Project Strands

Strand 5

Language learning across the lifespan: the role of age, language-specific factors & learning experience on language acquisition

How can we best inspire language learners to be motivated and engaged across the lifespan? Successful language learning has long been considered dependent on factors such as the typological distance between first and target languages, age of onset, and types of experience. These factors are often assumed to have the same effects across all language domains (lexicon, syntax, discourse, pragmatics, etc.) and have mostly been examined in isolation, so conclusive findings are rare. We will innovate by looking at these factors and their possible interaction in an integrated study.

We focus on language learning in the UK, mainland China, and Hong Kong, locations with ‘strong’ languages: English the global lingua franca, Mandarin spoken by around a third of the world’s population, and Cantonese, the dominant language in Hong Kong (where English is also an official language). These locations differ in the perceived need for multilingualism, which is greater in Asia than in the UK, the nature of learner identities, and perceptions of the status of the languages to be acquired. We ask:

  • To what extent does the age of onset (cf. S6) affect the acquisition of L2?
  • What is the impact of typology?
  • What role does the type of learning experience (nature of input, societal status of the language (cf. S2), motivation (cf. S4), degree of exposure to the target language, etc.) play in L2 learning?
  • What interactions are there between these three key factors?

We will conduct research on English and Cantonese as L1, and French, Polish and Mandarin Chinese as target languages, selecting language pairs that are typologically close (Cantonese L1– Mandarin L2, English L1 – French L2) or typologically distant (English L1 – Mandarin L2, English L1 – Polish L2). These languages vary in perceived status (French, Polish and Mandarin as L2). We will compare L2 Mandarin learning in the UK and Hong Kong to L2 Mandarin learning in China. To better understand issues of age, we will also compare L2 learners at primary or early secondary school age with young adult L2 learners.

We will examine both the learning process and attainment of these learners at different proficiency levels, using a range of tests to measure different types of progress (i.e., meta-linguistic knowledge; knowledge of grammar and usage) such as acceptability judgement, forced imitation, and guided production tasks. Participants’ language background, motivation and identity will be assessed using a questionnaire shared with Strands 3-6. Finally, some participants will take more psychologically-oriented tests to measure attention. Our international partners at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Peking University will assist with data collection in both locations to complement the data we collect in the UK.

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