Case Study

In addition to being educated in the best methods and practices in teaching English to speakers of other languages at San Francisco State University, I also had the opportunity to conduct a case study of a second language learner. The resulting paper contributes to the breadth of my TESOL education and represents an area of the field (research) not represented elsewhere in my portfolio.


Language soup: One polyglot’s journey

Amanda E. Snyder

San Francisco State University MA TESOL

“Then I had an interview over the phone with the guy that’s gonna be my manager. Interview was in Portuguese”…“Then they scheduled an interview with five different people. So one person interviewed in Portuguese, second, Spanish…I was like, switching back and forth all day…one Venezuelan, a girl from Peru, a guy from Peru; there was only one American guy. I’m used to it, because that’s what I do in my job. I’m speaking Portuguese over the phone, while emailing someone in English, and instant messaging with someone in Spanish.” (David A., personal communication, Nov. 21, 2010)


The quick, drastic switching between several languages, as noted above, would seem to be taxing on anyone’s mental faculties in any context – let alone a job interview. For some though, acquiring languages seems to come with ease. A fortunate few seem to be able to converse, read, and write in several languages that are not their own, as with David, the young Venezuelan man speaking in the above passage.

Through speaking with David, I found that a myriad of factors played into his skill with learning languages. The most influential of these was an early exposure to English, what would become his L2 later in life, in a bilingual home. Other important factors include the similarities between Spanish (L1) and Portuguese (L3), and his strong motivations to learn both his L2 and L3. Therefore, turning the lens on age and acquisition, crosslinguistic influence and motivation, sheds light on not only the language path of David, but others like him.

Many questions arose while studying David’s language learning. Of particular interest was: Why do certain people like David seem to have this skill at learning a language? How does early exposure to another language facilitate fluency in that language or others later on? How important is age? How can a speaker’s L1 help (not hinder) learning another language? How do a speaker’s reasons for learning a language influence how well they learn that language?

Clearly, these questions cannot be answered by studying just one language learner. Still, intriguing findings about a learner can greatly contribute to the overall knowledge on the complexity of language learning. It was this researcher’s goal to understand how the subject’s childhood language environment contributed to his language skill as an adult, how his L1 positively influenced other languages he learned, and additionally, how important his motivation was to his acquisition of language. A better understanding of these factors hopefully contributes useful information to the existing body of knowledge on these subjects.

Context and Methods

David is a 30-year-old Venezuelan man who was born in the U.S. while his parents completed their MBAs at an American university. As a result of his two older siblings being in American schools, David says that by necessity their home was a bilingual one, containing both Spanish and English. This bilingualism of the household ended, though, when David was roughly 2 ½ years old and the family moved back to Venezuela. David has no recollection of the bilingualism in his family and grew up speaking Spanish as his L1, despite the fact that his family recalls he said a few words in English as an infant.

David truly began learning English in high school at about 12 years old, but emphasized that he considered the classes ineffective and that he gained no real, functional knowledge of English through the courses; he has never taken an English course since. Because of this, he considers himself a naturalistic learner: “I really learned by imitation…we’ve always had cable TV…and I always enjoyed learning the lyrics of the songs of my favorite artists.” It is clear that David must have had some reasonably high understanding of English by the time he entered college, because he says that many of his textbooks were in English.

David works for a major U.S. corporation in a technical field and communicates daily in English; work with Brazilian clients necessitates the use of Portuguese, in which he gained fluency in the past 4-5 years. While retaining a moderate Spanish-speaker’s accent when speaking English, David both writes and speaks fluently in English and (at least through this researcher’s observations) is adept at using English fluently in both social and corporate settings.

I have known David in a personal context – as a fellow practitioner of the African-Brazilian martial art of capoeira – for more than three years. In the past two months though, I have collected written samples from him, ranging from answers to questions about his English learning experiences, to his study techniques, to social and occupational concerns, such as a new job and an impending cross-country move. In addition, I collected a verbal sample in a social context. The 45-minute sample combines both an oral interview about his experiences with language, and a conversation in a social gathering with three others (including the researcher).

I examined the data for any patterns, both written and oral, in David’s production of English. Of particular interest was whether or not his other languages influenced his English language production, in addition to his rate of production.

