Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis
When learning a second language a native-like level is hardly ever reached. Various research has been conducted into this phenomenon which has resulted in a number of hypotheses concerning the possible cause thereof. One of these is the Critical Period Hypothesis which states that there is an optimum period for learning a second language that ends after puberty. Can the Critical Period Hypothesis adequately explain why people acquiring a second language after the age of puberty will never accomplish native-like competence? In addressing this question this paper will delineate the theoretical background of, and some of the research evidence for, the Critical Period Hypothesis for Second Language Acquisition and summarize the criticism. Finally some other hypotheses pertaining to the cause of this phenomenon and their compatibility with the Critical Period Hypothesis will be discussed.
The Critical Period Hypothesis
The concept (Singleton 2005:270) of a Critical Period finds its origin in the biological sciences where it is used to designate a well-defined period of limited duration during which specific conduct or competences are to be achieved, or during which the specialization of cells takes place. If and when these events do not take place during this period these potentials are lost forever. This concept has been applied to linguistics. The learning of a – first – language should occur in early childhood, because that is the critical period for language learning. If, for some reason, a child does not learn a language during this period, the ability to learn a language is lost. In 1959 Penfield and Roberts (Singleton 2005:270) stated that after the age of nine the brain becomes less fit to learn languages. Eight years later Lenneberg (Singleton 2005:271) saw a connection with the lateralization process which takes place in the brain with the specialization of each hemisphere. He concludes that the Critical Period for learning a language starts at age two and ends at puberty. They were followed by a host of other researchers, each giving his own timetable of the critical period, sometimes dividing up this period into sub-periods for phonetics/phonology, syntax and semantics (Singleton 2005: 271-273). The discovery of a then thirteen year old girl in 1970, called Genie in the literature1, seemed to corroborate the existence of a Critical Period for language learning. Because her parents had kept her locked in her room and had hardly ever spoken to her, she had a negligible command of language. Attempts to teach her language were not very successful. The Genie-case is usually mentioned as support of the Critical Period Hypothesis. Opponents however, state that in case of so-called feral children the cause of the language-inability might well be attributed to a general retarded development. However, the results of research2 which has been conducted to late learning of American Sign Language by deaf children confirmed the Critical Period Hypothesis: the older deaf children performed less well on the tests. Thus it follows that in general there is agreement to the existence of a Critical Period for learning a first language. No agreement however, exists as to the exact timetable of this period, though generally it is believed that it ends somewhere around puberty.
The Critical Period Hypothesis and Second Language Acquisition When learning a second language it is implied that there is already some fluency in a first language. By being born into a specific culture with a specific language, the first language is learnt involuntarily; spontaneously. This contrasts with the learning of a second language: whenever one starts to learn a second language the first language will always be there as a cultural and linguistical point of reference. The Critical Period Hypothesis states that there is an optimum period for language learning– which ends at puberty at...
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