A sharply defined critical period for language acquisition: Hartshorne, Tenenbaum & Pinker 2018

IMG_4261.jpgA critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers

Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition.



Children learn language more easily than adults, though when and why this ability declines have been obscure for both empirical reasons (underpowered studies) and conceptual reasons (measuring the ultimate attainment of learners who started at different ages cannot by itself reveal changes in underlying learning ability). We address both limitations with a dataset of unprecedented size (669,498 native and non-native English speakers) and a computational model that estimates the trajectory of underlying learning ability by disentangling current age, age at first exposure, and years of experience. This allows us to provide the first direct estimate of how grammar-learning ability changes with age, finding that it is preserved almost to the crux of adulthood (17.4 years old) and then declines steadily. This finding held not only for “difficult” syntactic phenomena but also for “easy” syntactic phenomena that are normally mastered early in acquisition. The results support the existence of a sharply-defined critical period for language acquisition, but the age of offset is much later than previously speculated. The size of the dataset also provides novel insight into several other outstanding questions in language acquisition.

Keywords: Language acquisition, Critical period, L2 acquisition

This study used a carefully designed and piloted Facebook quiz to test grammatical competence among L1 and L2 speakers of English of all ages and language backgrounds, with varying exposure and ages of onset. The study aims to answer the well-known question why older L2 learners generally do not reach L1 proficiency, based on the hypothesis of a critical period for (second) language acquisition.

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Hartshorne, Tenenbaum & Pinker (2018) sought to meet the need for larger sample sizes to check the statistical robustness of studies like Johnson and Newport (1989) and tease out contributing factors. This earlier, landmark study of what has been called the critical period for second language acquisition found

a clear and strong advantage for earlier arrivals over the later arrivals. Test performance was linearly related to age of arrival up to puberty; after puberty, performance was low, but highly variable and unrelated to age of arrival

Johnson and Newport (1989) was a grammaticality judgement study of 46 speakers of Chinese or Korean, with age of arrival between 3 and 39, and exposure times of 3-26 years. Age of testing is not reported.

The results show a clear and strong relationship between age of arrival in the United States and performance. Subjects who began acquiring English in the US at an earlier age obtained higher scores on the test than those that began later

The researchers highlighted two further points

(1) Before age 15, and most particularly before age 10, there are very few individual differences in ultimate ability to learn language within any particular age group; success in learning is almost entirely predicted by the age at which it begins.

(2) For adults, later age of acquisition determines that one will not become native or near-native in a language; however there are large individual variations in ultimate ability in the language, within the lowered range of performance.

Hartshorne et al (2018), however, distinguish three potential influencing factors, and underline the need for many more participants to test their effects on (second) language acquisition.

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To tackle this problem, the researchers designed a language quiz called Which English? The quiz used an algorithm to predict someone’s language background based on responses to a series of items (grammaticality judgement) with the aim of a) encouraging people to share their results on Facebook, thus encouraging massive participation, and b) collecting secondary data on quiz takers to purportedly refine the algorithm. As noted in the abstract, data were collected on 669K speakers. Thirty-eight L1 groups provided more than one thousand speakers, and participants were classified as monolingual L1 (N = 246K), non-immersion L2 (N = 267K), and immersion L2 (i.e., bilinguals or later English-environment learners N = 45K).

The paper is open access and supplementary materials are also available; much space is given to technical discussion of statistics. Here I present only the findings in lay terms. First, the study showed that there is a drop in learning rate at approximately 17 years of age, but that L1-level proficiency is only attained by learners beginning at age 10-12. The critical period for second language acquisition thus takes the form of “a plateau followed by a continuous decline” (Hartshorne et al. 2018: 12)

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This distinction is explained by the length of time required for ultimate attainment, which – at 30 years – appears from this study to be much longer than originally estimated for both L1 and L2 speakers.

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So Hartshorne et al (2018) looked for ultimate attainment among learners with 30 years’ exposure and aged under 70 at the time of testing (to control for potential cognitive decline).

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After running their statistical tests with numbers of participants which are comparable to previous studies, they find that the earlier results can be explained as statistical anomalies, that is, would not have appeared to be statistically significant if larger numbers of participants had been involved.

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What about different types of grammatical competence, that is, features which children tend to acquire early versus those which are only learned later?

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As far as the influence of L1 is concerned, numbers of participants were generally too low for reliable results, but little effect for larger language families was found:

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The paper concludes with the usual limitations section, citing test modality (comprehension only), quiz difficulty (ceiling effect), and L1 effects (results are “ephiphenomenal average” concealing different trajectories). The authors discuss possible reasons for this finding of a critical period: since hormonal changes must now be discarded, other influences may include cultural factors, L1 influence, modifications in neural plasticity, and maturation of neural circuitry. Phonology is a separate issue obviously not addressed in this study, while other demographic effects not relevant to the critical period appear in the results but remain to be analysed.


