[lg policy] Linguist List Issue: The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language Learners

Fri Apr 5 14:49:42 UTC 2013

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Message1: The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language Learners
From:Trini Stickle tstickle at wisc.edu
LINGUIST List issue http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-1518.html 

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-288.html 


Patricia Andrew's "The Social Construction of Age: Adult Foreign Language Learners" is an adaptation of the author's dissertation, an ethnographic study on how personal and cultural conceptions of age affect the learning experience of seven adult learners enrolled in a Foreign Language (EFL) program in Mexico. 

The text is organized into two sections. Part 1 consists of three chapters that introduce the conceptual frames of the study: Second Language Acquisition research (SLA) (chapter 1), social approaches to age, age identity, and age discourse (chapter 2), and Social Constructionism (SC) (chapter 3). Part 2 consists of three data chapters, each representing an age category within which Andrew's seven adult learners are placed. Andrew documents how students position themselves or are positioned by their teachers and fellow students into one of the three categories: later adulthood (chapter 4), "middle" adulthood (chapter 5), or young adulthood (chapter 6). The author concludes with a final chapter on the implications of age identity research for both second language pedagogy and acquisition studies, and as a methodology for studying age identity within other contexts.


In her introduction, Andrew sketches out the impetus, organization, and goals for her study. She describes her motivation as both personal and professional. Pursing her doctorate in SLA later in life led her to question the importance of age identity on learning in general. Drawing on her experiences teaching English as a foreign language, she began to question the importance of age identity for students in second language classrooms; particularly, within the cultural context of Mexico, the site of her L2 instruction. 

As a second language researcher, Andrew distinguishes herself and her approach from the biological-cognitive focus that has occupied SLA for the last forty years. In differentiating age as "a particular place or position a person has at a given moment in time" (i.e., chronological age) from aging, "a multidimensional process that is physiological, psychological, social and cultural" (p. xiv), she aligns her work with social themes current in SLA research. For Andrew, however, the construction of age as it affects the second language (L2) learner is her foremost concern; the context of the L2 classroom, second. Andrew states, "My concern was less with the issue of linguistic attainment than with what the experience means in the larger context of [the learners'] worlds" (p. xi). Andrew employs ethnographic observations of the classroom and individual interviews to document how age identity and language learning connect.

Andrew provides four objectives for her study: 1) to show that adult learners' perceptions of age and age identity contribute to the language acquisition process; 2) to initiate interest in age as a socially constructed identity that interacts with other social features such as gender, ethnicity, and social class, 3) to demonstrate social constructionism as a lens for future age studies; and 4) to document how social interaction contributes to the development of social discourse. Andrew intends to contribute equally to the "fledging field of age studies" (p. xv) and to the second language community of researchers, instructors, and curricula developers. 

Part 1 provides the conceptual basis for looking at age as a social context within the second language classroom, and as a social feature that is co-constructed through interactions along with gender, ethnicity, and social class.

In Chapter 1, "The Age Factor and Second Language Acquisition", Andrew provides an overview of traditional age-related research within SLA, inquiries which are primarily focused on the biological constraints of language learning. She includes key findings from critical hypothesis research from the 1970s to more recent work, and notes that while no definite conclusions regarding a critical period have yet been supported, the underlying question has led to productive investigations on the role of Universal Grammar and other cognitive factors, the context of learning -- classroom or naturalistic settings -- and social and affectual factors. Andrew concludes that if differences in second language acquisition are caused by maturational processes, these "constraints operate in conjunction with a number of other affective, psychological and social factors" (p. 15). Andrew then provides a review of sociocultural approaches to second language acquisition, including activity theory (K!
 ramsch, 2000; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006), Atkinson's work on cognitive and social aspects of second language learning (2002), and the influence of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). She situates her own view of age effects on L2 learning within SLA's fairly recent turn to situated learning and the role of identity, or rather, identities of the learner (e.g., Block, 2007; Norton, 2000, Toohey, 2000). Andrew's work adds to these studies the importance of age identity. 

