages. "It is very difficult to undo this learning. That is, we change our perception during childhood so that it becomes specialized to hear the speech sounds in our first language. This specialization can conflict with our ability to learn to distinguish sounds in other languages. Through training, we can essentially change our 'perceptual warping' to make second-language learning easier. I hope that this research will lead to new ways of training adults to learn second languages."  This research opens the possibilities of changing the “sound filtering” or  subconscious attention learners pay to sounds familiar to L1 and become more aware of and susceptible to L2 sounds. This awareness promotes not only better listening, but also better pronunciation. Accent is not a pre-requisite to communicative competence, but it seems re-teaching the brain can improve accent.


Science Daily (Aug. 2, 2011) — New research into how the bilingual brain processes two very different languages has revealed that bilinguals' native language directly influences their comprehension of their second language. The research, to be published in the journal of Psychological Science, finds that Chinese people who are fluent in English translate English words into Chinese automatically and quickly, without thinking about it. Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.


In light of this evidence it is clear that the extended knowledge adults have of their first language can and often does, impede the process of learning a second language.


Cognitive Considerations



The term cognition comes from the Latin verb congnosco (con 'with' + gnōscō 'know'), itself a loanword from the Ancient Greek verb gnόsko "γνώσκω" meaning 'learning' (noun: gnόsis "γνώσις" = knowledge), so broadly, 'to conceptualize' or 'to recognize'. Education has the explicit task in society of developing cognition.


Language acquisition in early childhood does not seem to depend as much on aptitude, motivation and the teacher, as do language learning in late childhood and adulthood. Children acquire their mother tongue through interaction with their parents and their environment. Their need to communicate paves the way for language acquisition to take place.  It is generally accepted that younger learners fare better in phonemic coding, but older learners fare better in analysing language, the ability to work out the “rules” of a language through metacognitive processes. Adult learners are quicker to use code-switching, that is, formulating or comprehending ideas from a variety of input sources, to form a complete picture. Ellen Rosansky, in  Brown (2000:p. 61) offers an explanation noting that initial language acquisition takes place when the child is highly "centred" or one dimensional. A child is not only egocentric at this time, but when faced with a problem, can focus (and then only fleetingly) on one dimension at a time.


Adults are more consciously aware of learning a second language, which might lead to overanalysing of learning. Children learn by listening first. Long before they can speak, they can understand what others are saying. For adults reading is usually the first and easiest skill to acquire, while listening is the most difficult. Even students who know most of the words of a conversation (when they see them written) still can't pick up a conversation in full flow.


Cognition develops as a process of moving from the states of doubt and uncertainty (questions) to stages of resolution and certainty (answers) and then back to further doubt that is, in time, also resolved. And so the cycle continues. Language interacts with cognition to achieve a state of equilibrium. Adult learners might be frustrated by the ambiguities and contradictions in a new language and be discouraged by this, although the greater discipline, motivation and clear goal definition of adults, seem to negate this.


Influenced by Krashen and Terrell’s Natural Approach (1983), the emphasis on communicative methodology in language teaching have brought about a shift away from the use of drill and practice in the classroom. Swain’s 1985 study showed that while rote or mechanical learning does have a place in the classroom, in order to be effective, it must be linked to subject matter of use and interest to the learner. A further interesting phenomenon that has yet to be explored is the role that students' output in drills may also function as input and how this input contributes to acquisition.


Affective Considerations


The next component besides Critical Period Hypothesis of second language acquisition is the variables related to the age factor. Age as an affective factor brings about different performance levels in second language learning, these can be motivation, anxiety, self-confidence, attitude, learning styles and so on. The factors most relevant to second language acquisition (SLA) are: motivation, opportunity, environment, and individual personality.


Research on the relationship between motivation and second language acquisition is on-going. Current research looks at instructional practices that teachers use to generate and maintain learner motivation and strategies through which learners themselves take control of factors that have an impact on their motivation and learning, such as lack of self-confidence, change of goals, or distractions (Dornyei, 2003; Noels, Clement, and Pelletier, 2003). Vivian Cook, a researcher in second language acquisition, differentiates between “integrative” and “instrumental” motivation. "Integrative" motivation refers to the motivation to learn a language in order to take part in the culture affiliated with the language, and tends to correlate more with younger learners. "Instrumental" motivation refers to the motivation to learn a language for more abstract goals such as career advancement, self-improvement, or self-empowerment, and applies more to older learners. (Cook, Vivian. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, 2008).

