ArticlePDF Available


Recent findings (see, for example, Muñoz and Singleton, 2011) indicate that age of onset is not a strong determinant of instructed foreign language (FL) learners’ achievement and that age is intricately connected with social and psychological factors shaping the learner’s overall FL experience. The present study, accordingly, takes a participant-active approach by examining and comparing second language (L2) data, motivation questionnaire data, and language experience essays collected from a cohort of 200 Swiss learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) at the beginning and end of secondary school. These were used to analyse (1) whether in the long run early instructed FL learners in Switzerland outperform late instructed FL learners, and if so the extent to which motivation can explain this phenomenon, (2) the development of FL motivation and attitudes as students ascend the educational ladder, (3) the degree to which school-level variables affect age-related differences, and (4) learners’ beliefs about the age factor. We set out to combine large-scale quantitative methods (multilevel analyses) with individual-level qualitative data. While the results reveal clear differences with respect to rate of acquisition in favor of the late starters, whose motivation is more strongly goal- and future-focused at the first measurement, there is no main effect for starting age at the end of mandatory school time. Qualitative analyses of language experience essays offer insights into early and late starters’ L2 learning experience over the course of secondary school, capturing the multi-faceted complexity of the role played by starting age.
Affect trumps age: A person-in-context relational view of age and motivation in
Simone E Pfenninger
(English Department,) University of Zurich, Switzerland
David Singleton
(Institute of Applied Linguistics,) University of Pannonia, Hungary
Corresponding author:
Simone E. Pfenninger, English Dept., University of Zurich, Plattenstrasse 47, 8032
Affect trumps age: A person-in-context relational view of age and
motivation in SLA
Recent findings (see e.g. Muñoz and Singleton, 2011) indicate that age of onset is not
a strong determinant of instructed foreign language (FL) learners’ achievement and
that age is intricately connected with social and psychological factors shaping the
learner’s overall FL experience. The present study, accordingly, takes a participant-
active approach by examining and comparing L2 data, motivation questionnaire data,
and language experience essays collected from a cohort of 200 Swiss EFL learners at
the beginning and end of secondary school. These were used to analyze (1) whether
in the long run early instructed FL learners in Switzerland outperform late instructed
FL learners, and if so the extent to which motivation can explain this phenomenon,
(2) the development of FL motivation and attitudes as students ascend the educational
ladder, (3) the degree to which school-level variables affect age-related differences,
and (4) learners’ beliefs about the age factor. We set out to combine large-scale
quantitative methods (multilevel analyses) with individual-level qualitative data.
While the results reveal clear differences with respect to rate of acquisition in favor of
the late starters, whose motivation is more strongly goal- and future-focused at the
first measurement, there is no main effect for starting age at the end of mandatory
school time. Qualitative analyses of language experience essays offer insights into
early and late starters’ L2 learning experience over the course of secondary school,
capturing the multi-faceted complexity of the role played by starting age.
Age factor, motivation, multilevel modeling, learner beliefs, context variables
In recent decades, it has become increasingly apparent that factors of a social,
psychological and contextual nature are prominent in both early and late second
language (L2) learners in naturalistic settings as well as classrooms (cf. Moyer
2014a). However, so far only minimal attention has been paid to the interaction
between person and context in quantitative and qualitative age research. One reason
for this is the limited availability of convenient and successful methods for addressing
context effects statistically. Another challenge is mentioned by Moyer (2014b), who
suggests that since age of onset (AO) has a significant relationship with experience,
the nature of that relationship needs to be clarified in future research via the
‘messiness’ of introspective methods (458). In conformity with this view, Pica (2010)
points out that the heavy emphasis on age in making decisions about school policy
and practice has overlooked the abundant research on psychosocial factors such as
learner beliefs and motivation that have been shown to impact on language learning
in a school context and which may explain why “early L2 schooling is not necessarily
better” (260). Thus, whilst learners’ ultimate levels of achievement and proficiency
will remain a focus of age-related research, an important additional perspective needs
to focus on the processes and timescales in which learners can be seen to be happy
and experience flourishing in language learning, as well as situations in which they
struggle with boredom or with challenges that demand more of them than they are
capable of delivering.
This article focuses on methodological advancements in the area of AO and
motivation in the classroom by combining large-scale quantitative methods that give
an account of both participant and item variability with individual-level qualitative
data. Multilevel analyses are performed to investigate to what extent late starters
long-term achievement in instructional settings matches the supposedly advantaged
performance of early starters. Also analyzed is how motivation factors into this
process. In order to capture psychological elements of learning English as a foreign
language (EFL) from different ages and on different levels internal to the learner ––
language experience essays produced by the participants are drawn on. These help
identify aspects of early and late EFL instruction that seem salient to particular
individuals at the beginning and at the end of secondary school, and thus help
constrain the influential factors other than age that play a role in L2 development.
Such a holistic approach takes into account the combined and interactive operation of
different elements/conditions relevant to specific situations, rather than following the
traditional practice of examining the relationship between well-defined variables in
relative isolation. This approach can also, we believe, provide a richer picture of the
interaction of AO and other (often hidden) variables (see Muñoz, 2014a) than an
approach solely focusing on learners’ long-term outcomes as a function of AO.
An ecological approach to age
Age-in-context I: Cohort effects on motivation
It has been well-documented that the localized practices, experiences and histories of
learners in particular classrooms are pivotal in shaping the process of L2 learning
motivation and performance. Since individuals are known to accommodate to the
normative environment within their class setting, changes in an individual’s
motivational state are thought to be the result of sustained exposure to and
observation of peers, a process commonly referred to as “modeling” (e.g. Berndt and
Keefe, 1995). Learners observe and assess the motivational states of their peers and
may gravitate to the group norm. They may well influence each other in their
perceptions and in their orientation to the classroom environment. In her theory of
group affective tone, George (1995) posits that groups, over time, develop a tendency
to display collective mood states. Positive group affect, for instance, can lead to
increases in motivation and “spreading goodwill” during interpersonal encounters
(George and Brief, 1992: 310). According to Forsyth (2010) group orientations can
also change the way group members think about themselves (see also Mercer, 2014;
Sedikides and Brewer, 2001). Since most people’s selves are a combination of both
personal and collective elements, their answers to the question, “Who am I?” in time
will thus change to include more collectivistic elements.
Peers also influence each other with respect to the value they place on the
development of L2 proficiency. As they do so, their own motivational state may
become dynamic and may eventually lead to greater or lesser gains in L2 proficiency
over time. For instance, Kozaki and Ross (2011) examined the clustering effects of
streamed classes in a foreign language (FL) program and found class compositional
effects to exert both ameliorating and constraining effects on proficiency growth. The
class compositional effects – perceived peers’ normative aspiration to professional
pursuit and orientation to the social mainstream – mediated the trajectories of
individual differences in growth of proficiency. The results of the study suggest that
peers can exert a normalizing influence in FL classrooms that can augment or
undermine individual learners’ own motivations to learn the FL.
Individuals in a school context are influenced not only by their peers but also
by the circumstances of the learning environment. Chaudron (2001) suggests that
classroom processes are heavily influenced by the structure of classroom
organization. Different patterns of teacher-student interaction, group work, degrees of
learners’ control over their learning, and variations in tasks and their sequencing are
seen to play a significant role in the quantity and quality of learners’ production of
and interaction with the target language. Similarly, intensity of teaching and small
groups are found to be conducive to positive attitudes in young learners (e.g. Vilke
and Vrhovac, 1995). Given all this, it is not surprising that students within a
classroom have been found to be more similar to each other than to students in other
classrooms due to whatever school level characteristics are measured (Seltman, 2009:
From a theoretical and research perspective, these arguments place a premium
on classroom-focused empirical studies which investigate how learning contexts
shape processes of motivation and L2 proficiency in individual classrooms (see also
Ushioda, 2013). In the field of individual differences in SLA, for instance, Dörnyei
(2005) has suggested that research should seek to focus on particular constellations
where cognition, affect and motivation function together as wholes. Because most L2
learning in EFL settings happens in institutional environments, the age factor also
needs to be considered in the light of macrocultural and microcultural phenomena
having a bearing on interpersonal relations; these may influence and shape the
motivational states of individuals and groups. The importance of contextual factors in
age research is recognized in research which has highlighted the significant effect of
the ‘macro context’. For instance, it is observed that instructional conditions lead to
different age-related results from natural exposure conditions (see e.g. the reviews in
Lambelet and Berthele, 2015; Muñoz and Singleton, 2011; Singleton and Ryan,
2004). Numerous classroom studies in Europe and across the world have yielded
consistent results showing not only a rate advantage for late starters over early
starters but also very few linguistic advantages to beginning the study of an FL earlier
in a minimal input situation (see e.g. Al-Thubaiti, 2010 for Saudi Arabia; Muñoz,
2006, 2011 for Catalonia (Spain); Larson-Hall, 2008 for Japan; Myles and Mitchell,
2012 for Great Britain; Pfenninger, 2013, 2014a, 2014b for Switzerland; Unsworth et
al., 2012 for the Netherlands).
Age-in-context II: Interaction of age and individual difference variables
The age factor also interacts with social-psychological, personal and affective
variables (see e.g. Moyer, 2014a, 2014b). In the realm of L2 learning motivation,
Dörnyei currently considers vision to be one of the highest order motivational forces,
allowing the consideration of motivation as a long-term, ongoing endeavor (see e.g.
Dörnyei, 2014; Dörnyei and Kubanyiova, 2014). A strong future vision of L2 success
is a reliable predictor of students’ long-term intended effort and overall perseverance,
which are necessary to bring them to high ultimate attainment. Along similar lines
Ryan and Irie (2014) emphasize that “possible selves … contain an element of
experiencing ourselves in that future state” (113). More importantly, it has often been
reported that younger school learners are more motivated and have a more positive
attitude towards a foreign language than older school learners, and that this is a
definite advantage of an early start (e.g. Blondin et al. 1998; Edelenbos et al., 2007;
Hawkins, 1996), although the opposite has also been found (e.g. Dewaele and
MacIntyre, 2014). However, Muñoz (2008) cautions against confounding biological
age and age of onset when it comes to young learners’ attitude: the finding that
younger starters have a more positive attitude towards learning a second language
than older starters may be a result of their younger chronological age rather than or in
addition to their earlier start. Also important is the fact that social-psychological,
personal and affective variables may be under the influence of the more local learning
situation. For a statistical model in age research this means that, e.g., students who
are nested within classes within schools cannot – must not – be treated as independent
observations, as the errors of measurements are not independent. Furthermore, recent
thinking on age (see e.g. Singleton and Pfenninger, 2015) suggests that external
factors such as classroom effects also need to be addressed, as environmental
influences interact with age effects and possibly mediate them. What is more, if
inadequate attention is paid to the unit of analysis (students, class groups, teachers, or
schools), differences found in the dependent measures may be due to uncontrolled
differences among the participating groups rather than the main independent variable
(in the present case, age of onset of learning). Filtering out or failing to address
external influences would thus be a gross error of omission. However, the use of
general linear models such as ANOVA, t-tests, single-level regression, c2-tests, etc.,
which require prior aggregation and are run on the averaged data, is still widespread
in age-related research in SLA. These models cannot take account of the various
unmeasured aspects of the upper level units (e.g. schools or classrooms) that affect all
of the lower level measurements (e.g. measurements within subjects or students
within classrooms) similarly for a given unit. Accordingly, a t-test (or, equivalently,
an ANOVA) may well yield a statistically significant result when there is, in fact, no
effect (e.g. for starting age). It is thus high time for age researchers to begin to
employ models that permit the study of inter-and intra-individual variability across
situations and across time with a more careful parsing of variance between persons
and between items and thus have built-in ecological validity. Such an approach is
multilevel modeling (MLM), which is proposed in this article.
Research questions
The following research questions are addressed in this study:
(1) Do early instructed FL learners in Switzerland outperform late instructed
FL learners in the long run, and if so to what extent can motivation explain this
(2) How do FL motivation and attitudes towards learning of EFL develop as
students ascend the educational ladder in secondary school?