Johnson, J. S., & Newport, E. L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language
learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second
language. Cognitive Psychology, 21(1), 60–99.


Critical ELT in global times: avenues for teacher development in Norway

Nord University/UiT/Utdanningsdirektoratet, Norway

8-9 May 2018

At this two-day event organised by Janice Bland of Nord Universiteit, participants were some two dozen English language teachers and teacher educators working all over Norway in schools and universities, with speakers from the UK, Germany and France, as well as Norwegian universities and the directorate of the Ministry of Education. The teachers included some L1 speakers (perhaps one third) and working with teachers of either younger learners (grades 1-7) or older (5-10). I learned that the overlap is necessary because not all schools across the country cover a standard age range. Many of the teacher educators are currently involved in an in-service training programme (KfK) which offers 30 hours over the school year, releasing teachers from class for continuing professional development in a given discipline, in this case, ELT. Some teachers may later obtain a second year course if the school administration is willing and so the question of priorities and continuity in training arise.

The seminar opened with a talk by Michael Byram (Durham/Luxemburg) on the topic of  intercultural learning and criticality. Byram’s doctoral research tackled the foreign language teaching research question: does teaching of French lead to more tolerance and greater knowledge of others? He found it not to be the case (one kid’s take: “French is just a funny way of speaking English”). His subsequent work has been to develop the alternative purpose of intercultural competence (ICC) whereby FL learning increases awareness of one’s own culture. We were shown a 1998 Christmas card project developed by a Bulgarian EFL teacher (see Byram, Nichols, & Stevens 2001) and the theory behind ICC:

  • savoirs (knowledge)
  • savoir comprendre
  • savoir apprendre
  • savoir être (curiosity and openness, suspend disbelief about own culture)
  • => savoir s’engager (critical cultural awareness).

Byram also mentioned CLIL and Agar’s notion of languaculture as ways of meeting higher order purposes for FL education: knowledge that is not traditional, trivial information, but rather critical knowledge and understanding of another way of doing things and the learners’ own. I was happy to learn the original reference to knowing that versus knowing how (Ryle 1945) and how Byram fits this with a three-tier model of FL competence:

  • linguistic/grammatical
  • communicative (Hymes)
  • intercultural – identify, critically analyse, know how to discover, be able to compare and contrast.

Knowing that, Byram claims, is cultural but not intercultural.

The speaker offered further examples of ICC teaching (Wagner, Conlon, Byram 2017) developing critical thinking skills and autonomy with young Spanish learners in the US, exploiting links between Spanish L2 and English L1 writing. Byram goes so far as to advocate education for citizenship (which he finds already in Norwegian educational programmes), drawing on Allport’s theory of prejudice and ways to combat it: create equal status, provide institutional framework, assign a common task. In a collaborative project with learners in Argentina and Denmark on recycling (using English as a lingua franca), the stages are as follows:

  • stage 1: discover recycling at home
  • stage 2: present to other class and compare
  • stage 3: mixed (international) groups) produce advertisements
  • stage 4: do something in own community (back in L1)

A full description is provided in From principles to practice in education for intercultural citizenship (Byram, Golubeva, Hui & Wagner 2016). Other references include

Mary Ann Ronaes has responsibility for ongoing curriculum development in English as part of a process of fagfornylsen – subject renewal – in Norwegian education. The aim is to renew the curriculum and decentralise competence-building, consulting widely with teachers and parents to decide

  1. which competences are important?
  2. which changes are needed to develop these competences?
Policy documents include the Ludwigsen report 2015 on the School of the future and a 2016 White Paper setting out the KfK reform on the promotion of knowledge, involving
competence aims, five basic skills, adapted education and pupil participation in curriculum, assessment and practical training. What is new for Norway is the
open and transparent process of reform, with the goal of achieving deeper understanding across subjects, and providing a better tool for teachers. The new system will offer a hyperlinked platform to help teachers write new competence goals. The aim is to work on interdisciplinary themes, highlight progression, prioritise in-depth learning, in a competence-based curriculum featuring narrower content.

