Free «Summary and Evaluation of "Age of Onset and Nativelikeness in a Second Language: Listener Perception Versus Linguistic Scrutiny" by Niclas Abrahamsson and Kenneth Hyltenstam» Essay Sample

Summary and Evaluation of


It has always been a point of interest whether a person is able to master a second language at the same level as the mother tongue. The article by Swedish scientists Niclas Abrahamsson and Kenneth Hyltenstam attempts to research the question and to determine correlation between the age of onset of the second language (L2) and the level of nativelikeness of L2 speakers. Besides, the authors establish the criteria of nativelikeness that include not only the perception of native speakers but also passing a battery of semantic and grammar tests (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009).

In the introduction, the authors analyze numerous previous works on the topic. They start with Selinker’s article (1972) that declared the notion of interlanguage as the separate linguistic system. Selinker claimed that some 5% of all adult SL learners showed absolute competence in the second language. He offered to exclude such L2 speakers from the research domain because of their uniqueness. Further, Selinker introduced the term fossilization connected with the age when an individual is no more sensitive to growth and changes of the interlanguage (as cited in Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009, p. 250). Selinker’s article gave impetus to vast research with different tests and different age of onset (AO), different target and mother tongues, etc. The conclusions ranged from 10 to 15% (as cited in Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009) of nativelike adult speakers to zero result (as cited in Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009). However, most researchers agreed that nativelikeness of L2 speakers, were it possible, depended on the age of L2 onset.

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The paper under consideration searches counterarguments to the critical period hypothesis (CPH); it attempts to check the hypothesis “that language acquisition is maturationally constrained” (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009). Out of the three definitions of nativelikeness: own perception of nativelikeness, other people’s perception, and being nativelike, the research selects the third as being the most objective. The positive result would refute the CPH by proving that adult mastering of L2 on the level of native speakers is possible as a matter of principle.

The experiment consisted of two parts and involved 195 people with Spanish as a mother tongue and Swedish as a second language. All of them considered themselves to speak Swedish as good as their native language. The age of onset (AO) varied from 1 to 47. A control group of native speakers was selected too. A panel of judges whose mother tongue was Swedish assessed the nativelikeness of the L2 speakers. A subset of 42 people, who passed the first part of the test and were qualified for other criteria, took part in the second part of the experiment, which included a battery of tests to check their language competence (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009).

To ensure proper sampling, as it was necessary to select only people with high L2 level, preliminary screening of the candidates was done in a telephone conversation. The first part of the test served as a formal screening. The panel of judges consisted only of native speakers who did not specialize in phonetics or lexicology and did not know Spanish. To eliminate errors, they were offered a multiple-choice test to define whether a speaker was: a) Stockholm native, b) spoke a dialect of Swedish, and c) had another mother tongue (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009). As the result, 104 people of 195 were perceived as native by all judges. It means that in certain everyday situations they perform as natives and are perceived as natives. However, a higher number of such advanced L2 speakers belonged to early learners. On the average, the score of nativelikeness was from 9.9 for the control group of native speaker through 7.9 for early learners and 2.5 for late learners. The judges recognized as native only 5 L2 speakers with AO over 12 years and no speakers with AO over 17 (Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam 2009).

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The second part of the experiment scrutinizing nativelikeness (SN) applied a battery of tests to the selected 41 participants. The tests were designed to differentiate between nativelike and near-native language competence. Although the total number of instruments used for testing was 20, the article provided an account of only ten of them. The applied tests were production and perception of voice, perception of speech against noise, knowledge of grammatical structures, grammatical, lexical, and semantic inference, formulaic language, and analysis. The tests proved to be difficult even for native speakers as none of them scored the maximum in tests 4-6 and 8-10. Of all the 41 L2 speakers, only 3 participants with AO 3, 7, and 8 years were estimated at the level of native speakers (SN score 9); still two participants with AO between 1 and 7 scored SN 8. Among the late learners, one received SN score 7, one 6, the others were qualified as not native (Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam 2009).

The findings demonstrate “a strong negative correlation (r = −.72) between perceived nativelikeness and the age at which L2 acquisition began” (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam 2009). The first part of the test showed that the majority of early learners and fewer late learners were perceived as native speakers. The second part of the test proved that none of the late learners could exhibit overall second language competence. However, nativelikeliness was registered with early learners. The results support the opinion that adult L2 learners do not achieve absolute nativelikeness. On the other hand, the experiment does not prove that some aspects of the second language become impossible to master with the age.

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The article is a commendable piece of academic writing. The presentation follows a clear logical structure, the abstract gives an idea of the subject, the introduction provides a thorough survey of opinions and methods applied in the study of the problem. The research makes sense because the issue of the possibility of mastering a second language as a native one remains open.  The authors applied a diversified approach to the problem of nativelikeness; they distinguished between perception of the speakers as native by real native speakers and overall language competence that can be expected from native speakers.

 The merit of the article lies in logical, well-organized presentation, clear setting of goals, meticulous description of methodology, and accurate statistic record. The hypothesis declared in the introduction was explored with the purpose of confirming or refuting and received confirmation through the results of the experiment. The argumentation is consistent with other works on the topic but the authors have attempted to give a comprehensive approach to the problem. The researchers set strict and clear criteria for the candidates to ensure the best sample quality for the experiment. The methodology is described in detail, from A to Z. The selection of tests is designed to cover all possible aspects of language competence. However, the tests in the second part proved to be too difficult even for the native speakers. Thorough description of methodology enables reproducing the empirical part of the research. Statistic record is also strict and systematic. The input data and the findings are represented in tables and schemes that are clear and intelligible.

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Although the article is well-structured and written in a clear language, some details seem to be excessive though curious (e.g. the amount of compensation received by the participants in the experiment). Again, the advertisement presented in the Appendix A contains criteria for preliminary selection of the candidates; however, the same information was listed in the body of the article. It is worth mentioning that a more complete list of tests could be useful. To summarize, the approach to the problem and the report are fundamental, interesting, and academic.