(3) To what extent do school-level variables affect age-related differences?
(4) How do beliefs about the age factor vary among EFL learners with
different AOs?
Note that in our study, “long term” refers to attainment at the end of mandatory
schooling in Switzerland (but cf. Muñoz, 2008, 2014b). By school-level variables we
mean context variables, which include, for example, school location and resources,
and climate variables, applied to characteristics of the learning environment (e.g.
class size, learner expectations, motivation, attitudes, beliefs, influence of teachers
and parents, etc.). With all of this in mind, we opted for an equal-status sequential
mixed methods design, where the rationale was that of complementarity, development
and triangulation (described in detail in Pfenninger and Singleton, 2015). We thus
focus not only on FL motivation and learners’ beliefs as individual difference
variables but on particular students who are engaged in language learning. On the
practical side, we seek to outline a way of researching the age factor in SLA that
accommodates the multifaceted nature of this variable, with a special emphasis on the
crucial mediating role that clustering effects and individual characteristics and beliefs
play. Note, however, that we do not here attempt to provide a detailed account of
research designs, methodologies and instruments for investigating the age factor. The
focus is on the conceptual basis of the models in question.
Several data collection instruments were deployed in the study: (1) six L2
proficiency tasks; (2) one language experience essay (composed in the learners’
language of literacy, that is, Standard German); and (3) one questionnaire that
mapped students’ general motivational dispositions at both data collection times.
Our participants were 200 secondary school students from the German-speaking part
of Switzerland, who were tested at the beginning and at the end of academically
oriented high school when they were 13 and 18 years old respectively. 100 of them
were early classroom learners (henceforth ECLs) of English who had started being
instructed in the language in early childhood (AO 8), and the other 100 were late
classroom learners of English (henceforth LCLs) who had started being instructed in
the language around puberty (AO 13) – see Table 1:
Table 1. Subjects participating in the study.
Age at
time of
Age of
(year of
Length of
in years
Length of
in hours
ECL1100 13-14
(13;8) 8-9
(2) 5.5 440
LCL1100 13-14
(13;4) 13-14
(7) 0.5 50
ECL2100 18-19
(18;8) 8-9
(2) 10.5 1,170
LCL2100 18-19
(18;9) 13-14
(7) 5.5 730
Note: ECL1 = early classroom learners at Time 1; ECL2 = early classroom learners at Time 2; LCL1 = late
classroom learners at Time 1; LCL2 = late classroom learners at Time 2.
The two groups were controlled for L1 (Swiss German), additional FLs learned
(Standard German, French), SES, teaching method and weekly hours of EFL
instruction received. Early starters were not mixed in the same classes as late starters.
The 200 learners were nested within 12 classes that were nested within five schools in
the canton of Zurich. One out of the four schools was in a suburban area, while the
others were in urban school districts.
Note that, despite its status as a language of literacy, Standard German is
considered an L2 here: while Swiss German is a High Alemannic variety of German,
it is hardly understandable to someone who knows only Standard German, as the two
languages differ considerably in lexicon, phonology and syntax (see e.g. Berthele,
2010). According to Lüdi (2007, p. 161), most Swiss citizens are monolingual in
childhood, becoming bilingual in the early primary grades when they receive formal
literacy training in L2 German from 1st grade on (age 7). This means that German-
speaking Swiss children have to learn a relatively unknown language. The situation is
similar regarding French: although one of the four national languages of Switzerland,
it is considered a foreign language in this study because children in Zurich grow up
monolingual, speaking Swiss German, and learn French exclusively in school.
For the qualitative analysis, we selected a focal group of 20 early learners and 20
late learners from those 200 who had participated in the quantitative phase. Early and
late learners were selected according to scores on a range of L2 proficiency tests
administered at Times 1 and 2. Following Muñoz (2014a), the criterion for inclusion
in the high achievement groups was a score in the 75th percentile on all tasks, and for
inclusion in the low achievement groups a score in the 25th percentile on all tests.
Furthermore, the high-achievers all had grades at or above 5 (6 being the highest
grade). Following these grouping criteria, we ended up with four groups of 10
participants: 10 early learners, high achievement (ELH); 10 early learners, low
achievement (ELL); 10 late learners, high achievement (LLH); and 10 late learners,
low achievement (LLL). This enabled us to study the most successful learners vs. the
least successful learners in the sample.
L2 proficiency tasks
Language data were collected by means of a test battery that included a standardized
listening comprehension task (see Pfenninger, 2014a, 2014b), two written
compositions (an argumentative and a narrative essay), a grammaticality judgment
task,1 a vocabulary size test (Academic sections in Schmitt, Schmitt and Clapham’s
(2001) Versions A and B of Nation’s Vocabulary Levels Test), Laufer and Nation’s
(1999) Productive Vocabulary Size Test, and two oral tasks (the re-telling of a silent
1 The reliability coefficient (KR-20) obtained was .90 for grammatical items and .95 for ungrammatical
movie and a spot-the-difference task). The grammaticality judgment task included
morphosyntactic structures that have been found to be particularly age-sensitive, such
as articles and inflections, as well as structures that are not particularly age-sensitive,
for instance word order and do-support (see e.g. McDonald, 2006). We applied two
different analyses to the data from the spoken and written production tasks in order to
answer research question (1): (a) a communicative holistic analysis, and (b) a
quantitative analysis. For the holistic evaluation of the English and German essays,
we partly followed Jacobs et al.’s scale (1981), which, according to Lasagabaster and
Doiz (2003: 140), requires two evaluators and considers the communicative effect of
the speaker’s linguistic production on the receptor and, therefore, comes close to the
main objective of the process of language acquisition, namely interpersonal
communication. Our evaluation system consisted of two criteria which measure
different aspects of written production (Lasagabaster and Doiz, 2003: 142-143):
(1) Content (30 points): this category considers the development and
comprehension of the topic as well as the adequacy of the content.
(2) Organization (20 points): several factors are considered here, namely the
organization of ideas, the structure and cohesion of paragraphs and the
clarity of exposition of the main and secondary ideas.
The results for each of the criteria were summed, the maximum score being 50. The
final score was the average of the total points assigned by each of two independent
evaluators. The inter-rater correlation (Pearson correlation coefficient) for the written
content subscore was 0.82; the organization subscore 0.89; and the total score 0.90
(for the oral data: 0.79, 0.81, 0.86). It was decided to include only two holistic
measures, since some authors have questioned the reliability and informativeness of
the holistic rating of compositions (for discussion, see Torras et al., 2006: 157ff.).
In the context of the quantitative approach, competence was measured in terms
of oral and written fluency, lexical and syntactic complexity, and morphosyntactic
errors. Following Wolfe-Quintero, Inagaki and Kim (1998), fluency was examined in
terms of words per T-unit, which is defined as one main clause and all of the
dependent modifying clauses (Ellis and Barkhuizen, 2005). We should mention that
words/T-unit is often also used as a complexity measure. Syntactic complexity was
examined in both languages using the clauses per T-unit complexity ratio. Lexical
complexity was examined using Guiraud’s Index of Lexical Richness: word types
divided by the square root of the word tokens. Accuracy was examined by counting
the number of misspellings (excluding ‘mechanical errors’ such as punctuation errors)
and the number of morphosyntactic errors per T-unit. Finally, oral fluency was
examined by means of pruned syllables per minute (see e.g. Gavin, 2014).
Language experience essays
Student perspectives occupy a central position in social constructivist approaches to
education (e.g. Brooks and Brooks, 2000; Larochelle et al., 2009) as well as in the
advocacy of autonomy in the classroom (e.g. Cotterall and Crabbe, 2008; Little,
2007; Ushioda, 2009, 2011), but individualized approaches to age research are still
scarce. Thus, in order to give a better account of the interaction of AO and other
(often hidden) variables such as motivation, attitudes and beliefs, we used language
experience essays, which we hoped would elicit (a) the participants’ reflections on
their experience of multiple FL learning at the beginning and at the end of secondary
school; (b) the participants’ affect in respect of foreign languages, and English in
particular; and (c) participants’ beliefs about the age factor (rationale of
complementarity, see research question 3). The use of these essays was based on the
idea that, on the one hand, learners’ beliefs are – consciously or unconsciously –
gleaned from past experiences; and that, on the other, learners’ beliefs have an
influential role in respect of learning outcomes (see e.g. Gregersen and MacIntyre,
2014). We provided loose guidelines for the writing. No specific length was set;
students wrote between 203 and 475 words.
Motivation questionnaire
On the basis of the data from the first qualitative phase, including the essays, we
constructed a more structured motivation questionnaire with 28 closed-ended and one
open-ended item, formulated in Standard German, which was administered to the
same 200 students twice, at the beginning and at the end of secondary school
(rationale of development, see research questions 1 and 2). The qualitative analysis of
the language experience essays was conducted in three stages. The first stage
involved separately reading through the essays for each student several times, getting
a general understanding of issues covered and taking note of interesting features.
Starting from the second reading, the essays were analyzed independently for
emerging categories. 15 categories emerged as significant relative to target language
development and age-related differences. Finally, after the saturation of categories,
some were merged with others, resulting in eight final categories:
1. Future L2 self-states
2. Present L2 self-states
3. FL learning anxiety
4. Linguistic self-confidence
5. Attitudes towards FLs in general
6. Attitudes towards the learning situation
7. Cultural interest and media usage
8. Parental encouragement
Future L2 self-states encompass learners’ ‘experiencing’ themselves in future states,
their strongly valued future possible selves that included the FL, such as the wish to
become similar to native speakers of English, and also the usefulness of the FL skills
to be learned in the future and the incentive value of success, i.e. the value of
potential outcomes and rewards, external or internal. This included a desired
(imagined) L2 community that offers possibilities for an enhanced range of identity
options in the future (see e.g. Norton, 2014).
According to Dörnyei (2009: 11) a person’s present L2 self has traditionally been
seen as “the summary of the individual’s self-knowledge related to how the person
views themselves at present” and is assumed to also concern information derived
from the individual’s past experiences (Markus and Nurius, 1986). Present L2 self-
states thus refer to the current attitudes learners displayed toward EFL and the FL
community and their reactions to a world in which English plays a predominant role,
as well as the extent to which the learners wanted to experience cross-cultural contact
involving English and travel to English-speaking countries. This dimension also
includes factors of external regulation leading to action in order to avoid bad grades
or to assuage a guilty conscience.
Making a distinction between present and future self-states is important for two
main reasons: on the one hand, the motivation literature emphasizes that motivated
behaviour occurs as the learners seek to reduce the gap between their ideal L2 self in
the future and their present self (e.g. Dörnyei, 2005, 2014). Measuring this gap can
thus shed light on early vs. late starters’ motivated behaviour. On the other hand,
reports from our language experience essays highlighted the fuzziness of the ideal L2
self/ought-to L2 self binary in the L2 Motivational Self System proposed by Dörnyei
(2005) as well as the integrativeness/instrumentality binary in Gardner’s Socio-
Educational Model of Language Learning (e.g. Gardner, 1985; Gardner and Lambert,
1959) (see Pfenninger and Singleton, in prep.). For instance, it turned out that
internalized instrumental motives, such as perceived benefits and usefulness of
English in a globalized world, can be part of the students’ ideal L2 self.
FL anxiety refers to “the worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when
learning or using a second language” (MacIntyre, 1999: 27). Since it has been
recommended (e.g. Dewaele and MacIntyre, 2014) that researchers examine both
positive and negative emotions in the same study, owing to the absence of anxiety
being ambiguous and thus difficult to interpret, we added linguistic confidence to
assess positive emotions. This dimension refers to the belief of learners that they are
capable of engaging in social interactions in the L2 and is often said to develop, on
the one hand, as a consequence of frequency of (prior) contact and quality (or
pleasantness) of contact with the L2 and members of the L2 group (e.g. Sampasivam
and Clément, 2014), or, on the other hand, as a precursor to contact when feelings of
confidence motivate learners to seek such contact (see e.g. Kormos and Csizér, 2008).
