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(1) A commonly held notion is that “children learn second languages more quickly, easily, and successfully than adults do.” 

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 (2) In class, we read about and discussed a variety of learner variables that have been proposed as playing a role in Second Language Acquisition outcomes (i.e., aptitude, motivation, affect and personality, cognitive and learning style, and self-regulation/learning strategies). Explain 3 of these variables (e.g., how they’ve been defined, assessed; what role they’ve been proposed to play in second language acquisition and teaching) and discuss the extent to which you feel they have contributed to your success (or lake thereof) in your additional language learning experience(s).  ()

Applied Linguistics 2014: 35/4: 418–440 � Oxford University Press 2014
doi:10.1093/applin/amu012 Advance Access published on 4 June 2014

Exceptional Outcomes in L2 Phonology:
The Critical Factors of Learner Engagement
and Self-Regulation

1
ALENE MOYER

1
School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, College of Arts and Humanities,

University of Maryland

E-mail: moyera@umd.edu

A number of studies attest to the late language learner’s ability to attain native-

like outcomes in morphology and syntax, with accent often the only linguistic

hint of their non-native status. Nevertheless, some do end up sounding native-

like despite a late start. This article explores possible explanations for ’excep-

tional’ outcomes in L2 phonology, specifically, whether such learners’ abilitie

s

are due to innate talent, a metacognitive learning approach, a certain social-

psychological orientation, or specific kinds of experience. Various learners

profiles are compared, an argument is made for learner engagement and

self-regulation, and areas for future research are outlined.

INTRODUCTION

It is no exaggeration to say that those beyond early childhood who aim to

master a new language begin at a vastly different starting point than those who

begin at birth. The second language acquisition (SLA) literature is replete with

theories and hypotheses about why this is so, ranging from neuro-cognitive to

social to psychological explanations including first language (L1) interference,

affective ‘filters’ of one sort or another, the decreasing accessibility of an innate

language acquisition device, social and cultural barriers to assimilation, etc.

(see Bley-Vroman 1989). What is certain is that at least one language is already

in place as a knowledge base, which can imply greater metalinguistic aware-

ness, yet may also be detrimental insofar as L1 cues and patterns are already

salient (see Hansen 2004 for second language, or L2; Kuhl et al. 2008 and

Strange and Shafer 2008 for L1). The first language(s) may limit what the

learner notices in L2, and what she or he is therefore able to emulate at the

level of performance.

According to Selinker (1972), just 5–10 percent of adult language learners

can expect to reach a native-like level, but even this low threshold may be

somewhat ambitious for phonological fluency. Nevertheless, some late lear-

ners do attain a level that can be described as native, or native-like, for some

series of perception-based and/or production-based tasks (e.g. Ioup et al. 1994;

Bongaerts et al. 1995; Moyer 1999). This fact begs two questions that have long

fascinated SLA scholars: (i) What makes a successful language learner?
1

(ii) Why

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%

to

,

1

2

does phonology uniquely challenge so-called ‘late’ language learners in comparison

with other aspects of language? This article merges both questions by examining

several reasons why some late learners are particularly successful in the realm

of accen

t.

Scovel (1988) famously asserted that age effects in L2 phonological acquisi-

tion are directly related to neuro-muscular or perceptual skill development,

rather than affective factors. His argument was based on two important prem-

ises: (i) phonology uniquely relies on neuro-muscular faculties for both per-

ception and production; (ii) affective factors could not reasonably restrict

phonology, yet have no effect on other aspects of language ability. Indeed,

shifts in neuro-muscular flexibility and or cognitive mechanisms have long

been assumed responsible for the relative difficulty of learning a new sound

system given that phonology relies on both speech-motor control and audi-

tory-perceptual neural networks. On the other hand, phonology also holds a

unique connection to one’s sense of self, or identity, and therefore speaks to

more than just neuro-cognitive and neuro-muscular constraints. Moreover, it

is undeniable that target language experience shapes one’s approach to acqui-

sition over the long term, and thus the likelihood of native-like attainment.

Evidence confirms correlations between accent ratings and a host of individual

factors, among them: length of residence (LOR) in the target language country,

age of onset/first exposure, and both quantity and quality of experience in the

target language, not to mention motivation and attitudes (e.g. Purcell and

Suter 1980; Thompson 1991; Bongaerts et al. 1995; Elliott 1995; Flege and

Liu 2001; Diaz-Campos 2004; see also Moyer 2013).

In sum, numerous cognitive, social, and psychological factors, both intrinsic

and extrinsic in nature, point towards a possible understanding of exceptional

outcomes. In a sense then, the phenomenon of exceptionality signifies a nexus

for the two dominant paradigms of SLA: a decidedly cognitive or psycholin-

guistic approach on the one hand, and on the other hand, a largely sociolin-

guistic perspective focused on the ‘whole person’. This article argues that

the mysteries of exceptional learning, so rare in L2 phonology, cannot be

explained by either one or the other, but resides at the intersection of both

realms. What can explain the fact that some L2 learners, despite a

late start, end up sounding native-like? Are we to understand them as ‘phono-

logical geniuses’ with extraordinary, innate talents? Alternatively,

do they have special ways of utilizing input, or can they somehow access

linguistic resources in unusual ways? What accounts for their extraordinary

success?

With these questions in mind, I first describe what is generally implied by

‘exceptionality’ in L2 phonology, then present case studies which suggest a

number of common characteristics of their approach to language learning. In

so doing, the relevance of both self-regulation and engagement with the target

language become clear. I conclude by suggesting that the fascination with

some as-yet-determined special talent obscures the need for an integrated

examination of the cognitive, social, and experiential factors that co-vary

A. MOYER 419

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paper

a

b

the

,

Elliott 1995;

Flege and Liu 2001;

Purcell and Suter 1980;

Thompson 1991;

paper

with age. The research on exceptionality calls for a dynamic view of learner

engagement with the target language over time in order to understand the

ways that exceptional learners make the most of the available input, and take a

flexible approach, responding to the circumstances at hand.

EXCEPTIONALITY IN L2 PHONOLOGY

To clarify, ‘exceptional’ refers to those who defy the Critical Period Hypothesis

(Lenneberg 1967); they sound native-like even though their exposure to the

target language comes after age 9–10 years (the critical period for phonology is

arguably even earlier, but 9–10 years is a relatively common yardstick in the

research, in keeping with Lenneberg’s original hypothesis). So, which specific

skills or skill sets are implied when we talk about exceptionality, or native-like-

ness, in phonology? By and large, we mean the ability to perceive and/or

produce new sounds like a native speaker would, verified through relevant

tasks which are often isolated or decontextualized (see Levis and Moyer 2014).

Kuhl’s 2007 study on American and Japanese adults confirmed that this is

challenging owing to L1 category salience. Her American listeners could ac-

curately pinpoint the acoustic differences between /r/ and /l/ while her

Japanese listeners could not owing to this contrast’s absence in Japanese.

Further distinctions based on subtle features like vowel quality, aspiration,

and voice onset time (e.g. the difference between /I/ and /E/ or /d/ and /t/)
can also be difficult to detect if they are irrelevant in L1. This is likely more

difficult when L1 and L2 features overlap, but are not quite the same, as Flege

and Hillenbrand (1987) have shown for the English vs. French versions of the

phoneme /u/. Instruction and experience can bridge this gap for both produc-

tion and perception (e.g. Flege and Hillenbrand 1987; Rojczyk 2011), even

long-term (e.g. Sereno and Wang 2007), but mastery eludes most L2 learners,

it seems, and even the untrained ear can detect the difference between native

and non-native speech. As shown in Major (2007), listeners completely un-

familiar with the language in question can accurately separate native controls

from non-native speakers, which suggests that there is something unique, and

highly salient, about a non-native accent.

Accent is not just a matter of phonetic or segmental precision. To sound

‘native-like’ the learner must control a number of different features that op-

erate in conjunction with one another, including tempo, rhythm, pause, junc-

ture, pitch patterns, and intonation. Pickering and Baker (2014) confirm that

judgments of accentedness rely on sentence stress (prominence), pause place-

ment patterns, speech rate, and tone choice. (They also point out, however,

that such judgments are prone to listener background variables such as native/

non-native status and attitudes towards the speakers’ presumed backgrounds.)

While tests of such ability are limited to isolated words or phrases, as noted,

some do include a complex range of tasks including spontaneous speech,

which allows for greater confidence in deeming a given learner as ‘exceptional’

(see Moyer 2013). Few such cases have been examined in depth, however.

420 EXCEPTIONAL OUTCOMES IN L2 PHONOLOGY

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yrs

.

due

due

,

,

,

In my own research I have come across enough such learners to draw a few

parallels between them. Interview data from Moyer 2004 study of immigrants

to Berlin shed light on the unique profiles of two Turkish men whose families

had immigrated to Germany by the time both were 4 years old. Both should

have ended up sounding native according to the Critical Period Hypothesis, but

only one consistently did across all tasks. Their stories revealed very different

attitudes towards the language and culture—one very positive and the other

quite conflicted. The first one, Ahmet, says he learned German ‘on the street’ as

a young child and ‘absolutely’ wanted to sound German. He has ‘countless’

German friends and acquaintances. The other, Korech, describes his accent as

‘noticeable’ and his contact with Germans as minimal. He reports a completely

different orientation: he consciously aligned his social activities with his core

Turkish self-concept throughout his life, choosing to avoid using German at

home, and failing to make permanent friends with any German schoolmates.

His discomfort with German culture was a strong motif throughout his

interview.

In a 2007 study on attitudes and accent, I similarly describe the backgrounds

of two English as a Second Language (ESL) learners of differing L1 backgrounds

who were judged to sound native for the majority of pronunciation-centered

tasks, including extemporaneous speaking. They had a number of things in

common which reflect not just attitudes, but experience, and future intentions

vis-à-vis the target language and culture: both had immigrated to the USA by

age 5 years and had at least 13 years residence; both intended to stay at least five

more years, had a strong and consistent desire to sound native, a strong level of

comfort with American culture, and used English consistently among native

speaker friends in multiple, socially oriented contexts. There were others who

also enjoyed an early start with English (by age 5 years), but without all of these

experiential and psychological benefits, and their accent ratings were not on par

with these two.

These data, coupled with evidence from other studies, suggest that age of

onset (AO) by itself is not a sufficient explanation for attainment. The question

is whether truly exceptional attainment is a function of multiple factors, and

whether these factors derive from a unitary source, such as the neuro-cognitive

realm. The discussion above suggests otherwise, namely, that experience and

orientation are central to this outcome. In order to better understand this phe-

nomenon, we now look more closely at several case studies.

EXCEPTIONAL LEARNER PROFILES

Looking at the L2 phonology literature, several learners have been deemed

exceptional for their production in pronunciation tasks, so let us consider

the factors associated with their success, namely, self-professed neuro-

cognitive ‘talents’ or aptitudes, social and psychological orientation, and L2

experience.

A. MOYER 421

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four

five

five

Ioup et al. (1994) describe two American speakers of L2 Arabic who com-

pleted a series of tasks, including free speaking. The one they single out as

exceptional is Julie, who had lived in Egypt for 26 years at the time of data

collection. Julie could not speak Arabic when she moved to Cairo after marry-

ing an Egyptian. She acquired Arabic completely without instruction, and it

had long since become her primary language at home. From the beginning of

her immersion, Julie wrote down observations about the language, and appre-

ciated explicit feedback on her errors (p. 77). Julie reported that she set out to

mimic, rather than analyze, the accent of native speakers (with a self-described

talent for mimicry, she reported ‘no problems’, even with Arabic pharyngeals

and uvulars). By Ioup et al.’s account Julie had no noticeable foreign accent,

which they attribute to her cognitive/metacognitive approach. Another lear-

ner profiled (to a lesser extent) in this study is Laura, also an American living in

Cairo and married to an Egyptian. Laura had studied standard Arabic for years

and had taught it to other learners in the USA. She moved to Cairo to make

greater strides in her oral fluency as she pursued doctoral work in Arabic. At

the time of data collection, Laura had lived in Cairo for 10 years. Eight out of

13 Egyptian listeners rated both Julie and Laura as native speakers, despite

their different paths to advanced attainment (Julie’s ratings were higher on

average). Only a few points of vowel quality and intonation were noticeable to

several judges, but otherwise, both passed as native speakers ‘more often than

not’ according to the authors (p. 80). Julie and Laura were also able to dis-

criminate regional accents in Arabic with 100 percent accuracy, outperforming

the native speaker judges at 85 percent accuracy. This suggests that both Laura

and Julie had ‘a good ear’, and possibly some innate talent indicative of unu-

sual cognitive flexibility (p. 91). In the case of Julie specifically, they also note

that she was outgoing, and thus had access to ‘abundant comprehensible input

and error feedback’ (ibid.).

