Research projects

“Dynamic analysis of language learning in the third age (DYNAGE3)” (2016–)

PIs: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg; Martin Meyer, University of Zurich; Elisabeth Stark, University of Zurich

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

Research assistants: Lisa Pall, Thomas Vötter (Salzburg)

The unprecedented growth in the number of older adults in Europe and elsewhere calls for measures to stave off the age-related cognitive decline and contribute to healthy and active aging. Second language (L2) learning is a promising way of achieving both, being a cognitively challenging activity that has been shown in specific circumstances to promote neural plasticity and to foster social interaction and individual mobility (Antoniou, Gunasekera, & Wong, 2013). Whereas, however, there is a growing body of research and debate on L2 acquisition in children and prime-of-life learners, the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, such as the learning of additional languages, in the third age, has only recently begun to be researched and analyzed with any intensity. As a consequence, little is known about the factors that determine the L2 learning success of an older adult – and even less is known about how language learning benefits them.


With research on L2 learning and senescence only beginning to establish itself, the  present longitudinal intervention study aim to shed light on the hypothesis that second language (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 (e.g. Antoniou, Gunasekera & Wong 2013). Specifically, we make use of an equal-status concurrent mixed methods design, systematically integrating qualitative content analyses with generalized additive mixed-effects regression models (GAMMs), to analyze the short-term and long-term developmental trajectories of older adults (aged 62+) in Austria and Switzerland who took part in either an intensive English course (classroom instruction) or an intensive Spanish course (computer program). Some of the key questions we ask the models are (1) when and why L2 development is statistically significantly increasing (or decreasing), and (2) whether our set of predictors (age, cognitive fitness, bilingualism, socio-affect, EEG responses) has a significant effect on the trajectories under investigation. Our data set contains 140 learning trajectories – 60 participants on a mono/bilingual continuum in the experimental group (L2 training), 40 participants in the active control group (playing strategy games), and 40 participants in the passive control group – each represented by 30 measurements taken at equal intervals over 7 months, amounting to 4,200 data points per test altogether. Participants are assessed on a range of behavioral (e.g. working memory), L2 (receptive and productive skills), socio-affective (survey) and neurophysiological (EEG) parameters, with the aim of identifying factors that facilitate L2 learning and help explain inter- and intra-individual variation. Data from such an iterated investigation makes a substantial contribution to research on late L2 acquisition as well as on cognitive aspects of healthy and active aging. Our research is also crucial in the establishment of learner profiles 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–)  

(PI: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg)


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

(PI: 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) 

(PI: Simone E. Pfenninger, University of Salzburg)


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).


In 2015, I received the Mercator Award for this project. As a result of its social relevance, my study has so far received – and continues to receive – much publicity and media attention and has generated a great deal of public interest (see “Media”).

From 2015-2016 my research was supported by a research grant of the University of Zurich, Grant FK-15-078 (18 months; 130,367 CHF i.e. 119,025 EUR).

“The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives”

(PI: Marianne Hundt, University of Zurich” (2012–2016)


Finally, another area of interest to me that frequently overlaps with questions of second language learning is language change as it proceeds from generation to generation through the daily interaction of speakers, shaped by language-internal, social and psycholinguistic factors. While the first two factors have been thoroughly researched in historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, the latter has not been systematically addressed, even though speculative recourse is made to psycholinguistic explanations of changes frequently. Recent handbooks of (English) historical linguistics do not include systematic discussions of psycholinguistic factors driving language change (with the exception of the sketch by Aitchison in Joseph & Janda eds. 2003 and a chapter by Bybee & Beckner 2014). Discussions of language change by psycholinguists are also rare (but see Baayen 1993; Beckner and Bybee 2009; Bybee 2003, 2008; Ellis 2002; Fischer 2007). In this project with Marianne Hundt (University of Zurich) and Sandra Mollin (University of Heidelberg), we have been addressing core issues of language change in English from both a historical-linguistic and a psycholinguistic perspective bringing experts from the two disciplines together in order to explore the potential (and limitations) of an interdisciplinary approach to language change. Historical linguistics profits from this exchange in that concepts that have previously been used uncritically and without clear definition (such as the ‘salience’ of linguistic items) gain a sound psychological basis. Psycholinguistics, in turn, is encouraged to take not only synchronic structures into account, but to develop models which explain diachronic change as well. The fruits of this project will be published in an edited volume with Cambridge University Press (CUP) in 2017.



“Early English in the Brain” (2011-2015)

(PI: Urs Maurer, University of Hong Kong)


From 2011-2015 I was involved in a neurolinguistic project called “Early English in the Brain” (original title: "Neural basis of individual differences in foreign language learning in school: Effects of dyslexia and immigration"), which investigated the neural mechanisms that are involved in learning English as a foreign language in primary school. We were particularly interested in children who may be at risk of experiencing learning difficulties when acquiring foreign languages, such as children with dyslexia and children from families with an immigrant background. In order to get a deeper understanding of the processes in the brain that are important for language learning and about the processes that occur in children at risk for learning difficulties when learning English, we collected and analyzed behavioral and EEG data from over 200 primary school children. 



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