The misunderstood variable: Age effects as a function of type of instruction

Main Article Content

Simone E. Pfenninger


This study was designed to investigate the effects of age of onset and type of instruction on ultimate EFL attainment at the end of the period of normal schooling in Switzerland, measured in terms of written fluency, complexity, morphosyntactic accuracy, vocabulary size, and listening skills. Data were gathered from four groups of 18-year-old Swiss German learners of English: 50 were early starters who had attended an immersion (CLIL) program in elementary school and who continued CLIL in secondary school (EARLY CLIL), 50 had followed the same elementary school program but then received traditional EFL instruction after elementary school (EARLY MIX), 50 were late starters who began learning English immersively in secondary school, (LATE CLIL), while the other 50 attended a traditional EFL program in secondary school (LATE NON-CLIL). Results show that age of onset alone does not seem to be the distinguishing variable since early introduction of English in elementary school did not result in a higher level of roficiency when exposure to the language was limited to a few hours of class per week. The performance of the EARLY MIX participants was equaled and in certain areas significantly surpassed by the other groups, despite the additional five years of English study they had had in elementary school. The best results were found when early CLIL instruction was followed up by the use of English as an additional language of instruction in secondary school (EARLY CLIL group), which confirms the link between young starting age, implicit learning and long and massive exposure.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

Author Biography

Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Zurich, English Department, Plattenstrasse 47, 8032 Zurich, phone: 0041 44 634 35

simone.pfenninger@es.uzh.chSimone E. Pfenninger, PhD, is a Senior Research and Teaching Associate at the English Department of the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her principal research areas are multilingualism and psycholinguistics. She is currently conducting research into early versus late learning of multiple foreign languages and the cognitive and psycholinguistic mechanisms that drive language change. She has been involved in EFL in Switzerland for eight years at different levels: secondary 406 school, adult education, higher education, assessment of processes and outcomes in language education, and language policy. 