A number of Nikolov’s (2000) learners of English (N = 13), and learners of

Hungarian (N = 13) in Hungary were rated as native-sounding on both read-

aloud tasks and extemporaneous speech. All started learning the language in

question at the age of 15 years or later. Some were married to native speakers,

and most were professionals working in Hungary (including as teachers), thus

the author assumed a high level of motivation. Nikolov also ascribes to them a

genuine pride in their achievement, noting:

Language is either a part of their profession or they have very strong
integrative motivation to become bone fide residents of the target
language country. . . . All of the successful participants try to find
chances for improving their second language proficiency, they are
outgoing characters and like to socialize. All are avid readers in the
target language, listen to the media and try to feel at home in the
culture as well as in the language. (p. 116)

One of the most successful learners acquired Hungarian without any instruc-

tion, and another who sounded native in English had spent only one semester

422 EXCEPTIONAL OUTCOMES IN L2 PHONOLOGY

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%

%

abroad in an English-speaking country, but spent time mimicking radio

announcers. (Judges, who ranged widely in age, confirmed that their ratings

were based on pronunciation, intonation, and overall fluency, that is, lack of

hesitation and false starts, for their ratings.) The common thread among these

learners is a proactive approach: all said they wanted to sound native, and all

sought ways to improve their fluency through communicating with native

speakers, as well as engaging in more receptive activities such as watching

TV, viewing films, and reading in the target language.

From among their NNS participants living in Ireland (mean age of onset of

22.5 years) who completed a film-retelling task in English, Muñoz and

Singleton (2007) pay special attention to two learners, the first named Elena.

Originally from Spain, she is married to an Irishman, and claims many (in fact,

only) English-speaking Irish friends. Elena had consciously avoided Spanish

speakers since her arrival, and only speaks her native tongue when visiting

with family members. She discusses her conscious efforts to improve her

English, but also believes she has inherited a special aptitude for languages.

Marga, another participant, similarly cites a persistent desire to master all lin-

guistic aspects of English, but describes her drive as predicated on a love of the

language as opposed to an overt desire for cultural affiliation. Both Marga and

Elena continuously monitor their own progress and fluency, even after having

reached a high level of fluency, and they still endeavor to improve their

English, in particular through social interaction. The authors describe both

learners as having a ‘thirst’ for becoming native-like.

Another case of an exceptional learner who was consistently rated as native

for all production tasks is singled out in Moyer 1999. This late learner’s scores

were actually better on average (across all tasks combined) than any of the

actual NS controls. He had studied German just five years (beginning at age 17

years)—far less than most of his peers in the study—and describes himself as

‘self-taught’ for the most part. Before embarking on a 2-year study abroad

experience, he spent hours listening to exchange student friends from

Germany in an effort to ‘absorb the sounds’ of the language. He had no prob-

lems assimilating linguistically and culturally while living in Germany those 2

years. His narrative echoes a common theme among exceptional learners in

that he cites a ‘fascination’ with the target language and its culture.

Molnár (2010) also discovered several Polish learners of German who

arrived in Germany after age 11 years, and had received no special training,

yet rated on par with native speaker controls on read-aloud and free speaking

tasks. Through a (very limited) background survey, Molnár ascertained that

these learners primarily used German in their daily lives, had no anxiety vis-à-

vis foreign language learning, described themselves as ‘extroverts’, and placed

the highest possible importance on sounding native. The learner with the best

ratings had studied linguistics, English, and German language pedagogy, had

resided in-country for 18 years, and had also learned several other languages

while in German high school. In contrast to the others, she seldom used her

native language.

A. MOYER 423

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i.e.

,

two

two

In a 1993 study, Major focuses on a group of American women living in

Brazil. All had immigrated between the ages of 22 and 35 years, were married

to Brazilians, raised their children speaking Portuguese, and were employed as

ESL teachers. All completed read-aloud and extemporaneous speaking tasks.

While most were forthcoming about their failure to acquire fluent

Portuguese despite a very long residence (20–35 years), one woman had

resided in-country 12 years and was convinced that she could pass for

native. Major’s analysis of her Voice Onset Time (VOT) values confirmed

this. She was untutored, but made a point of mentioning that she ‘carefully

paid attention to linguistic forms and pronunciation and took mental notes of

things, which later became part of her competence’ (p. 472). She also reported

‘feeling Brazilian’, unlike her counterparts. The others had obvious American

accents, and reported feeling ‘strongly’ American. In fact, she had absorbed

Portuguese so fully that her English had traces of Portuguese VOT patterns,

and when visiting the USA, she was continually asked whether she was

American (p. 472). Importantly, Major’s study leads him to conclude that

both L1 and L2 are ‘dynamic, fluid entities and can vary over time’ (p. 475);

this woman’s English pronunciation later reverted to a decidedly

American version after she moved back to the USA and disavowed her

Brazilian identity.

Finally, I mention Dora, a learner of German profiled in Moyer 2004. Dora

was a Polish-born immigrant living in Berlin with a self-described intense

motivation to sound like a native speaker. She fell within the native range

for several pronunciation tasks, including extemporaneous speaking. In her 6

years in residence, Dora’s approach to accent was to mimic others and to focus

on the phonetic features that are still problematic for her, indicating a meta-

linguistic awareness. She described her social network in Berlin as limited, but

made an effort to positively reconstruct her negative encounters as a foreigner

in Germany to maintain her deep personal attachment to the language.

Despite limited opportunities to interact in German, Dora kept an upbeat atti-

tude and a firm commitment to the language. (Another late learner with near-

native ratings overall similarly expressed ease with new experiences in general

and cultural adjustments in Germany, and both she and Dora said they

avoided personal contacts with other speakers of their native language.)

Dora felt herself fully ‘at home’ in Germany, even if she did not see herself

as German.

Considering all of these learners’ profiles, a constellation of factors emerges;

some cognitive, some affective or psychological in nature, and some experi-

ential. For example, nearly all expressed a deep sense of personal connection to

the language and a metacognitive approach, regardless of the amount of inter-

personal contact and/or formal instruction available to them. They make the

most of the resources at hand, with some going so far as to distance themselves

from those who share their native language in an effort to reach their goal of

becoming native-like. Table 1 summarizes the factors explicitly mentioned by

the learners and/or researchers.

424 EXCEPTIONAL OUTCOMES IN L2 PHONOLOGY

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A. MOYER 425

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Cognitive factors

� Self-described talent/aptitude: Several participants said it was not hard for
them to learn languages (or the language in question, even if other ones
had been difficult). For the most part, however, this was not explicitly
asked by the researchers, thus there is little to conclude about the rele-
vance of this factor.

� (Meta)cognitive approach: Nearly every exceptional learner mentioned self-
monitoring, imitation of native speakers, attention to difficult phonologi-
cal features, and explicit concern for pronunciation accuracy. In general
terms, a cognitive approach is indicative of practice, reasoning, note-
taking, analyzing, etc., and the metacognitive level involves planning,
goal-setting, reflection, and evaluation (Oxford 1990).

Psychological factors

� Pride in L2 attainment: Several expressed enjoyment of, and appreciation
for, their own progress in the target language although in some cases (e.g.
Muñoz and Singleton 2007) these very advanced learners continued to
view their attainment critically, which likely reflects their drive to
improve.

� Strong identification with L2: This construct represents an integrative orien-
tation towards the language and/or culture, with these learners typically
immersed in social activities via close social networks. Many also cited an
intention to stay in-country for the foreseeable future, or permanently.

� Desire to sound native: Most expressed this overtly and described their
efforts to achieve this goal, even having already reached an unusual
level of attainment.

� Socially outgoing: These exceptional learners had a proactive approach to
language acquisition, endeavoring to make contacts, and describing them-
selves as uninhibited, outgoing, extraverted, and willing to take risks.

Experiential factors

� L2 use across multiple domains: All of the learners mentioned L2 use in the
home environment with family and friends. They also enjoy reading,
listening to the radio, and watching TV and films, in addition to socializ-
ing. In other words, the target language has permeated all levels of their
lives; it does not just serve perfunctory or limited purposes.

� Length of residence of 8+ years: Of those who had long-term residence, most
had resided 8 years or more, but Length of residence (LOR) was incon-
sistent across learners, with the lowest cited at 2 years (LOR figures were
not provided in all of the studies cited).

� Significant formal study of the language: Some had many years (i.e. 5+ years)
formal instruction in the language but others had none at all.

� Early age of onset: This factor does not apply to any since they are con-
sidered ‘exceptional’—all were exposed to the language after the age of
10–11 years.

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,

,

yrs.

Several patterns are noteworthy here. First, every ‘exceptional learner’

attests to at least one item in each of the three categories: cognitive, psychological,

experiential, but the psychological realm stands out with greater description

(possibly because it was easier to ascertain by self-report). Secondly, long-

term residence and/or instruction are both inconsistent factors. At least in

the case of length of residence, this seems to contradict a good deal of evidence

found in ultimate attainment studies. It is possible that neither is essential for

exceptional outcomes. Thirdly, these learners have much in common in terms

of their approach to language learning and their use of the target language. The

strongest commonalities based on the data provided were as follows:

� Metacognitive approach
� Strong identification with the language
� Strong desire to sound native
� Socially outgoing orientation
� The use of L2 across multiple domains

It should also be noted that in several cases minimal L1 use was mentioned,

which is another factor that deserves far more investigation in the research, as

does the possibility that experience with multiple languages holds some advan-

tage for pronunciation abilities. We now consider these factors in somewhat

broader terms commonly referenced in the L2 phonology research, and in SLA

more generally.

EXPLANATIONS FOR EXCEPTIONALITY

There are several possible explanations for these learners’ extraordinary suc-

cess, represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Explanations for exceptionality

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3

:

Aptitude and talent

Although talent and/or aptitude was only explicitly mentioned in two cases

(Ioup et al. 1994 and Muñoz and Singleton 2007), and no researcher assessed

this through anything other than self-report or impressionistic data, we con-

sider it nonetheless because it generates such interest in the literature. Aptitude

is understood to refer to individual differences which, by all accounts, lie

within the cognitive realm, such as the ability to remember acoustic informa-

tion and phonological patterns. The focus of aptitude research, however, per-

tains overwhelmingly to lexical and morphosyntactic retrieval and learning,

with little discussion of phonological learning per se.

The Modern Language Aptitude Test (Carroll and Sapon 1959) established

several key components said to predict language learning success with reason-

able accuracy, including the capacity to code and retain unfamiliar sounds

(phonemic coding), and the ability to form links in memory (discussed in

Skehan 2002; Dörnyei 2010). Robinson (2002) proposes a broader ‘aptitude

complex’, consisting of phonological working memory (WM); processing

speed; the ability to encode, infer, apply, and store specific patterns; and the

ability to ‘notice the gap’ between one’s own production and a given (i.e.

native speaker) model. Discussions of aptitude relative to phonological skills

prioritize working memory, defined as the ‘ability to keep important information

in mind while comprehending, thinking, and doing’ (Conway et al. 2007). WM

is supported by the phonological loop function which allows the listener to

hold and rehearse sound sequences in short-term memory during speech pro-

cessing, and to direct attention and promote subvocal articulation that feeds

into long-term memory. Individuals may vary as to how much they rehearse

and/or visualize certain verbal patterns, the speed with which they can process

information, and the degree to which their memory and processing effectively

interact during a specific task (Towse and Hitch 2007).

