Psychological & Social Factors Affecting Second Language Learning Across Age Levels


When, how and why a second language is learned may have an impact on how effectively language is acquired. Some people can learn a second language more easily than others without regard to the age at which they begin. According to Beverly Clark, in a paper on language acquisition in early childhood, you do not learn language any faster if it is formally taught than if it is used more meaningfully in the context of conversation.


  • According to Clark, unless parents or other caregivers are going to speak and write in both languages, it is not advantageous to introduce a second language to very young children. Children who are exposed constantly to a second language through association with others outside the family will speak the language of their peers and, unless their primary language is reinforced at home, they will forget it.


  • A study by researchers, Kenji Hakuta, Ellen Bialystok and Edward Wiley, at Stanford and York Universities, revealed that variables in education may affect how second language learners acquire the new language. The socioeconomic variable, which may be an indicator of formal education opportunities, is significant. Academic language proficiency is much more difficult to obtain than social fluency; therefore, students benefit from continuing to develop academically in their first language to improve success in the second language.


  • Psychological factors, such as anxiety, motivation and self-confidence can either help or hinder the success of the second language learner depending on the student’s cognitive ability. Oftentimes he is self-conscious and his communication with others may be impeded because of anxiety and embarrassment. To counteract this, it is crucial that the student’s self-esteem does not suffer. Second language acquisition researcher John Schumann refers to a second language learner’s fear of ridicule as “language shock.”


  • Hakuta, Bialystok and Wiley’s research found that language proficiency in speech and grammar decreased as the age of initial introduction increased. Controversy surrounds the question of the age at which learning a second language becomes compromised; however, factors, such as social, educational and cognitive aging, are alternative explanations as to why this may be so. Researchers concluded that the normal decline in cognitive awareness is the most likely reason for regression.

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