Themes and issues

Before investigating specific areas of David’s language learning, one thing must be addressed: How do we define fluency? Much of this case study and its research hinges on the consideration that David is fluent in English (and Portuguese), but how fluent is he? Many studies defining fluency observe a speaker’s words per minute, rate of hesitation, rate of error, and other objective factors. It is obvious that a high number of words per minute with a low rate of hesitation and error indicates fluency. It is this researcher’s observation, based on an analysis of David’s word-per-minute count and rate of error during an oral interview (see appendix), that David can easily be classified as fluent in his L2 of English. His word-per-minute count of 158.87 and rate of error (per 1,000 words) of 21.27 is well within the range of highly fluent speakers, as defined by Hilton (2008) during a study defining oral fluency and linking it to vocabulary knowledge. In fact, David’s statistics fall within Hilton’s range of native speaker words per minute (131-245) and rate of error per 1,000 words (0-24). This clearly shows that, at least by these standards, David is indeed a fluent speaker of English.

The first intriguing area of David’s linguistic background centers around the finer points of bilingualism versus a second language, and how they both relate to age and acquisition. Given that David was in a bilingual home until age 2 ½, was English “activated” in his brain, thus facilitating the acquisition of it later in life? Then again, perhaps English is not truly a second language for David since he was exposed to it from birth. Or is it inconsequential since he has no recollection of it? “I don’t remember speaking it. They tell me that I did say words here and there…something in Spanish, something in English,” David recalls. Does one have to remember exposure to a language in order to benefit from it later on?

Research shows that language can influence a speaker from quite early in his or her life. There are many studies which claim that the age effects on L2 language learning appear much earlier than originally thought. Researcher Sebastián-Gallés and colleagues (Sebastián-Gallés et al., 2005) found that participants with Catalan as an L2 who had been exposed to the language since birth performed better on a lexical task than did participants who were exposed after birth – but still before age four. This would indicate that the time of language exposure – regardless of the subject’s recollection of the L2 – does affect the acquisition and performance in the additional language. Therefore, it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that being exposed to English at such an early age played some kind of role in David’s ease of acquisition of it as a young adult – even though he does not remember it. Still, though, David could not be classified as truly either a simultaneous bilingual or an early sequential bilingual since his exposure to English stopped before age three. How, then, can we explore this kind of unique exposure to a language?

Unlike his siblings, who were born in Venezuela and learned English at the American grade schools they attended (spanning roughly ages 5-9), David acquired English later in life with ease. He confirms the difficulties of his siblings: “After we moved back to Venezuela and [my siblings] started school, they stopped using English altogether and were never able to pick it up again.” Many studies do suggest that David’s exposure to English from birth to age 2 ½ likely gave him an advantage over his siblings when it came to relearning the language later in life. It seems that his early exposure gave David an advantage over both late-exposure learners (like his siblings) and novice learners as well.

Research supports this fact that adult “re-learners” of a language (who were exposed to it from birth for a short period of time) had advantages over adult novice learners – even when the re-learners had no recollection of the childhood language experience. Many studies have explored cases of adoption, where a speaker is exposed to one language at birth (Chinese, for example), adopted by parents from another country and as a result, grew up speaking a different language (English, for example). These particular studies explore the influence that the earlier exposure had on the speaker when they attempt re-learning that childhood language. Au and colleagues (Au et al., 2003) studied adult re-learners of Korean and found that they had both phonological and morphological advantages over new adult Korean learners. Studies of this nature seem to imply that early childhood exposure to a language leaves behind crucial stepping stones to later acquisition, regardless of whether or not the speaker recalls the exposure. This certainly was the case in David’s experience, where he learned (one questions if perhaps “re-learn” is the correct word to use here) English as an adult with ease.

Also of interest is that David did not need a classroom setting to become fluent in English as an adult. In regards to his high school English classes, which he considered quite poor, he said: “I only paid attention in class and did whatever homework they assigned. I consider that I really learned by imitation.” Still, it is doubtful that a complete novice in learning English would have learned the language so quickly or as fluently as an adult without David’s early childhood exposure. Perhaps this, coupled with his high school English classes, resulted in his near-idyllic acquisition of English later in life.

Indeed, even though he had little exposure to English between the ages of 3 and 18, such a small amount, which included those “poor” high school classes, was enough to keep English activated in him. In their study of high and low frequency words and how they change between childhood and adulthood, Ellis and Lambon Ralph (2000), found that “once an early set of patterns has been well learned by the network, a presentation frequency much less than the original one will serve to maintain the quality of the representations” (p. 1115). This implies that even the very little (and in David’s words, very poor) exposure to English after no longer being in a bilingual home helped to maintain his brain’s representations of English.