Other ideas relevant to phonological talent include the possibility that:

(i) those with musical inclinations have a special ability to mimic accent;

and (ii) those who process language bilaterally have an advantage when it

comes to perception—and by extension, production—of tone, rhythm, pitch,

etc., since these are processed primarily in the right hemisphere. Studies of

musical talent have produced mixed results (Tokuhama-Espinosa 2003;

Gottfried 2008; Baran-Łucarz 2012), and hemispheric processing studies

have shown primarily that novices of new (e.g. tonal) languages tend to be

bilateral processors, whereas those with greater experience processing tones

are left-hemisphere (LH) dominant (as are musicians familiar with the tones in

question) (Sereno and Wang 2007). This would seem to indicate that once a

level of experience is gained, processing shifts to LH dominance. Neither

hypothesis is yet supported by conclusive evidence. At the same time, a

study of 66 learners of English did find that rhythm and pitch perception sig-

nificantly correlated to production abilities in accent (Nardo and Reiterer 2009).

Sereno and Wang (2007) similarly found evidence for the transference of

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,

,

Working memory (

)

a

b

perceptual abilities to production, based on overt training. More evidence of

this type is needed.

Very few researchers have studied WM as it relates to L1 phonological acqui-

sition, even fewer have done so for L2, and studies that do exist tend to produce

mixed results. For example, Hu et al. (2012) investigated a number of neuro-

cognitive factors—phonological WM, phonetic coding ability, music aptitude,

verbal Intelligence Quotient—and a range of behavioral factors such as empa-

thy, extraversion, openness to new experiences, and conscientiousness. They

found that phonological WM did not predict pronunciation aptitude (assessed

by a reading task) in 109 advanced learners with an average age of onset of 10

years, but coding ability, music aptitude, empathy, and openness to experience

did. Their regression analysis further identified coding ability and empathy as

the most significant predictors of pronunciation aptitude, explaining 34

percent of the variance. Rota and Reiterer’s (2009) results for WM are similar.

They examined 20 ‘highly talented’ individuals out of 60 overall language

learners using a digit span task and an intelligence test based on Raven’s

Progressive matrices for reasoning and abstract thinking, but found no signifi-

cance for either. Nor did their analysis yield significance for ‘mental flexibility’,

defined as selective attention and reaction time during task-switching.

Interestingly, they also found significance for empathy, defined as both

social and emotional intelligence according to a questionnaire developed by

Leibetseder et al. (cited in Rota and Reiterer 2009) to measure ‘sensitivity’ and

‘concern’ in fictitious vs. real-life situations. In fact, empathy correlated to

phonemic coding ability, suprasegmental perception, imitation ability for an

unknown language (Hindi words), and self-proclaimed enjoyment of imitating

accents. Both studies underscore the connections between the cognitive and

affective realms.

Learner style and strategies
2

Some have suggested that aptitude is more generally related to overall cogni-

tive abilities and style (Skehan 1998), and that having a predominantly audi-

tory style correlates to pronunciation accuracy (Baran-Łucarz 2012).
3

These

exceptional learner profiles all speak to the importance of ongoing self-mon-

itoring of progress, regardless of instruction. By this I mean explicit attention to

difficult (phonological) features, frequent imitation of native speakers, and

conscious concern for pronunciation accuracy. Is this metalinguistic orienta-

tion the key to their success? Others have confirmed that field independence—

representing an analytical style that is detail-oriented—plays a significant role

in pronunciation success (Elliott 1995; Baran- Łucarz 2012).

Although my 2004 analysis (Moyer 2004) did not find significance for any

specific strategy, the more strategies undertaken the better for phonological

fluency, particularly when the imitation of native speakers was one of those

strategies. This suggests an effect for rehearsal and reflection, that is, a possible

connection between the phonological loop function and actual phonological

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working memory

working memory

working memory

%

working memory

i.e.

,

learning. Furthermore, those who focused on their pronunciation shortfalls

were more likely to seek out informal practice and feedback with NS, indicat-

ing a link between cognitive and social strategies. The list of common learning

strategies among these learners includes the following:

� Self-monitoring
� Explicit attention to accent
� Frequent imitation of native speakers
� Conscious concern for accent and/or desire to sound native
� Authentic practice and input in informal domains

The array of these factors recalls Sasaki’s (1996) assertion that ‘expert’ lan-

guage learners exhibit more flexibility in the range of strategies they apply to

language leaning, whereas monolingual (‘novice’) learners apply undirected,

general strategies (based on a study by Nayah et al. 1990, cited in Sasaki 1996).

Sasaki’s own analysis of many cognitive factors among Japanese learners of

English confirmed this pattern; the lower proficiency learners tended to use

just one or two strategies per task, whereas those at a higher level of profi-

ciency demonstrated multiple strategies per task. (Far more evidence is needed

on language learning strategies directed at phonology specifically, since it is

unclear whether learners make accurate links between their own pronuncia-

tion shortfalls and either specific learning strategies or interactional, ‘real-time’

repairs. This aligns well with Dörnyei’s (2010) idea that ‘‘L2 learners are

engaged in an ongoing appraisal and response process, involving their contin-

uous monitoring and evaluating . . . and then making possible amendments if

something seems to be going amiss’’ (p. 255). This is the essence of self-regula-

tion. Self-regulating learners know ‘‘what they believe . . . have a grasp of their

motivation, are aware of their affect, and plan how to manage the interplay

between these as they engage with a task’’ (Winne 1995, cited in Dörnyei

2005: 162). Simply put, self-regulating learners control their own actions in

order to enhance learning (Dörnyei 2010: 256).

One important question is whether late learners are less inclined to undertake

such social risks as younger ones. According to Victori and Tragant (2003), older

learners are less likely to engage in the same kinds of active social strategies as

their younger counterparts. In their assessment of 766 ESL classroom learners in

Spain, the younger learners made the effort to study and socialize with their

native speaking classmates, and also enjoyed practicing sounds out loud in

their presence. Older learners tended towards passive activities like watching

TV and listening to the radio. Of course one’s overall self-concept and approach

to new endeavors is relevant as well, and these are highly individual constructs.

Psychological orientation

All indications are that exceptional learners take charge of their learning and

create opportunities for practice outside the classroom. This points to an

ongoing drive, or motivation, which has been verified as significant for a

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, Hansen, Krueger and McLaughlin

closer-to-native accent. In the Bongaerts et al. study, and in Moyer’s 1999

piece, nearly all of the L2 learners cited a keen interest in sounding native-

like, and all reported a ‘professional orientation’; they wanted to teach the

target language, or otherwise use it as an integral part of their career—a see-

mingly instrumental orientation that is focused on achieving a specific, exter-

nally directed goal.

Related to the motivation construct is the question of how learners perceive

themselves and their abilities, as well as their belief that they have the power

to make desired improvements through sustained effort (also known as

self-efficacy). The exceptional learners profiled here had a tendency to under-

estimate their skill level, as mentioned above. Of interest is the study by Baran-

Łucarz (2012) in which L2 learners of English whose pronunciation was

‘excellent’ tended to downgrade their attainment while a majority of those

considered ‘poor’ overestimated their abilities, yet said they could realistically

assess their skills, and that L2 pronunciation was ‘easy to learn’ although not in

their control—a notable indication of false self-concept and low self-efficacy

(p. 298). Excellent learners, in other words, believe that they can control their

progress, even if they are not yet satisfied with it.

The issue of motivation type has a long history in the SLA research and has

led to an emphasis on ‘integrativeness’, or the desire to affiliate closely with a

given language community and culture (see Clément and Kruidenier 1983;

Masgoret and Gardner 2003; Dörnyei 2005). Clement and Kruidenier suggest

that assessing motivation type must be done on an individual basis because we

cannot presume to know whether a learner’s desire to affiliate with the target

culture is more intrinsic or extrinsic in nature, and whether one or the other

has a greater effect on ultimate attainment (see also Purcell and Suter 1980;

Bongaerts et al. 1995; Moyer 1999, 2004). Munoz and Singleton’s 2007 study

suggests that motivation type does not make the difference after all, and my

2004 and 2007 statistical comparisons (Moyer 2004, 2007) verify that the

intensity of one’s drive to acquire the L2—and even more, the consistency of

that drive over time—is what matters for ultimate attainment in accent.

Understanding stability and consistency in psychological orientation

requires more differentiated instrument designs. Longitudinal data are essen-

tial to understand whether motivation and attitudes relevant to language

learning constitute traits, or core, aspects of the learner’s self-concept as

opposed to situational or domain-specific ‘states’ which constitute its more

dynamic and responsive aspects. One relevant study is Mercer’s (2012) long-

itudinal analysis of an advanced learner of English living in Germany, con-

ducted over 22 months. Mercer’s objective was to examine the flexibility vs.

stability of self-concept—the cognitive and affective beliefs a learner has about

herself relevant to a specific area, for example, learning English (p. 202). Her

interview data reveal a stable, core self-concept vis-à-vis English predicated on

a strongly positive orientation towards the language. As with many of the

learners described above, ‘Joana’ expresses a love of English, and says ‘‘that

will never change’’ (p. 204). Indeed, over the course of the study, it remained

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; Dörnyei 2005

,

; Purcell and Suter 1980

second language

e.g.

so, even when certain aspects of her ability were critiqued (here: writing).

Mercer concludes that Joana’s self-concept is inherently connected to her

overall approach to language learning. In her case, this meant directing her

energies in active and social ways, focusing on interaction rather than more

receptive modes of L2 experience such as studying and reading.

It is reasonable to assume that factors like risk-tolerance, extraversion, and

empathy have some role to play in exceptional L2 outcomes, and several

learners profiled here were described as ‘outgoing’ and very social. Indeed,

Obler (1989) long ago speculated that exceptional learning comes down to a

combination of neurological talent and tolerance for risk-taking.

In a 1999 review of the literature, Dewaele and Furnham speculate on the

connections between extraversion and neuro-cognitive approach, with impli-

cations for learning strategies and outwardly directed behaviors. The original

hypothesis of Eysenck, who first described the construct in 1947, was that

extraverts were ‘underaroused’ in the autonomous nervous system and in

the cortex, leading to a search for greater external stimulation (ibid.). The

authors’ review of the research confirms associations between extraversion

and a ‘positive affect’; relatively low levels of anxiety; greater willingness to

communicate (WTC); self-reported frequency of communication in L2; and

superior short-term memory—all of which surely affect how extraverts seek

and utilize input (and output), especially beyond the classroom, for the benefit

of oral fluency. They further speculate that extraverts’ lower anxiety corre-

sponds to greater capacity in WM, and that WTC effectively increases output,

which speeds up the ‘‘proceduralization of different kinds of knowledge’’

(p. 536). [The longitudinal data from Van Daele et al.’s (2006) study of 25

Dutch students learning English and French yielded intriguing, though

mixed results; however, extraversion seemed to present a ‘trade-off’ between

accuracy and fluency on a narrative retelling task.]

Very few studies speak to the relevance of personality type for accent spe-

cifically (but see Hu and Reiterer 2009), although few would dispute the

notion that native-like abilities in L2 phonology hinge upon an openness to

developing new experiences, and ultimately a new sense of self, in the target

language. Relevant here is Lybeck’s (2002) study of nine American women

living in Norway and Hansen’s (1995) examination of 20 German-born adult

immigrants in the USA, both of which emphasize the learner’s willingness to

develop a new L2 identity as significant for pronunciation. I have also shown

significant correlations between accent and one’s perceived ease of establishing

contact with native speakers; comfort assimilating culturally; and intention to

reside long-term (5+ years) in the target language country (Moyer 1999, 2004,

2007). Dewaele (2005) has called for a deeper exploration of how learners learn

on a social and emotional level, and this seems especially relevant for L2

phonology.