The Sun (Munch)

4 competences for English are being considered:

  • communication  (CER p. 108 all human competences may contribute to a person’s ability to communicate)
  • intercultural competence
  • language learning (second language research)
  • language and technology (digital skills)

Janice Bland who edits the journal Children’s literature in English language education (http://clelejournal.org) talked about critical thinking and critical literacy. She asked these questions (and offered these answers):

  • should values education be explicitly taught? (yes)
  • does it belong to ELT? (yes because English is a global language)
  • which values are explicitly or implicitly taught? (it is important to encourage more voices)
Stressing the need to develop creativity and critical thinking among learners, the speaker cited a number of examples of children’s literature and showed how topics and treatment addressed critical issues with suggestions for classroom exploitation.
  •  The island Greder (2007) on migration, offering a visualisation of xenophobia allowing teachers to tackle the hidden curriculum (Giroux 1988).
  • Me and you Brown (2010) on class discrimination
  • Hunger games Collins (2008) on mental enslavement. Bland notes a hidden agenda in the film adaptations, where there are no black main roles
  • Mouse, bird, snake, wolf Almond (2013) – values (Christian values, European enlightenment).

Against those who suggest such topics are too sensitive and teachers should avoid them, Bland argues that Norway is an open society, and ignoring topics is taking sides, a pervasive and subtle side of censorship. She notes that out of school English possible in Norway as extensive reading and viewing and social media all occur frequently.

Other talks were given by Laurenz Volkmann (Friedrich Schiller University, Jena) who has co-written a 2015 volume on Teaching English and Andreas Lund (Oslo) whose talk was entitled I am connected, therefore I am and highlighted epistemological, ontological and philosophical perspectives on technology in education. Lund pinpointed an “awkward relationship” between 21st century media practices and existing educational systems and called for transformative competence drawing on teacher and learnaer agency (capacity to distance self and recognition of possibility to intervene and transform) and transformative agency (breaking away from the given frame of action; Virkkunen). He cited an example of a trainee teacher developing activities for disengaged pupils as an example of transformative agency.

My own talk was on Making connections across learners, between classes, and among teachers.


Making connections – open practices in technology-mediated ELT

This is a talk from an ELT event in Trondheim, Norway, drawing on video resources from the ITILT project and the ViLTE project. The outline is here and the event programme at this link.

Resources and references

iTILT mini-guides to technology for language teachers

  • digital resources
  • digital tools
  • digital networks

12 tools plus 1: Basic tools for language education

Going open with LangOER: advice for using and sharing open educational resources

ViLTE project

Task-based language teaching

Musicuentos Black Box video series (YouTube) – a set of presentations explaining classroom implications of second language research

PPP or TBLT? (slideshare) – explaining the difference between presentation-practice-production (PPP) and task-based language teaching (TBLT)

Goals for language education

Kramsch, C. (2018). Is there still a place for culture in a multilingual FL education? Langscape Journal, 1. doi 10.18452/19039

A recent discussion of critical approaches to foreign language education tackling intercultural and symbolic competence and multilingual practices, including criticism of stereotypical attitudes to FL culture in textbooks. Read some extracts here.

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. 2014, An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Research on young and very young learners of English in the Netherlands (summary)

Whyte, S. (2016). Who are the specialists? Teaching and learning specialised language in French educational contexts. Recherches et pratiques pédagogiques en langue de spécialité, 35(3) [link]

Modern foreign languages, second language research and languages for specific purposes: what are the intersections and what does this mean for language teaching and learning?

Whyte, S. (2014). Digital pencil sharpening: technology integration and language learning autonomy. EL.LE, 3(1): 31-53. Università Ca’ Foscari, Venezia. [PDF]

This article discusses pedagogical goals in language education and gives suggestions for how teachers can create conditions for language acquisition to occur using classroom technologies.

Language teacher education

Bland, J. (Ed.). (2015). Teaching English to young learners: critical issues in language teaching with 3-12 year olds. London: Bloomsbury.

A collective volume on ELT with younger learners focusing on research and practice in key areas of language education.

Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) (2014). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury.

This book offers a collection of classroom case studies showing how different language teachers integrated the interactive whiteboard into communicative approaches in a variety of contexts (ages, languages, proficiency levels).

Edwards, C., & Willis, J. R. (Eds.). (2005). Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

A collection of action/exploratory research projects conducted by graduate students in language education to address questions and problems arising in their own teaching contexts. A good source for replication for student-teachers new to classroom research.

Whyte, S. (2015). Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching: The Case of Interactive Whiteboards for EFL in French Schools. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

A study of 9 French EFL teachers (4 primary, 2 lower secondary, 2 upper secondary, and 1 teacher educator) learning to integrate interactive technologies in their classrooms through an extended collaborative action research project. It seeks to explain differences in uptake of new pedagogical and technological affordances.

Task-based language teaching

Compare these two articles:

  • Anderson, J. (2016). ‘Why practice makes perfect sense: The past, present and future potential of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education’. ELTED, 19: 14-21.
  • Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Erlam, R. (2015). ‘I’m still not sure what a task is’: Teachers designing language tasks. Language Teaching Research.