Another aspect of David’s language learning that is of much interest is crosslinguistic influence, particularly in regards to his quick fluency gained in Portuguese. Around age 25, David began using Portuguese in his job to communicate with Brazilian clients. In a relatively short period of time (roughly four years) and without any formal instruction, David has become fluent in the language; he is able to read, write, and converse in the L3. As stated in the opening passage, he even had a portion of a job interview in Portuguese.

It is likely that the similarity of Spanish to Portuguese facilitated David’s acquisition of the language, to which David agrees. “Spanish can fit easily inside Portuguese. The thing is, like, some [Spanish] words even exist in Portuguese, but they just don’t use it…so that would make it [speaking Portuguese] easier.” With this statement, David makes it clear that he frequently utilized Spanish while learning Portuguese, which is supported by research using speakers with a background similar to his.

In a study of 16 L3 Portuguese learners (who were bilingual in Spanish and English – some with Spanish as their L1, others with English as their L1), Carvalho and da Silva (2004) found that all learners relied quite heavily on their Spanish knowledge in pedagogical tasks, regardless of which language was their L1 and when they learned their L2. This would indicate that the similarities between Spanish and Portuguese supersede a speaker’s L1 or age of exposure to an additional language. Therefore, it is likely that David’s L1 of Spanish and its similarity to Portuguese played a much larger role in his acquisition of that language, rather than his early exposure to any foreign language.

Still there is a chance that perhaps his early exposure to English and subsequent acquisition of it helped him learn a third language later on. At the very least, it likely provided him with good study techniques: to expand his vocabulary in both English and Portuguese, he became an avid reader of crime novels in both languages. This corresponds with a study by Keshavarz and Astaneh (2004) who found that bilinguals (studying an L3) performed better on vocabulary tests than monolinguals (studying an L2) in the same classroom, studying the same language. Their results implied that bilingualism results in an efficient learning of subsequent languages, which is absolutely the case in David’s quick acquisition of Portuguese as an L3.

David has also noticed occasional instances of crosslinguistic influence in the reverse: of Portuguese influencing his Spanish speaking. He spoke of an instance where he was speaking in Spanish and wanted to say the equivalent of “Neither do I.” To do this, he used the phrase yo tambien no, which isn’t the common way to do this in Spanish. He had accidentally used this phrase because Portuguese was influencing his L1: também não is a Portuguese expression used to indicate the English equivalent of “either” or “neither.” But the seeming Spanish equivalent – David’s tambien no – is not used by Spanish speakers; instead the word tampoco is used.

This is a clear example of bidirectional transfer – of an L2 (or in this case, an L3) influencing a speaker’s L1. What is particularly interesting to note is that while David is fluent in Portuguese, he didn’t begin to learn the language until age 25 (less than five years ago) and yet it has influenced his native language – even if in subtle ways.

While the study of bidirectional transfer is in its infancy, research does support findings that an L2 can influence an L1, particularly when it comes to vocabulary choices. In their study of Spanish-English bilinguals, Hohenstein, Eisenberg and Naigles (2006) found that while when a speaker learns a second language influences the kinds of L2 lexical choices he or she makes, all learners in their study showed at least some L2 influence on L1 lexical choice. Such findings correlate with David’s case of Portuguese words influencing his choices in Spanish, even though he didn’t begin learning Portuguese until adulthood.

The final area of great interest in respect to David’s language learning is in regards to motivation. David’s primary motivation to learn English – from as early as his high school days – shows a high degree of instrumental orientation. Even though he was required to take English in high school and claims that he didn’t learn anything, he nonetheless must have acquired some level of skill in the language in order to be prepared for college courses, some of which were in English. He noticed that his skill level in English differed from his friends’ levels and began to consider its benefits. David writes quite skillfully about the realization: “Towards the end of high school when I saw that I knew how to speak English and most of my friends couldn’t, I saw the competitive advantage that it would bring me.”

In addition, considering that David was born in the U.S. and his parents acquired Master’s degrees there, his family’s attitudes likely contributed to his high level of integrativeness in terms of learning English. He contends that he always had a favorable view of English speakers and an interest in American pop culture and thus, a desire to potentially communicate with English speakers.

These powerful aspects – integrativeness and an instrumental orientation – were the main factors in motivating David to learn English better than his siblings and many of his peers.

