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Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Is Earlier Really Better for Second Language Acquisition?

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Is earlier really better for second language acquisition?/ © Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

There is a common myth about second language acquisition that by six or seven years old, it is too late to acquire a language fully.  This argument is based on the “critical period hypothesis.” I admit that linguistics research is not easily accessible and linguists are notoriously poor at disseminating their findings to the public. Because of that, I can’t blame anybody for believing that older children can’t learn a second language with perfect fluency. Even researchers and academics have stated this claim to the wider public. (See this popular Ted talk). However, this is a very simplistic view of language acquisition, especially given the competing viewpoints on the topic.

 

It is generally believed that learning a language earlier, as a young child, is better but little reliable scientific evidence exists to prove this. There are even studies showing the opposite (e.g., DeKeyser’s study). Most studies focusing on these issues do indeed mention the “critical period hypothesis,” known as CPH. In terms of language (as CPH applies to many different developmental processes like hearing and vision), the critical period is when language must be acquired to ensure the development of native competence.  After this period is over, the ability to learn a language is affected.

 

CPH for language was developed in the late sixties by Lenneberg. He claimed that a child’s brain plasticity (or flexibility) makes learning a language (among other things) easier. This plasticity starts disappearing by age seven. By age 12, it is too late to put it bluntly. The brain has lost its plasticity and learning a language is more difficult. This is true for first, second or third language learning. According to CPH, in extreme cases of deprivation, such as feral children, a child who has not been exposed to language by age seven will never learn to use language appropriately.

 

The pressing question for many researchers is whether there is an age limit for language acquisition to ensure native fluency. Researchers in the field are also asking if there is indeed a critical period for language acquisition. Within the very large body of scientific literature on the subject, studies point to differences in the way the language is processed and acquired depending on the learner’s age.

 

Research comparing the acquisition of a second language in natural settings (i.e., not in a classroom) has consistently shown that young children are initially slower than teenagers or young adults but these younger students catch up and eventually overtake older learners (Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978). Older learners, on the other hand, may benefit from better metalinguistic processing, which is the ability to think about the language as a process.

 

The balance of evidence for and against CPH continues to puzzle researchers and inspire lively debate. The current discussion around CPH deals with the alleged age limit of seven as the cut-off point, which is not clear-cut. Recent studies are showing that the critical period may influence different aspects of language differently. Vocabulary is the least affected area of language. We can indeed learn new words in a new language at any age, although it doesn’t mean we can put them together appropriately. Older learners are as good as younger ones when it comes to acquiring new words. Pronunciation, on the other hand, is impacted the most by this critical period. Younger learners are generally better at pronunciation. I’m sure you know of young children who sound just like native speakers and older learners who, even after years of learning a language, retain accents. So, there may actually be several cut-off points rather than one. Some of these thresholds happen very early (some believe around three or four years old) and others very late.

 

The evidence to date thus remains patchy and inconclusive. No systematic comparison of the acquisition process at different ages in similar contexts has been conducted. Earlier may be better for some aspects of language, but younger learners also learn slower initially. Studies have also demonstrated the ability to attain full proficiency and be very successful as a language learner past these so-called thresholds. This is what makes this issue so perplexing for researchers.

 

 

Note: This article is about learning a second language after the ages of three or four. Learning two or more languages before that age is a whole different concept in terms of linguistic research (multilingualism).

 

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

Olson, L, and Samuels, S.J. (1973). The relationship between age and accuracy of foreign language pronunciation. Journal of Educational Research, 66, 26-267.

DeKeyser, R. (2000). The robustness of critical period effects in second language acquisition, SSLA, 22, 499–533.

Snow, C.E. & Hoefnagel-Hohle, M.  (1978). Critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development, 49, 1263-1279.

Bialystok, E. and Hakuta, K., (1994). In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second- Language Acquisition. New York: Basic Books.

© 2012 – 2013, Annabelle Humanes. All rights reserved.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Annabelle Humanes has been living in Germany with her Portuguese husband and daughter since 2011. Originally from France, she has previously lived in England for 13 years where she studied and worked as a researcher in language acquisition. She blogs about her multilingual family at thepiripirilexicon.com

Leave us a comment!

8 Comments
  1. CommentsOlga   |  Monday, 05 November 2012 at 12:42 am

    I’ve always been pretty skeptical about all theories that state that if you don’t do something before a certain age, the child will never learn it. In fact, the brain is an extremely flexible organ and there are people who learned a language perfectly even as adults. It probably also depends on motivation, hours of language immersion, and many other aspects. And also, it is assumed that only if you sound like a native you have mastered the language perfectly- that is not true. I don’t see why it is such a bad thing to have an accent- it can be seen as a part of us, and shows the fact that we’re making effort to speak the new language. So, everybody should make their own decision as to when to start a new language for their children.

  2. CommentsLillian   |  Wednesday, 07 November 2012 at 10:57 am

    Good for the researchers but I have practical proof that a new language can be learned flawlessly and without an accent at up to 11 years of age. I learned English when I was 9. My older sister started at 11. We both learned it flawlessly and without an accent. Let me stress as it may be important is that at 9 and 11 we moved to the USA from Mexico and thus HAD to learn no matter what, were fully immersed in English reading, writing, speaking, tv, radio and the result I’d like to say was pretty amazing. Thank God to public school in Ohio of the 80’s!!!! Oh, of course in the home there was only Spanish with my parents, but other than that, it was all full blown English. Sorry but scientists should really dig deep with real-life examples ….don’t believe that your child can’t learn a language better. I always tell people to just make sure you immerse your child before age 12…after 12 I bet it is much harder. Hugs to all.

  3. CommentsAnnabelle   |  Wednesday, 07 November 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Olga: i don’t think researchers think that you have to sound like a native to be considered one. the general public might though. but you are so right. There is actually now a whole new current of research that questions why we take the monolingual speaker as a reference.
    Lilian: i think most researchers would actually agree. There are plenty of examples like yours in the literature. That is why it is still an opened debate and a very controversial question in the field. Yes, there may be this critical period(s) but when and how they happen is still unclear.

  4. CommentsLingüa   |  Thursday, 08 November 2012 at 6:01 am

    I have always been skeptical about it as well. If you were to give any age person the same kind of linguistic experience that babies (age 0-2 years) get, it would be hard not to learn the language! I’m glad to see some research to back up what my 10 years of experience teaching second and foreign languages has never been able to deny!

  5. Commentsjacqueline Gowe   |  Thursday, 08 November 2012 at 8:20 am

    I began studying French when I was 14 and Italian when I was 17 or 18. I speak both languages but my Italian is stronger. I majored in both languages and spent time in both countries. Now I teach a course called Italiano in Cucina to Elementary school children. I find the children, ages 8 – 13 pick up the language very well and have excellent recall even their pronunciation is good. This is an immersion method and I do believe this has much to do with the success of learning a language. The children are engaged in a real situation – in our case cooking and the results are noteworthy.
    As for me I spent one year in France and 8 years in Italy. My French was never as good as my Italian. I seemed to have a natural ear for Italian from the beginning. Obviously the time I spent in Italy was not just a “Junior Year Abroad” – I had a very integrated and fully immersed experience in Italy.

  6. CommentsAlex   |  Friday, 09 November 2012 at 12:00 am

    I also learned English at the age of 9. Back then I spoke the language fluently and without accent.

  7. Commentsasma   |  Monday, 22 April 2013 at 8:00 am

    its not completely, as I have learned English at the age of 15 and I have no accent what so ever and when I tell people That i had lost my accent within a year they could not believe it and I am actually studying English at university level I a multilingual by the way due to mixed race family and moving across countries while we were young, and am studying Chinese and Japanese on the side :)

  8. Commentsasma   |  Monday, 22 April 2013 at 8:01 am

    I left out it’s not completely true , am truly appalled by how many mistake I have done, so much for being an English student









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