Specific attitudes and motivational type are arguably less important than the

underlying investment in the language that they represent (Moyer 2004, 2013).

These exceptional learners have all developed a strong sense of self in the L2,

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:

working memory

.

.

second language

surely contingent on an ‘‘openness to identify with another language commu-

nity’’ (as Masgoret and Gardner put it—2003: 6), and the motivation to main-

tain an ‘ideal’ self-concept, in Dörnyei’s terms (2005), which is an orientation

towards achievement and success more generally. According to Dörnyei’s

(2010) schema, the ‘ideal L2 self’ can only be an effective motivator if the

learner actually has a ‘desired future self-image’ which is both ‘elaborate

and vivid’, and if that ideal self is ‘‘accompanied by relevant and effective

procedural strategies that act as a roadmap towards the goal’’ (p. 257).

Another way to think of this is that exceptional learners have an unusual

connection to their ‘possible selves’, which act as forward-pointing ‘self-

guides’ (Dörnyei 2010: 265). Some of the learners profiled here referred expli-

citly to such a conceptualized self as a guide for their efforts.

The critical emphasis in Dörnyei’s self-concept schema is the dynamic over-

lap between cognitive and social strategies, and psychological orientation.

With a new emphasis on ‘dynamic systems’, SLA researchers should now

develop thoughtful ways to investigate how successful learners use motiva-

tion, develop emotional connections, maintain positive attitudes, develop goal-

setting, undertake socially directed behaviors, and engage in reflection and

self-evaluation.

Experience

Length of residence, as one of the most basic measures of L2 experience, has

produced mixed results across studies (Piske et al. 2001). Recently, Saito and

Brajot (2013) have found statistical significance for LOR at the early stages

(within approximately 1 year) for certain formant frequencies (F1 and F2) and

formant transition duration, and significance for longer LOR for another for-

mant (F3) among 65 adult Japanese learners of English. While they only tested

production of /r/, it is possible that residence on either end of the scale, for

example, within 1–3 years or after 10 years, correlates more significantly to

accent ratings (Moyer 2011). This merits more investigation, as does the pos-

sibility that LOR is particularly relevant for the development of suprasegmen-

tals like pitch melody, as shown by Baker and Trofimovich (2005).

Traditional measures like length of residence and time on task (e.g. hours of

use per week) provide too little detail on how the learner uses L2, with whom,

and under what circumstances. Where LOR findings are robust, they likely

represent a significant shift in L2 use (Moyer 2009) given that those who cite

plenty of interactive L2 use, across different contexts, are judged to have more

authentic accents (Thompson 1991; Flege and Liu 2001; Diaz-Campos 2004;

Jia et al. 2006; MacKay et al. 2006; Derwing et al. 2007; Moyer 2011). A longer

LOR has been shown to correlate to greater interaction among NS friends,

greater use of L2 overall, and less use of L1 (Moyer 2011).

Indeed, these learners all cite primary use of L2 in the home domain. It

seems that, collectively, they have undergone an important shift in language

dominance, giving credence to Thompson’s (1991) claim that those who lose

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“,0,0,2

“,0,0,2

e.g.

,

,

,

,

; Thompson 1991

their mother tongue stand a significantly higher chance of sounding native in

L2 than those who maintain it. This idea is supported by Flege et al.’s 1999

study of 240 Korean immigrants in the USA whose L2 dominance correlated

positively with accent, even after controlling for AO. Their early arrivers

received significantly more education in the USA, used more English in

daily life, and reported less use of Korean overall, while those arriving at age

12 years or older maintained a more balanced use of English and Korean.

Ultimately, we are interested in the learner’s orientation because this is what

determines what they do with the input: how they structure it and how they

utilize it, in other words, how they engage with the language. This can give us a

better indication of the quality of L2 experience over the long-term (Jia and

Aaronson 2003; Moyer 2004, 2009; Flege et al. 2006). We know that exposure

alone is never enough to reach a native-like or near-native level. Just think of

those who live for years in a host country without progressing beyond rudi-

mentary linguistic skills, or those who overhear another language as children

without developing any real competence in it. For this reason, measures of L2

experience must signify active, meaningful, and consistent language use, and it

must be appreciated for what it says about the role of that language in the

learner’s life. Where L2 becomes dominant, or effectively replaces L1, it clearly

takes on not just instrumental, but emotional and social significance. Using L2

in the home within their own families and/or among their roommates has

likely intensified these exceptional learners’ desire and efforts to sound native.

The discussion above shows that these learners are highly engaged; they

have ‘conscious and unconscious structuring of opportunities, as well as atti-

tudes and perceptions, towards a set of goals—the underlying mechanisms for

engagement being cognitive, social and psychological in nature’ (2004: 145).

While the engagement construct is complex and somewhat idiosyncratic, it is

still, I would argue, critical to L2 phonology outcomes.

CONCLUSION

Baran-Łucarz concludes that exceptionally good pronunciation learners ‘‘owe

success to an ideal combination of cognitive traits . . . strong intrinsic motiva-
tion, extensive exposure to authentic spoken language, good phonetic knowl-

edge, and a strong belief that one is in control of progress in learning’’ (2012:

299). So while ‘having a good ear’ or some particular cognitive ability to notice

phonetic detail may be essential for accurate pronunciation, this cannot suffice

to get to an exceptional level in real speech. The evidence reviewed here, while

based on only a handful of studies with varying methodologies, suggests that

those who do have greater cognitive flexibility and a more conscious, selective

approach to specific strategies tend towards more native-like abilities in L2

phonology. Their conscious approach is, above all, flexible; it evolves in a

dynamic way throughout the acquisition process. These learners also have a

meta-analytic orientation, as they all reflect on the efficacy of specific strategies

(Schneiderman and Desmarais 1988; McLaughlin 1990). They also enjoy a

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.

.

.

.

consistently high level of motivation, access to authentic input and interaction,

and a propensity towards learning strategies that are both socially oriented and

metacognitive in nature. For future work, more data are needed for differing

L1–L2 pairs, with instruments taking deliberate account of various social, cog-

nitive, and psychological data in order to solidify a predictive model for learner

engagement in L2 phonological attainment.

Exceptional learning is by no means a one-dimensional phenomenon, nor I

would argue, is it based solely on an as-yet-to-be-determined talent or some

single resource. Rather, it is the manifestation of a constellation of factors—

cognitive, psychological, social, and experiential. We must therefore follow

learner engagement over time, tracking the ways that exceptional learners

make the most of the available input. The learners presented here do not

even claim those aspects of experience traditionally identified as necessary—

a considerable length of residence, formal instruction, or even early onset. Yet

they consistently use the target language in ways that have great personal

significance.

I have argued here for a constellation of influences on accent, attested by

these exceptional learners, to underscore several important principles: (i)

these influences do not operate in isolation from one another—the affective

and the cognitive go hand-in-hand as one seeks, and consciously utilizes, the

input available; (ii) an exceptional learner’s drive to sound native is neither

static nor a priori—it is ongoing, conscious, and flexible, yet may be predicated

on a stable core self-concept relevant to language learning; and (iii) no single

factor guarantees a native-like accent—nor does one single factor, like age,

preclude it.

Many questions for future work remain, pertaining to the following areas:

(a) Processing and memory: It remains to be seen whether certain types of
processing and/or memory are particularly relevant for the ability to
perceive, as opposed to produce, new sounds, or vice versa. More evi-
dence is needed to substantiate the relative interdependence of these
two processing levels, and whether and how gains in one area affect
the other. In addition, because pronunciation relies on a variety of
neural resources, it is likely that the balance of these resources is recon-
stituted at various stages of the learning process (see Hu et al. 2012).
Longitudinal analyses are essential for understanding this inherently
dynamic system.

(b) Learning strategies and learning context: Specific learning styles and
strategies surely have varying degrees of effectiveness as a function of
the learning environment. For example, instructed environments

4
may

favor left-hemisphere processors, whereas immersion favors bilateral or
right-hemisphere processors. Explicit study of exceptional learners’ pro-
cessing patterns would be invaluable, especially of a longitudinal nature.
It would be important to understand which aspects of language are
processed bilaterally, for example, and how this may shift with
experience.

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a

b

,

c

(a)

(b)

(c) Adaptability of processing and adaptability of aptitude: There is a need to
understand the extent to which hemispheric processing shifts
with experience, and similarly, whether aptitude is responsive and adap-
table, as opposed to innate and/or static. In general, aptitude has been
thought of as less relevant for communicative, interactive learning than
for instructional, focus-on-form situations (Skehan 2002), but it is still
unclear how specific abilities interact with specific learning conditions.
Perhaps most intriguing is the question of whether aptitude shifts with
experience, that is, whether it is somehow learnable.

The focus on individual differences in SLA runs the gamut from affective to

cognitive, to social and experiential factors, and for no skill is this focus more

relevant than for phonology. Pronunciation skill development is perhaps the

greatest test of one’s desire to successfully acquire a new language given the

complexity of the task and its inherent relevance for self-concept. As I have

argued elsewhere, this struggle is negotiated in proportion to the target lan-

guage’s value and significance in the learner’s life, the attitudes held about its

speakers, and the value of language learning in general (Moyer 2013). It is

therefore worth emphasizing these exceptional learners’ deep investment in

the target language is predicated on a drive to continually refine and improve

fluency, and a constant reflection on how well they are accomplishing their

goals. The specific means by which they do this includes attention to fine

detail, consistent rehearsal, self-reflection, and self-critique—none quite

thinks he has ‘arrived’ yet, which gives the impetus to further refine his

abilities.

Exceptional learning in SLA is legend—a story told with fascination, but too-

often dismissed as a false challenge to the Critical Period Hypothesis. As Scovel

has said, applied linguists are ‘‘fascinated with dichotomies’’, such as those who

acquire a language before age X will succeed, those who do not simply cannot

succeed (1988). But such dichotomies are increasingly shown to be mythical—

widely held but often erroneous ideas. For Scovel, the age question is ultimately

compelling because it asks us to examine how nature and nurture work together

‘‘through time’’ (1988: 5). As seen in this analysis, some learners can indeed

attain to a native level, but this is a process, and the factors that predict their

success converge at the unique interaction between learner and context.

NOTES

1 This question has a long history of its

own which is beyond the scope of this

article, and here I do not wish to imply

that success is an absolute, but rather

that it is ‘relative to the goal’, as Cook

puts it (2010: 154). We consider here

learners whose goal it is to sound like

native speakers.

2 Style generally refers to learning pref-

erences without regard for the specific

task, whereas strategy refers to a goal-

directed technique aimed to optimize

learning (Oxford 1990).

3 Baran-Łucarz measured this via the

Barsch Learning-Style Inventory for 50

Polish high school students learning

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(c)

i.e.

,

:

paper

English who completed free speech,

dialogue reading, minimal pair reading,

and perception tasks.

4 Some of the learners here had little or

no instruction, so they may have

brought to bear so-called implicit learn-

ing mechanisms (whether these are ac-

cessible after a certain age is another

debate), or simply used explicit strate-

gies very effectively.