Erlam, R. (2013). Listing and comparing tasks in the language classroom: Examples of Willis and Willis’s (2007) taxonomy in practice. The New Zealand Language Teacher, 39,7-14.

Kramsch on monolingualism in FL education

Is there still a place for culture in a multilingual FL education?” asks Claire Kramsch in her recent article in the new journal of Language Education and Multilingualism, Langscape. In her response she tackles the notions of symbolic and intercultural competence, multlingualism and translanguaging practices, and what she calls the “reinvention of monolingualism” as it affects foreign language (FL) education (Kramsch 2018: 23). The article is open access and is built, somewhat counter-intuitively, around recent debate about cultural heritage in US politics associated with the Charlottesville protest (August 2017). Here I focus only on culture in foreign language education and the link Kramsch makes between opposing forces driving globalisation and their consequences for FL teachers.

She begins with a traditional, humanist view of teaching foreign languages and culture:

Foreign language (FL) education has traditionally been about opening students’ minds to other ways of viewing the world by speaking the language of people who might see it differently from the way they see it [… B]y learning other people’s vocabularies, [FL learners] are also learning other ways of thinking, talking and writing about people, objects and events. In other words, learning a second and foreign language is also learning to ‘become a speaker of culture,’ to use Elinor Ochs’ felicitous phrase

Kramsch goes on to detail post-structuralist views of culture (Norton 2000, Canagarajah 2011), following the move away from “fixed social practices and artifacts” to create communities which are “too hybrid and too complex to have well-defined rules of behaviours.” In post-modern terms (Gee 1999, Makoni & Pennycook 2007), multilingualism can be seen as crystallising “culture wars” arising from clashes between “advocates of globalisation” and “defendants of national heritages and traditions” (Kramsch 2018: 19).

On one hand, globalisation brings with it the prospect of increased participation, sense of community, plurality of voices, and human agency. It makes space for people to be heard and to change the culture of their everyday lives. On the other hand, globalisation ushers in the instrumentalisation of language, a consumerist, touristic mindset, that goes hand in hand with greater competitivity, and ultimately, greater and more invisible power and control.

Kramsch claims that globalisation is giving rise to two contradictory forces: one, “the invention of multilingualism,” an “ideology of diversity” serving civil rights and minority languages, and the other, an attempt to convert multilingualism into a “global ‘monolingualism'” in the service of a “neoliberal economic world order that speaks multilingual forms of global English” (Kramsch 2018: 21).

Developing this idea of emerging multilingualism as a response to superdiversity, the author describes resistance in the form of two constrasting types of monolingualism. First we have “the old kind of nation-based monolingualism, based on the one language=one culture equivalence.”


Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

Second comes “a new kind of multilingualism, one based not on the needs of citizens of nation-states, but on the corporate need for stereotypes, brands, and icons for consumers on the global market of symbolic and material commodities” (Kramsch 2018: 23). She cites the example of Quebec cheesemakers who exploit their francophone dimension to sell their products:

Between pride and profit, they “sell Canada” via linguistic and cultural stereotypes that fit in nicely with a global economy that speaks only one language – that of consumerism – and sells multilingualism as an exotic added value.

This brings us to FL education, because

Such monolingualism of the stereotype is particularly pervasive in FL education, where most textbooks and online teaching materials adopt a ‘tourist gaze’ that defeats the purpose of multilingualism (Kramsch & Vinall 2015). This tourist gaze flattens the foreign culture, and transforms it into the panoptic vision of the National Geographic. One can argue that such stereotypical representations of the foreign culture are in the very nature of the genre ‘textbook,’ together with its expectations of normativity, authenticity and alignment with the demands of the market.

After discussion of a transition from “learning a foreign language” to “being multilingual” and a reminder of the Douglas Fir Group manifesto as a framework for a transdisciplinary approach to second language acquisition (SLA) research, Kramsch claims that

If FL education is defined not only as the acquisition of a linguistic system, but as acquiring a different way of speaking, thinking and behaving, and a pathway to understanding real speakers in real time and real contexts of use, then it has to take into account the multilingual practices that have become the hallmark of people living in a network society

The author suggest that translingual practice is not a suitable replacement for symbolic or intercultural competence in FL education, despite its advantage of avoiding neoliberal connotations of ‘competence.’ Instead, she presents the following vision:

In our post-modern era of diversity, social and historical contingency, and symbolic power struggles, we can no longer teach stable monolingual cultures. If FL education is about opening students’ minds to other ways of viewing the world by speaking the language of people who might see it differently, then it is about making them not doubly monolingual, but ‘multilingual.’ Beyond the standard grammar and vocabulary they are mandated to teach, language teachers are seeking to help their young students find ways of dealing with incompatible worldviews, ambiguous speech acts, self-serving stereotypes, and the asymmetrical exercise of symbolic power. By modelling symbolic competence themselves, teachers can help their students become ‘multilingual’ in this expanded sense of the term.