A learner's motivation may vary from day to day and even from task to task (Dornyei, 2002b; Dornyei and Kormos, 2000). Using varied and challenging instructional activities helps learners stay focused and engaged in instructional content (Dornyei and Csizer, 1998). Research examining how to improve learner motivation suggests that social factors (e.g., group dynamics, learning environment, and a partner's motivation) affect a learner's attitude, effort, classroom behaviour, and achievement (Dornyei, 2002b). From the above descriptions it can be derived that motivation is proportionate to the desire to reach certain goals. This clearly demonstrates the importance of goal setting.

In the famous words of Henry Ford - “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”


Opportunity and motivation work together to affect language acquisition. Motivated students are more likely to seek out opportunities, often outside of class, that utilize language skills. Many theorists and teachers stress that varied and frequent comprehensible input is key to acquisition. It would make sense that the number of opportunities the brain has to store and reinforce patterns, accents, concepts, and meanings of a language, the better this information would be stored and processed.


Affective factors in second language acquisition include dignity (global, situational, tasks), attribution theory (how people explain the causes of their success or failure) and the feasibility of self (when learners believe they are capable of performing a task), willingness to communicate in second language learning, overcome the barriers that exist when studying the language, taking risks, anxiety (innate and situational), empathy, and extro- or introversion. When we consider the pervasive nature of language, any affective factor can conceivably be relevant to second language learning.

The acquisition of a new language requires acquiring a new language ego, not only for young adolescents but also for an adult who has grown comfortable and secure in his or her own language identity and possesses inhibitions that serve as a wall of defence around the first language comfort-zone. Another affectively related variable is the role of attitudes in language learning. From the growing body of literature on attitudes, it seems clear that negative attitudes can affect success in learning language. Very young children, however, who are not developed enough cognitively to possess "attitudes" toward races, cultures, ethnic groups, classes of people, and languages are unaffected.


Teachers should create an environment conducive to learning by encouraging group cohesion in the classroom. Pair and group work activities provide learners with opportunities to share information and build a sense of community (Florez & Burt, 2001). The classroom must be a “safe place” to learn and practice second language. The two main reasons why adults learn a second language, is for the purpose of integrating into a new society, such as moving to a new country or for self-advancement through academic studies, a better job, and such. These goals should be kept foremost in any teaching strategy.

A certain “cool factor” exists for adults in learning a second language, but the peer pressure children encounter in language learning is quite unlike what the adult experiences. Children usually have strong constraints upon them to conform. They are told in words, thoughts, and actions that they had better "be like the rest of the kids." Adults tend to tolerate linguistic differences more than children, and therefore errors in speech are more readily excused. This is also an important factor in the failure of adults to acquire an authentic second language accent.


Linguistic Considerations


For the most part, research confirms that the linguistic and cognitive process of second language learning in children is similar to that of first language learning.

Adults, more cognitively secure, operate from the solid foundation of their first language and thus experience more first language interference. Adults make errors not unlike some of the errors children make, because of the creative perception of the second language and an attempt to discover its rules apart from the rules of first language. Adults more readily use their first language to bridge gaps that cannot be filled by generalization within the second language. In this case we do well to remember that the first language can be a facilitating factor, and not just an interfering factor.

Discussion of linguistic considerations for English second language students would not be complete without mentioning the differences between basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) and its implications to the content area teacher. Research (Hawkins, 2001, p. 376) has shown that “BICS are characterized by social communication skills which are context embedded and cognitively undemanding” and this, the language of the playground is, usually attained in about two years of second language instruction.  CALP, on the other hand, takes students an average of 5-7 years to master, requiring language skills that will aid in the “successful participation in content area classrooms where instruction using language is context reduced and cognitively demanding”.


In conclusion


Age is not everything in second language learning. Julia Van Sickle and Sarah Ferris (as quoted in Singleton, 2005) states the following, “One of the dangers of the emphasis on critical periods is that it prompts us to pay too much attention to when learning occurs and too little attention to how learning might best occur” (p. 105).

The need for teaching English as a second language to adults has recently exploded due to the globalization of business and English being adopted as the preferred business language. The teaching challenges, methods and environment specific to adult language teaching, is not well charted territory as opposed to teaching foreign or second languages to young learners. Care should be taken that the need for adjusting old methods and creating new methods, is not seen as difficulties. Many teachers feel threatened because they are forced out of their comfort-zone. This was the same experience when Communicative Language Teaching was originally adopted in classrooms. Today it is the most preferred method worldwide.

Language teaching to adults should be seen as an opportunity to develop new methodology, reach new goals and achieve different but equally rewarding outcomes.






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