Not so individual after all: An ecological approach to age as an individual difference variable in a classroom

Main Article Content

Simone E. Pfenninger


The main goal of this paper is to analyze how the age factor behaves as an alleged individual difference (ID) variable in SLA by focusing on the influence that the learning context exerts on the dynamics of age of onset (AO). The results of several long-term classroom studies on age effects will be presented, in which I have empirically analyzed whether AO works similarly across settings and learners or whether it is influenced by characteristics of the setting and the learner—and if so, whether there are contextual variables that can help us understand why those outcomes are different. Results of multilevel analyses indicate that macro-contextual factors (i.e., the wider school context) turn out to have a mediating effect on the relation between AO and L2 proficiency increase, exerting both positive and negative influences and thus suggesting that AO effects are malleable, which is what one would expect if we are dealing with an ID variable. In contrast, no such phenomenon can be observed in relation to lower contextual levels; learners within classes do not vary with regard to how sensitive they are to AO. Since the broader social environment in which learning takes place seems to be more influential than the cognitive state assumed to be a characteristic of the individual, I suggest that an ID model that assumes that age is a “fixed factor” (Ellis, 1994, p. 35) is not entirely satisfactory.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Pfenninger, S. E. (2017). Not so individual after all: An ecological approach to age as an individual difference variable in a classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 7(1), 19-46.
Author Biography

Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg

Simone E. Pfenninger is Assistant Professor at the University of Salzburg, Switzerland. Her principal research areas are multilingualism, psycholinguistics and individual differences (e.g., the age factor) in SLA, especially in regard to quantitative approaches and statistical methods and techniques for language application in education. Recent books include Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning: Revisiting the Age Factor (2017, Multilingual Matters, co-authored), The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (2017, Cambridge University Press, co-edited), and Future Research Directions for Applied Linguistics (2017, Multilingual Matters, co-edited). She is co-editor of the Second Language Acquisition book series for Multilingual Matters.