Les langues étrangères en France : formation scolaire et universitaire

Moins de 20% des Français estiment bien parler aucune langue vivante, et près de la moitié pensent mal maîtriser les langues étrangères (18,7% et 46,2% respectivement, Eurostat 2015). Ces chiffres nous placent dans la queue du peloton avec l’Irlande, l’Italie, la Grèce, la République Tchèque et la Pologne, loin des leaders suédois, néerlandais ou autres danois, sans parler des suisses et norvégiens hors EU. Si pour la majorité des Français la première langue vivante est l’anglais, langue internationale incontournable à l’ère de la mondialisation, dans l’English Proficiency Index qui compare depuis 7 ans les résultats par pays de son test d’anglais EFSET, la France est au rang 32 sur 80 pays, 22 sur 27 pays européens, derrière l’Allemagne (rang 9), la Pologne (11), le Portugal (18) et l’Espagne (28) sans évoquer les pays du nord de l’Europe (les Pays bas en premier suivis par la Suède, le Danemark et la Norvège). Les résultats du TOEFL sont sensiblement semblables (Educational Testing Service 2017).

Depuis bientôt vingt ans l’évaluation de la maîtrise de langues étrangères par rapport à un cadre européen commun (CECRL ; Conseil de l’Europe 2001) se généralise partout en Europe. Depuis une décennie les programmes scolaires en France y sont associés et l’étude de deux langues vivantes par tous les élèves est mise en place (99% des lycéens en 2017). Le niveau « découverte » A1 est visé à l’école primaire, les niveaux « intermédiaire » A2 voire « seuil » B1 sont attendus au collège, et à la fin du lycée un niveau « avancé » ou « indépendant » B2 est préconisé pour la première langue vivante, B1 pour la deuxième. L’échelle continue jusqu’aux niveaux C1 « autonome », qui correspond à un niveau très avancé, souvent dans un domaine spécialisé, et C2 « maîtrise » qui reflète une compétence quasiment de locuteur natif. Depuis 2010 le niveau B2 est requis dans les concours de la fonction publique. Cependant cette volonté politique de promouvoir l’enseignement des langues étrangères ne s’est pas traduite par une amélioration significative des résultats. Dans une étude comparative européenne des compétences en langues des élèves de 15 ans menée en 16 pays en 2012, la France est en dernière place : seuls 14% des élèves français testés en compréhension de l’oral et de l’écrit et en expression écrite avaient un niveau B1 ou B2, contre 25% en Pologne, 27% en Espagne, 66% aux Pays bas et 82% en Suède.

Nos résultats dans l’enseignement supérieur sont guère meilleurs. Les statistiques de la certification en langues universitaire CLES (certificat de compétences en langues de l’enseignement supérieur) révèlent un taux de réussite plutôt modeste : par exemple en 2013-14, des plus de 23 000 candidats aux trois tests proposés (B1, B2, C1) seuls 44% et 45% ont validé respectivement le niveau B1 et B2 dans l’une des neuf langues pour lesquelles un test est disponible ; au niveau C1 le taux de réussite était de 27%. Comme le certificat CLES fournit une note pour chacune de quatre compétences langagières, les résultats de 2013-14 permettent également de positionner les candidats sur leurs capacités à lire, écrire, parler et comprendre la langue orale : si les trois quarts des étudiants ont réussi les épreuves de compréhension, seuls une moitié ou deux tiers avaient un niveau convenable à l’écrit ou à l’oral respectivement. Comme nous pouvons nous attendre, l’anglais est la langue choisie par une large majorité des candidats, ce qui nous permet d’affirmer que parmi les étudiants dans nos universités françaises qui cherchent par le CLES à valider un niveau B2 en anglais, une bonne partie n’a pas les compétences requises notamment en expression (orale et écrite). Ces chiffres sont confirmés par ailleurs : par exemple, à l’université de Bordeaux seuls 19% des étudiants entrant en odontologie en L2 ont un niveau B2 en anglais (Birch-Becaas & Hoskins, 2017). Ces résultats sont à contraster avec les normes de nos pays voisins : en Flandres, par exemple, le niveau B2 en néerlandais est requis pour l’entrée à l’université (Deygers, Van Gorp & Demeester 2018), en Grande Bretagne, c’est le C1 en anglais qui est demandé dans des filières sélectives.