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Applied Psycholinguistics 31 (2010), 413–438
doi:10.1017/S0142716410000056

Cross-linguistic evidence for the
nature of age effects in second
language acquisition

ROBERT DEKEYSER
University of Maryland at College Park

IRIS ALFI-SHABTAY and DORIT RAVID
Tel-Aviv University

Received: February 18, 2008 Accepted for publication: May 18, 2009

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE
Robert DeKeyser, Department of Linguistics, University of Maryland, 3215 Jimenez Hall, College
Park, MD 20742. E-mail: rdk@umd.edu

ABSTRACT
Few researchers would doubt that ultimate attainment in second language grammar is negatively
correlated with age of acquisition, but considerable controversy remains about the nature of this
relationship: the exact shape of the age-attainment function and its interpretation. This article presents
two parallel studies with native speakers of Russian: one on the acquisition of English as a second
language in North America (n = 76), and one on the acquisition of Hebrew as a second language in
Israel (n = 64). Despite the very different nature of the languages being learned, the two studies show
very similar results. When age at testing is partialed out, the data reveal a steep decline in the learning
of grammar before age 18 in both groups, followed by an essentially horizontal slope until age 40. This
is interpreted as evidence in favor of the critical period. Both groups show a significant correlation
between ultimate attainment and verbal aptitude for the adult learners, but not for the early learners.
This is interpreted as further evidence that the learning processes in childhood and adulthood not only
yield different levels of proficiency but are also different in nature.

Age effects in (second) language learning are widely acknowledged, but their
exact nature remains controversial, in particular, the concept of a critical period
for second language acquisition (SLA). In about the last 15 years, numerous
arguments against the critical period hypothesis (CPH) have been formulated: a
few studies have failed to find a clear correlation between age of acquisition and
ultimate attainment; many more researchers accept the negative correlation as a
fact, but they argue that it is attributable to a confound between age of acquisition
and one or more other variables, such as length of residence, age at testing, the
nature of the input received as a function of age, the extent to which education
was provided in the second language (L2) or the first language (L1), the (lack of)
motivation to integrate fully with the L2 society, or simply the amount of practice

© Cambridge University Press 2010 0142-7164/10 $15.00

Applied Psycholinguistics 31:3 414
DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

in the L2 as opposed to the L1. Some have also taken the rather different results
found for learners of different L1s learning the same L2 as evidence that age of
acquisition is not an important predictor by itself. (For recent critical overviews of
the literature for and against the CPH, see Birdsong, 2005; DeKeyser & Larson-
Hall, 2005; Herschensohn, 2007; Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003; Ioup, 2005;
Long 2007, chap. 3.) The argumentation for and against the CPH that has received
the most attention in the literature of the last 5 to 10 years, however, has been about
the very nature of the age of acquisition–ultimate attainment function, which is
centered on the question of whether the discontinuity in development implied by
the CPH is found in the various data sets that were analyzed.

THE SHAPE OF THE AGE OF ACQUISITION–ULTIMATE
ATTAINMENT FUNCTION

For about the last 10 years a number of researchers have analyzed data sets that
appear to show a negative correlation between age of acquisition and ultimate
attainment throughout the life span (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1999; Bialystok &
Miller, 1999; Hakuta, Bialystok, & Wiley, 2003) or even a stronger negative
correlation in adulthood than in childhood or adolescence (Birdsong & Molis,
2001). Therefore, these researchers argue, the decline as a function of age, which
has been documented in dozens of studies, should not be interpreted as a critical
period effect (a sharp decline within a relatively short period of time, attributable
to inevitable biological and psychological changes, leveling off quickly once that
period of time is over, and affecting only very particular kinds of learning, in this
case the learning of aspects of a second language). It instead reflects a broader
phenomenon of maturationally determined cognitive decline that is largely the
same throughout the life span, but perhaps accentuated at certain stages of life
by changes in people’s socialization patterns (see also Birdsong, 2004, 2005,
2006). For various methodological criticisms of these studies purporting to show a
decline throughout adulthood, see DeKeyser (2006), Long (2005, 2007, chap. 3),
and Stevens (2004).

Other researchers have countered that the well-documented decline as a function
of age is a maturational phenomenon affecting (second) language learning more
than other cognitive functions, and takes places in a period of roughly 10 to 15
years, starting possibly at birth, becoming clearly visible from around age 6 for
certain aspects of language and with certain test formats, and leveling off in late
adolescence. As evidence for this viewpoint, they point to qualitative differences
in learning processes before and after this critical period, such as a differential role
of aptitude (DeKeyser, 2000; Harley & Hart, 1997, 2002), or simply the shape of
the age of acquisition–ultimate attainment function, which, at least in a number of
studies, appears to show a steep decline during a limited number of years, but not
thereafter (e.g., Flege, Yeni-Komshian, & Liu, 1999; Johnson, 1992; Johnson &
Newport, 1989, 1991; Lee & Schachter, 1997; cf. DeKeyser & Larson-Hall, 2005;
Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003).

The issue remains far from resolved for a number of methodological reasons.
The quantitative evidence (i.e., about how much of the L2 is learned as a function
of age of acquisition) used on either side of the debate is often less than ideal,

Applied Psycholinguistics 31:3 415
DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

because of very narrow operationalizations of ultimate attainment (most often
grammaticality judgments) and insufficient documentation or analysis of potential
confounding variables (especially length of residence, age at testing, the nature of
the immigrants’ social networks in L1 and L2, the amount of use of L1 and L2
at various stages of development, and various affective and social–psychological
variables).

The qualitative evidence (about how L2 learning takes place at different ages),
in contrast, is rather limited so far (few researchers have focused on qualitative
distinctions) and has been subject to a number of criticisms as well. DeKeyser
and Larson-Hall (2005) mention differential reliance on aptitude at different ages
and differential age effects on the learning of structures characterized by differ-
ent levels of salience as potential examples of (somewhat indirect) evidence for
qualitative age differences, that is, differences not just in learning outcomes, but
also in learning mechanisms involved at different ages. Systematic research on the
relationship between age and salience has not been carried out so far, however,
and the finding of different predictive validity of aptitude at different ages (e.g.,
DeKeyser, 2000; Harley & Hart, 1997, 2002) has been questioned because of
the instruments used. Bialystok, for instance, argued that the Modern Language
Aptitude Test (MLAT; Carroll & Sapon, 1959; used by DeKeyser, 2000) “aside
from being almost 50 years old . . . investigates a narrow and almost parochial
definition of language aptitude” (2002, p. 484); presumably her criticisms would
apply to the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB; Pimsleur, 1966; used
by Harley & Hart, 1997) as well, as this test was published only a few years after
the MLAT and has largely the same ingredients and the same predictive validity
(see, e.g., Carroll, 1981). Bialystok does not suggest any alternatives, however,
nor is any test available at this point that is generally agreed to be a more valid
measure of language learning aptitude than the MLAT or PLAB.1

In addition to issues of sampling and instrumentation, several further method-
ological problems cannot be ignored. One is that different aspects of language
(e.g., phonology vs. morphosyntax, or even at a much more fine-grained level,
regular inflection vs. irregular inflection) may show different age of acquisition–
ultimate attainment functions. There may be “multiple windows” (multiple critical
periods) for different aspects of language, some closing before others or showing
a steeper decline than others (for early mentions of this idea, see, e.g., Schachter,
1996; Seliger, 1978); some aspects of language may also be more sensitive to
variables such as length of residence or level of education than to age of acquisi-
tion (see especially Flege et al., 1999). Simply generalizing to all of “language”
would be unfruitful (Eubank & Gregg, 1999, p. 66). In contrast, “it would be
premature to exclude factors other than ‘linguistic competence’ from the agenda
of maturational constraints” (Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003, p. 559); one may
have to distinguish aspects such as the capacity “to construct narratives, to produce
and understand metaphor, to accommodate to another’s speech, to persuade . . . ”
(Schumann, 1995, p. 60). All of this also implies the necessity of cross-linguistic
research, given that different native languages and target languages differ con-
siderably in the frequency (or absence) of a wide variety of phenomena, such as
phonemic use of tone, irregular inflectional morphology, agreement patterns within
the noun phrase or between the noun phrase and the verb phrase, morphological

Applied Psycholinguistics 31:3 416
DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

marking of marked semantic distinctions, and wh-movement, to name just a few.
Therefore, it is important to look at both the acquisition of the same L2 by speak-
ers of very different L1s and the acquisition of very different L2s by speakers of
the same L1. Thus far, only the former comparison has been made in the CPH
literature on the acquisition of grammar (Bialystok & Miller, 1999; Hyltenstam,
1992; McDonald, 2000; Sorace, 1993).

Another problem is the inherent relationship between three important predictors
of ultimate attainment–age of acquisition, length of residence, and age at testing.
In most studies, there is a moderate to strong correlation between these three
variables (age at testing = age of acquisition + length of residence, so if length
of residence varies little, age of acquisition and age at testing will be strongly
correlated; if age at testing varies little, age of acquisition and length of residence
will be strongly correlated). Stevens (2006) argues that the linear dependence
between age of acquisition, length of residence, and age at testing is very hard to
disentangle, and can only be resolved through longitudinal data, or by measures
of quantity of exposure not expressed in units of time, or by positing nonlinear
relationships. Simply ignoring one of the three variables does not work, unless
“two of the three variables can be regarded as indexing the same causal phenomena
or if one of the variables is unrelated to the dependent variable” (p. 680). Length
of residence is taken into account in most studies, and turns out to be unre-
lated to most dependent measures, provided that length of residence is more than
5 years, and that the dependent measures index basic grammatical proficiency
(not purisms, collocations, etc.); it is therefore not much of a problem in most
studies. The most problematic variable is age at testing, which is often not taken
into account despite its sometimes high correlation with age of acquisition.

Finally, the evidence is only as good as the sample. Sample sizes in CPH
studies, at least the ones focusing on the acquisition of grammar, have typically
varied around 50, which is very small if the sample needs to be divided up into
different age of acquisition ranges, and if a correlation, and especially a partial
correlation or regression equation, needs to be computed for each subsample, as
is typically the case. Of more importance, the qualitative nature of the sample,
especially with respect to socioeconomic and educational diversity, monolingual or
bi-/multilingual background, and relative size of different age of acquisition groups
in the sample, often leaves much to be desired in terms of representativeness. In
this area of research, almost every sample has been one of convenience, which
typically means a much higher percentage of highly educated participants than
in the population at large, and sometimes knowledge of one or more L2s before
immigration. Moreover, a number of studies with an otherwise respectable number
of participants have had few in the critical age range of 12–18; a few teenage
participants more or less within the subsample of “early acquirers” (often defined
as those who immigrated before age 16 or 18) may lead to large differences in the
age of acquisition–ultimate attainment correlation for that sample, as the decline
as a function of age is expected to be most noticeable between the ages of about 12
and 18, depending on the nature of the outcome variable and the L1–L2 difference.
This alone may explain the rather large difference in the value for this correlation
in studies with otherwise very similar results, such as Johnson and Newport (1989)
and DeKeyser (2000).

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From this short literature review, it is clear that, in order to make solid progress
in investigating the CPH, we need to

1. distinguish morphosyntax from phonology or the lexicon, perhaps even different
elements of morphosyntax;

2. conduct separate analyses (whether they be correlations, partial correlations, or
regression analyses) per age group;

3. carry out studies with more subjects than has usually been the case, to ensure
enough statistical power for these separate analyses;

4. conduct more research on qualitative age differences, for example, on whether
aptitude plays a different role at different ages; and

5. design more cross-linguistic research for purposes of generalization. Only when
learners with different L1 backgrounds learn the same L2, or when learners of the
same L1 background learn different L2s and their data are collected and analyzed
in the same way, preferably in the same study, is it possible to assess to what
extent the nature of target language structures or the nature of L1–L2 differences
interacts with age effects.

In this article, we report on a research project on the acquisition of L2 grammar
that was designed to meet most of these goals. Data were collected from native
speakers of Russian who acquired either English as an L2 in North America or
Hebrew as an L2 in Israel (∼150 participants). Results were analyzed separately
for different ranges of age of acquisition, and the role of aptitude was investigated
in each group to test for qualitative differences. As stated above, different aspects
of language should all be investigated; this does not necessarily have to happen in
one and the same study. It does seem important, however, to have a good sampling
of one area, in this case morphosyntax, so that some generalization to at least that
aspect of language is possible, but not to the lexicon, pragmatics, or pronunciation,
of course.