In Chapter 2, "Present-Day Approaches to the Study of Age," Andrew focuses on recent studies of age. She first introduces the reader to social constructionism (SC), which posits that all social reality is constructed through discursive interaction. As SC has been instrumental in documenting how gender, ethnicity, race, and social class are jointly created and negotiated through talk, Andrew adds aging as a social construct that is related to but distinct from biological processes associated with age. 

Andrew delineates five themes of social constructionism that provide the framework for her study of age within the language learning context.  First, social reality, or meaning, is created and discoverable through relationships with others. Accordingly, age is ascribed social meaning in relation to the ages of others, Citing Gee (2001), Andrew states that the social reality of multiple identities are constantly being enacted, negotiated, and constructed among the participants and within interaction. Second, the enactment, negotiation, and construction of identities occur largely through language and discourse. As people engage in dialogue, they are jointly constructing multiple identities situated within the discourse context. These moments of talk are "key in unlocking the complex, interwoven relationship between language and the sociocultural context within which communication occurs" (p. 43). Last, continuity is maintained through the narratives we use to tell our stories!
  and reference our identities. 

Andrew uses these five themes as points of inquiry in her study: 1) Age is relational, not absolute and discoverable in the interactions within and outside the language classroom; 2) Language use provides the primary evidence of ongoing age construction; 3) Dialogue is the locus for age identity construction; 4) Multiple identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity, social class) are being enacted, negotiated, and constructed in each interaction and contribute to the significance of the context, which is the language classroom; 5) Continuity of age identity is found within the narratives people tell. Using both classroom and interview talk as evidence, Andrew investigates how learners' interactions construct their identities, how these identities interact, and how, ultimately, age identity impacts language learning. 

In Chapter 3, "Viewing Age through a Social Constructionist Lens", Andrew discusses current approaches to age, particularly the meaning of age as presented within Western culture. She presents findings within social constructionist research that document how the biological processes of decline and decrement concurrent with age have been appropriated as the social view of aging. This view of decrement, Andrew notes, has led to both Ageist and anti-Ageist views. Consequently, as people negotiate their age identities through interactions, the cultural views of age often arise as competing narratives. Andrew's research investigates whether these competing narratives (decrement versus 'experience') manifest within the L2 classroom and, specifically, within the cultural context of Mexican society, as represented by the university classroom of mixed-aged learners studying English as a foreign language.

In Part 2, Andrew uses several types of discursive data to document how the seven adult language learners position themselves and are positioned by others within one of three age categories: later adulthood, middle adulthood, and young adulthood. She uses transcript excerpts from the semi-instructed interviews and from the recorded classroom interactions as students engaged with each other, their instructor, and with the curriculum. Additionally, she has each student create a hand-drawn sketch that depicts the student's view of the life course. Andrew connects these snapshots of age identity and assigns each adult learner to a particular age category. 

Chapter 4, "Constructing Age in Later Adulthood," presents the experiences of the two oldest members of Andrew's study: Hector, age 69 and Felix, age 68. Although their chronological ages contribute to their later adulthood characterization, Andrew shows that factors such as their retired status, previous professions, and consequential social class exert greater influence in constructing their age identities. Both their own talk and remarks from others, including instructors, evidence how age is salient and often negatively portrayed in the classroom. Similarly, the inapplicable age-graded topics in the curriculum such as dating, preparing for a career, or parent or sibling interactions highlight their different life stage.  Andrew posits that through these interactions the negative construction of later adulthood identity colors the learners' goals and expectations of second language learning and as a result both Hector and Felix's attainment is constrained, not necessarily!
  by cognitive ability per se, but by their age identity.

In Chapter 5, "Constructing Age in 'Middle' Adulthood", Andrew presents the stories of the four women in her study: Elsa, Gilda, Adela, and Berta. These women fit themselves and are fitted into a distinct middle adulthood category, despite the fact that no concept of "middle age", and thus no equivalent term or phrase, exists in Mexico. Andrew makes clear that the one feature the women share is that they are all of working age with social responsibilities. Their chronological ages range from 34 to 59; some are married; some have children; one is nearing retirement. Yet comments from their instructors and their engagement with ill-fitted curriculum topics make salient their professional and personal identities that exist outside the classroom.  Like the experiences of Hector and Felix, occasional ageist comments depict the women as less than capable learners. However, unlike the older men, the women view language learning, and learning English, as part of their on-going narra!
 tives of professional development, and this narrative leads to positive learning experiences. 

