Individual Differences in Context: Immigrant Second Language Acquisition

Jason Struck, University of Maryland – College Park

3:00 pm – 3:30 pm (Room 232)



Hundreds of millions of individuals immigrate internationally every year, often to a country where they do not speak the language (United Nations, 2019). While they do bring with them rich cultures and languages, the reality is that US immigrants’ levels of English proficiency are associated with higher income and integration into society (Chiswick & Miller, 2005; Dustmann & van Soest, 2002). However, second language acquisition (SLA) research oversamples from college student populations (Young-Scholten, 2013). The little existing research on immigrant SLA has recruited homogeneous populations or relied on unreliable measures of language proficiency, and few have examined the relationship between SLA and language context, which refers to the prevalence of one’s native language in a geographic region.

The current study addresses these shortcomings by studying immigrants of diverse backgrounds and by using a more reliable measure of language proficiency. The data for this study is from an immigrant English program with over 30,000 individuals representing 87 native languages. They were assessed on task-based assessments by language teaching professionals. The research questions are how language task performance is affected by (1) individual difference variables of education and age of arrival, (2) language context, and (3) the interaction of individual difference variables and language context.

Individuals’ language assessments were scored with item response theory models (reliability = 0.90), and their scores were used as the outcome in multilevel models with predictors of individual difference and language context variables.

The results showed a positive effect of education and a negative effect of age of arrival, meaning that younger, more educated individuals performed better on the language outcome. Language context had a negative effect, so that individuals who attended the English program with fewer peers who spoke the same native language performed better. Language context also showed a negative interaction with age of arrival, meaning that individuals immigrating later faced additional barriers in SLA.

The findings highlight the need for instructors to address immigrants’ obstacles in classroom learning (Bigelow & Watson, 2012), as well as the implications of living arrangements of students studying abroad, where host-family stays provide opportunities for intercultural and interlanguage exchanges.