Skip to main content


  • Jessica G. Cox (a1)

Little is known about older adult language learners and effects of aging on L2 learning. This study investigated learning in older age through interactions of learner-internal and -external variables; specifically, late-learned L2 (bilingualism) and provision of grammar explanation (explicit instruction, EI). Forty-three older adults (age 60+) who were monolingual English or bilingual English/Spanish speakers learned basic Latin morphosyntax using a computer program with or without EI. Results showed no overall effects of EI, although bilinguals with EI had advantages when transferring skills. Bilinguals also outperformed monolinguals on interpretation regardless of instruction.

This study expands the scope of SLA research to include older adults and bilinguals, when traditionally participants are young adult monolinguals. It bolsters nascent research on older adults by adopting a tried-and-true paradigm: interactions between variables. Older adults’ overall success at learning language counters negative stereotypes of aging and demonstrates that bilingual linguistic advantages are lifelong.

Hide All
Alexander, W. (2014). The benefits of failing at French. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology, 75, 959973.
Batterink, L. J., Oudiette, D., Reber, P. J., & Paller, K. A. (2014). Sleep facilitates learning a new linguistic rule. Neuropsychologia, 65, 169179.
Brooks, P. J., & Kempe, V. (2013). Individual differences in adult foreign language learning: The mediating effect of metalinguistic awareness. Memory and Cognition, 41, 281296.
Cenoz, J. (2013). The influence of bilingualism on third language acquisition: Focus on multilingualism. Language Teaching, 46, 7186.
Cenoz, J., & Valencia, J. F. (1994). Additive trilingualism: Evidence from the Basque Country. Applied Psycholinguistics, 15, 195207.
Cohen, A. D., & Li, P. (2013). Learning Mandarin in later life: Can an old dog learn new tricks? Contemporary Foreign Language Studies, 396, 514.
Cox, J. G. (2013). Older adult learners and SLA: Age in a new light. In Sanz, C., & Lado, B. (Eds.), Individual differences, L2 development & language program administration: From theory to application (pp. 90107). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Cox, J. G., & Sanz, C. (2015). Deconstructing PI for the ages: Explicit instruction v. practice in young and older bilinguals. IRAL: International Review of Applied Linguistics, 53, 225248.
DeKeyser, R. (2012). Interactions between individual differences, treatments, and structures in SLA. Language Learning, 62, 189200.
DeKeyser, R., & Prieto Botana, G. (2014). The effectiveness of processing instruction in L2 grammar acquisition: A narrative review. Applied Linguistics, 36, 290305.
Dong, Y., & Li, P. (2015). The cognitive science of bilingualism. Language and Linguistics Compass, 9, 113.
Ellis, N. C. (2006). Selective attention and transfer phenomena in L2 acquisition: Contingency, cue competition, salience, interference, overshadowing, blocking, and perceptual learning. Applied Linguistics, 27, 6494.
Fernandez, C. (2008). Reexamining the role of explicit information in processing instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30, 277305.
Hartshorne, J. K., & Germine, L. T. (2015). When does cognitive functioning peak? The asynchonous rise and fall of different cogniive abilities across the life span. Psychological Science, 26, 433443.
Johnson, J., & Newport, E. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of ESL. Cognitive Psychology, 21, 6099.
Kalfus, R. (1977). A new audience for foreign language instruction: The older adult. Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Bulletin, 9, 4950.
Kempe, V., Brooks, P. J., & Kharkhurin, A. (2010). Cognitive predictors of generalization of Russian grammatical gender categories. Language Learning, 60, 127153.
Lado, B. (2008). The role of bilingualism, type of feedback, and cognitive capacity in the acquisition of non-primary languages: A computer-based study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University.
Lado, B., Bowden, H. W., Stafford, C. A., & Sanz, C. (2014). A fine-grained analysis of the effects of negative evidence with and without metalinguistic information in language development. Language Teaching Research, 18, 320344.
Lasagabaster, D. (2000). Three languages and three linguistic models in the basque educational system. In Cenoz, J., & Jessner, U. (Eds.), English in Europe: The acquisition of a third language (pp. 179197). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Lee, J., & VanPatten, B. (2003). Making communicative language happen. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Lenet, A. E., Sanz, C., Lado, B., Howard, J. H. J., & Howard, D. V. (2011). Aging, pedagogical conditions, and differential success in SLA: An empirical study. In Sanz, C., & Leow, R. P. (Eds.), Implicit and explicit language learning: Conditions, processes, and knowledge in SLA and bilingualism (pp. 7384). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Leow, R. P. (2015). Explicit learning in the classroom: A student-centered approach. New York: Routledge.
Levy, B., & Langer, E. (1994). Aging free from negative stereotypes: Successful memory in China and among the American Deaf. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 989997.
Li, S. (2010). The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: A meta-analysis. Language Learning, 60, 309365.
Lin, H.-J. (2009). Bilingualism, feedback, cognitive capacity, and learning strategies in L3 development (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Georgetown University.
Linck, J. A., Osthus, P., Koeth, J. T., & Bunting, M. F. (2014). Working memory and second language comprehension and production: A meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21, 861883.