  1. Bialystok, E. (1981). The role of conscious strategies in second language proficiency. The Modern Language Journal, 65, 24-35. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1981.tb00949.x
  2. Bialystok, E. (1997). The structure of age. In search of barriers to second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 13, 116-37. doi:10.1191/026765897677670241
  3. Birdsong, D., & Molis, M. (2001). On the evidence for maturational constraints in second language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 44(2), 235-249. doi:10.1006/jmla.2000.2750
  4. Bruton, A. (2011). Is CLIL so beneficial, or just selective? Re-evaluating some of the research. System, 39, 523-532.
  5. Bürgi, H. (2007). Im Sprachbad: Besseres Englisch durch Immersion. Eine Evaluation Zweisprachiger Ausbildungsgänge an drei Kantonalen Gymnasien in der Schweiz. Bern: Hep.
  6. Cenoz, J. (2009). Towards multilingual education: Basque educational research in international perspective. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  7. Cenoz, J., & Jessner, U. (2009). The study of multilingualism in educational contexts. In L. Aronin & B. Hufeisen (Eds.), The exploration of multilingualism (pp. 121-138). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  8. Cenoz, J., Genesee, F., & Gorter, D. (2014). Critical analysis of CLIL: Taking stock and looking forward. Applied Linguistics, 35(3), 243-262. doi:10.1093/applin/amt011
  9. Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-38. doi:10.2307/3587951
  10. Cummins, J., & Swain, M. (1986). Bilingualism in education. London: Longman.
  11. De Graaff, R., & Housen, A. (2009). Investigating effects and effectiveness of L2 instruction. In M. Long & C. Doughty (Eds.), The handbook of language teaching (pp. 726-753). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  12. DeKeyser, R. M. (2000). The robustness of critical period effects in second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22(4), 499-533. Retrieved from
  13. DeKeyser, R. M., & Larson-Hall, J. (2005). What does the Critical Period really mean? In J. Kroll & A. M. B. de Groot (Eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches (pp. 88-108). New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. DeKeyser, R. M., Alfi-Shabtay, I., & Ravid, D. (2010). Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in second language acquisition. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 413-438. doi:
  15. Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  16. Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The psychology of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  17. Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (Eds.). (2009). Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  18. Ekstrand, L. H. (1977). Social and individual frame factors in L2 learning comparative aspects. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Ed.), Papers from the First Nordic Conference on Bilingualism. Helsingfors: Universitetet.
  19. Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 141-188. doi:
  20. Ellis, R. (2005). Principles of instructed language learning. System, 33(2), 209- 224. doi:10.1016/j.system.2004.12.006
  21. Ellis, R., & Barkhuizen, G. (2005). Analysing learner language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  22. Elmiger, D., Näf, A., Reynaud Oudot, N., & Steffen, G. (2010). Immersionsunterricht am Gymnasium: Eine Fallstudie zur Zwei-sprachigen Maturität in der Schweiz. Bern: Hep.
  23. Flege, J. E. (2009). Give input a chance! In T. Piske T. & M. Young-Scholten (Eds.), Input matters (pp. 175-190). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  24. Freed, B. F., Dewey, D. P., Segalowitz, N., & Halter, R. (2004). The language contact profile. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 349-356.
  25. García Mayo, M. (2003). Age, length of exposure and grammaticality judgements in the acquisition of English as a foreign language. In M. García Mayo, & M. García Lecumberri (Eds.), Age and the acquisition of English as a foreign language (pp. 94-114). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  26. García-Mayo, M. P., & García-Lecumberri, M. L. (Eds.). (2003). Age and the acquisition of English as a foreign language. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  27. Genesee, F. (1976) The role of intelligence in second language learning. Language Learning, 26, 267-280. doi:10.1111/j.1467-1770.1976.tb00277.x
  28. Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  29. Genesee, F. (2004). What do we know about bilingual education for majority language students? In T. K. Bhatia & W. Ritchie (Eds.), Handbook of bilingualism and multiculturalism (pp. 547-576). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  30. Harley, B. (1986). Age in second language acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  31. Harley, B. (1998). The outcomes of early and later language learning. In M. Med (Ed.), Critical issues in early second language learning (pp. 26-31). New York: Scott Foresman Addison Wesley.
  32. Hulstijn, J. (2002). Towards a unified account of the representation, processing and acquisition of second language knowledge. Second Language Research, 18(3), 193-223. doi: 10.1191/0267658302sr207oa
  33. Lapkin, S., Swain, M., Kamin, J., & Hanna, G. (1980). Report on the 1979 evaluation of the Peel County late French immersion program, grades 8, 10, 11 and 12 (Unpublished report, University of Toronto, OISE).
  34. Larson-Hall, J. (2008). Weighing the benefits of studying a foreign language at a younger starting age in a minimal input situation. Second Language Research, 24, 35-63. doi:10.1177/0267658307082981
  35. Lasagabaster, D. (2011). English achievement and student motivation in CLIL and EFL settings. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 5(1), 3-18. doi: 10.1080/17501229.2010.519030
  36. Laufer, B., & Nation, P. (1999). A vocabulary size test of controlled productive ability. Language Testing, 16(1), 33-51. doi:10.1177/026553229901600103
  37. Lightbown, P. M. (2003). SLA research in the classroom/SLA research for the classroom. Language Learning, 28, 4-13. doi:
  38. Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (1993). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  39. Llanes, A., & Muñoz, C. (2013). Age effects in a study abroad context: Children and adults studying abroad and at home. Language Learning, 63(1), 63-90. doi 10.1111/j.1467 9922.2012.00731.x
  40. Long, M. H. (1981). Input, interaction and second language acquisition. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 379, 259-278. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1981.tb42014.x
  41. Long, M., & Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research, and practice. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 15-41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  42. Lyster, R., & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66. doi: 10.1017/S0272263197001034
