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The critical period in language learning
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Duminică, 08 Aprilie 2018 19:26


Prof. Chirilă Ana-Maria

Şcoala Gimnazială ,,Iustin Pîrvu’’ Poiana Teiului

The critical period hypothesis states that there is a period of life (between birth and puberty) in which a second language is acquired easily and after this period learning languages is much more difficult.

‘Early in life, human have a superior capacity for acquiring languages. If the capacity is not exercised during the time, it will disappear or decline with maturation’ (Johnson & Newport 1989: 64). It is a controversial issue that is not supported by all theoreticians. It is based on neurological research that suggests that brain functions become lateralized after puberty. There are two hemispheres of the human brain: the right and the left hemisphere. Language functions are controlled by left hemisphere. Before puberty the brain is elastic or as many theoreticians describe it, the brain is like a ‘sponge’- all learning (knowledge) is absorbed. This ‘absorption’ of aspects of language makes the learning of languages easier for children. The lateralization of brain functions is completed at puberty. So learners after puberty do not acquire a native-like pronunciation. Penfield and Roberts (1959) and Lenneberg (1967) were the first to propose that there is a critical period in language acquisition.

Most individuals of average intelligence are able to learn a second language after the beginning of their second decade, although the incidence of language-learning-block rapidly increases after puberty. Also automatic acquisition from mere exposure to a given language seems to disappear after this age and foreign languages have to be taught and learned through a conscious and laboured effort. Foreign accent cannot be overcome easily after puberty. However a person can learn to communicate in a foreign language at the age of forty.

(Lenneberg 1967: 176).

He tried to give a biological explanation for the difference between young learners and adults in language acquisition. This difference has something to do with neurological changes in the brain, the plasticity of a young brain that is not firmly lateralized. The development of cerebral dominance or lateralization is complete by around puberty. According to Lenneberg, the infant brain is not firmly lateralized, in case of damage to the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is able to assume the language function. This ability of the language function to transfer hemispheres lasts until puberty. After puberty the right hemisphere is not able to assume the language functions, in case of injury to the left hemisphere and this is due to the fact that lateralization of language to the left hemisphere was now complete. Lenneberg stated that the end of the development of cerebral dominance coincided with the close of a critical period for language acquisition. So children have a neurological advantage in learning languages. They appear to have minds more flexible to learn language. Adults on the other hand struggle with language learning and usually require explicit teaching to learn a new language.

As Steven Pinker sustained ‘acquisition… is guaranteed for children up to the age of six, is steadily compromised from then until shortly after puberty, and is rare thereafter’ (Pinker 1994: 293).

According to this theory young people learn a second language faster and easier than adults. Older learners rarely achieve the native-like fluency that young learners display. In second language acquisition, the strongest evidence for the critical period hypothesis is the study of the accent, where older learners do not acquire an authentic one.

‘Anyone who begins to learn a second language after the critical period has ended should not be able to become native-like in that language’ (Reichle 2010: 58).

It is tempting to believe that children are better second language than adults because their brains are specially organized to learn language, whereas of adults are not. (Birdsong 1999: 176)

He presented a number of possible explanations why most adults can not become fluent

in a second language.

●Loss of the language learning faculty - successful language learning can not take place after puberty because there is a loss of innate learning strategies.

●Loss of neural plasticity in the brain - as a person ages there is a progressive lateralization of cerebral functions. The consequence of this and other cerebral changes is that the neural substrate needed for language learning is no longer fully available.

●Processing and memory capacities change as a person matures.

(Birdsong 1999: 415)

Later, other theoreticians, among them Krashen, supported an ‘early lateralization’, that lateralization is firmly established at least by age five, so critical period in language learning does not have a biological explanation. There are other explanations for child-adult differences in second language acquisition, explanations that are not related to cerebral dominance. There are some cognitive and affective changes taking place around puberty. Some theoreticians states that the ability to acquire language does not disappear at puberty. There are evidences that adults can acquire a foreign language naturally to a great extent.


Birdsong, D 1999 Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers London.

Johnson, J and Newport, E 1989 ‘Critical period effects in second language learning: the influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language.’ Cognitive Psychology, 21, 60-99.

Lenneberg, E 1967 Biological Foundation of Language New York: John Willey & Sons Inc

Pinker, S 1994 The Language Instinct Penguin.

Reichle, R 2010 ‘Judgments of information structure in second language: native like performance and the critical period hypothesis.’ International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 48, 53-85.


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