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OLDER LEARNERS VS. YOUNGER LEARNERS: WHO IS BETTER AT FOREIGN LANGUAGE VOCABULARY ACQUISITION?

S. Polskaya

Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) (RUSSIAN FEDERATION)
The issue of the correlation between learners’ age and the degree of their success in acquiring and remembering the lexis of a foreign language has become the focus of many researchers over the recent decade. No doubt, acquiring lexical units of the language to be studied is one of the most important tools engaged in the whole process of a foreign language acquisition. There exists a traditional stereotype ‘the earlier – the better’, implying that if one starts vocabulary acquisition at an early age, successful outcome is more likely. Moreover, there is another stereotype regarding older learners who are considered to be almost hopeless in remembering and retrieving lexical units of a foreign language as older age is supposed to be accompanied by memory decline, lower rates of skills development etc.

However, currently researchers recognize the fact that, contrary to existing stereotypes, older learners can also be successful in foreign language acquisition. Those possible problems they come across throughout this process can be overcome by the learning environment being adjusted to solving these problems, proper attention to affective factors as well as higher motivation level and more efforts made by such learners.

Relying on the fact of the progressive development of human ontogenesis, various research on memory of the people of different ages as well as those few studies aimed at older learners, we put forward two following hypotheses:
(1) foreign language vocabulary acquisition at older age (65+) can be as efficient as the acquisition demonstrated by younger learners;
(2) older learners employ strategies different from those used by younger learners.

The aim of our study was to compare the results of the acquisition of the lexical units of a foreign language (in our case – English), provided by two heterochronous groups. Our experiment involved two groups: Group 1 (Seniors) – pensioners at the age from 65 to 76 studying the English language as a part of the program ‘Active longevity’ and Group 2 (Juniors) – young people of 26-31 years old attending the language courses at the Moscow-based language center ‘Lab of English’. Both groups had a similar objective of mastering the topical vocabulary “Traveling ‘ within one month. During the experiment, we established those strategies representatives of both groups used to memorize the vocabulary to be acquired and also carefully analyzed and compared the results of a specifically designed test aimed at checking the actual number of lexical units remembered and actively used by learners.

The results obtained confirmed the above mentioned hypotheses we formulated: the majority of learners of senior age demonstrated better results compared to the junior group members, while the range of the strategies used by them was wider and more efficient. These findings can be practically applied when devising programs and lesson plans for those who learn a foreign language in late adulthood.