  43. McDonald, J. L. (2006). Alternatives to the critical period hypothesis: Processingbased explanations for poor grammaticality judgment performance by late second language learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, 381-401. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2006.06.006
  44. McDonald, J. L., & Roussel, C. C. (2010). Past tense grammaticality judgment and production in non-native and stressed native English speakers. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13, 429-448. doi:10.1017/S1366728909990599
  45. Mehisto, P. (2007). What a school needs to consider before launching a CLIL program: The Estonian experience. In D. Marsh & D. Wolff (Eds.), Diverse contexts-converging goals: CLIL in Europe (pp. 61-77). Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
  46. Mehisto, P, Marsh, D., & Frigols, M. J. (2008). Uncovering CLIL. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
  47. Moyer, A. (1999). Ultimate attainment in L2 phonology: The critical factors of age, motivation and instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 81-108.
  48. Moyer, A. (2004). Age, accent and experience in second language acquisition. An integrated approach to critical period inquiry. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  49. Moyer, A. (2013). Foreign accent. The phenomenon of nonnative speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  50. Muñoz, C. (2006). The effects of age on foreign language learning: The BAF project. In C. Muñoz (Ed.), Age and the rate of foreign language learning (pp.1-40). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  51. Muñoz, C. (2008). Symmetries and asymmetries of age effects in naturalistic and instructed L2 learning. Applied Linguistics, 29, 578-596. doi:10.1093/applin/amm056
  52. Muñoz, C. (2011). Input in foreign language learning: More significant than starting age? International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 49(2), 113-133. doi: 10.1017/S0261444810000327
  53. Muñoz, C. (Ed.). (2012). Intensive exposure experiences in second language learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  54. Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. (2007). Foreign accent in advanced learners: Two successful profiles. EUROSLA Yearbook, 7, 171-190.
  55. Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. (2011). A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44(1), 1-35. doi:10.1017/S0261444810000327
  56. Netten, J., & Germain, C. (2004). Theoretical and research foundations of Intensive French. Canadian Modern Language Review, 60(3), 275-294. Retrieved from
  57. Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50, 417-528. doi:10.1111/0023- 8333.00136
  58. Patkowski, M. (1980). The sensitive period for the acquisition of syntax in a second language. Language Learning, 30, 449-472. doi:10.1111/j.1467-1770.1980.tb00328.x
  59. Pfenninger, S. E. (2011). Age effects on the acquisition of nominal and verbal inflections in an instructed setting. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 1(3), 401-420. Retrieved from
  60. Pfenninger, S. E. (2012). On the effectiveness of early implicit classroom learning – Evidence from morphology. ELT Research, 26, 30-32.
  61. Pfenninger, S. E. (2013a). On acquisition, age and articles in multilingual Switzerland. In J. Mihaljeviđ Djigunoviđ & M. Medved Krajnoviđ (Eds.), UZRT 2012: Empirical Studies in English Applied Linguistics (pp. 22-35). Zagreb: FF Press.
  62. Pfenninger, S. E. (2013b). Quadrilingual advantages: Do-support in bilingual vs. multilingual learners. International Journal of Multilingualism, doi:10.1080/14790718.2013.782032.
  63. Pfenninger, S. E. (2014). All good things come in threes: Early EFL, motivation and CLIL in Switzerland. Manuscript in preparation.
  64. Pfenninger, S. E., & Singleton, D. (2014). Beyond age effects: Facets, facts and factors of foreign language instruction in a multilingual state. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. Manuscript in preparation.
  65. Schmitt, N., Schmitt, D., & Clapham, C. (2001). Developing and exploring the behaviour of two new versions of the Vocabulary Levels Test. Language Testing, 18(1), 55-88. doi: 10.1177/026553220101800103
  66. Serrano, R., & Muñoz, C. (2007). Same hours, different time distribution: Any difference in EFL? System, 35(3), 305-321. doi:10.1016/j.system.2007.02.001
  67. Sharwood-Smith, M. (1993). Input enhancement in instructed SLA: Theoretical bases. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 165-179. doi:
  68. Singleton, D. (1995a). Introduction: A critical look at the Critical Period Hypothesis in second language acquisition research. In D. Singleton & Z. Lengyel (Eds.), The Age Factor in second language acquisition: A critical look at the Critical Period Hypothesis (pp. 1-29). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  69. Singleton, D. (1995b). Second languages in the primary school: The age factor dimension. Teanga: The Irish Yearbook of Applied Linguistics, 15, 155-166. Retrieved from
  70. Singleton, D. (2005). The Critical Period Hypothesis: A coat of many colours. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 43(4), 269-285. doi: 10.1515/iral.2005.43.4.269
  71. Singleton, D., & Ryan, L. (2004). Language acquisition. The age factor (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  72. Singleton, D., & Skrzypek, A. (2014). Age and the classroom learning of additional languages. In M. Pawlak, J. Bielak, & A. Mystkowska-Wiertelak (Eds.), Classroom-oriented research: Achievements and challenges (pp. 3-13). Heidelberg: Springer.
  73. Swain, M. (1985). Bilingual education for the English-speaking Canadian. In J. Atlantis & J. Staczek (Eds.), Perspectives on bilingualism and bilingual education (pp. 385-398). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  74. Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (2001). Focus on form through collaborative dialogue: Exploring task effects. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan, & M. Swain (Eds.), Researching pedagogic tasks: Second language learning, teaching, and testing (pp. 99-118). Harlow: Longman.
  75. Tragant, E. (2006). Language learning motivation and age. In C. Muñoz (Ed.), Age and the rate of foreign language learning (pp. 237-268). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  76. Turnbull, M., Hart, D., & Lapkin, S. (2003). Grade 6 French immersion students’ performance on large-scale reading, writing, and mathematics tests: Building explanations. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 49(1), 6-23. Retrieved from
  77. Wesche, M., Toews-Janzen, M., & MacFarlane, A. (1996). Comparative outcomes and impacts of early, middle and late entry French immersion options: Review of recent research and annotated bibliography. Toronto: OISE/UT Press.