La formation en langue suppose la qualité de l’enseignement, qui repose sur des enseignants bien formés et des méthodes d’enseignement bien adaptés. Deux facteurs spécifiques à la France méritent notre attention ici : i) l’enseignement des langues est resté très étroitement lié aux dimensions culturelles, et ii) la formation pédagogique des enseignants de langues est limitée à la transmission d’une didactique institutionnelle normalisante (Whyte 2011).




Birch-Becaas, S, & Hoskins, L. (2017). Designing and implementing ESP courses in French higher education. In Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (dir.) New developments in ESP teaching and learning research. Research-publishing.net. doi:10.14705/rpnet.2017.cssw2017.745

Conseil de l’Europe. (2001). Cadre européen commun de référence pour les langues : apprendre, enseigner, évaluer. Paris : Didier.

Deygers, B., Van Gorp, K., & Demeester, T. (2018). The B2 level and the dream of a common standard. Language Assessment Quarterly, 1-15.

Educational Testing Service. (2017). TOEFL iBT tests 2016.

Elder, C., Knoch, U., & Kim, H. (2016). Preparing for the NAATI examination: options and issues for English proficiency screening. Language Testing Research Centre: The University of Melbourne.

English Proficiency Index (2017) https://www.ef.fr/epi/

ESLC Database (2013). https://crell.jrc.ec.europa.eu/?q=article/eslc-database

Eurostat (2017) Foreign language learning statistics

Eurostat (2015)  Foreign language skills statistics

Tardieu, C. (dir). (2018). Livre blanc de la formation en études Anglophones. Commission Formations de la Société des anglicistes de l’enseignement supérieur (SAES).

Whyte, S. (2011). Learning theory in university foreign language education: the case of French universities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 10 (2), 213-34. 

Peer filming in task-based language teacher education

This is a series of three short videos on the topic of peer filming in language teacher education. They were made in connection with the Video in Language Teacher Education (ViLTE) project at Warwick University which showcases different uses of this medium to support new teachers of English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL).

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

My contribution is based on an activity I designed for first year students in our Masters in Teaching English programme at the University of Nice. It involves peer filming, where student teachers watch each other teach an activity in a secondary school EFL class and make video recordings using their smartphones. They then select an episode for discussion in their university class, and write up their analysis in a reflective paper.

Part 1: background to peer filming in language teacher education

Here I look at three types of teacher education: one of my first experiences, which involved temporary EFL instructors in our English department; a second primary school initiative on video-conferencing in tandem exchanges; and two European projects where we used short video clips to illustrate different types of technology integration in the language classroom. This provides some background on video-stimulated recall and peer observation/discussion, both techniques which proved helpful in overcoming difficulties these teachers experienced in making pedagogical changes.

Whyte, S. (2011). Learning to teach with videoconferencing in primary foreign language classrooms. ReCALL 23(3): 271–293. doi.org/10.1017/S0958344011000188

Whyte, S., & Cutrim Schmid, E. (2014). A task-based approach to video communication with the IWB: a French-German primary EFL class exchange. In Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. London: Bloomsbury.

Whyte, S. (2015). Implementing and Researching Technological Innovation in Language Teaching: The Case of Interactive Whiteboards for EFL in French Schools. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Part 2:  Peer filming in the secondary EFL classroom in France

Building on the background of task-based language teaching (TBLT), video-stimulated recall (VSR), and peer discussion described in the previous film, here we show the advantages of peer filming in bridging the gap between school and university during the school placements organised for our Masters in Teaching English students at the University of Nice (UNS). This video sets out the five steps involved in peer filming, where the students

  1. design tasks in groups
  2. teach and observe the activity in school
  3. film the activity on their smartphones
  4. share critical incidents at university
  5. write a reflective paper on the experience

In the film we discuss

  • the example of a driving instructor task designed for lower secondary EFL,
  • excerpts from class activities filmed on students’ phones, and
  • feedback from a student teacher who is now a practising teacher. We end with some practical advice for implementing this procedure in initial teacher education, and a link to the next video which offers two possibilities for exploiting peer films for teacher development.

Whyte, S. (2015). Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities. XVII International CALL research conference proceedings, 30-36.

Part 3: Design briefs and critical incidents: preparing tasks and exploiting peer films

This video builds on the three main stages of peer filming: a) the use of a design brief to create classroom tasks, b) the recording of a ‘quick and dirty’ record of the activity in progress, and c) the discussion of critical incidents to consolidate student teacher learning from the process. It then focuses on the first and last dimensions by presenting two frameworks for discussing peer films with student teachers. The first involves criteria for assessing language tasks from a TBLT perspective (Erlam 2013, 2015), while the second takes a more inclusive perspective, focusing on critical incidents (Breen et al 2001). We conclude with some recommendations for this aspect of peer filming in language teacher education.

