Research projects

“Dynamic analysis of (computer-assisted) language learning in the third age (DYNAGE and DYCALL)” (2016–)

Collaborators: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg; Martin Meyer, University of Zurich; Stefan Elmer, University of Zurich; Rebekah Wegener, University of Salzburg; Jörg Cassens, University of Hildesheim; David Singleton, Trinity College Dublin; Martijn Wieling, University of Groningen; Elisabeth Stark, University of Zurich

PhDs: Maria Kliesch (Zurich), Anna Haselsberger (Salzburg)

Research assistants: Thomas Vötter (Salzburg), Selina Decho (Salzburg), Michelle Mattuzzi (Groningen), Lisa Pall (Salzburg)


Where only a few years ago there was a noticeable lack of research on second language (L2)
acquisition later in life (e.g. Antoniou et al. 2013), the topic is gaining traction in both the applied
linguistics and cognitive study of multilingualism in older age, motivated not only by population aging
as one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century but also by a growing trend
in international policies to promote lifelong learning and extend the healthspan. However, little is known
about the factors that determine the L2 development of older adults in a digital environment – and
even less is known about how online L2 learning benefits them. Furthermore, while there is some
initial research into learning technologies for the elderly (Bai et al. 2020), this work is in the very early
stages – and research into digital tools for L2 learning in the third age is perhaps even more embryonic.


Our microgenetic longitudinal intervention studies aim to shed light on the hypothesis that L2
acquisition has the potential to be an “anti-aging activity” (Ryan & Dörnyei, 2013: 93), being a
cognitively challenging activity that seems in specific circumstances to promote neural plasticity and
to foster social interaction and individual mobility. What is more, we propose the development of a
digitally mediated L2 learning program developed specifically for the older learner.

Data from our iterated investigations make a substantial contribution to research on late L2 development in the digital age as well as cognitive aspects of healthy aging. Because the needs of users at different points in their life – particularly within the third age – will vary, the outcomes from our studies are also beneficial for modelling older users in future digital developments and, subsequently, will inform adult educators about the development of appropriate teaching materials as well as the design of individualized language training.

“Evaluation of CLIL programs in Austria (EvaluCLIL)” project (2019–)  

Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg

Research assistants: Barbara Reindl, Mona Rosensteiner, Hannah Lechner (Salzburg)

Commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research in Austria, this project carries out evaluations of different bilingual education models such as content and language integrated learning (CLIL).

“Intra-individual variation in language” (2017–)


Collaborators: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg; Lars Bülow, University of Vienna, Alexander Werth, University of Passau, Markus Schiegg, University of Erlangen


Intra-individual variation plays an important role in the humanities as well as in the natural and social sciences. Fields as diverse as cognitive neuroscience (cf. Port & Van Gelder 1995), developmental psychology (e.g., van Geert 1991; Smith & Thelen 1993; Thelen & Smith 1994), organizational behavior (Axelrod & Cohen 1999; Guastello 1995), and political sociology (e.g., Axelrod 1984) have recently being reframed in terms that allow insight into basic dynamic properties that were previously overlooked. We believe that empirical research on intra-individual variation in linguistics research is also important for several reasons. Even if scholars do not explicitly adopt a dynamic systems or complexity framework, the overall emerging picture is that of a broad shift that has departed in several respects from traditionally established viewpoints. One of the most radical consequences of this paradigm shift has been the growing recognition that straightforward cause–effect relationships are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain all the complex patterns observed in language change, language use and language acquisition. We thus argue that a focus on intra-individual variation in language ability has the potential to shed new light on longstanding theoretical debates in various linguistic fields and bring us closer to a detailed mechanistic understanding of human language.

Our project deals with intra-individual variation from various theoretical and empirical perspectives of different linguistic subdisciplines addressing, among others, the following questions.

  • How can the range of intra-individual variation be determined in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics? Are there any limits to this variation?

  • Which linguistic and extra-linguistic factors can / must be used to explain intra-individual variation? And is there really something such as observable “free variation” in a language?

  • How do intra- and inter-individual variation relate to each other? How should the issue of ergodicity, i.e. the non-linear development of language, be dealt with methodically?

  • How is intra-individual variation to be evaluated and measured (also statistically)? What are the consequences resulting from such an assessment, for instance in relation to language change and language development?

  • Does the process meet the ergodicity requirements, i.e. how similar is the structure of inter-individual variation to the structure of intra-individual variation?

  • How does variation in spoken language relate to variation in writing?

  • Are language learners aware of intra-individual variation? If so, which levels of the system and/or variants are more salient than others?

  • How can we conceptualize and measure the threshold between non-systematic and systematic intra-individual?