  1. Al-Thubaiti, K. (2010). Age effects in a minimal input setting on the acquisition of English morphosyntactic and semantic properties by L1 speakers of Arabic (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Essex, UK.
  2. Bialystok, E., & Hakuta, K. (1999). Confounded age: Linguistic and cognitive factors in age differences for second language acquisition. In D. Birdsong (Ed.), Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis (pp. 161-181). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Borg, S. (2006). The distinctive characteristics of foreign language teachers. Language Teaching Research, 10, 3-32.
  4. Brown, J. D. (2011). Quantitative research in second language studies. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (Vol. 2; pp. 190-206). New York: Routledge.
  5. Cao, Y. (2011). Investigating situational willingness to communicate within second language classrooms from an ecological perspective. System, 39, 468-479.
  6. Chaudron, C. (2001). Progress in language classroom research: Evidence from The Modern Language Journal, 1916–2000. Modern Language Journal, 85, 57-76.
  7. Clahsen, H., & Felser, C. (2006). How native-like is non-native language processing? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 564-570.
  8. de Bot, K., Lowie, W., & Verspoor, M. (2007). A dynamic systems theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10(1), 7-21.
  9. DeKeyser, R. (2012). Interactions between individual differences, treatments, and structures in SLA. Language Learning, 62(Suppl. 2), 189-200.
  10. DeKeyser, R. M. (2013). Age effects in second language learning: Stepping stones toward better understanding. Language Learning, 63(Suppl. 1), 52-67.
  11. 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.
  12. Dewaele, J.-M., & MacIntyre, P. D. (2014). The two faces of Janus? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4, 237-274.
  13. Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  14. Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  15. Ellis, R. (2006). Individual differences in second language learning. In A. Davies & C. Elder (Eds.), The handbook of applied linguistics (pp. 525-551). Oxford: Blackwell.
  16. García Lecumberri, M. L., & Gallardo, F. (2003). English FL sounds in school learners of different ages. In M. P. García Mayo & M. L. García Lecumberri (Eds.), Age and the acquisition of English as a foreign language (pp. 115-135). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  17. Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  18. Goldstein, H. (1995). Multilevel statistical models. London: Arnold.
  19. Granena G., & Long, M. H. (Eds.). (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research, 29(1), 311-343. doi: 10.1177/0267658312461497
  20. Haenni Hoti, A., & Heinzmann, S. (2012). Foreign language reforms in Swiss primary schools – potentials and limitations. In K. Braunmüller & Ch. Gabriel (Eds.), Multilingual individuals and multilingual societies (pp. 189-205). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  21. Harley, B. (1986). Age in second language acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  22. Hyltenstam, K. (1992). Non-native features of non-native speakers: On the ultimate attainment of childhood L2 learners. In R. J. Harris (Ed.), Cognitive processing in bilinguals (pp. 351-368). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  23. Johnson, J., & Newport, E. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology, 21, 60-99.
  24. King, J. (2015). Introduction to the dynamic interplay between context and the language learner. In J. King (Ed.), The dynamic interplay between context and the language learner (pp. 1-10). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  25. Kinsella, C., & Singleton, D. (2014). Much more than age. Applied Linguistics, 35(4), 441-462.
  26. Kozaki Y., & Ross, S. J. (2011). Contextual dynamics in foreign language learning motivation. Language Learning, 61(4), 1328-1354.
  27. Krashen, S., Long, M., & Scarcella, R. (197). Age, rate, and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 13(4), 573-582.
  28. Larsen-Freeman, D. (2015). Foreword. In J. King (Ed.), The dynamic interplay between context and the language learner (pp. xi-xiii). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  29. Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008). Research methodology on language development from a complex systems perspective. Modern Language Journal, 92(2), 200-213.
  30. 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.
  31. Laufer B., & Nation, P. (1999). A vocabulary size test of controlled productive ability. Language Testing, 16(1), 33-51.
  32. Lightbown, P. M. (2003). SLA research in the classroom/SLA research for the classroom. Language Learning, 28, 4-3. doi: 10.1080/09571730385200151
  33. Ma, X., Ma, L., & Bradley, K. D. (2008). Using multilevel modeling to investigate school effects. In A. A. O’Connell & D. B. McCoach (Eds.), Multilevel modeling of educational data (pp. 59-110). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  34. McDonald, J. L. (2006). Alternatives to the critical period hypothesis: Processing-based explanations for poor grammaticality judgment performance by late second language learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, 381-401.
  35. McDonald, J. L. (2008). Grammaticality judgments in children: The role of age, working memory and phonological ability. Journal of Child Language, 35, 247-268.
  36. 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.
  37. Montrul, S. (2008). Incomplete acquisition in bilingualism. Re-examining the age factor. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  38. Moyer, A. (2014). What’s age got to do with it? Accounting for individual factors in second language accent. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 443-464.
  39. Muñoz, C. (Ed.). (2006). Age and the rate of foreign language learning. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  40. Muñoz, C. (2008). Symmetries and asymmetries of age effects in naturalistic and instructed L2 learning. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 578-596.
  41. Muñoz, C. (2011). Is input more significant than starting age in foreign language acquisition? International Review of Applied Linguistics, 49(2), 113-133.
  42. Muñoz, C. (2014). Starting age and other influential factors: Insights from learner interviews. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 465-484.
  43. Myles, F., & Mitchell, R. (2012). Learning French from ages 5, 7 and 11: An investigation into starting ages, rates and routes of learning amongst early foreign language learner (ESRC End of Award Report RES-062-23-1545). Swindon: ESRC.
  44. Nikolov, M. (Ed.). (2009). Early learning of modern foreign languages: Processes and outcomes. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  45. Paradis, J. (2011). Individual differences in child English second language acquisition. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism, 1(3), 213-237.
  46. Patkowski, M. S. (1980). The sensitive period for the acquisition of syntax in a second language. Language Learning, 30(2), 449-472.
  47. Pennycook, A. (2005). Critical applied linguistics. In L. Davis & C. Elder (Eds.), The handbook of applied linguistics (pp. 783-807). Oxford: Blackwell.
  48. 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.
  49. Pfenninger, S. E. (2013). Quadrilingual advantages: Do-support in bilingual vs. multilingual learners. International Journal of Multilingualism, 11(2), 143-163. doi: 10.1080/14790718.2013.782032.
  50. Pfenninger, S. E. (2014a). The misunderstood variable: Age effects as a function of type of instruction. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 415-453.
  51. Pfenninger, S. E. (2014b). The literacy factor in the Optimal Age Debate: A 5-year longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/13670050.2014.972334
  52. Pfenninger, S. E. (2016). All good things come in threes: Early English learning, CLIL and motivation in Switzerland. Cahiers de l’ILSL, 48, 119-147.
  53. Pfenninger, S. E., & J. Lendl (in press). Transitional woes: On the impact of L2input continuity from primary to secondary school. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching.
  54. Pfenninger, S. E., & Singleton, D. (2016). Affect trumps age: A person-in-context relational view of age and motivation in SLA. Second Language Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0267658315624476
  55. Pfenninger, S. E., & Singleton, D. (2017). Beyond age effects in instructional L2 learning: Revisiting the age factor. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  56. Plonsky, L. (2013). Study quality in SLA: An assessment of designs, analyses, and reporting practices in quantitative L2 research. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 35, 655-687.
  57. Plonsky, L. (2014). Study quality in quantitative L2 research (1990-2010): A methodological synthesis and call for reform. Modern Language Journal, 85, 450-470.
  58. Plonsky, L., & Gass, S. (2011). Quantitative research methods, study quality, and outcomes: The case of interaction research. Language Learning, 61, 325-366.
  59. Raudenbush, S., & Bryk, A. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  60. Robinson, P. (2002). Individual differences and instructed language learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  61. 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.
  62. Singleton, D., & Ryan, L. (2004). Language acquisition: The age factor (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  63. Snow, C., & Hoefnagel-Höhle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development, 49, 1114-1128.
  64. Stevens, G. (2006). The age-length-onset problems in research on second language acquisition among immigrants. Language Learning, 56(4), 671-692.
  65. Sze, P. (1994). The optimal starting age for second language learning: The case of Hong Kong. CUHK Journal of Primary Education, 4(2), 49-54.
  66. Unsworth, S., de Bot, K., Persson, L., & Prins, T. (2012). Foreign languages in primary school project. Proceedings of the Foreign Languages in Primary Schools Projects: Presentation results FliPP-research.
  67. Ushioda, E. (2008). Motivation and good language learners. In C. Griffiths (Ed.), Lessons from good language learners (pp. 19-34). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  68. van Geert, P., & Steenbeek, H. (2008). A complexity and dynamic systems approach to development assessement, modeling and research. In A. M. Battro, K. W. Fischer, & P. Léna (Eds.), The educated brain (pp. 71-94). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  69. Vanhove, J. (2013). The critical period hypothesis in second language acquisition: A statistical critique and a reanalysis. PloS One, 8(7). doi: 10.1371/journal. pone.0069172
  70. van Lier, L. (1988). The classroom and the language learner. New York: Longman.
  71. Wen, W. P., & Clément, R. (2003). A Chinese onceptualization of willingness to communicate in ESL. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 16(1), 18-38.
  72. Zafar, S., & Meenakshi, F. (2012). Individual learner differences and second language acquisition: A review. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 3(4), 639-646.