Breen, M. P., Hird, B., Milton, M., Oliver, R., & Thwaite, A. (2001). Making sense of language teaching: Teachers’ principles and classroom practices. Applied linguistics, 22(4), 470-501.

Erlam, R. (2015). ‘I’m still not sure what a task is’: Teachers designing language tasks. Language Teaching Research.

Erlam, R. (2013). Listing and comparing tasks in the language classroom: Examples of Willis and Willis’s (2007) taxonomy in practice. The New Zealand Language Teacher, 39,7-14.

Samuda, V. 2005. Expertise in second language pedagogic task design. In Johnson, K. Expertise in language teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Whyte, S. (2015). Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities. XVII International CALL research conference proceedings, 30-36.

Overview texts

1 Background
2 Peer Film
3 Design Briefs and Critical Incidents


ViLT resources

Mackay, J. (2018). IATEFL conference presentation on ViLTE project by Steve Mann

ViLTE project seminar, February 2018

ViLT YouTube channel


Lourdes Ortega at IATEFL 2018 on what SLA research is good for

The first plenary of the 2018 IATEFL conference in Brighton in April was given by Lourdes Ortega on the topic of What is SLA research good for, anyway? Scroll down for the YouTube link and start at around 05:18 though there were technical glitches are the talk doesn’t get going until around 09:00.  (This summary is based on what I could glean from the live stream: the set-up favoured the speaker over the slides, so references were hard to catch.)

Ortega started with a familiar opposition between teachers as practice-oriented “artists” versus researchers as thinking-oriented “scientists.” Some researchers claim to assist teachers, but others suggest research should be applied with caution (Hatch). The recent TESOL action agenda has as its 4th priority “to expand capacity for inclusive and comprehensive research,” underlining the continuing importance of research to the field.

Speaking as a “down-to-earth SLA researcher” to an ELT audience, Ortega urges language teachers to search SLA research for relevance and act only when they find it. They should also be careful not to seek simple universal truths since both SLA research and teaching are complex. These are the main take-aways from this talk. She arrives at this conclusion as follows.

Efforts to make SLA research relevant to teachers and teaching include:
  • alternative terms for research: inquiry, action research, and exploratory research (cf Garton, Allwright, Borg)
  • OASIS repository of accessible summaries (Marsden)
  • teacher association research (CAMELTA, Smith & Kuchah)
Ortega argues that “there is no constant for SLA research” but three possible research-teaching intersections. SLA research may
  • sharpen teaching (e.g. motivation research)
  • falls short of relevance for teaching (e.g., error correction research)
  • change teachers’ perspectives (e.g., age research, research on multilingualism)

Ortega examines each example in turn.

1. SLA research sharpens teaching: motivation

How can teachers motivate students? Motivation researchers cited include Dornyei and Ushioda. Research shows that specific teacher behaviours increase learner motivation and that these behaviours can be taught.

  • Guilloteaux & Dornyei, 2008: Korea 27 teachers, 1300 – connection with interests, personalisation, feedback without personal criticism
  • Moskovsky et al 2013: high schools, colleges – teachers can be trained to be more motivated
  • Lamb & Wedell 2015

This is an example of a successful contribution by SLA researchers to “improving teachers’ lives.”

2. SLA is not relevant to teaching: error correction

Most teachers do error correction but also worry about it. SLA research has investigated the question but has no good answer so far – the jury is still out. Research up to 2010 suggests reasons for pessimism (Truscott 1996, Mackey et al), while since 2010, findings suggest a role for error correction (e.g., Nassaji 2017). Ortega also provides examples of “teacher bashing” with respect to vague or inconsistent error correction (Zamel 1985; Chaudron 1988, Ellis 1990).

Ortega concludes that research is “unaccountable to the complexity of error correction practice” which I understand to mean ‘currently inadequate to determine an effect on language learning and so inform teaching practice.’ She gives examples of a) non-standard L2 use deriving from idiosyncratic personal preferences (“I came from Korea”) and b) low self-efficacy among L2 users (“I wasn’t taught in the right way”). Ortega quotes Mitchell (2000) on the complex factors guiding good teachers and suggests teachers see error correction as part of “a rich journey of personal self-discovery.”

Rather than lose faith in SLA research, teachers need to have realistic expectations.

3. Research is the only way to see differently: age, multilingualism

Two issues where SLA research provides new scientific knowledge and new understanding relevant to teaching are:

  • Age – is earlier better or not?
  • Multilingualism – do languages compete in a “zero-sum game?”