Attitudes towards FLs is concerned with FL learning in general and includes FLs
other than English (e.g. French). In order to give a full account of the role of FL
learning experiences, it was decided to include and adapt a category on attitudes
toward the learning situation, which covers the immediate learning situation
important to any study of L2 motivation in a classroom context (syllabus, teacher,
class atmosphere, etc.), as well as the learners’ sense that their behaviors are self-
determined even thought they might be influenced by external sources.
Students’ particular interest in English-speaking cultures would also have been
gauged by questions on cultural interest and media usage, relating to the appreciation
of cultural products as, for instance, delivered by the media.
Finally, we added one more dimension, parental encouragement, which refers to
the extent to which parents encourage their children to study English (Kormos and
Csizér, 2008). On the one hand, this dimension relates to previous findings in the
literature that parents can influence their children’s attitudes and motivation in subtle
and sometimes unconscious ways through their own attitudes to FLs or FL learning,
even without actively involving themselves in their children’s learning (see
Mihaljevic Djigunovic, 2012; Nikolov, 1999). In addition, we wanted to make
reference to the fact that parents frequently demand the inclusion of a FL in primary
school curricula (Kubanek-German, 1998).
Each category was allotted between two and eight items, giving a total of 28
items. Table 2 shows the Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficients for the three multi-
item scales of the present study. All of the reliability coefficients are above the
recommended .70 threshold.
Table 2. Information about the multi-item scales.
Variables No. of
alpha 
Sample item
Future L2 self-
8 .79 Whenever I think of the
future, I imagine myself as
someone who is able to
speak English.
Present L2 self-
7 .75 As a language, I don’t like
FL learning
2 .71 I get nervous when I speak
English in my English class.
Linguistic self-
2 .74 I am successful at learning
Attitudes 2 .81 I like learning foreign
towards FLs languages in general.
towards the
2 .82 I usually look forward to
English classes.
Cultural interest 3 .84 I enjoy English language
movies and programs.
2 .86 My parents encourage me to
study English.
A five-point Likert scale was used for all categories, to provide enough possibilities
(whilst avoiding confusion with the Swiss grading system, which scores 1-6). Some
of these questions were adapted for the Swiss school context, a third of them were
made negative, and the resultant list was translated into German and randomized.
Attention was paid to ensure that the questions were not beyond the grasp of the 13–
14 age groups at Time 1. The questionnaire was pilot-tested with 50 participants in
2008 (see Pfenninger and Singleton, in prep). This led to the deletion of some items
and the reformulation of others. Finally, in the open-ended question, the ECLs were
asked about the main differences between EFL in primary school and EFL in
secondary school and how they experienced the transition from primary to secondary
school with respect to English.
Modeling “learner-in-context”
The best ways to deal with a person-in-context relational view of age and motivation
are to employ multilevel models (Baayen, Davidson and Bates, 2008; Jaeger, 2008),
which are ideal for a potentially generalizable study of age effects and motivation,
given the availability of both individual-level and aggregated contextual-level data
with a sufficiently large number of groups. These models take into account, for
instance, that students within a classroom (and school) might be more similar to each
other than to students in other classrooms (and schools) by including random
intercepts. Multilevel models can also be used for assessing the impact of context-
varying factors on individual difference variables, and they take account of the fact
that different participants and/or classes and/or different items may vary with regard
to how sensitive they are to the manipulation at hand by including school-specific,
subject-speci c and item-specific slopes for the xed effect AO. They provide us withfi fi
a way to empirically measure and analyze contextual motivational factors, which are
often only implicitly reflected in the individual’s self-reported attitudes and
Table 3 displays the learner-level and class-level variables that we selected in
our model, where we controlled for the clustering of learners within particular classes
within particular schools:
Table 3. Student, class and school level variables.
Predictors (fixed effects)
Learner-level variables
Motivation (8 motivational dimensions)
Prior knowledge (scores at Time 1)
Class-level variables
Class size
School (Level 3)
Class (Level 2)
Subject (Level 1)
Subjects across time
School-specific, subject-speci c and item-specific slopes for the xed
effect AO
Gender across classes and schools: Variation in FEMALE slopes
Class size across schools
As Table 3 shows, we had five learner-level variables and one class-level variable.
We ran three multilevel analyses:
1. MLM 2-level analysis (class, school) examining impact of AO on L2
proficiency and motivation at Time 1 and Time 2; we allowed the effects of AO,
gender and class size on L2 achievement to vary across classes and/or schools.
2. MLM 2-level analysis (class, school) examining impact of motivation on
L2 proficiency at Time 1 and Time 2.
3. MLM 4-level (time, learner, class, school) examining individual growth
curves for L2 proficiency and motivation over two waves.
In 1 and 2 we wanted to see how much difference there was within a class and within
a school, i.e. whether all classes and all schools had the same relationships or whether
there was variability in the effect of the fixed variables (AO, gender, class size, time,
motivation) on learners’ L2 achievement. As the MLM in 3 shows, longitudinal data
can also be conceptualized as a hierarchy, where we have different observations
nested within people. The outcome and the occasions (time) were Level 1 variables,
the learner characteristics were Level 2 variables, class characteristics were at Level 3
and school characteristics at Level 4. Thus, in order to measure growth and
development over the years, we fitted 2-level linear growth models to each set of
longitudinal L2 proficiency scores. Note that when including continuous predictors
such as motivation in a mixed-effect model, it is often useful to center each predictor
around its mean value (see e.g. Cunnings, 2012: 376). This involves subtracting from
each individual value of a predictor the predictor’s overall mean, and is done to help
reduce collinearity within the model (e.g. between main effects and interactions).
Visual inspection of residual plots did not reveal any obvious deviations from
homoscedasticity or normality. P-values were obtained by likelihood ratio tests of the
full model with the effect in question against the model without the effect in question.
All models reported were fitted using Laplace estimation with the R software (R
Development Core Team, 2014) and lme4 (Bates, Maechler and Bolker, 2014). Also,
all models were rst evaluated with likelihood ratio tests (test model vs. null model
with only the control variables). If the full model vs. null model comparison reached
signi cance, we present p-values based on likelihood ratio tests. Given the lack of
degrees of freedom with mixed models, we refrain from reporting df.
Results of the quantitative analysis
Research question 1
In accordance with our research questions (1)-(2), we will examine the impact of AO
and motivation on L2 achievement at both data collection times, and follow this with
a discussion of the influence of AO and time on motivation. The participants’
performance across all skills tested is shown in Table 4:
Table 4. Descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations).
(n=100) LCL1
1 Listening
comprehension n.a. n.a. 12.61
(3.17) 12.08
2 Productive n.a. n.a. 25.46 25.11
vocabulary (7.47) (7.71)
3 Receptive
vocabulary 26.36
(8.59) 17.47
(8.05) 50.08
(7.14) 49.4
4 Written content 19.14
(2.61) 19.05
(2.19) 27.23
(1.95) 27.10
5 Written
organization 10.52
(1.99) 10.42
(2.05) 16.67
(2.96) 16.90
6 Written lexical
richness 4.92
(1.30) 4.17
(0.78) 7.57
(0.80) 7.73
7 Written fluency 10.88
(3.63) 10.78
(3.22) 14.91
(2.97) 14.15
8 Written
complexity 1.43
(0.39) 1.45
(0.31) 1.69
(0.61) 1.72
9 Written
accuracy 2.07
(0.63) 1.77
(0.58) 0.61
(0.44) 0.62
0Oral lexical
richness 4.01
(1.85) 3.22
(1.28) 5.55
(1.43) 5.63
11 Oral fluency 60.95
(16.55) 57.79
(8.17) 124.80
(12.78) 122.48
complexity 1.30
(0.61) 1.34
(0.41) 1.57
(0.55) 1.61
accuracy 3.46
(1.67) 2.79
(1.72) 1.20
(1.25) 1.30
(3.78) 23.45
(3.41) 41.93
(3.31) 42.95
As can be seen in Table 4 and Table 5 below, the effect of AO is strong and
significant for the following dimensions at the beginning of secondary school:
receptive vocabulary and written lexical richness, for which an earlier AO were more
advantageous, and oral and written accuracy, where the late starters outperformed the
earlier starters:
Table 5. Multilevel regression analyses for scores as dependent variable at Time 1
(fixed effect estimates for AO).Fixed effect: AO
Estimate tMain
effect p
Receptive vocabulary -11.41 ± 1.32 -8.62 <.0001**
Written content -0.40 ± 0.43 -0.95 .255
Written organization -0.23 ± 0.35 -0.66 .477
Written lexical
richness -0.79 ± 0.22 -3.55 .001**
Written fluency -0.81 ± 0.50 -1.61 .062
Written complexity 0.01 ± 0.07 0.16 .845
Written accuracy -0.43 ± 0.10 -4.16 <.001**
Oral fluency -5.71 ± 8.80 -0.65 .474
Oral complexity -0.01 ± 0.34 0.03 .969
Oral accuracy -0.62 ± 0.29 -2.10 .030*
GJT -1.02 ± 0.87 -1.17 .210
At Time 2, there were no longer any links between the learners’ AO and their FL
achievement except for the significantly better grammaticality judgment results of the
late starters (see Table 6):
Table 6. Multilevel regression analyses for scores as dependent variable at Time 2
(fixed effect estimates for AO). Fixed effect: AO
Estimate tMain effect p
Listening -0.15 ± 1.09 -0.14 .874
Productive vocabulary 0.87 ± 2.78 0.31 .730
Receptive vocabulary -0.79 ± 1.50 -0.53 .603
Written content 0.07 ± 0.26 0.36 .707
Written organization 0.60 ± 0.62 0.96 .423
Written lexical richness 0.21 ± 0.12 1.80 .603
Written fluency -0.39 ± 0.54 -0.72 .327
Written complexity 0.05 ± 0.12 0.42 .625
Written accuracy -0.02 ± 0.07 -0.31 .749
Oral fluency -0.02 ± 0.07 -0.31 .972
Oral complexity 0.02 ± 0.28 0.83 .910
Written accuracy -0.02 ± 0.07 -0.31 .749
Oral accuracy 0.18 ± 0.20 0.90 .352
GJT 1.49 ± 0.55 2.73 .014*
This means that the late starters were able to make more progress within a shorter
period of time, i.e. there is a clear difference in rate of EFL learning in favor of the
late starters.
With respect to motivation, the two groups differed from each other at Time 1 in
terms of the strength of their future vision of themselves as competent L2 users, with
the late starters having significantly higher values, as well as in terms of their present
L2 self-states, which were stronger for the early starters – although the latter result
was only marginally significant. Table 7 presents the values for each motivational
dimension (descriptive statistics), while Table 8 shows the results of the multilevel
model with AO as the main predictor of motivation at Time 1:
Table 7. Descriptive statistics for motivation (means and standard deviations).
1 Future selves 2.81
(0.76) 3.21
(0.90) 3.87
(0.70) 3.71
2 Present selves 3.27
(1.03) 2.75
(0.76) 3.39
(0.63) 3.42
3 FL learning
anxiety 2.94
(1.00) 2.31
(0.82) 2.07
(0.84) 2.11
4 Linguistic self-
confidence 2.99
(1.13) 3.06
(1.18) 3.10
(1.24) 3.05
5 Attitudes
towards FLs 1.98
(0.95) 2.51
(1.10) 3.03
(1.18) 3.18
6 Attitudes
towards the
(0.90) 2.97
(1.18) 3.36
(0.99) 3.40
7 Cultural
interest and
(1.00) 3.67
(0.91) 4.01
(0.71) 4.04
8 Parental
encouragement 2.78
(1.04) 3.00
(1.06) 3.57
(0.80) 3.47
Table 8. Multilevel regression analyses for motivation as dependent variable at Time
1 (fixed effect estimates for AO).