“Age & Immersion Milestones (AIM)” project (2017–)  


Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg


In light of their rather unimpressive impact, early foreign language (FL) programs are currently under scrutiny in Europe (and elsewhere in the world), and the question has arisen as to how we can exploit an earlier starting age more effectively – a topic that is at present still not understood very well. The main bone of contention seems to be intensity of instruction: a myriad of classroom studies have demonstrated that intensive exposure in the classroom is a more determinant predictor of the outcome than starting age and regular drip-feed instruction. However, time is one of the most valuable pedagogical resources and the most hotly contested, and, accordingly, it is difficult to increase the student allocation of hours for FLs. This is where Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) comes into the picture, a didactic method in which school subjects are taught in a different target language than the mainstream school language, thus providing more opportunities for L2 input, output and interaction. Currently CLIL is fast increasing in popularity and is being implemented in various forms and in a variety of contexts both in Europe and internationally.

The Age & Immersion Milestones (AIM) project is the first large-scale, longitudinal study in Europe to focus on the issue of the optimal time to begin intensive early instruction of English as a second language (L2) and French as a third language (L3) in different types of early FL programs in (pre)primary schools in Austria and Switzerland, notably early total CLIL contexts (TOC), early partial (50:50 two-way) CLIL (PAC) and early minimal CLIL (MIC) with 2 hour of instruction a week. On of the main goals is to provide a broader picture of student achievement over the years (up to eight years) through the analysis of purposeful collections of oral and written student work that tell the story of a student’s efforts, progress and achievement in different types of bilingual education. In order to reliably determine the absolute abilities of the over 200 learners tested in the study, we make use of a set of measures that can be used for emerging oral and written FL skills in very young learners (age 5+) and that can be used with longitudinal data stretching over a considerable period of time (8 years) and thus capture different proficiency levels. For 91 of them data collection occurred four times annually over eight school years (ages 5–12), via oral tasks, essays, language awareness questionnaires and parental/teacher questionnaires.

Our findings shed light on the effectiveness, time and timing of the bilingual primary school concept and document the children’s growing L2 awareness and learning progress and outcome not only in their L1 (German or English) and L2 (German or English) but also in an L3 (French). From a practical perspective, it is important for educators, policy makers and parents to know about the optimal age of CLIL instruction onset so as to be in a position of choice, choice whether or not and when to enroll children in bilingual programs. For theoreticians, the optimal starting age question is of interest in immersive contexts, since bilingual programs constitute a hybrid form between naturalistic L2 acquisition (where we find a clear ‘earlier=better’ trend) and instructional FL contexts (where usually no age effects in favor of early starters can be found). Ultimately, the findings of the AIM project are intended to contribute to the extending and improving of early bilingual education throughout Europe. Target groups for the results of this project will be specialists in the European education sector, primary schools, secondary schools, research institutions and the general public.


“Beyond Age Effects. Variables Trumping the Age Factor in L2 Instructional Learning” (2008–2017) 


Collaborators: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg; David Singleton, Trinity College Dublin


This large-scale longitudinal project, undertaken in Switzerland between 2008 and 2016, focuses on the effects of age of onset (AO) vis-à-vis the learning of English that manifest themselves in the course of secondary schooling. The two main goals of the project are to identify factors that prevent young learners from profiting from their extended learning period, as documented in numerous classroom studies, as well as to understand the mechanisms that provide late starters with learning rates in the initial stages of learning which enable them to catch up relatively quickly with early starters. These are questions of considerable theoretical and practical significance, since they are at the heart of debates revolving around age – one of the most controversial variables in FL learning and teaching research. 

We tested over 800 secondary school students (636 of them longitudinally over a period of five years), who all had learned Standard German and French in primary school, but only half of whom had had English from third grade (age 8) onwards, the remainder having started five years later in secondary school. This constellation provided a unique window into the benefits of early versus late FL learning.

We combined advanced quantitative methods in classroom research (e.g. multilevel modeling) with individual-level qualitative data, rather than examining the relationship between well-defined variables in relative isolation (as in ANOVA-type analyses). The findings cast some doubt on the importance of maturational and strictly durative aspects of FL instructional learning: success mostly does not relate to AO or length of the exposure. Close analysis of the interplay of variables showed that a number of variables are much stronger than starting age for a range of FL proficiency dimensions, e.g. (1) effects of instruction-type, (2) literacy skills, (3) classroom effects, (4) extracurricular exposure and (5) socio-affective variables such as motivation. The findings also suggest that different learner populations (monolinguals, simultaneous bilinguals, sequential bilinguals) are differentially affected by L3 starting age effects, partly due to individual differences (e.g. (bi)literacy skills), partly due to contextual effects that mediate successful L3 outcomes (e.g. language environment at home, classroom effects and teaching approach).