In Chapter 6, "Constructing Age in Young Adulthood", Andrew presents David's story; the youngest member in her study and the one who best fits the typical university student profile. David positions himself as a young adult by choosing to engage with fellow students closer to his own age, avoiding interactions with the older learners, and interacting least with his instructors. David is also able to fully engage with the curriculum as his lifestyle matches closest to the topics and contexts presented in the activities. Andrew shows how David, like many of his college peers, take English learning as a given; they are motivated by social and professional reasons.

In her last chapter, "Final Reflections", Andrew returns to her original questions and summarizes the implications of her findings. The data provide ample evidence of the construction of participants' age identity within the classroom. Andrew notes that while the traditional age categories of older, middle, and young were uncontested in the data, a few remarkable results emerged. First, chronological age was less influential than were social identities such as employment and gender-related roles such as parental and marriage status. Second, ageist discourse in the forms of humor, age segregation, and adultism (i.e., references to normative life stage experiences) often occurred within the classroom. Such social discourse of decrement did, according to Andrew, affect the learning environment. Last, Andrew proposes that her methods and types of data could be used to document age identity construction and emerging discourses (e.g., the concept of middle age in Mexico) in other !

Andrew concludes with the implications this work has for SLA pedagogy and research. She challenges both instructor and researcher "to no longer see adults as predetermined chronological ages or age categories, but rather as individuals whose age identity is socially constructed in a variety of ways with others" (p. 160). She suggests that both teachers and researchers approach their populations with sensitivity to their complex identities, that they not ascribe ability or disability based on predetermined categories such as age, and that they keep check on their own attitudes and behaviors that may unwittingly reflect prejudicial attitudes. Similarly, she suggests that textbook authors and publishers show sensitivity to potentially problematic age issues. 


Andrew's study contributes to our understanding of age as a social factor that affects learners of second languages and, by extension, learning within many contexts. She shows how learners' social identities such as gender and social class interact and contribute to their age identity. Additionally, Andrew's rich use of interview and observational data provide two powerful ways to document social constructionism within a particular context. 

Andrew's work provides a reminder to all instructors that learners are affected by the ways in which they are characterized within the classroom, and that characterizations can color the learning process in and beyond the classroom. Likewise, textbook and curriculum writers should consider age-neutral topics, particularly for classrooms that are, often, represented by people at various stages of life. 

One minor critique I have is the use and explication of the students' sketches of the life course. I did not find the inclusion of these drawings terribly informative to the study. It may be that the task of asking students to draw their visualization of the life course was instrumental in getting them to verbalize their view of aging; however, the commentary about the drawings lent very little to the powerful and compelling discourse data. 

Andrew's presentation and organization of her study make it an enjoyable read. The book is well organized to include concise previews and summaries of each section. The data excerpts and narratives of the seven learners make it an insightful exploration of age discourse within the L2 classroom, within a classroom setting, and as an exemplar of age studies. 

Atkinson, D. (2002). "Toward a sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition."  Modern Language Journal, 91, 169-188.

Block, D. (2007). "The rise of identity in SLA research, post Firth and Wagner (1997)." Modern Language Journal, 91, 863-876.

Gee, J. P. (2001). "Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive perspective." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44, 714-725.

Kramsch, C. (2000). "Second Language Acquisition, applied linguistics, and the teaching of foreign language."  Modern Language Journal, 84, 311-326.

Lantolf, J. P. & Thorne, S. L. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language  Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J.  & Wenger,  E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Periphery Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Harlow: Longman.

Toohey, K. (2000). Learning English at School: Identity, Social Relations and Classroom Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 

Trini Stickle is a PhD candidate in the Program of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests are language use in the interactions between persons with dementia and their nonimpaired coparticipants. Her dissertation investigates the co-construction of epistemic stance in the talk of persons with dementia. 

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