Fixed effect: AO
Estimate tMain
effect p
Future selves 0.32 ± 0.15 2.21 .030*
Present selves -0.52 ± 0.26 -2.02 .052*
Anxiety -0.52 ± 0.14 -3.68 <.001**
Confidence 0.08 ± 1.19 0.46 .645
Attitudes to FLs 0.54 ± 0.15 3.69 <.001**
Attitudes to
0.57 ± 2.26 2.24 .027*
Culture and
media 0.11 ± 0.13 0.81 .413
encouragement 0.20 ± 0.22 0.22 .342
Note: “n.s.” indicates non significant; “n.a.” = non applicable.
Two observations are interesting with respect to the learners’ present and future self-
states. First, while the relationship between AO and future and present self
perceptions was the same across the five schools, there was significant between-class
and between-school variation concerning both these dimensions, as Figures 1 and 2
demonstrate for future self perceptions (although the results in Figure 2 are only
marginally significant):
Figure 1. Variation across classes for future L2 self-states at Time 1 (variance=0.06,
SD=0.25, p=.013*).
Motivation scores
Figure 2. Variation across schools for future L2 self-states at Time 1 (variance=0.03,
SD=0.16, p=.051*).
Classes and schools had a significant impact on students’ perceptions and
orientations. Also, whereas present self-states did not have the same impact on the
scores at either Time 1 or Time 2, future self-states had a large and significant effect
at both data collection times (see Tables 10 and 11 in the Appendix).
The LCLs were also less anxious than the ECLs at Time 1, and they had more
positive attitudes towards FLs and the learning situation (see Table 4 above). In fact,
the ECLs had extremely unfavorable attitudes towards FLs in general when they
began secondary school (mean value of 1.89 on a 5-point scale at Time 1). It has to be
pointed out, however, that anxiety, confidence, and attitudes to FLs did not impact on
the scores greatly at either measurement time (see Pfenninger and Singleton, in prep.
for a discussion of these findings). By contrast, attitudes to the learning situation had
a particularly marked impact after six years, i.e., after the classes’ structures had had
time to develop (see Tables 12 and 13 in the Appendix). Finally, parental
encouragement had a significant impact on proficiency at Time 1 but not at Time 2,
irrespective of AO (see Tables 14 and 15 in the Appendix). This is interesting insofar
as neither ECLs nor LCLs thought that their parents had had a particularly active,
encouraging role in respect of their L2 learning (see the values around 3.5 on a 5-
point scale for dimension 10 in Table 4 above).
Research question 2
With respect to motivation as a dependent variable (see research question 2), the
results did not show a decline in positive attitudes as students moved up the school.
Quite to the contrary, almost all orientations received higher values at Time 2, e.g.
future L2 self-states (see Figure 3; for all dimensions see Table 16 in the Appendix).
In addition, the two age groups showed a similar growth from Time 1 to Time 2 (see
Table 9) – except in regard to anxiety and attitudes to FLs, where the ECLs advanced
significantly more:
1.0 1.2 1.4 1.6 1.8 2.0
Motivation scores
AO groups
Figure 3. Single-level regression of future L2 selves over time across the 12 classes
Table 9. Multilevel regression analyses for growth of the two age groups (fixed effect
estimates). Fixed effect: AO
Estimate tMain
effect p
Future selves 0.12 ± 0.18 0.67 .467
Present selves -0.24 ± 0.24 -1.00 .285
Anxiety -0.32 ± 0.12 -2.67 .019*
Confidence -0.03 ± 0.13 -0.24 .892
Attitudes to FLs 0.34 ± 0.13 2.55 .015*
Attitudes to
0.21 ± 0.15 1.42 .144
Culture and
media 0.09 ± 0.11 0.86 .438
encouragement 0.05 ± 0.12 0.42 .647
Note. “n.a.” = non applicable
At Time 2, there were no longer any differences between the two age groups (Table
17 in the Appendix).
Not surprisingly, motivation varied across the 12 classes and the five schools.
Figure 4, for instance, shows evidence of the relationship between future L2 self-
states and receptive vocabulary being different:
10 20 30 40
Motivation scores T1
Receptive vocabulary scores T1
AO groups
Figure 4. Single-level regression of future L2 selves on receptive vocabulary at Time
1 across the 12 classes
The intercepts are very different (some classes have a higher intercept than other
classes) and the slopes are not the same, i.e. they are not exactly parallel. We can also
see a different pattern that emerges for the two AO groups: for the dotted lines (i.e.
the early starters) intercepts tend to be higher than for the long-dash lines (i.e. the late
starters), reflecting the early starters’ better scores on this test at Time 1 (see Tables 4
and 6 above), but the effect of this motivational dimension on receptive vocabulary
seems to be the same for both groups (the slopes were equally strong and weak
respectively). The differences in motivation slopes are thus not attributable to AO but
rather to characteristics of the clusters at the level of sampling. While there was
hardly any effect of gender on motivation or learner outcomes, we found a strong
negative effect for class size: as the number of students within a class increased, the
L2 performance (see e.g. receptive vocabulary in Figure 5) and particularly
motivation (see e.g. future L2 selves in Figure 6) tended to decrease at both data
collection times:
10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 21
30 35 40 45 50 55 60
Number of students
Receptive vocabulary scores T2
Figure 5. Effects of class size on receptive vocabulary at Time 2 (b=-0.84, SE=0.23,
t=-3.66, p=0.0006**).
10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 21
1.5 2.0 2.5 3.0 3.5 4.0 4.5 5.0
Number of students
Motivation scores T2
Figure 6. Effects of class size on future L2 selves at Time 2 (b=-0.08, SE=0.02, t=-
3.25, p=0.003*).
About 50% of the written measures were affected by class size, notably listening
comprehension, receptive vocabulary, spoken and written content, spoken and written
organization, written accuracy, and grammaticality judgments. Class size also had a
significant effect on all motivational dimensions – except for attitudes to FLs (at
Time 1 and 2), culture and media (at Time 1) and parental encouragement (at Time 1
and 2).
Research question 3
The results not only revealed variability in motivation effects across subjects, classes
and schools, but also significant variability in age effects across the five schools (see
research question 3). For instance, as Figure 7 shows, one of the four schools – the
only school in a suburban context – tended to have weaker slopes than the others
across all measures (here for receptive vocabulary at Time 1), which means there
were hardly any age-related differences found in this school context:
early late
10 20 30 40
AO groups
Receptive vocabulary scores T1
Figure 7. Single-level regression of AO on receptive vocabulary at Time 1 across the
five schools (variance=0.06, SD=0.24, p<001**)
This indicates that age-related differences are mediated by wider contextual factors.
Variation across classes could not be measured, since early and late starters were not
integrated in the same classes.
Results of the qualitative analysis
In order to be able to answer our last research question (4), regarding learners’ beliefs
about the age factor, we used the qualitative data drawn from a selection of the essays
written by the totality of 200 participants. Before we deal with the selection in
question, however, it may be interesting to delve into the responses to one of the
open-ended questions submitted by the totality of early English students, dealing with
the primary school experience vis-à-vis secondary. 78% of the responses in question
talked about the perception that English instruction in primary school had not focused
on explicit rule-learning, whereas in secondary school it very much had. 72% of the
responses concerned the perceived inefficiency of the way that early English was
taught. 56% of comments expressed criticism of the teacher’s choice of language of
instruction. 41% of students‘ answers to the question complained about the
experience of starting everything again from scratch in secondary school. Finally,
19% of students’ reactions offered some thoughts about the place of English versus
French in primary school.
We come now to the focal group, i.e., the 10 early high-achieving starters, the 10
early low-achieving starters, the 10 late high-achieving starters, and the 10 late low-
achieving starters. We concentrate here on retailing the learners’ perceptions with
regard to the age at which their instruction in EFL had begun.
The trend at Time 1 was for learners to be positive about the age that they
themselves had started learning English. The early high achievers came out fairly
uniformly at Time 1 with sentiments like the following:
(1) The earlier the better’. We should learn foreign languages early because our
brain learns a foreign language faster when we’re children. (07_ELH3_M_GER)
At Time 1 the late high achievers tended, on the other hand, to support the pattern of
starting English later:
(2) I personally don’t think it’s good to begin learning too early ... so beginning
English at 12 or 13 I think is exactly right. (07_LLH10_F_GER)
The late low achievers also tended at Time 1 to support the pattern of starting English
later which they themselves had experienced:
(3) An 8-year-old child very probably still doesn’t understand grammar. He/she at
that time has other things in his/her head. (07_LLL4_M_GER)
The exception at Time 1 to the expression of satisfaction was the tenor of the
comments offered by the early low achievers, who were clearly less than charmed by
their encounter with English in primary school. At Time 2 the early high achievers
showed less unanimity than previously in regard to their assessment of the value of
early English. At Time 1 (see above), the views expressed by this group were
overwhelmingly favorable; when the learners in question were older the picture was
more mixed. Opinions supportive of early English were still in evidence; some more
nuanced, more skeptical views also appeared, however:
(4) I remember how in early years the learning was unconcentrated and slow. At
secondary level it progressed really fast. (12_ELH9_M_GER)
The early low achievers were, if anything, even more skeptical about early English at
Time 2 than they had been at Time 1.
(5) In my opinion the early ‘learning‘ of foreign languages ... isn‘t meaningful. First
really because they (the students) don‘t learn anything, but are only killing time and
get demotivated for foreign languages. Besides this, day by day they lose motivation
for school. (12_ELL1_F_GER)
Amongst the late-starting high-achievers at Time 2, as at Time 1, the
trend was for the late start in English that they had experienced to be approved:
(6) As a child I always envied my brother, who had English as early as the second class
of primary school. ... But looking back I don‘t see this advantage as so big any more.
Within half a year I had in the 2nd year of secondary school the same level of English
as my brother. (12_LLH6_M_GER)
The late low achievers at Time 2 remained as satisfied as they had been at Time 1
with late English, and as skeptical as they had been with regard to the wisdom of the
introduction of English at primary level. In sum, we learned from the language
experience essays that for the most part the late starters were content with and
positive about their late start, and that those who had been able to compare
themselves with early starters (e.g. younger siblings) did not find themselves at a
disadvantage from beginning English later. Amongst the early starters we found
differences between the high achievers and the low achievers. At Time 1 the mood
amongst the high-achieving early starters was very buoyant, many of the positive
opinions expressed, though, seeming to be based on ‘received wisdom’ about the
desirability of beginning English instruction early. At Time 2, views were mixed, a
number of high-achieving early starters referring to their disappointment with their
actual experience of early English. The pattern of perceptions voiced by the early low
achievers was mostly negative at both Time 1 and Time 2.
