Age effects on the acquisition of nominal and verbal inflections in an instructed setting

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Simone E. Pfenninger


This study examines evidence for the hypothesis (e.g., Muñoz, 2006) that an early starting age is not necessarily more beneficial to the successful learning of L2 inflectional morphology in strictly formal instructional settings. The present author investigated the quantitative and qualitative differences in the production and reception of 5 selected inflectional morphemes in English written performance and competence tasks by 100 early classroom learners and 100 late classroom learners of the same age. While an earlier age of first exposure and a longer instructional period was not associated with higher accuracy scores, the findings suggest distinct patterns in the productive and receptive knowledge abilities of inflectional morphology; the late classroom learners’ superiority seems to be rooted in their greater reliance upon memory-based item-by-item associative learning, as they are significantly stronger on tasks that might cause semantic difficulties, whereas the early classroom learners are marginally better on pattern-based processes for certain morphemes. This finding possibly supports Ullman’s (2005) proposal that, as procedural memory declines with age, older starters have difficulty in discovering regularities in the input and thus over-rely on the declarative memory system in L2 learning.


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Author Biography

Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Zurich

Simone Pfenninger is a senior assistant at the English Seminar of the University of Zurich, where she teaches courses at the undergraduate level in second language acquisition and psycholinguistics. Outside of the university environment she also completed a teacher training program to become a certified high school teacher. Her recent work has focused on age effects in instructed second language acquisition (cognitive aspects as well as socio-affective factors of language learning, such as language learning motivation, anxiety, learner strategies). Her current research project is concerned with the question as to whether the mandatory school time in Switzerland is long enough for the benefits of early L2 English instruction to unfold.


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