Loschky, L., & Bley-Vroman, R. (1993). Grammar and task-based methodology. In Crooks, G., & Gass, S. (Eds.), Tasks and language learning (pp. 123163). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Mackey, A., & Sachs, R. (2012). Older learners in SLA research: A first look at working memory, feedback, and L2 development. Language Learning, 62, 704740.
McDaniel, M. A., Einstein, G. O., & Jacoby, L. L. (2008). New considerations in aging and memory: The glass may be half full. In Craik, F. I. M. & Salthouse, T. A. (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and aging, 3rd ed. (pp. 251310). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Midford, R., & Kirsner, K. (2005). Implicit and explicit learning in aged and young adults. Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, 12, 359387.
Nation, R., & McLaughlin, B. (1986). Novices and experts: An information processing approach to the “good language learner” problem. Applied Psycholinguistics, 7, 4156.
Nayak, N., Hansen, N., Krueger, N., & McLaughlin, B. (1990). Language-learning strategies in monolingual and multilingual adults. Language Learning, 40, 221244.
Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50, 417528.
Park, D. C. (2000). The basic mechanisms accounting for age-related decline in cognitive function. In Park, D. C. & Schwarz, N. (Eds.), Cognitive aging: A primer (pp. 321). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
Safont Jordá, M. P. (2003). Metapragmatic awareness and pragmatic production of third language learners of English: A focus on request act realizations. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 7, 4369.
Sagasta Errasti, M. P. (2003). Acquiring writing skills in a third language: The positive effects of bilingualism. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 7, 2742.
Sanz, C. (2000). Bilingual education enhances third language acquisition: Evidence from Catalonia. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21, 2344.
Sanz, C. (2005). Adult SLA: The interaction between internal and external factors. In Sanz, C. (Ed.), Mind and context in adult second language acquisition: Methods, theory, and practice (pp. 320). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Sanz, C. (2007). The role of bilingual literacy in the acquisition of a third language. In Pérez-Vidal, C., Juan-Garau, J., & Bel, A. (Eds.), A portrait of the young in the new multilingual Spain (pp. 2240). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Sanz, C., & Morgan-Short, K. (2004). Positive evidence versus explicit rule presentation and explicit negative feedback: A computer-assisted study. Language Learning, 54, 3578.
Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In Robinson, P. (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 332). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Schoonen, R., van Gelderen, A., de Glopper, K., Hulstijn, J., Snellings, P., Simis, A., & Stevenson, M. (2002). Linguistic knowledge, metacognitive knowledge and retrieval speed in LI, L2, and EFL writing. In Ransdell, S. & Barbier, M. (Eds.), New directions for research in L2 writing (pp. 101122). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Schulz, R. A., & Elliott, P. (2000). Learning Spanish as an older adult. Hispania, 83, 107119.
Service, E., & Craik, F. I. M. (1993). Differences between young and older adults in learning a foreign vocabulary. Journal of Memory and Language, 32, 608623.
Stafford, C. A., Bowden, H. W., & Sanz, C. (2012). Optimizing language instruction: Matters of explicitness, practice, and cue learning. Language Learning, 62, 741768.
Stafford, C. A., Sanz, C., & Bowden, H. W. (2010). An experimental study of early L3 development: Age, bilingualism and classroom exposure. International Journal of Multilingualism, 7, 162183.
Swain, M., Lapkin, S., Rowen, N., & Hart, D. (1990). The role of mother language literacy in third language learning. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 3, 6581.
Tagarelli, K. M., Ruiz-Hernández, S., Moreno Vega, J. L., & Rebuschat, P. (forthcoming). Variability in second language learning: The roles of individual differences, learning conditions, and linguistic complexity. Studies in Second Language Acquisition (Special Issue): Cognitive Approaches to Complexity and Instruction in Second Language Acquisition Cognitive Approaches to Complexity and Instruction in Second Language Acquisition.
Tolentino, L. C., & Tokowicz, N. (2014). Cross-language similarity modulates effectiveness of second language grammar instruction. Language Learning, 64, 279309.
van Gelderen, A., Schoonen, R., de Glopper, K., Hulstijn, J., Snellings, P., Simis, A., & Stevenson, M. (2003). Roles of linguistic knowledge, metacognitive knowledge, and processing speed in L3, L2, and L1 reading comprehension: A structural equation modeling approach. International Journal of Bilingualism, 7, 725.
VanPatten, B. (2004). Input processing in SLA. In VanPatten, B. (Ed.), Processing instruction: Theory, research, and commentary (pp. 532). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wechsler, D. (1997). Wechsler adult intelligence scale (WAIS-III): Wechsler memory scale (WMS-III). Sidcup, UK: Psychological Corporation.
Whiting, E., Chenery, H. J., & Copland, D. A. (2011). Effect of aging on learning new names and descriptions for objects. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 18, 594619.
Wickens, C. D. (2007). Attention to the second language. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching (IRAL), 45, 177191.
Wong, W. (2004). Processing instruction in French: The roles of explicit information and structured input. In VanPatten, B. (Ed.), Processing instruction: Theory, research, and commentary (pp. 187205). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Zagona, K. (2002). The syntax of Spanish. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Studies in Second Language Acquisition
  • ISSN: 0272-2631
  • EISSN: 1470-1545
  • URL: /core/journals/studies-in-second-language-acquisition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed