Maria Kliesch

Maria Kliesch, MA

PhD student in Comparative Romance Linguistics

Tel.: +41 44 63 57145

Raumbezeichnung: AND 2.18

New languages and old brains: A dynamic approach to language learning in third age

Project description

In my PhD-project, I aim to investigate how a new language is learned in old adulthood and how cognitive capacities influence – and are influenced by – the language training. The project is an interdisciplinary undertaking between romance linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology and second-language acquisition (SLA). It is supervised by Prof. Elisabeth Stark, Prof. Simone Pfenninger and Prof. Martin Meyer, and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

In a pilot study to this project, I found that foreign language (L2) development in older learners is predicted by individual differences in cognitive capacities, such as working memory and verbal fluency, both of which have been shown to decline with age. These findings are in line with previous research, and confirm that L2 learning in third age largely relies on the same cognitive processes as those required in everyday life. For the same reason, it has been hypothesised repeatedly that L2 learning may be more effective in promoting cognitive health than other commonly used training interventions.

In order to improve our understanding of the relationship between the aging brain and to test the above hypothesis, I will conduct a dense longitudinal study of several months in which older adults between 65 and 75 years of age will participate in a Spanish training that combines computer-assisted language learning with communicative group sessions. On a weekly basis, we will collect data on participants’ Spanish skills, cognitive capacities, electrophysiological measures and various socio-affective factors. By doing so, we will gather a total of approximately 30 measurements per participants, which will allow us to analyse each individual’s cognitive trajectory and L2 curve accurately over time. Our aim is to address the following three research questions:

  • What are the linguistic, cognitive, socio-affective and electrophysiological factors that predict individual L2 learning trajectories in older learners?
  • To what extent does L2 training influence general cognitive performance of skills known to deteriorate as a function of age (i.e. inhibition, working memory, verbal fluency, attention and concentration)?
  • Does adjusting the training intensity to individual differences in brain activity influence the L2 development or the cognitive benefit?


  • Kliesch, M., N. Giroud, M. Meyer. (in review). EEG resting-state and event-related potentials as markers of learning success in older adults following second language training.
  • Kliesch, M., N. Giroud, S. E. Pfenninger and M. Meyer. (2018). Research on Second Language Acquisition in Old Adulthood: What We Have and What We Need. In D. Gabrys-Barker (ed.). The third age in second language acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
  • Grupo Z (in alphabetical order: Carrillo, D., Díaz, A., Graf, A., Kliesch, M., Meclazcke, G., Strickler, R., Zehnder, D.) (2013). La autorreflexión en el ’Soneto I’ y el ’Salmo XVIII’ de Quevedo (I). Versants, 60:3. 187-199.

Oral Contributions to Conferences

  • Kliesch, M. (2016, October). Nowness and the Limits of Experiencing. Presentation at the Engelberg Conference 2016, Engelberg, Switzerland.
  • Kliesch, M. (2016, May). Learning a new language in old adulthood: A longitudinal study. Poster presentation at the MaDoKo 2016 ("Masterstudierenden- und Doktorandinnenkonferenz"), Psychology Department, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

Grants and Awards

2018 Doc.CH- Grant (Swiss National Foundation) for project entitled “New languages and old brains: A dynamic approach to language learning in third age”.
2016 M.A. project: “Learning a new language in old adulthood. A longitudinal study”. Poster award: third prize. MaDoKo 2016 (“Masterstudierenden- und Doktorandinnenkonferenz”). Psychology Department, University of Zurich, Switzerland.


2017 - present Collaboration on project entitled “Spanish Stress Perception: An ERP analysis”. First author: Karolina Broś, PhD.