Another limitation of this study is that no detailed information was collected
about participants’ use of L1 and L2 from immigration to the time of testing.
Although L1 and L2 are obviously in complementary distribution, their relative
frequency tends to correlate with age of acquisition (see especially Bylund, 2008,
2009; Jia & Aaronson, 2003; Montrul, 2008), and the degree of L2 acquisition
tends to correlate with the degree of L1 attrition (see especially Köpke & Schmid,
2004; Schmid, 2006), it is virtually impossible to get good measures of quantity
and quality of input from immigration to the time of testing without a longitudinal
study (and a longitudinal study, in turn, is almost impossible to carry out with the
number of subjects required for statistical reasons).

The following hypotheses were tested:

Hypothesis 1: For both the L2 English and the L2 Hebrew group, the slope of the age
of arrival–ultimate attainment function will not be linear throughout the life span,
but will instead show a marked flattening between adolescence and adulthood.

Hypothesis 2: The relationship between aptitude and ultimate attainment will differ
markedly for the younger and older arrivals, with significance for the latter only.

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These hypotheses require that a cutoff point be established between early and
late acquirers. It also seems prudent to make a further distinction between rel-
atively young adults and middle-aged acquirers (who, of course, by the time of
testing, may already be senior citizens). Ideally, with an extremely large number
of subjects, one could let any observed discontinuities in the age of acquisition–
ultimate attainment function serve as cutoff points. In practice, however, the only
alternative (cf. DeKeyser & Larson-Hall, 2005) is to choose empirically motivated
cutoff points, even if these remain somewhat arbitrary. Although age 12 was often
mentioned as a turning point in early literature (e.g., Lenneberg, 1967) and it
has been used in some recent studies (e.g., Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2008;
McDonald, 2006), a number of studies by researchers with otherwise very different
views on age issues, for example, Bialystok and Hakuta (1994), Johnson and New-
port (1989, 1991), and DeKeyser (2000), show that the steep decline in ultimate
attainment continues through adolescence. An arbitrary cutoff at age 12 would
therefore seriously underestimate the age of arrival–ultimate attainment correla-
tion among early learners and overestimate it among later learners. Furthermore,
as middle-aged and senior citizens are likely to perform less well on a variety of
tests for independent reasons, it is important that the results for participants over
50 years old at the time of data collection, that is, roughly over 40 years old at the
time of immigration, are analyzed separately. In this study, we decided to analyze
three separate data slices: <18, 18–40, and >40.

RATIONALE FOR THE CROSS-LINGUISTIC RESEARCH PROJECT

English and Hebrew are typologically very different languages, particularly in the
area of morphology, and therefore ideally suited for this type of cross-linguistic
research.

Hebrew is a Semitic language that is considered to be morphologically rich
because it expresses many notions morphologically, and it offers a wide array of
structural options to express these notions. Nouns and adjectives are obligatorily
inflected for gender and number, for example,

ha-maxbar-ot ha-adum-ot
“the-notebook-s, Fm Pl the-red, Fm Pl”
“the red notebooks”

Verbs are obligatorily inflected for gender, number, person, and tense in past
and future tenses, for example,

ha-maxbér-et ne’elm-a
“the-notebook-Fm 3rdSg. disappear-ed, Fm 3rdSg.”
“the notebook disappeared”

In present tense, verbs are inflected like adjectives and nouns. Prepositions,
a closed-class category, incorporate pronominal information in their obligatory
inflection for gender, number, and person, for example, lax “to-you, Fm.” In
addition, numerals agree with nouns in gender, although the agreement system is

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opaque and hard to learn (Ravid, 1995b). Finally, Hebrew marks gender, number,
and person optionally on genitive nouns and accusative verbs side by side with
syntactic constructions expressing the same notions.

Hebrew has two basic word orders: subject–verb–object (SVO), with ei-
ther a lexical or pronominal subject and a lexical verb (or a copula), for
example,

dan hevin et ha-inyan
“Dan understood Acc the-matter”;

and a predicate-first word order, expressing existence, possession, and modal
meanings, typically containing a less “verbal” predicate and often subjectless, for
example,

kday le-xa la-vo
“better to-you to-come”
“you’d better come over” (Berman, 1980; Ravid, 1995a).

Word order is not rigid, given the rich agreement systems in Hebrew, which marks
thematic and syntactic roles clearly and transparently.

In contrast, English is an SVO language with strongly grammaticized rather than
pragmatically determined constraints on word order (Thompson, 1978). This is
partially attributable to its impoverished system of grammatical inflection. Case is
morphologically distinguished only in pronouns and in genitive phrases; subjects
and direct objects occur as bare noun phrases with no overt case marking, whereas
datives and oblique objects and adjuncts are marked by prepositions rather than
by inflections.

Another facet of its lack of grammatical inflection is that English has almost
no marking of agreement for gender, number, or person; the only exceptions are
subject–verb concord with the verb be and third person present-tense marking by
final -s. As a result, ordering of constituents is the major indicator of grammatical
relations. Even postverbal elements are fairly strictly ordered, because nothing
can be interspersed between the verb and its direct object, and locatives typically
precede temporal adverbials (Berman, 1999). One clear exception to this morpho-
logical sparseness is that English marks comparative and superlative values on
adjectives through morphology (e.g., slower, biggest), although this inflection is
restricted to short adjectives, usually of Germanic origin.

Russian, the L1 in both studies, is a Slavic language with very rich inflectional
morphology, but does not use articles. Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns have six-
case inflectional paradigms for singular and plural. Noun declension, in addition
to case, marks gender (masculine and neuter, and two feminine declensions) and
number, with adjectives agreeing for gender, number, and case with the nouns, for
example,

bel-aja sten-a
“white Fm Sg wall Fm Sg”
“white wall”

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o bel-oj sten-e
“about white Fm Sg Prep wall Fm Sg Prep”
“about white wall”

Russian verbs are organized into numerous verb classes varying in degree of
regularity, two main conjugational patterns differing by the thematic vowel in
the inflections, and two conjugational paradigms (nonpast and past). The nonpast
paradigm includes six forms: first, second, and third person singular and plural.
Past tense has three forms for masculine, feminine, and neuter, and one for the
plural. The system of tenses is very simple: present, past, and future.

Russian has SVO word order as a neutral default setting; however, word order is
flexible and primarily reflects topic–comment structure, with the theme introduced
at the beginning of the sentence and the rheme at the end. Questions do not require
any verb fronting.

Data collection and analyses were carried out completely in parallel for the two
target languages. The same aptitude test in Russian was given to the two groups,
and the same kind of grammaticality judgment test was used for both, except that
it was necessary, of course, to develop different test items to measure the specific
learning outcome in the two languages. Results for the two groups are therefore
presented separately.

STUDY 1: RUSSIAN IMMIGRANTS ACQUIRING ENGLISH
IN NORTH AMERICA

Method

Participants. The participants in this study were 76 Russian-speaking immigrants
above the age of 18, who had acquired English as a second language (ESL).2 They
were living in Chicago, New York, or Toronto. The minimum length of residence
in North America was set at 8 years to make sure that ultimate attainment levels had
been reached. This is a conservative cutoff point, given that no age effect studies on
the acquisition of morphosyntax have reported length of residence effects beyond
even the first 5 years; it is also higher than in most age effect studies, equaled
only by Flege et al. (1999) and surpassed only by Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam
(2008), Ball (1996), Birdsong and Molis (2001), and DeKeyser (2000). The age
of acquisition varied from 5 to 71 (see Table 1).

These immigrants varied widely in educational background, but the vast ma-
jority had college degrees and white-collar jobs; a few even had graduate de-
grees. Some had attained varying levels of proficiency in one or more languages
(Ukrainian, Polish, Georgian, Tajik, Uzbek, Armenian, Romanian, Italian, French,
German, Yiddish, or Hebrew) before emigrating; a few had started learning one
or two languages (Polish, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, or He-
brew) after immigrating into North America and learning English. One had lived
in Israel and spoken Hebrew for 15 years before moving on to Canada. None,
however, had had substantial English teaching or substantial experience using
any Germanic or Romance language before emigrating from the (former) Soviet
Union.

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Table 1. Descriptive statistics for the participants in
North America (n = 76)

Minimum Maximum Mean SD

AOA 5 71 32.54 18.01
LOR 8 28 11.71 4.03
AAT 19 79 43.93 17.74
GJT score 104 198 150.76 27.32
APT score 5 36 22.58 7.39

Note: AOA, age of acquisition; LOR, length of residence; AAT, age
at testing; GJT, Grammaticality Judgment Test; APT, aptitude test.

Instruments

Grammaticality Judgment Test (GJT). A 204-item test was administered to all
participants to assess their proficiency in ESL. This instrument was an adapted
and shortened version of Johnson and Newport’s (1989) test, largely similar to
the DeKeyser’s (2000) adaptation, but with a few extra items to ensure a better
representation of the definite article, a category absent in Russian (Chesterman,
1991; Lyons, 1999, Wexler, 1996). The first four items were training items not
counted in the analysis.

Aptitude test. Participants’ aptitude was assessed by means of verbal sections of
the Russian version of the Inter-University Psychometric Entrance Test (National
Institute for Testing and Evaluation, 2001). This version of the test was designed
for Russian-speaking college applicants in Israel, and is comparable to the verbal
Scholastic Aptitude Test in the United States. This instrument was chosen because
it fulfilled the four major requirements of being (a) a test of aptitude, (b) in the
participants’ native language, (c) at the right level of difficulty, and (d) usable
for both parts of our study in Israel and in North America (no cultural bias was
detected in the content of any of the items). The two parts of the test used in this
study were sections 3 and 5 (KR-20 reliability = 0.76 for section 3 and 0.71 for
section 5, 0.85 for the total of the two), each consisting of 19 multiple-choice items
(testing definitions, analogies, and verbal reasoning). For the purpose of this study,
aptitude means verbal aptitude in the way it is usually understood in educational
psychology, a broader construct than the “modern language learning aptitude” that
most SLA research on aptitude focuses on and that is measured by tests such as the
MLAT or PLAB (granted, of course, that there are strong correlations between L1
proficiency, verbal aptitude/intelligence, foreign language aptitude, and SLA, in
ways that are still poorly understood, but in all likelihood because certain aspects
of L1 proficiency and foreign language aptitude are a function of verbal aptitude
in the broader sense; see, e.g., Hulstijn and Bossers, 1992; Humes-Bartlo, 1989;
Skehan, 1986, 1990; Sparks, Patton, Ganschow, Humbach, & Javorsky, 2006).

As is the case in all verbal aptitude tests, knowledge of the language tested is a
factor in the test used here, but there is evidence that this factor played no more
role in this Russian version of the test than in the original test: confirmatory factor

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analysis and multidimensional scaling have shown the dimensional structures
of tests to be equivalent across the Russian and the original Hebrew versions
(Allalouf, Bastari, Sireci, & Hambleton, 1997), and where there is differential
item functioning for the two versions, it is clearly because of problems of trans-
lation/adaptation for specific items and not for lack of construct validity for the
test as a whole (Allalouf, Hambleton, & Sireci, 1999). In other words, the test
measures verbal aptitude rather than knowledge of language in general or vocabu-
lary specifically, not surprisingly, given that it was designed to test verbal aptitude
in the broad sense (as part of a college entrance examination), and moreover for
specifically the kind of population we are working with in this study: immigrants
who arrived at different ages, and who are bilinguals with somewhat varying levels
of L1 Russian.

Biographical questionnaire. All participants filled out a three-page questionnaire
about their language background, educational background, age, age of arrival, age
of acquisition (usually the same as age of arrival, but later in the few cases where
participants were not required to use English for communication immediately
upon arrival), and current proficiency in English and Russian.

Procedures

Participants were recruited via flyers posted in public places, ads in publications
aimed at Russian immigrants, and word of mouth. They were paid US $20 or
Canadian $30 for participation in the study. They were tested individually or in
small groups, in a quiet room, usually at home. After signing the consent form,
they filled out the background questionnaire first, then took the grammar test, and
finally the aptitude test.