Bernaus and Gardner (2008) found this to be true as well, in their study of teaching strategies in an EFL classroom in Spain. They discovered that “there is very good support for the claim that integrativeness, attitudes toward the learning situation, and instrumental orientation serve as the foundation for individual differences in the motivation to learn a foreign language” (p. 398). Even though David had a somewhat negative attitude toward his high school learning situation, it is perhaps reasonable to assume that both integrativeness and an instrumental orientation together created an overriding positive motivation for him.

It is clear, also, that David has a high level of intrinsic motivation, considering that he continued learning and studying English on his own, partially for the enjoyment of the activity. “I started to enjoy reading for fun [in English]…I became a fan of novels by Michael Crichton and John Grisham. I thought of reading as an entertaining way to expand my vocabulary,” he writes. It is quite possible that David’s high intrinsic motivation contributed to his high-quality acquisition of English over his peers, some of whom may have had extrinsic or no motivation. Intrinsic motivation and goal framing has been shown to be very influential to a student’s success, as with a study by Vansteenkiste, Lens, and Deci (2006). They found when students framed goals intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, this resulted in higher quality learning. According to David, he spoke English better than his peers – a sign of high-quality learning – and it is possible that his high intrinsic motivation is one explanation for that.

Through careful examination, one can see how David’s unique language environment as a child contributed to his vast language skills as an adult. In addition, it has become clear how the languages he has learned continue to influence each other, and also how his motivation to learn these languages was an important driving force.

This better understanding of David’s case and the complicated yet highly intriguing situation under which he was exposed to various languages has broadened this researcher’s views on language learners. While seemingly obvious, not all learners can be boxed into such black-and-white labels as “bilingual” or “adult beginning learner.” There are often other language aspects hidden in a learner’s background that can explain their successes or frustrations in additional language learning. These aspects flavor a learner’s language experiences, creating the unique “taste” made up of their strengths and weaknesses.

Admittedly, a case study on one subject can never definitely “prove” anything. Still, this study contributes interesting insights into the process of learning multiple languages. Early exposure to a language – even when the speaker has no recollection of it – likely influences later language learning, regardless of what it is. Additionally, the way that languages influence each other is a complicated, multi-directional process. Future studies focusing on early childhood bilinguals, adult re-learners, and bidirectional transfer would all be of great interest. Still, while resulting in intriguing insights, this case study unearths only a small part of the complexity that is language learning.


Au, T.K., Oh, J., Knightly, L., Jun, S., & Romo, L. Salvaging a Childhood Language. Journal of Memory and Language, 58, (4), 998-1011.

Bernaus, M., & Gardner, R. (2008). Teacher motivation strategies, student perceptions, student motivation, and English achievement. Modern Language Journal, 92, (3), 387-401.

Carvalho, A., Freire, J., & da Silva, A. (2010). Teaching Portuguese to Spanish speakers: A case for trilingualism. Hispania, 93, (1), 70-75.

Ellis, A., & Lambon Ralph, M. (2000). Age of acquisition effects in adult lexical processing reflect loss of plasticity in maturing systems: Insights from connectionist networks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 26, 1103-1123.

Hilton, H. (2008). The link between vocabulary knowledge and spoken L2 fluency. Language Learning Journal, 36, (2), 153-166.

Hohenstein, J., Eisenberg, A., & Naigles, L. (2006). Is he floating across or crossing afloat? Cross-Influence of L1 and L2 in Spanish-English bilingual adults. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 9, (3), 249-261.

Keshavarz, M.H., & Astaneh, H. (2004). The impact of bilinguality on the learning of English vocabulary as a foreign language (L3). Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7, 295-302.

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. New York: Hodder Arnold/Oxford.

Sebastián-Gallés, N., Echeverria, S., & Bosch, L. (2005). The influence of initial exposure on lexical representation: comparing early and simultaneous bilinguals. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 240-55.

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E.L. (2006). Intrinsic versus extrinsic goal contents in self-determination theory: another look at the quality of academic motivation. Educational Psychologist, 41, 19-31.


Oral sample used in fluency analysis

“The ‘Latin America’ [in my job title] is kinda redundant because this company only does business with Latin America…right so, they are the holding company for all the Nextels throughout the region. They’re based here; they only give out the guidelines and strategies what the other region should be doing. Every region is independent on its own, like when it comes down to implementing stuff, every region… so we just have, like, ok, ‘This is what you should do based on resource, blah blah blah,’ Some of them will follow it to the letter, some of them…” (personal communication, Nov. 21, 2010)

Word count: 94

Time: 35.5 seconds

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