In our study we first addressed the question about the main differences concerning L2
achievement in two different AO groups (research question 1). With respect to rate of
acquisition, it became obvious that the late starters were able to catch up very quickly
(i.e. within six months in secondary) with the performance of the early starters – who
had had five years more EFL instruction – with respect to a range of oral and written
measures, and that they were able to remain on a par with the early starters until the
end of obligatory schooling in Switzerland. The overall lack of effect of starting the
FL at an earlier age on FL achievement could be accounted for by reference to a
number of theoretical, affective and contextual factors. On a theoretical level the
long-term advantage conferred on most learners by an early start in a naturalistic
language learning context is not found in an FL learning context (see e.g. Muñoz,
2014b). With reference to possible reasons for the “kick start” of the LCLs at Time 1
and the general lack of age-related differences, the results indicated that for the LCLs,
motivation was more strongly goal- and future-focused at the first measurement,
while the motivation of the ECLs was predominantly influenced by (present and past)
cumulative experiential factors. Since future selves – but not present selves – had a
strong impact on the L2 achievement, the LCLs were possibly able to profit from
their orientations at Time 1. As outlined in the literature review above, the strong link
between a future time perspective and academic achievement is not new: students
who ascribe higher valence to goals in the distant future have been found to be more
persistent and obtain better academic results in the present (see e.g. Dörnyei, Muir
and Ibrahim, 2014). Since future selves contain an element of experiencing ourselves
in that future state, they involve a sense of agency, i.e. the belief that one is capable of
affecting outcomes in the future, based on past experiences and attributions for
success and failure. As mentioned above, agency is a vital characteristic of successful
learners and is central to appreciating their engagement, motivation, autonomy, and
self-regulatory behaviors (see e.g. Mercer, 2012). It is thus possible that due to their
past experiences in primary school the ECLs did not experience the requisite sense of
agency. Interestingly, the LCLs were able to keep their visions alive over time, as
they had similarly high values in this motivational dimension at Time 2. What is
more, the gap between present and future selves was the same for both AO groups at
Time 1. It is important to bear in mind, however, that there were no longer any
differences in terms of future self-states between the two AO groups at Time 2, and
for both groups, future self-representations were at that point stronger than present
The expression of negative attitudes towards FLs and the learning
environment at Time 1 is a striking result for the early starters. From the qualitative
analysis it became clear that various factors seemed to contribute to the
disengagement of the early starters and might be responsible for the observed lack of
enthusiasm for engaging with English in school. These might include a lack of belief
in the efficacy of in-school learning environments among learners (see also Henry,
2014) and a relationship between not liking the teacher and not liking the subject (see
also Taylor, 2013). Resistance also appears to have arisen from a discrepancy
between the learners’ expectations of ‘good teaching’ and the pedagogical practices of
the teacher. It also seemed that the ECLs had to deal with a range of challenging
aspects of L2 learning at the beginning of secondary school, such as difficulty
adjusting to the new teaching style. This is also what Cenoz (2004) observed. She
found significant differences in favor of late starters when it came to the L2 learning
motivation of learners who were in the same school year (4th secondary) but who had
received different amounts of instruction. Cenoz hypothesized that this might have
been related to the differences in input and methodology between primary school and
secondary school. The ECLs’ responses also raise the question as to whether the skills
that are acquired in primary school are adequately measured and accredited in
secondary school.
The ECLs’ dissatisfaction with early English and the transition from EFL in
primary to EFL in secondary is problematic in several respects. Norton (2014), who
takes a poststructuralist view of motivation and resistance in a classroom, points out
that a student can be highly motivated and eager to learn English in general, but that
if the language practices of the classroom make a learner unhappy or dissatisfied, the
learner may resist participation in classroom activities, or become increasingly
disruptive. This position finds support from Ushioda (2014), who points out that
social-environmental conditions that undermine learners’ sense of competence will
generate forms of motivation that are less internalized, less integrated into the self or
aligned with its values, and more externally regulated by environmental influences,
pressures and controls. The reports in this study also confirm the influence of the
teacher that has been documented abundantly in the SLA literature (e.g. Noels et al.,
1999; Taylor, 2013; Ushioda, 2011). Lamb and Budiyanto (2013) explain that if the
teachers do not have any personal experience of Anglophone culture, English will be
taught and learned as a “values-free body of knowledge conveyed via official
textbooks” (26) and the students might become more oriented towards practice for
local and national exams. In a similar vein, anxiety can result from the classroom
situation (see e.g. Horwitz et al., 1986). For many students, the learning of English is
not an enjoyable activity in itself, but one which they have been required to persist at
for many years in primary school with negligible levels of success.
The fact that the LCLs were equally confident L2 speakers as the ECLs at
Time 1 despite their lesser contact with the L2 in a school context might be explained
in terms of the idea that linguistic confidence can also result from contact via foreign
media use, travel, and perceived importance of contact (see e.g. Clément et al., 1994;
Kormos and Csizér, 2008). At both data collection times we found very high values
for both AO groups in the area of cultural interest and media. Kormos and Csizér
(2008) observed that English language cultural products had a significant effect on
motivated behavior in secondary school pupils compared to adults for whom
“international posture” was a more important predictive variable (see also Tragant,
2006). This was also found in the data collected from 623 Hungarian students by
Kormos and Csizér (2008). Among the limited research on the facilitating effect of
computer-mediated communication (CMC) on L2 acquisition, findings suggest that
for beginning learners, the use of asynchronic CMC methods such as text chat can
allow learners to develop a sense of L2 confidence and alleviate anxiety (see Satar
and Ozdener, 2008).
As regards the question of development of motivation over the course of
secondary school (research question 2), our results show that learners do not
necessarily become more disenchanted with EFL over time. On the contrary, our
participants became increasingly more motivated in terms of a range of motivational
dimensions. In this respect our findings confirm those reported by, e.g., Dewaele and
MacIntyre (2014), who found a steady increase in FL enjoyment from pre-teens to
those in their thirties. However, we cannot say that more hours of instruction are
associated with more positive attitudes, as suggested, e.g., by Tragant and Muñoz
(2000), as there were no differences between the two AO groups with respect to
At the contextual level (see research question 3), our findings illustrate the
importance of school diversities – for example in school curricula, materials and
resources, teacher background and training – and their association with age-related
differences. The participants in this study came from different primary and secondary
school districts and neighborhoods and hence slightly different educational
backgrounds that emphasized different skills and values. It is thus not surprising that
we found variation across schools when it came to differences between early and late
starters. Previous studies have already demonstrated a strong link between socio-
economic status and achievement and motivation respectively (see e.g. Kormos and
Kiddle, 2013; Lamb, 2012). For instance, Muñoz (2008) argued that students from
different social backgrounds have access to different types of schools (state vs.
private) and to varying degrees of extracurricular exposure to the target language (e.g.
private tuition, learning resources, study abroad, etc.). While there were no students
from disadvantaged backgrounds in this study, the results nevertheless showed how
the school district can impact on students’ motivated behavior and, by extension,
mediate age-related differences: resources available and used in FL education are
dependent on schools, which might then influence learners’ intrinsic interest
indirectly (see e.g. Kormos and Kiddle, 2013), with the mediation of classroom
factors (Muñoz, 2008). Students who are highly motivated might thus be able to
make up for a later start. By the same logic, early starters who were in primary
schools with less than optimal learning conditions might not be able to profit from the
extended learning period, as they might have, for instance, significantly less favorable
future L2 self-state. It needs to be noted that motivated behavior and L2 performance
were also strongly influenced by class size in secondary school, which has also been
observed in numerous studies on willingness to communicate (see e.g. Cao and
Philip, 2006).
What could be considered a limitation of the current research might be the
relatively short instruction period of English instruction (five years) experienced by
our later beginners. Ideally, we should have liked to follow all our learners, or at least
some of them, through into higher education or whatever their next stage in life held
in store for them. Unfortunately, this was not possible for practical and logistical
We can draw three general conclusions from the findings of our quantitative
multilevel analyses and the individual-learner qualitative data:
(1) While there were clear differences with respect to rate of acquisition in favor of
the late starters, we found no main effect for age at the end of mandatory school time,
which was also reflected in the qualitative data, e.g., in the reported comparisons that
late learners did with their younger siblings who had experienced early English – and
who failed, according to the reports, to perform better than the late starters.
(2) A strong future vision of L2 use and usefulness was a significant predictor of
success for both early and late starters – but only the latter displayed high values in
this motivational area at Time 1, which might have contributed to their kick-start at
the beginning of secondary school.
(3) The broader social and educational school context – i.e. the schools – played an
important role in attitude formation and in influencing students’ future L2 self-states,
which had a mediating effect on starting age.
(4) The quality of learners’ day-to-day experiences, shared histories and relations in
particular EFL classrooms represents an important microlevel that shaped students
affective engagement with English and thus assumes particular importance for
discussions of motivation.
Our results thus run counter to the commonly held views that earlier starters show a
significant advantage over later starters due to their greater exposure, and that the
main gains of early FL learning lie in the development of positive attitudes and
motivation (e.g. Blondin et al., 1998; Edelenbos et al., 2007). Furthermore, positive
attitudes were not associated with biological age either, as younger learners were not
more motivated than older learners, i.e., motivation increased with time.
It seems that Ushioda’s (2013) observation holds true that “it is what happens (or
does not happen) in each individual classroom, as orchestrated by the teacher, that
will have a critical bearing on how students are motivated (or not) to invest effort in
learning English” (235). Since it is at a very localized level of students’ learning
experience that the real potential for engaging (or disengaging) their motivation may
lie, there is an increasing need for methods that obtain ecologically valid tests of age
effects in a classroom. The method described in the quantitative part of this paper,
multilevel modeling (MLM), turned out to be a convenient method, as it reduces
arbitrariness because it more closely reflects the influence of situations as they are
encountered in the students’ daily lives and thus achieves adequate estimates of
variances and therefore correct standard errors and correct inferences and (likelihood-
based) p-values. MLM thus highlights the growing methodological sophistication of
group researchers as they identify new ways to deal with the challenge of studying
individuals nested in groups (Forsyth, 2010). That is not to say that contextually-
grounded research approaches do not necessarily have to be qualitative anymore.
While MLM allows us to integrate contextual factors, context is defined as an
independent background variable that influences motivation, AO and proficiency, but
over which learners have no control (see Ushioda, 2009). The qualitative dimension
allows analysis to arrive at a “flavor” of learners’ perceptions and reactions which is
very often indispensable when it comes to constructing a true-to-life interpretation of
the quantitative data. In the ever-growing system of educational accountability it is
imperative that studies of age effects examine the way that schools and classes can
use climatic characteristics to influence students’ academic performance.
Table 10. Fixed effect estimates for Future selves and Present selves at Time 1.
Fixed effect: Future selves
Estimate tMain
effect p
Receptive vocabulary 2.95 ± 0.54 5.45 <.001**
Written content 1.30 ± 0.25 5.29 <.001**
Written organization 1.27 ± 0.21 6.12 <.001**
Written lexical
richness 0.18 ± 0.12 1.51 .129
Written fluency 1.49 ± 0.30 4.91 <.001**
Written complexity 0.14 ± 0.04 3.84 <.001**
Written accuracy 0.39 ± 0.06 6.84 <.001**
Oral fluency 0.04 ± 8.80 -0.65 .938
Oral complexity 0.00 ± 0.03 0.11 .916
Oral accuracy 0.15 ± 0.20 1.76 <.001**
GJT -0.52 ± 0.41 -1.30 .208
Fixed effect: Present selves
Estimate tMain
effect p
Receptive vocabulary 1.95 ± 0.43 4.50 <.001*
Written content 0.32 ± 0.19 1.66 .151
Written organization 0.14 ± 0.16 0.87 .385
Written lexical
richness 0.15 ± 0.09 1.58 .150
Written fluency 0.20 ± 0.24 0.83 .477
Written complexity 0.06 ± 0.03 2.18 .035*
Written accuracy 0.01 ± 0.04 0.15 .946
Oral fluency 0.25 ± 0.43 0.57 .567
Oral complexity 0.02 ± 0.03 0.76 .448
Oral accuracy 0.11 ± 0.16 0.68 .540
GJT 0.06 ± 0.32 0.19 .843
Table 11. Fixed effect estimates for Future selves and Present selves at Time 2.
Fixed effect: Future selves
Estimate tMain
effect p
Listening -0.30 ± 0.41 -0.74 .476
vocabulary -0.21 ± 0.88 -0.24 .816
vocabulary -0.09 ± 0.63 -0.14 .933
Written content 0.11 ± 0.23 0.50 <.001**
organization 1.48 ± 0.33 4.47 <.001**
Written lexical
richness 0.58 ± 0.09 6.68 <.001**
Written fluency 2.04 ± 0.39 5.20 .001**
complexity 0.32 ± 0.06 5.18 <.001**
Written accuracy -0.34 ± 0.06 -5.71 <.001**
Oral fluency -0.20 ± 0.83 -0.25 .783
Oral complexity 0.06 ± 0.04 1.86 .042*
Oral accuracy 0.14 ± 0.16 0.89 .374
GJT 2.00 ± 0.35 5.74 <.001**
Fixed effect: Present selves
Estimate tMain
effect p
Listening 0.05 ± 0.40 0.12 .896
vocabulary 0.33 ± 0.85 0.39 .700
Receptive 1.73 ± 0.61 2.83 .004*
Written content -0.21 ± 0.14 -1.53 .607
organization 0.08 ± 0.36 0.25 .866
Written lexical
richness -0.13 ± 0.09 -1.48 .135
Written fluency -0.28 ± 0.41 -0.69 .464
complexity 0.03 ± 0.07 0.45 .711
Written accuracy -0.00 ± 0.06 -0.01 .988
Oral fluency -1.21 ± 0.95 -1.23 .175
Oral complexity 0.02 ± 0.04 0.51 .626
Oral accuracy 0.02 ± 0.17 0.12 .913
GJT 0.12 ± 0.37 0.31 .810
Table 12. Fixed effect estimates for Attitudes to learning situation at Time 1.
Fixed effect: Attitudes to learning situation
Estimate tMain effect
vocabulary 1.22 ± 0.39 3.14 .002*
content -0.21 ±
0.15 -1.36 .271
0.09 ± 0.13 0.73 .519
0.09 ± 0.07 1.27 .188
fluency 0.57 ± 0.19 2.98 .004*
complexity -0.02 ±
0.02 -0.91 .345
Written -0.10 ± -2.73 .005*
accuracy 0.04
fluency 0.18 ± 0.33 0.54 .575
complexity -0.02 ±
0.02 -1.23 .220
accuracy -0.08 ±
0.12 -0.67 .509
GJT -0.24 ±
0.26 -0.95 .315
Table 13. Fixed effect estimates for Attitudes to learning situation at Time 2.
Fixed effect: Attitudes to learning situation
Estimate tMain effect
Listening -0.23 ± 0.25 -0.93 <.001**
vocabulary 0.25 ± 0.52 0.50 <.001**
vocabulary 0.30 ± 0.38 0.80 <.001*
Written content -0.06 ± 0.22 -0.29 <.001**
organization 0.02 ± 0.21 0.10 <.001**
Written lexical
richness -0.03 ± 0.09 -0.48 <.001**
Written fluency 0.45 ± 0.26 0.23 <.001**
complexity 0.02 ± 0.04 0.52 <001**
Written accuracy 0.05 ± 0.04 1.36 <.001**
Oral fluency -0.70 ± 0.51 1.44 <.001**
Oral complexity -0.07 ± 0.02 -2.89 <.001**
Oral accuracy -0.02 ± 0.10 -0.23 <.001**
GJT 0.10 ± 0.22 0.43 <.001**
Table 14. Fixed effect estimates for Parental encouragement at Time 1.
Fixed effect: Parental encouragement
Estimate tMain effect p
vocabulary 1.75 ± 0.37 4.77 <.001**
Written content 0.17 ± 0.17 1.01 <.001**
Written organization 0.24 ± 0.14 1.74 <.001**
Written lexical
richness -0.15 ± 0.08 -0.18 <.001**
Written fluency 0.22 ± 0.21 1.04 <.001**
Written complexity -0.03 ± 0.02 -1.26 <.001**
Written accuracy 0.03 ± 0.04 0.70 .001*
Oral fluency 0.47 ± 0.36 1.30 <.001**
Oral complexity 0.02 ± 0.02 1.02 .969
Oral accuracy -0.21 ± 0.13 -1.58 <.001**
GJT 0.22 ± 0.27 -0.80 <.001**
Table 15. Fixed effect estimates for Parental encouragement at Time 2.
Fixed effect: Parental encouragement
Estimate tMain
effect p
Listening -0.35 ± 0.29 -1.20 .212
vocabulary 0.62 ± 0.62 0.99 .319
vocabulary 1.32 ± 0.45 2.96 .003*
Written content 0.26 ± 0.17 1.54 .114
organization 0.30 ± 0.25 1.19 .236
Written lexical
richness 0.01 ± 0.07 .156 .823
Written fluency 0.12 ± 0.30 0.39 .717
complexity 0.15 ± 0.04 3.28 <.001**
Written accuracy 0.01 ± 0.04 0.22 .824
Oral fluency -0.41 ± 0.60 -0.69 .446
Oral complexity -0.02 ± 0.03 -0.75 .443
Oral accuracy 0.24 ± 0.12 1.98 .049*
GJT -0.01 ± 0.26 -0.05 .879
Table 16. Multilevel regression analyses for development of motivation.
Fixed effect: Time
Estimate tMain
effect p
Future selves 0.78 ± 0.07 10.81 <.001**
Present selves 0.40 ± 0.07 5.56 <.001**
Anxiety -0.50 ± 0.09 -5.29 <.001**
Confidence 0.05 ± 0.11 0.44 .662
Attitudes to FLs 0.83 ± 0.11 7.81 <.001**
Attitudes to
0.68 ± 0.10 6.67 <.001**
Culture and
media 0.41 ± 0.08 4.97 <.001**
encouragement 0.63 ± 0.09 6.76 <.001**
Table 17. Multilevel regression analyses for motivation as dependent variable at
Time 2 (fixed effect estimates).
Fixed effect: AO
Estimate tMain
effect p
Future selves -0.02 ± 0.05 -0.47 .456
Present selves -0.01 ± 0.30 -0.04 .966
Anxiety -0.02 ± 0.16 -0.15 .896
Confidence 0.02 ± 0.18 0.11 .870
Attitudes to FLs 0.20 ± 0.29 0.67 .464
Attitudes to
-0.00 ± 0.16 -0.03 .851
Culture and
media -0.04 ± 0.16 0.26 .784
encouragement -0.08 ± 0.14 -0.64 .525
Al-Thubaiti K (2010) Age Effects in a Minimal Input Setting on the Acquisition of
English MorphoSyntactic and Semantic Properties by L1 Speakers of Arabic. PhD
Thesis, University of Essex, UK.
Baayen H, Davidson D and Bates D (2008) Mixed-effects modeling with crossed
random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language 59(4): 390–
Bates, D., Maechler, M., Bolker, B. & Walker, S. 2014. lme4: Linear mixed-effects
models us- ing Eigen and S4. R package version 1.0-6. Available at http://CRAN.R- package=lme4 (accessed May 29, 2014).
Berndt J and Keefe K (1995) Friends’ influence on adolescents’ adjustment to school.
Child Development 66(5): 1312–1329.
Berthele R (2010) Dialekt als Problem oder Potenzial. Überlegungen zur Hoch-
deutschoffensive in der deutschen Schweiz aus Sicht der Mehrsprachig-
keitsforschung [Dialect: Problem or potential? Reflections on the Stand- ard German
debate in German-speaking Switzerland from the perspective of multilingualism
research]. In Bitter Bättig F and Tanner A (eds) Sprachen Lernen Durch Sprache
Lernen [Learning languages – learning through languages]. Zürich: Seismo, pp. 37-
Blondin C, Candelier M, Edelenbos P, Johnstone R, Kubanek-German A and
Taeschner T (1998) Foreign Languages in Primary and Pre-School Education.
London: CILT.
Brooks JG and Brooks MG (2000) In search of understanding: the case for
constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development.
Cao Y and Philp J (2006) Interactional context and willingness to communicate: A
comparison of behavior in whole class, group and dyadic interaction. System 34(4):
Cenoz, J (2004). Teaching English as a third language: The effect of attitudes and
motivation. In: Hoffmann C and Ytsma J (eds) Trilingualism in family, school and
community. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp.202–218.
Chaudron C (2001) Progress in language classroom research: Evidence from The
Modern Language Journal, 1916–2000. Modern Language Journal 85(1): 57–76.
Clément R, Dörnyei Z and Noels KA (1994) Motivation, self-confidence, and group
cohesion in the foreign language classroom. Language Learning 44(3): 417–448.
Cotterall S and Crabbe D (2008) Learners talking: from problem to solution. In:
Lamb T and Reinders H (eds) Learner and teacher autonomy: Concepts, realities,
and responses. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp.125–140.
Cunnings I (2012) An overview of mixed-effects statistical models for second
language researchers. Second Language Research 28(3): 369–382.
Dewaele J-M and MacIntyre P (2014) The two faces of Janus? Anxiety and
enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning
and Teaching 4(2): 237–274.
Dörnyei Z (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences
in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Dörnyei Z (2009) The L2 motivational self system. In: Dörnyei Z and Ushioda E
(eds) Motivation, language identity and the L2 self. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters,
Dörnyei Z (2014) Future self-guides and vision. In: Csizér K and Magid M (eds) The
impact of self-concept on language learning. Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual
Matters, pp.7–18.
Dörnyei Z and Kubanyiova M (2014) Motivating learners, motivating teachers:
Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge: CUP.
Dörnyei Z, Muir C and Ibrahim Z (2014) Directed Motivational Currents: Energising
language learning through creating intense motivational pathways. In: Lasagabaster
D, Doiz A and Sierra JM (eds) Motivation and foreign language learning: From
theory to practice. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp.9–29.
Edelenbos P, Johnstone R and Kubanek A (2007) The main pedagogical principles
underlying the teaching of languages to very young learners
Languages for the children of Europe. Published Research, Good Practice & Main
Principles. Retrieved from
Ellis R and Barkhuizen G (2005) Analysing Learner Language. Oxford: OUP.
Forsyth DR (2010) Group Dynamics. Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
Gardner RC (1985) Social Psychology and Second Language Learning: The Role of
Attitudes and Motivation. London: Edward Arnold.
Gardner RC and Lambert WE (1959) Motivational variables in second language
acquisition. Canadian Journal of Psychology 13: 266–272.
Gavin BHY (2014) Task readiness: Theoretical framework and empirical evidence
from topic familiarity, strategic planning and proficiency levels. In: Skehan P (ed)
Processing Perspectives on Task Performance. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp.63–
George JM (1995) Leader positive mood and group performance: The case of
customer service. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 25(9): 778–794.
George JM and Brief AP (1992) Feeling good/doing good: A conceptual analysis of
the mood at work/ organizational spontaneity relationship. Psychological Bulletin
112(2): 310–329.
Gregersen T and MacIntyre PD, 2014 Capitalizing on Language Learners
Individuality: From Premise to Practice. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Hawkins E (1996) The early teaching of modern languages. A pilot scheme. In:
Hawkins E (ed) Thirty Years of Language Teaching. London: CILT, pp.155–164.
Henry A (2014) Swedish students’ beliefs about learning English in and outside of
school. In: Lasagabaster D, Doiz A and Sierra JM (eds) Motivation and Foreign
Language Learning. From Theory to Practice. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John
Benjamins, pp.93–116.
Horwitz EK, Horwitz, MB and Cope J (1986) Foreign language classroom anxiety.
The Modern Language Journal 70(2): 125–132.
Jacobs JL, Zinkgraf SA, Wormuth DR, Hartfiel VF and Hughey JB (1981) Testing
ESL Composition. Newbury: Rowley.
Jaeger F (2008) Categorical data analysis: Away from ANOVAs (transformation or
not) and towards logit mixed models. Journal of Memory and Language 59(4): 434–
Kormos J and Csizér K (2008) Age-related Differences in the Motivation of Learning
English as a Foreign Language: Attitudes, Selves and Motivated Learning Behaviour.
Language Learning 58(2): 327–355.
Kormos J and Kiddle T (2013) The Role Of Socio-Economic Factors In Motivation
To Learn English As A Foreign Language: The Case Of Chile. System 41(2): 399–
Kozaki Y and Ross SJ (2011) Contextual dynamics in foreign language learning
motivation. Language Learning 61 (4): 1328–1354.
Kubanek-German A (1998) Primary foreign language teaching in Europe: Trends and
issues. Language Teaching 31(4): 193–205.
Lamb M (2012) A self system perspective on young adolescents’ motivation to learn
English in urban and rural setting. Language Learning 62(4): 997–1023.
Lamb M and Budiyanto (2013) Cultural challenges, identity and motivation in state
school EFL. In: Ushioda E (ed) International Perspectives on Motivation: Language
Learning and Professional Challenges. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.18–34.
Lambelet A and Berthele R (2015) Age and Foreign Language Learning in School.
Houndmills. Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave.
Larochelle M, Bednarz N and Garrison J (2009) Constructivism and education.
Cambridge: CUP.