The items on the grammar test were presented auditorily by playing a digitized
recording of all sentences, each read twice in a row, with a 3-s interval between
the two readings and a 6-s interval between sentence pairs. The sentences were
recorded by a female native speaker of English, an ESL teacher, and amateur
singer with a very clear voice, in a fixed random order. The entire test took about
an hour; there was a 5-min break halfway.

The aptitude test was written; participants could work at their own pace, except
that there was a time limit of 25 min for each section.

Results

The scores on the GJT ranged from 104 to 198 out of 200, with a mean of 150.76.
The reliability coefficient (KR-20) was 0.97.

The relationship between age of age of acquisition and ultimate attainment is
represented in Figure 1. The corresponding correlation coefficient is −.80 (p < .001). This is in line with the correlation coefficients found in other studies (e.g., −.77 in Birdsong & Molis, 2001; −.63 in DeKeyser, 2000; −.77 in Johnson & Newport, 1989), but it does not mean anything in itself; it could hide crucial differences in correlation for various age ranges, as argued in the previous section,

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200

180

160

140

120

G
ra

m
m

a
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il
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s
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Age of acquisition

100

0 20 40 60 80

Figure 1. A scatterplot for all ages in North America.

and as several of these previous studies have shown. Therefore, we carried out
separate analyses for the age ranges <18, 18–40, and >40.

Furthermore, as Table 2 shows, besides age of acquisition, age at testing is also
a strong predictor of ultimate attainment, but length of residence is not. Therefore,
in the analyses that follow, age at testing was used as a control variable, but length
of residence was ignored.

Figures 2, 3, and 4 show the age of acquisition–ultimate attainment relationship
for three different age ranges: <18 (n = 20), 18–40 (n = 26), >40 (n = 30).
The scale for the Y axis has been kept constant for all three figures, for ease of
comparison. As can be seen in the figures, the regression is much steeper in Figure
2 (age of acquisition <18) than in Figure 3 (age of acquisition = 18–40), or Figure 4 (age of acquisition > 40). The corresponding correlation coefficients are −.69
( p < .01) for age of acquisition < 18; −.44 ( p < .05) for age of acquisition = 18–40; and −.27 (ns) for age of acquisition > 40. More important, however, are
the correlations when the effect of age at testing is partialed out (given that, even
though the correlation between age of acquisition and age at testing is smaller
in the subsamples than in the total sample, but still not negligible, .41 for the
<18 group, .88 for the 18–40 group, and .83 for the <40 group). When age at testing is partialed out, the difference between the three groups becomes dramatic, because the correlation for the youngest group increases slightly, whereas the

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Table 2. Correlations between the main variables for the
participants in North America (n = 76)

AOA GJT AAT LOR APT

AOA 1 −.80 .97 −.05 .02
(.00) (.00) (.67) (.84)

GJT score 1 −.78 .07 .21
(.00) (.56) (.08)

AAT 1 .16 −.06
(.17) (.58)

LOR 1 −.25
(.03)

APT score 1

Note: AOA, age of acquisition; GJT, Grammaticality Judgment Test;
AAT, age at testing; LOR, length of residence; APT, aptitude test. The
values in parentheses are p values.

200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
m
a
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j
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m
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t
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s
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Age of acquisition
100

4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18

Figure 2. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of <18 in North America.

correlations for the other two groups are no longer significantly different from
zero: r = −.71 ( p < .01) for age of acquisition <18; −.17 (ns) for age of acquisition 18–40; and −.12 (ns) for age of acquisition >40. (The reverse partial
correlation, between age of acquisition and age at testing with ultimate attainment

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200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
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Age of acquisition
100

15 20 25 30 35 40

Figure 3. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of 18–40 in North America.

partialed out, is never significant: . 24 for the <18 group, .07 for the 18–40 group, and −.04 for the >40 group.)

The role played by aptitude also differs by age group. For all participants
combined, the correlation between ultimate attainment and aptitude is .21 (ns);
for an age of acquisition of <18 it is .11 (ns), for an age of acquisition of 18–40 it is .44 (p < .05), and for an age of acquisition of >40 it is .33 (ns).

As it is often assumed that the steepest decline in learning takes places around
age 12, we did a further analysis splitting the <18 group into a ≤12 group and a >12 group. Within each of these groups, the correlation between the age of
acquisition and ultimate attainment is quite small: for age ≤12, it is −.26 (ns,
n = 11), and for age >12 it is .01 (ns, n = 12). The correlation coefficients may
not be very reliable with such small sample sizes, but the difference between the
two groups for the score on the GJT looms large: for the ≤12 group the mean is
187.27; for the >12 group it is 166.42; t (21) = 3.30, p < .01. Thus, it appears that the biggest decline does take place at around age 12.

Discussion

Hypothesis 1. The hypothesis that the slope of the age of acquisition–ultimate
attainment function would not be linear throughout the life span, but instead show
a marked flattening between adolescence and adulthood, was confirmed. Even

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200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
m
a
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a
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it
y
j
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g
m
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n
t

te
s
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Age of acquisition
100

40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75

Figure 4. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of >40 in North America.

the raw correlations for the age of acquisition ranges 18–40 and 40+ were flatter
than for the 0–17 range; and when the effect of age at testing was partialed out,
the effect became quite dramatic because the age of acquisition–ultimate attain-
ment correlation for the age of acquisition <18 group increased slightly to −.71 ( p < .01), whereas the correlations for later age ranges of comparable size became very small and nonsignificant. This finding is what one would expect under the CPH: after this period is over, one no longer expects to see the same decline (even though some decline for other reasons is expected, of course, especially for the oldest participants). A further analysis shows the decline to be especially steep around age 12 (with the caveat that the sample sizes for age ≤ 12 and age = 13–18 are quite small).

Hypothesis 2. The hypothesis that the relationship between aptitude and ultimate
attainment would differ markedly for the younger and the older arrivals was also
confirmed. The correlation for the age of acquisition <18 group was very small (r = .11) and nonsignificant; for the age of acquisition 18–40 range it was sub- stantial and significant (r = .44; p < .05). For the oldest arrivals, whose age of acquisition was over 40 and whose age at testing varied from 50 to 79, with a mean of 63, the correlation flattens somewhat again (r = .33, ns), presumably because other factors were playing an increasing role in determining test performance for this age range.

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Table 3. Descriptive statistics for the participants in Israel (n = 62)

Minimum Maximum Mean SD

AOA 4.12 65.2 30.57 16.94
LOR 8.46 28.86 12.27 3.59
AAT 16.25 75.17 42.84 16.55
GJT score 101 196 149.58 26.33
APT score 1 36 19.84 8.59

Note: AOA, age of acquisition; LOR, length of residence; AAT, age
at testing; GJT, Grammaticality Judgment Test; APT, aptitude test.

STUDY 2: RUSSIAN IMMIGRANTS ACQUIRING HEBREW IN ISRAEL

Method

Participants. The participants in this study were 62 Russian-speaking immigrants
above the age of 18, who had acquired Hebrew as an L2.3 All lived in communities
close to Tel-Aviv. The minimum length of residence in Israel was set at 8 years to
make sure that ultimate attainment levels had been reached. The age of acquisition
varied from 4 to 65 (see Table 3).4

The immigrants varied in educational background. Most people in the sample
had 13–18 years of schooling. Academic degrees were mostly in science, one-
quarter had degrees in humanities and sociology, and the rest had degrees in
the life sciences. Two-thirds had graduated from a Russian-speaking university,
compared to one-third who had received their academic degree in Israel. Most
participants were working or had worked in Israel by the time of the study. A
scale of high (e.g., engineer, physician), middle (e.g., teacher), and low positions
(e.g. cashier, cleaner) was constructed to evaluate immigrants’ work positions. It
showed that most participants had high or intermediate positions.

Most participants knew other languages, in addition to Russian and Hebrew,
before emigrating from the (former) Soviet Union: Ukrainian, Polish,
Georgian, Romanian, French, German, Yiddish, or English. Most participants
did not know any Hebrew before emigrating; those who did had mostly “poor”
knowledge of the language. Most of them had studied Hebrew in Ulpan (i.e.,
intensive immersion Hebrew language classes for new immigrants, provided
by the state, which finances immigrants’ living expenses during their first
months in Israel, so they can devote more time to language learning) and had
also taken a course or studied at a Hebrew-speaking institute (school, college,
university).

Instruments

GJT. All participants took a GJT in Hebrew consisting of 204 items representing
six basic categories of Hebrew morphology, such as noun–adjective agreement,
use of the definite article, and morphology of past, present, and future tense. The
test was designed by the second and third authors, specifically for the purpose of
this study (see Appendix A for a list of structures and examples).

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Aptitude test. The same aptitude test was used as in the North American study.

Biographical questionnaire. All participants filled out an extensive biographical
questionnaire of 66 multiple-choice and open-ended questions about their age
of acquisition, age at testing, length of residence, gender, academic background,
profession, children born in Israel, economic situation, self-assessment of Hebrew
knowledge at the time of testing, self-assessment of Hebrew knowledge prior to
immigration, sources of Hebrew knowledge, contexts of Hebrew usage, language
preferences, identity, and motivation.

Procedures

Participants were recruited via flyers posted in public places, ads in publications
aimed at Russian immigrants, and word of mouth. They were paid US $20 for
participation in the study. They were tested individually, in a quiet room, usually at
home. After signing the consent form, they filled out the background questionnaire,
then took the grammar test, and finally the aptitude test.

The items on the grammar test were presented auditorily by playing a digitized
recording of all sentences, each read twice in a row, with a 3-s interval between
the two readings and a 6-s interval between sentence pairs. The sentences were
recorded by the second author, a linguist and proficient speaker of Hebrew, in
a fixed random order. The entire test took about 1 hr; there was a 5-min break
halfway through.

The aptitude test was written; participants could work at their own pace, except
that there was a time limit of 25 min for each section.
Results

The scores on the GJT ranged from 101 to 196 out of 204, with a mean of 150.
The reliability coefficient (KR-20) was 0.98.

The relationship between age of acquisition and ultimate attainment is repre-
sented in Figure 5. The corresponding correlation coefficient is −.79 ( p < .001). As Table 4 shows, however, ultimate attainment is also strongly correlated with age at testing, but not significantly correlated with length of residence. Therefore, length of residence was not included in subsequent analyses, but age at testing was used as a control variable.

Figures 6, 7, and 8 present scatterplots of the age of acquisition–ultimate attain-
ment relationship for three different age ranges: <18 (n = 17), 18–40 (n = 32), >40 (n = 13). The scale for the Y-axis has been kept constant for all three figures,
in order to facilitate comparisons. The corresponding correlation coefficients are
−.48 ( p = .05) for age of acquisition <18; −.37 ( p < .05) for age of acquisition = 18–40; and −.53 (ns) for age of acquisition > 40.

In accordance with the North American data, it is important to look at the corre-
lations when the effect of age at testing is partialed out (given that the correlation
between age of acquisition and age at testing is smaller in the subsamples than
in the total sample, but still not negligible at .79 for the <18 group, .88 for the 18–40 group, and .98 for the <40 group). When the effect of age at testing is

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200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
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Age of acquisition
100
0 20 40 60 80

Figure 5. A scatterplot for all ages in Israel.

partialed out, the difference between the youngest group and the two older groups
becomes quite large, because the correlation for the youngest group remains
moderate and significant (−.51, p < .05), whereas the correlations for the other two groups are small and not significantly different from zero: −.12 (ns) for age of acquisition = 18–40; and −.33 (ns) for age of acquisition > 40. (The reverse
partial correlation, between age of acquisition and age at testing with ultimate
attainment partialed out, is never significant: .29 for the <18 group, −.08 for the 18–40 group, and .23 for the >40 group.)

