What are reasonable expectations for speed and accomplishment for L2 learners of different ages?


As educators, we need to have realistic expectations about how quickly a student will learn a second language (L2).  We also need to understand there are many factors that can determine this, some of which are: what language people are speaking around them; age of arrival in the new language setting; how much education the learner has, how different the first language (L1) and the L2 are, age of initial instruction, hours of instruction, quality of that instruction and much more!  Here are a few general findings of Dixon et al. (2012):

  • In an L2-majority context (e.g. the United States for English) young L2 learners are likely to be successful but only after several (5-7) years.
  • L2 learners are more likely to reach native-like proficiency in oral fluency, vocabulary, and literacy than on grammatical knowledge and pronunciation if they start learning after age 12.
  • Given appropriate instruction, input, and motivation L2 learners who arrive as teenagers can succeed in the L2.
  • L2 learner's L1 that is more distant to the L1 (e.g. English and Korean) will take longer to learn the L2 (e.g. English & Dutch).
  • Holding hours of instruction constant, older learners outperform younger learners on L2 proficiency.

 (Dixon, L.Q., Zhao, J., Shin, J., Wu, Su, J. Burgess-Brigham, R., Gezer, M.U., and Snow, C. (2012). What we know about second language acquisition: A synthesis from four perspectives. Review of Educational Research 82(1), pp. 5-60).

Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen
Tricia Gallagher-Geurtsen


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