Larson-Hall J (2008) Weighing the benefits of studying a foreign language at a
younger starting age in a minimal input situation. Second Language Research 24(1):
Lasagabaster D and Doiz A (2003) Maturational Constraints on Foreign-language
Written Production. In: García-Mayo MP and García-Lecumberri ML Age and the
Acquisition of English as a Foreign Language. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters,
Laufer B and Nation P (1999). A vocabulary size test of controlled productive ability.
Language Testing 16(1): 33–51.
Little, D (2007). Language learner autonomy: Some fundamental considerations
revisited. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1(1): 14–29.
Lüdi G (2007). Sprachverhalten, Sprachpolitik, Diskurs über Sprache: Staatlich- keit
in Europa zwischen dem einsprachigen Nationalstaat und dem mehrsprachigen
Vielvölkerstaat [Linguistic behavior, language policies and public discourse about
language: Statehood in Europe between the monolingual nation state and the
multilingual multiethnic state]. In Nekula M (ed) Sprache und nationale Identität in
öffentlichen Institutionen der Kafka-Zeit [English and national identity in public
institutions in Kafka’s time]. Köln: Böhlau, pp. 13-30.
MacIntyre PD (1999) Language anxiety: A review of the research for language
teachers. In: Young DJ (ed) Affect in foreign language and second language
teaching: A practical guide to creating a low-anxiety classroom atmosphere. Boston:
McGraw-Hill, pp.24–45.
Markus HR and Nurius P (1986) Possible selves. American Psychologist 41, 954–
McDonald JL (2006) Beyond the critical period: Processing-based explanations for
poor grammaticality judgment performance by late second language learners. Journal
of Memory and Language 55(3): 381–401.
Mercer S (2012) The complexity of learner agency. Apples – Journal of Applied
Language Studies 6(2): 41–59.
Mercer S (2014) Re-imagining the Self as a Network of Relationships. In: Csizér K
and Magid M (eds) The impact of self-concept on language learning. Bristol, Buffalo,
Toronto: Multlingual Matters, pp.51–72.
Djigunovi J (2012) ćEarly EFL learning in context – Evidence from a country case
study. London: The British Council.
Moyer A (2014a) Exceptional outcomes in L2 phonology: The critical factors of
learner engagement and self-regulation. Applied Linguistics 35(4): 1–23.
Moyer A (2014b) What’s age got to do with it? Accounting for individual factors in
second language accent. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching 4(3):
Muñoz C (2006) Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.
Muñoz C (2008) Symmetries and asymmetries of age effects in naturalistic and
instructed L2 learning. Applied Linguistics 29(4): 578–596.
Muñoz C (2011) Is input more significant than starting age in foreign language
acquisition? International Review of Applied Linguistics 49(2): 113–33.
Muñoz C (2014a) Starting age and other influential factors: Insights from learner
interviews. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching 4(3): 465–484.
Muñoz C (2014b). Contrasting effects of starting age and input on the oral
performance of foreign language learners. Applied Linguistics 35(4): 463–482.
Muñoz C and Singleton D (2011) A Critical Review of Age-related Research on L2
Ultimate Attainment. Language Teaching 44(1): 1–35.
Myles F and Mitchell R (2012) Learning French from ages 5, 7 and 11: An
investigation into starting ages, rates and routes of learning amongst early foreign
language learner. ESRC End of Award Report RES-062-23-1545. Swindon: ESRC.
Nikolov M (1999) ‘Why do you learn English? Because my teacher is short.’ A
study of Hungarian children’s foreign language learning motivation. Language
Teaching Research 3(1): 33–56.
Noels KA, Clément R and Pelletier LG (1999). Perceptions of teachers’
communicative style and students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Modern
Language Journal 83(1): 23–24.
Norton B (2014) Identity and Poststructuralist Theory in SLA. In: Mercer S and
Williams M (eds) Multiple perspectives on the self in SLA. Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto:
Multilingual Matters, pp.59–71.
Pfenninger SE (2013). Quadrilingual advantages: Do-support in bilingual vs.
multilingual learners. International Journal of Multilingualism 11(2): 143–163. doi:
Pfenninger SE (2014a). The misunderstood variable: Age effects as a function of type
of instruction. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching 4(3): 415–453.
Pfenninger SE (2014b). The literacy factor in the Optimal Age Debate: A 5-year
longitudinal study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
doi: 10.1080/13670050.2014.972334.
Pfenninger SE and Singleton D (in prep.) Beyond age effects: Facets, facts and
factors of foreign language instruction in a multilingual state. Bristol: Multilingual
Pica T (2010) Educating Language Learners for a World of Change and Opportunity:
Policy Concerns - Research Responses - Practical Applications. Working Papers in
Educational Linguistics 25(2): 1–21.
R Core Team (2012) R: A language and environment for statistical computing.
Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing.
Ryan S and Irie K (2014) Imagined and possible selves: Stories we tell ourselves
about ourselves. In: Mercer S and Williams M (eds) Multiple perspectives on the self
in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, pp.109–126.
Sampasivam S and Clément R (2014) The dynamics of second language confidence:
Contact and interaction. In: Mercer S and Williams M (eds) Multiple perspectives on
the self in SLA. Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, pp.23–40.
Satar HM and Ozdener N (2008) The effects of synchronous CMC on speaking
proficiency and anxiety: Text versus voice chat. The Modern Language Journal
92(4): 595–613.
Schmitt N, Schmitt D and Clapham C (2001). Developing and exploring the
behaviour of two new versions of the Vocabulary Levels Test. Language Testing
18(1): 55–88.
Sedikides C and Brewer MB (2001) Individual Self, Relational Self, Collective Self.
Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
Seltman HJ (2009) Mixed models: A flexible approach to correlated data. In:
Experimental Design and Analysis. Available at:
Singleton D and Pfenninger SE (2015). Insights from a mixed methods approach with
respect to age and long-term instructed language learning. In: Bátyi S and Navracsics
J (eds.). Papers in language acquisition, language learning and speech research 5
(pp. 11-21). Budapest/Veszprém, Gondolat Kiadó/Pannon Egyetem MFTK.
Singleton D and Ryan L (2004) Language Acquisition: The Age Factor.
2nd ed. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Taylor F (2013) Listening to Romanian teenagers: Lessons in motivation and ELT
methodology. In: Ushioda E (ed) International Perspectives on Motivation:
Language Learning and Professional Challenges. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,
Torras MR, Navés T, Celaya ML and Pérez-Vidal C (2006) Age and IL Development
in Writing. In: Muñoz C (ed) Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp.156–182.
Tragant E (2006). Language learning motivation and age. In: Muñoz, C (ed) Age and
the rate of foreign language learning. Clevedon, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual
Matters, pp.237–268.
Tragant E and Muñoz C (2000). La motivación y su relación con la edad en un
context escolar de aprendizaje de una lengua extranjera [Motivation and its
relationship to age in language learning in the school context]. In: Muñoz C (ed)
Segundas Lenguas: Adquisición en el Aula. Barcelona: Ariel, pp.81–105.
Unsworth S, de Bot K, Persson L and Prins T (2012) ‘Foreign Languages in Primary
School Project,’ Proceedings of the Foreign Languages in Primary Schools Projects:
presentation results FLiPP-research. Amersfoort, 13 December 2012.
Ushioda E (2009) A person-in-context relational view of emergent motivation, self
and identity. In: Zoltán D and Ushioda E (eds.) Motivation, language identity and the
L2 self. Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, pp.215–228.
Ushioda E (2011) Motivating learners to speak as themselves. In: Murray G, Gao X
and Lamb T (eds) Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning. Bristol:
Multilingual Matters, pp.11–24.
Ushioda E (2013) Motivation and ELT: Global issues and local concerns. In: Ushioda
E (ed) International Perspectives on Motivation: Language Learning and
Professional Challenges. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.1–17.
Ushioda E (2014) Context and complex dynamic systems theory. In: Dörnyei Z,
MacIntyre PD and Henry A (eds) Motivational dynamics in language learning.
Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters, pp.47–54.
Vilke M and Vrhovac Y (1995) Children and Foreign Languages II. Zagreb: Faculty
of Philosophy, University of Zagreb.
Wolfe-Quintero K., Inagaki S and Kim H-Y (1998). Second Language Development
in Writing: Measures of Fluency, Accuracy & Complexity. Honolulu, HI: University
of Hawaií, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
... Another noteworthy finding was that older children with DLD had an advantage over their younger peers in the acquisition of EFL vocabulary. This result is consistent with the literature on FL learning by children with TLD demonstrating that children who start English lessons later attain the same proficiency level as early starters despite a shorter length of instruction (Goriot, 2019;Jaekel et al., 2017;Larson-Hall, 2008;Muñoz, 2006Muñoz, , 2008aMuñoz, , 2008bPfenninger, 2014Pfenninger, , 2017Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). Hence, the ultimate attainment advantage of younger L2 learners attested in naturalistic L2 acquisition (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2013;Krashen et al., 1979) disappears in instructed FL learning with limited classroom exposure. ...
... Muñoz, 2006;Tribushinina et al., 2020) or for chronological age at testing (e.g. Jaekel et al., 2017;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). Both designs have inevitable confounds (Muñoz, 2008b). ...
... Based on classroom research with typically-developing EFL learners, we predicted that older children would outperform younger children due to their more advanced cognitive and linguistic skills. Research in which early and late starters are matched on age at testing but differ in the hours of instruction generally shows no differences between the two groups by the end of secondary school despite the fact that early starters have had more years of FL instruction (Pfenninger, 2014(Pfenninger, , 2017Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). These findings suggest that older children make faster progress and attain the same proficiency level in a shorter period of time. ...
Full-text available
Research on second language learning by children with DLD has mainly focused on naturalistic L2 acquisition with plenty of exposure. Very little is known about how children with DLD learn foreign languages in classroom settings with limited input. This study addresses this gap and targets English as a foreign language (EFL) learning by Russian-speaking children with DLD. We ask whether learners with DLD benefit from a later onset of EFL instruction because older children are more cognitively mature and have more developed L1 skills. The second aim of this study is to determine whether EFL learners with DLD benefit from positive L1 transfer in vocabulary learning. We administered a receptive vocabulary test to younger (Grade 6, n = 18) and older (Grade 10, n = 15) children with DLD matched on the amount of prior EFL instruction. The younger group started EFL instruction in Grade 2 and the older group in Grade 6. The performance of the two groups was compared after four and a half years of English lessons. Half of the words in the test were English-Russian cognates and half were noncognates. Contra to our hypothesis, the results showed no difference between younger and older children. Both groups equally benefitted from cognate vocabulary suggesting that positive cross-language transfer is available to children with DLD, irrespective of their age and onset of EFL instruction.
... This immense presence of English in the UAE offers opportunities for exploring the effects of EMI at different academic levels. Previous research supports positive contributions of immersive L2 experience, both formal and informal, to second language development (Qureshi, 2016;Lee, 2019;Moyer, 2009;Muñoz & Singleton, 2007;Pfenninger, 2014;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). Considering the contextual reality of the UAE --FL learners have greater exposure to English -it is important to investigate the extent to which AO of exposure to English medium instruction (AoEMI) in this particular context would account for differences in learners' vocabulary knowledge in English. ...
... For example, in Miralpeix (2007), after three years of exposure to IFL, 90% of the words all the groups used fell under the 1K list, while less than 1% of words used were from the 3K list. Nonetheless, the findings of the studies in this setting do not support early advantage either for receptive (Miralpeix, 2007;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016) or productive vocabulary knowledge (Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). ...
... For example, in Miralpeix (2007), after three years of exposure to IFL, 90% of the words all the groups used fell under the 1K list, while less than 1% of words used were from the 3K list. Nonetheless, the findings of the studies in this setting do not support early advantage either for receptive (Miralpeix, 2007;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016) or productive vocabulary knowledge (Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). ...