Ortega states that earlier is not better, all things being equal and across all contexts. In naturalistic immersion situations, later is faster. She cites work with bilingual language users (Blom & Bosma 2016), research on international adoptees, and sign language research. In foreign language contexts, later is faster initially, and no better or worse than earlier by end of high school (e.g. starting at 8 or 13 makes no difference; Munoz 2006, Pfenniger & Singleton in preparation). Even among adults in-country, these learners are faster than children for 1-3 years

Regarding multilingualism, robust but ignored findings show that languages support each other in the same individual. There is synergy rather than competition. Ortega cites

  • Agirdag & Vanlaar 2018: Pisa 2012 data on 120 000 students in 18 countries show that children using both a home language and a majority language at school do better in school (in majority language) than monolingual children
  • Winsler et al 2014 – Spanish home language supported English gains at school
  • Bylund Abramson – Spanish-Swedish bilinguals are best in home language but also majority language

Thus “more L1 means better L2,” and Ortega claims this finding is underutilised in policies, practices and thinking.

So earlier is not better and languages do not compete in a zero-sum game, and this shakes teaching practices, such as

  • Early start, pushed by governments and parents
  • Avoiding L1 in classroom
  • language pledges in study abroad programmes
  • strict language separation in bilingual teaching

These research findings suggest the above are questionable practices, worthy of closer inspection. Should we lose faith in current teaching practices? Ortega argues that we should not: the IATEFL programme involves several presentations on these topics which utilise this kind of research. She also quotes other authors on the complexity of language teaching.

Andon and Leung (2014) remind us that there are no straighforward recipes which are effective in all contexts. Adoniou (2015) refers to the complexity of teaching, encompassing (content of teaching, psychology of teachers and students, school context, sociocultural politics, SLA research), by comparing teachers’ knowledge to a tapestry: teachers must learn to find themselves in the cross-stitches.

For Ortega, then, research and teaching are both complicated and sometimes there is good synergy (e.g. motivation research), but other times there missed opportunities (e.g., error correction), and sometimes teachers need to adapt to research findings (e.g. age-related findings, multilingualism) to transform practice in line with scientific knowledge.

SLA research doesn’t have fixed value. Teachers should ask themselves:

  1. ​Does it amplify practice? Then apply it.
  2. Does the relevance leave me unconvinced? Then put it aside.
  3. Does it open up new understanding? Then engage with it.


Agirdag, O., & Vanlaar, G. (2018). Does more exposure to the language of instruction lead to higher academic achievement? A cross-national examination. International Journal of Bilingualism, 22(1), 123-137.
Andon, N., & Leung, C. (2014). The role of approaches and methods in second language teacher education. Language teachers and teaching: Global perspectives, local initiatives, 59-73.
Blom, E., & Bosma, E. (2016). The sooner the better? An investigation into the role of age of onset and its relation with transfer and exposure in bilingual Frisian–Dutch children. Journal of child language, 43(3), 581-607.
Bylund, E., Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). The role of language aptitude in first language attrition: The case of pre-pubescent attriters. Applied Linguistics, 31(3), 443-464.
Guilloteaux, M. J., & Dörnyei, Z. (2008). Motivating language learners: A classroom‐oriented investigation of the effects of motivational strategies on student motivation. TESOL Quarterly, 42(1), 55-77.
Lamb, M., & Wedell, M. (2015). Cultural contrasts and commonalities in inspiring language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 19(2), 207-224.
Mackey, A., Gass, S., & McDonough, K. (2000). How do learners perceive interactional feedback?. Studies in second language acquisition, 22(4), 471-497.
Moskovsky, C., Alrabai, F., Paolini, S., & Ratcheva, S. (2013). The effects of teachers’ motivational strategies on learners’ motivation: A controlled investigation of second language acquisition. Language Learning, 63(1), 34-62.
Muñoz, C. (Ed.). (2006). Age and the rate of foreign language learning (Vol. 19). Multilingual Matters.
Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language learning, 46(2), 327-369.
Nassaji, H. (2017). The effectiveness of extensive versus intensive recasts for learning L2 grammar. The Modern Language Journal, 101(2), 353-368.
Pfenninger, S. E., and D. Singleton (I n prep a ) . Recent advances in quantitative methods in age – related research.
Pfenninger, Simone E. and David Singleton. ( In prep b ) . Beyond Age Effects – Facet s, Facts and Factors of Foreign Language Instruction in a Mu ltilingual State . Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Winsler, A., Burchinal, M. R., Tien, H. C., Peisner-Feinberg, E., Espinosa, L., Castro, D. C., … & De Feyter, J. (2014). Early development among dual language learners: The roles of language use at home, maternal immigration, country of origin, and socio-demographic variables. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 750-764.

Youtube link