The role played by aptitude also differs by age group. For all participants
together the correlation between ultimate attainment and aptitude is −.003 (ns);
for age of acquisition < 18 it is −.37 (ns); for age of acquisition 18–40, r = .45 (p < .01); for age of acquisition > 40, r = .14 (ns).5

As was done for the North American group, we conducted a further analysis
splitting the <18 group into a ≤12 group and a >12 group. Within each of these
groups the correlation between age of acquisition and ultimate attainment is quite
small: for age ≤12 it is −.38 (ns, n = 13); for age >12 it is .008 (ns, n = 7). Again,
the correlation coefficients may not be very reliable with such small sample sizes,
but the difference between the two groups for the score on the GJT looms large
here as well: for the ≤12 group the mean is 181.7; for the >12 group it is 158.7;

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

Table 4. Correlations between the main variables for the
participants in Israel (n = 62)

AOA GJT AAT LOR APT

AOA 1 −.79 .98 −.21 .17
(.00) (.00) (.10) (.19)

GJT score 1 −.77 .19 .00
(.00) (.08) (.98)

AAT 1 −.001 .14
(.99) (.27)

LOR 1 −.14
(.28)

APT score 1

Note: AOA, age of acquisition; GJT, Grammaticality Judgment Test;
AAT, age at testing; LOR, length of residence; ATP, aptitude test. The
values in parentheses are p values.

t (16) = 2.37; p < .05. Thus, it appears that the biggest decline does take place at around age 12 for the group in Israel.

Discussion

Hypothesis 1. The hypothesis that the slope of the age of acquisition–ultimate
attainment function would not be linear throughout the life span, but instead show
a marked flattening between adolescence and adulthood, was confirmed. Even the
raw correlation for the age of acquisition range 18–40 was much flatter than for
the 0–17 range, and when the effect of age at testing was partialed out, the effect
became quite dramatic, in the sense that the age of acquisition–ultimate attainment
correlation for the <18 group was moderate (r = −.48) and significant, whereas the correlations for later age ranges of comparable size became very small and nonsignificant. This finding is what one would expect under the CPH: after this period is over, one no longer expects to see the same decline. Some decline for other reasons is expected, of course, especially for the oldest participants; it is found here quite clearly for the oldest participants (age of acquisition > 40; age
at testing = 50.2–75.0 with a mean of 67.8), but it disappears completely when
age at testing is partialed out. A further analysis shows the decline to be especially
steep around age 12 (with the caveat that the sample sizes for ages of ≤12 and
13–18 are quite small).

Hypothesis 2. The hypothesis that the relationship between aptitude and ultimate
attainment would differ markedly for the younger and the older arrivals was
also confirmed. The correlation for the age of acquisition <18 group was small (r = −.37) and nonsignificant; for the age of acquisition 18–40 range it was substantial and significant (r = .45; p < .01). For the oldest arrivals, whose age of acquisition is over 40 and whose age at testing varies from 50.2 to 75.2 with a

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
m
a
ti
c
a
il
it
y
j
u
d
g
m
e
n
t
te
s
t
Age of acquisition
100
4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18

Figure 6. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of <18 in Israel.

mean of 67.8, the correlation flattens again (r = .17, ns), presumably because other
factors are increasingly playing a role in determining test performance for this age
range.

GENERAL DISCUSSION

The results for the samples from North America and Israel show remarkably
similar patterns, despite the radical differences in L2 structures to be acquired
(morphology-rich Hebrew vs. morphology-poor English) and the different societal
context. All the learners had in common in both cases was their native language
(besides, for many of them, ethnic and religious affiliation, and perhaps attitudes
toward language and schooling).

For younger learners (below the age of 18), ultimate attainment in grammar was
strongly predicted by age of arrival, but not by aptitude. For young adults (ages
18 to 40), it was the other way around: aptitude, but not age of arrival predicted
the level of ultimate attainment. For the oldest learners, who were over age 40
on arrival and typically between 50 and 75 at testing, neither aptitude nor age of
arrival were good predictors, only age at testing.

The findings about the effect of age of arrival are perfectly compatible with
the predictions of the CPH: a rather precipitous decline in the ability to acquire a

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
m
a
ti
c
a
il
it
y
j
u
d
g
m
e
n
t
te
s
t
Age of acquisition
100
15 20 25 30 35 40

Figure 7. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of 18–40 in Israel.

language during a time period ending somewhere in adolescence, followed by a
period of no further decline as a function of age of arrival (even though there may
be some decline because of other factors, such as age at testing, especially for the
oldest participants). These findings concur with those of studies that have shown a
pattern of rapid decline followed by relative stability (e.g., DeKeyser, 2000; Flege
et al., 1999; Johnson & Newport, 1989). They are different from those found in
studies such as Hakuta et al. (2003), who found a decline throughout the life span,
and they are the opposite of those in Birdsong and Molis (2001), the only study
in the literature that found no decline for the younger group, but a significant
decline for the adults. Elsewhere (DeKeyser, 2006) we provided explanations for
why the latter studies may have found such lack of stabilization in adulthood:
for example, measurement of ultimate attainment with nothing but a very coarse-
grained self-assessment in the case of Hakuta et al. (2003) and the presence of
some outliers in Birdsong and Molis (2001). The present study suggests that not
taking into account age at testing, usually substantially confounded with age of
acquisition, may have been another important reason for their findings and their
discrepancy with ours. In contrast, the lack of decline in the early learner group
in Birdsong and Molis may have been because of the L1–L2 combination: when
the two languages are relatively closely related such as English and Spanish, one
would expect the decline in the early group (because of the critical period) to be

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

200
180
160
140
120
G
ra
m
m
a
ti
c
a
il
it
y
j
u
d
g
m
e
n
t
te
s
t
Age of acquisition
100
40 45 50 55 60 65 70 75

Figure 8. A scatterplot for age of acquisition at an age of >40 in Israel.

less marked, and therefore, it would look more similar to the decline in the late
group (due largely to confounding with age at testing). In our two studies here,
both L1–L2 combinations (Russian–English and Russian–Hebrew) were more
challenging.

The findings on the effect of aptitude are also compatible with previous findings,
in this case on the role of aptitude at various ages (DeKeyser, 2000; Harley & Hart,
1997), despite the very different operationalization of aptitude in those studies
(tests of aptitude for foreign language learning) compared to the present one (a
broader verbal aptitude test).

Together these findings provide both evidence for a quantitative decline of
learning ability and a qualitative shift in grammar learning mechanisms as a
function of age before adulthood; they contradict the claims that there is no
quantitative evidence of a critical period because there is no discontinuity in
the decline (e.g., Birdsong, 2004, 2005, 2006; Hakuta et al., 2003) or because
there is no evidence of qualitative differences as a function of age (Hakuta, 2001).
Putting both age at testing and aptitude into the picture has provided a dramatically
different picture for younger compared to older learners of how much learning
takes place and how: younger learners learn more while relying less on aptitude;
older learners learn less, and to the extent they do learn, must rely more heavily
on their verbal aptitude. These findings should not be immediately generalized to

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

all aspects of L2, of course; only morphosyntax was studied here, not the lexicon,
pragmatics, or pronunciation.

We are now conducting a fine-grained study of the linguistic aspects of the
various morphosyntactic structures in our tests to shed further light on the nature
of the qualitative differences in learning mechanisms for children and adults.
However, we do not want to suggest, of course, that age of arrival and aptitude
are the only variables that matter in determining ultimate attainment. A wide
variety of studies have documented a very large spread in proficiency among adult
learners, due not only to age and aptitude, but also to personality, motivation, and
level of education, among other variables (see, e.g., Dörnyei, 2005; Dörnyei &
Skehan, 2003; Ellis, 2004). These variables do not take away from the importance
of the age factor, however; on the contrary, studies that have investigated level
of education and age of arrival in the same data set have found that, although
level of education is a predictor of ultimate achievement, the shape of the age
of arrival–ultimate attainment function is the same for learners with different
levels of education (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1999; Hakuta et al., 2003). At this point
it would be very premature to discount the importance of age of arrival as an
independent predictor of ultimate achievement in L2 grammar. Future studies will
need to take age at testing into account when analyzing the relationship between
age of acquisition and ultimate attainment. Another important improvement over
existing research, our own work included, would come from still larger numbers
of participants, but without sacrificing the quality of the data. Conversely, what
is perhaps most needed in this area of research at this point is the use of a wider
variety of fine-grained dependent measures, not just grammaticality judgments or
global accuracy ratings. It is also desirable, everything else being the same, to have
a population of immigrants who are strictly monolingual at the time of migration
and a precise documentation of the amount and quality of L1 and L2 use by these
immigrants after the onset of acquisition.

APPENDIX A

Structures of the Hebrew GJT (100 item pairs)

1. Noun plurals (N = 10), for example, ∗Dani kana harbe maxshir be-hom senter lifney
shavua/Dani kana harbe maxshir-im be-hom senter lifney shavua “∗Danny bought a lot of
tool at Home Center last week/Danny bought a lot of tool, Pl at Home Center last week.”

2. Adjective inflection (N = 32), for example, ∗Ron kibel shaon shxora le-yom ha-huledet
shelo/Ron kibel shaon shaxor le-yom ha-huledet shelo “∗Ron has received a black, Fem
watch for him birthday/Ron has received a black watch for him birthday.”

3. Verb inflection (N = 8), for example, lama at medaberet im ha-tipus ha-ze bixlal?/lama at
medaber im ha-tipus ha-ze bixlal? ∗Why are you talking to this creature anyway?/Why
are you talking, Fm to this creature anyway?

4. Morphosyntactic constructions, for example, compounding, subordination, conditionals
(N = 16) ∗im Dan yecaxceax shinayim hayu lo shinayim nekiyot/im Dan yecaxceax shi-
nayim yihyu lo shinayim nekiyot “∗If Dan brushes his teeth he had clean teeth/If Dan
brushes his teeth he will have clean teeth.”

5. The definite article (N = 26), for example, ∗tavi li bevakasha magevet me-aron/tavi li
bevakasha magevet me-ha-aron “∗Please bring me a towel from closet/Please bring me a
towel from the-closet.”

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DeKeyser et al.: Cross-linguistic evidence for the nature of age effects in SLA

Numeral agreement (N = 8), for example, ∗pagashnu shalosh banim ba-xufsha shelanu
be-eilat/pagashnu shlosha banim ba-xufsha shelanu be-eilat “∗We have met three, Fem
boys at our holiday in Eilat/We have met three boys at our holiday in Eilat.”

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This research was funded by NIH (NICHD) Grant 1 R03 HD41479–01. The authors
gratefully acknowledge the help of Becky Bird and Neta Abugov with data collection and
Elaine Rubinstein and Gabi Lieberman with data analysis. Parts of this study were previ-
ously presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Applied Linguistics
in Portland, Oregon, and at the International Symposium on Bilingualism in Barcelona,
Spain.

NOTES
1. A variety of research projects at the Center for the Advanced Study of Language

(College Park, MD) are aimed at designing a battery of aptitude tests with better
validity, especially for advanced stages of language learning.

2. Eight more people were tested, but the data for seven of them were not entered into
the analysis because the questionnaire showed that they did not meet the criteria for
the study (they fell slightly short of 8 years of residence or had a slight hearing
problem), and one person’s data were eliminated from the analysis because he had a
score below chance on the GJT, presumably because of ignoring or misunderstanding
the instructions.

3. Eleven more people were tested, but their data were eliminated from the analysis
because they had a GJT score below chance, presumably because of ignoring or
misunderstanding the instructions, or scored zero on the aptitude test.

4. Two participants whose age of acquisition was <3 were eliminated from the analysis after the comment from an external reviewer that one cannot speak of SLA at such a young age. The minimum is now set at age 4.

5. Two people scored zero on the aptitude test, presumably because they misunderstood or
ignored the instructions; they were eliminated from the analyses involving the aptitude
test.

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