Older language learners: 'always too late' vs 'never too late'. A mixed-methods approach

Pérez Cavana, Maria Luisa; Edwards, Chris and Luelmo del Castillo, Maria José (2023). Older language learners: 'always too late' vs 'never too late'. A mixed-methods approach. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 25(2) pp. 88–113.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5456/wpll.25.2.88


Research in second-language acquisition considers age as a major factor that has an impact on the ability of an individual to learn a foreign language. The debates are still dominated by the so called 'critical period' theory, developed in the sixties. According to this neurocognitive theory, there is an ideal window of brain development to acquire a language at a very young age, after which learning a language becomes much more difficult, and apart from some 'exceptional' cases, it is almost impossible to attain native-like proficiency. Much of this research has focused on those 'exceptional' learners, implying that for adult language learners it is 'always too late'. While acknowledging this pure neuro-linguistic approach, this paper aims to go beyond this reductionist approach and to contribute to this complex and under-researched field. It explores two aspects of the relationship between age and learning a language within a university context: the impact of age on study trajectories of languages students using quantitative methods, and the lived experiences of language students drawing on a combination of qualitative research and phenomenology. The findings of this study reveal some fundamental aspects of what it means to learn a language as an adult from the first-person perspective and show the importance of introducing an existential view of older language learners, suggesting that is 'never too late'.

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