Full-text available
The current study investigated differences in lexical knowledge of Arabic learners whose age of onset (AO) of exposure to English medium instruction (EMI) was at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary educational levels. Ninety undergraduate students enrolled in a public university in the UAE took part in the study. Data collection involved a background questionnaire, a vocabulary size task, and a vocabulary depth task. Using the background questionnaire, the participants were separated into the early, middle, and late learners - those exposed to EMI in elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels, respectively. The results revealed a significant multivariate main effect for the AO to vocabulary knowledge. The post hoc analysis confirmed a significant effect for vocabulary size only; no such effects were observed for vocabulary depth. Theocratical, methodological, and pedagogical implications are discussed
... The problems that he has encountered among students include: emotional bursts or learning blocks (Schwab & Elias, 2014;Reis, 2004). While it would be expected that instructors of English language look directly into the issues students constantly face with grammar, vocabulary, syntax, and so on; more and more studies (e.g., Azar & Tanggaraju, 2020;Ismail et al., 2014;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016) have emphasized the role of motivation in language learning (and in fact, in all learning spheres). Hence, the reason why emotional bursts and learning blocks have been highlighted. ...
... It is imperative, therefore, to employ those tools and methodologies that suit the needs and desires of English language learners so that their struggle becomes useful and results in positive outcomes. The difficulties in English language learning have also to do with cognitive individual differences (e.g., Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016), and, therefore, the current study focused on the individual English language learners, their learning difficulties and needs as well as their reflections about their weaknesses. The study has also tried to assess student willingness and the effectiveness of the instructional programs for teaching English language to arrive at a tangible diagnosis and useful suggestions for better implementation and further research studies in the area. ...
Full-text available
The term ‘struggling language learner’ is one that is usually ascribed to students who are trying, without much success to master the English language in an academic setting. As a case study, this study was carried out to gain insights into the ‘struggles’ of the struggling English as a foreign language (EFL) learners. Ten students were selected from those with the 20th least percentile in their English language courses. Observation of and discussion with these categories of learners revealed that many language learners had a point at which they began to take learning English language more seriously. In such positive or negative situations, their language learning journey improved therefrom. The findings showed that 80% of the participants believed that their English language proficiency was ‘very good’, while 20% of these participants believed that their English language proficiency was ‘average’. Also, the findings indicated that there was a statistically significant association (i.e., p < .05) between English language proficiency of the learners and the following observable attributes: willingness to learn for educational purposes; willingness to learn for career development; and students’ continuation without losing focus. The study proposes a fresh evaluation of the problems faced by EFL struggling learners by bringing to light a multifaceted, meaningful consideration of their learning attitudes from socio-psychological point of view, offering a comprehensive account of these learners and their learning difficulties as well as their attitudes and outlook while taking lessons as freshmen at the university.
... This research differs substantially from L1 psycholinguistic work in terms of design and measurement, as well as in terms of its consideration of motivation. Higher levels of motivation have been shown to be associated with higher achieved proficiency (e.g., Muñoz & Singleton, 2011;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016), providing evidence for a link between motivation and the quality of language processing, comprehension, and memory retention. We suggest, therefore, that L1 psycholinguistic research would benefit from considering how the L2 psycholinguistic literature incorporates motivation into its methodologies. ...
Full-text available
Participants in psycholinguistic experiments are typically asked to read or listen to dozens of individual, uncontextualized, disconnected sentences, ranging from perfectly normal to extremely odd in one or more respects. In this chapter, we consider the possibility that a nontrivial number of participants are not terribly motivated to process such sentences in a “typical” manner. Furthermore, this lack of motivation may well result in data that are not reflective of normal human language processing because it is not reflective of everyday language use. Contrary to the idea that language processing is automatic, we speculate that the depth and accuracy of language processing and comprehension can vary as a function of task and comprehenders' motivation to perform the task, and therefore that “typical” processing is variable. We argue that both online and offline measures of processing and comprehension are susceptible to this variability, and we offer some thoughts and suggestions about experimental methods that may help to reduce or manipulate it in order to collect data that are more faithful to both the linguistic input and language processing outside of the laboratory.
... Moreover, when the target language is not widely used in society, early learners do not benefit from exposure outside the classroom. Instead, studies in this context find late starters demonstrating a faster rate of learning (Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016;Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978), and in some cases, an edge over early starters on tasks involving productive vocabulary (Cenoz, 2002) and editing grammatical errors in a passage (Qureshi, 2018). Considering the extensive evidence indicating no advantage for early starters in the typical FL settings, Spada (2015) suggests that introducing FL programs at an early age may be a misapplication of L2 research. ...
The current study examined differences in grammatical knowledge of second language learners whose age of onset (AO) for exposure to English-medium instruction (EMI) was at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary educational levels. One hundred and thirty-five students enrolled in two universities in Pakistan participated in the study. Data collection involved a background questionnaire, a grammaticality judgment task, and an editing task. Based on the background questionnaire, the participants were divided into early, middle, and late learners—those individuals exposed to EMI at first grade, secondary, and tertiary levels, respectively. The results revealed a significant multivariate main effect for the AO on grammar knowledge. The post hoc analysis confirmed a significant effect on the editing task. No significant effects were observed for the grammaticality judgment task. Underlying causes are discussed, including possible age-related cognitive factors in the students or instructional features in the schools.
... Moreover, when the target language is not widely used in society, early learners do not benefit from exposure outside the classroom. Instead, studies in this context find late starters demonstrating a faster rate of learning (Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016;Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978), and in some cases, an edge over early starters on tasks involving productive vocabulary (Cenoz, 2002) and editing grammatical errors in a passage (Qureshi, 2018). Considering the extensive evidence indicating no advantage for early starters in the typical FL settings, Spada (2015) suggests that introducing FL programs at an early age may be a misapplication of L2 research. ...
Recent global trends of Englishization and internationalization of higher education institutions and increased student mobility have led to an enormous boost in the number of programs taught in English, both globally (Bothwell, 2017; Dearden, 2014; Kirkpatrick, 2014; Macaro et al., 2018) and in Turkey (Aslan, 2018; West et al., 2015), which is the context of this study. Known as English medium instruction (EMI), these programs mainly focus on the learning of content via English (Aguilar, 2017). EMI, in this chapter, is defined as “the use of the English language to teach academic subjects other than English itself in countries or jurisdictions where the first language of the majority of the population is not English” (Macaro, 2018, p. 19). Even though definitions of EMI (e.g., Aguilar, 2017; Dearden, 2014; Hellekjær, 2010; Macaro, 2018; Paulsrud, 2014) do not entail a language focus, at least at the expectation level, some students want and expect to learn both content and English at the same time (Galloway & Ruegg, 2020). Therefore, language-related issues in EMI have become the focus of some recent research. There is a growing body of research that examines the impact of academic and general English proficiency on academic success (e.g., Curle et al., 2020; Rose et al., 2019; Thompson et al., 2019; Xie & Curle, 2020). However, few studies have focused on the language-related challenges faced by EMI students. (Notable exceptions are Aizawa et al., 2020; Kamasak et al., 2021; Owen ̧ et al., 2021). This chapter aims to fill this gap.
... Contrary to the widespread belief about the advantages of an early start of foreign language instruction, research studies have not been able to conclude any longterm benefits of lowering the starting age (Baumert et al., 2020;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). The reason that such gains have not been found may have to do less with age factors per se, and more with environmental conditions and the lack of age-appropriate pedagogy (Garton & Copland, 2019). ...
Full-text available
Instilling a sense of agency (SoA) in young learners is an important aspect of foreign language instruction, as is the counteracting of emergent foreign language anxiety (FLA). Focusing on learners who frequently experience FLA, this study explores young learners' beliefs and classroom experiences in relation to the teaching and learning of English, in order to highlight the way in which they perceive their own agency, that is, their situated SoA. After initial classroom observations, learners from seven Swedish classrooms, across years 2-5, were seated in small groups to discuss open questions about target language (TL) use, oral interaction, instructional work mode and the role of the teacher and the learners. The present study is based on discussions among 31 of those learners. Qualitative content analysis of the recorded discussions reveals conflicting beliefs and experiences. These frequently anxious learners stressed the importance of extensive input in English and of learners engaging and speaking the TL. However, they also expressed that oral instructions and prompts, which were sometimes incomprehensible, made them feel frustrated and insecure. Considering the risk of embarrassment, they refrained from asking questions or volunteering to speak. Thus, their accounts of their emotional experiences and actions did not align with their beliefs, which hampered their SoA. The findings illustrate the interrelated nature of beliefs, emotional experiences and agency. Implications for primary language teaching relate to target language use and offering plenty of time for learners to practice their oral skills under conditions that they perceive as safe. Keywords: foreign language anxiety, young learners, learner beliefs, sense of agency, target language use, early language instruction Upplevd agens hos talängsliga engelskelever i grundskolans tidigare år: Motstridiga föreställningar och erfarenheter Sammendrag Att ingjuta en känsla av agens hos unga elever samt att motverka begynnande talängslan är viktiga aspekter av undervisning i främmande språk. Med ett fokus på elever som ofta upplever talängslan utforskar denna studie föreställningar och klassrumserfarenheter i relation till engelskundervisning och språkinlärning på låg-och mellanstadiet, för att därigenom belysa hur eleverna själva uppfattar sin situerade agens. Efter inledande klassrumsobservationer placerades elever från sju svenska klassrum, i Acta Didactica Norden Vol. 15, Nr. 2, Art. 2 Maria Nilsson 1/28 2021© årskurserna 2-5, i smågrupper för att diskutera öppna frågor kring målspråksanvändning, muntlig interaktion, undervisningsformer och lärarens respektive elevernas olika roller. Denna studie baseras på samtal bland 31 av dessa elever. Kvalitativ innehållsanalys av de inspelade gruppsamtalen visar på dilemman i form av motstridiga föreställningar och erfarenheter. Dessa frekvent talängsliga elever underströk vikten av rikligt med engelsk input och att eleverna engagerar sig och talar målspråket. Samtidigt uttryckte de att muntliga instruktioner och påbjudna talinviter på engelska ibland var obegripliga och gjorde dem osäkra. Med hänsyn till risken att skämma ut sig avstod de från att räcka upp handen för att ställa frågor, be om förtydliganden eller bidra till interaktion. Elevernas skildringar av sina emotionella erfarenheter och beteenden överensstämde därmed inte med deras föreställningar om hur språkinlärning bör gå till, vilket hämmade deras upplevda agens. Resultaten illustrerar det nära sambandet mellan föreställningar, emotionella upplevelser och agens. Implikationer för tidig språkundervisning rör målspråksanvändning och att erbjuda gott om tid och trygga situationer då elever kan öva sina muntliga färdigheter under omständigheter de upplever som trygga.
... A combination of quantitative data obtained in cross-sectional group studies with individual difference variables appears to be a promising approach for capturing IAV and still allowing for generalisation in relation to language development and change (cf. Pfenninger and Singleton 2016). ...
... Authors advocate early English learning without acknowledging that young immigrant children's relative success in language learning relates to their immersive English environment (Johnson & Newport, 1989). However, in a foreign language learning setting, older children are more efficient learners (e.g., Muñoz & Singleton, 2011;Pfenninger & Singleton, 2016). In Germany, children who started learning English in Grade 3 did better in English tests in Grade 7 than those who started in Grade 1 (Jaekel et al., 2017). ...
Full-text available
The popularity of English in early foreign language teaching is a global phenomenon. Parents and policymakers in Europe are eager to expose young children to a foreign language, which is usually English (De Houwer, 2015). Likewise, in Japan, English is the de facto foreign language subject in schools (Sakamoto, 2012). The introduction of English education in lower elementary grades and the use of English examination scores to enter schools or universities or gain employment has made English more important than ever. These educational policies motivate many Japanese parents to send their children for English lessons or enroll them in English preschools or after-school programs. Attending an international school is a definite way to acquire high English proficiency, but not every family can afford the high tuition.
This article reviews David Singleton’s books and articles published during the period 2014–2020. The first section concerns a popular book which he co-authored with Vivian Cook; the second gives an account of articles covering questions about the concept of language aptitude; the third deals with articles on the manner in which a learner’s competencies in different languages interact; the fourth section then summarizes his recent age-related work on second language learning in childhood, adolescence and midlife; and the fifth deals with his contributions on language learning in senior adulthood.