In a world that grows smaller every day, with instant connection from one side of the globe to the other, it becomes more and more important to be able to communicate with ease. This often means that, to have an advantage, it is necessary to know multiple languages, and while some are fortunate enough to be brought up bilingually, with parents speaking two languages to the child, many need to learn additional languages through education systems. To facilitate this, it is imperative to understand how language, and in particular, how second language acquisition (SLA) works. It was only in the 1940s that SLA became a formal field of research, so the amount of work carried out in the area is relatively small when compared to other topics, such as studies into grammar or writing systems. As such, while there are several commonly held theories and schools of thought within SLA, none have been shown to be entirely and undeniably true. One idea which gained much popularity from the 1950s to 1970s was the concept that the ability to learn language is hard-wired into us; that we have a “language acquisition device” in our brains that controls our linguistic ability. Following on from this came the notion that there is a critical period (CP) during which a child is sensitive to learning languages, and that after this, it is supposedly exceedingly difficult, or even impossible, to ever truly acquire a new language. In particular, it was thought that “native-like” pronunciation for a second language was impossible for anyone who was older than allowed by the CP. I intend to examine several aspects of this concept in order to understand why it has been widely accepted, and whether there is enough evidence from SLA to truly support it. This will include looking at the critical period hypothesis itself, what it exactly means, and what hard evidence there is to suggest it might be true; questioning the validity of the idea of native-like pronunciation, and how it is defined; and how other approaches to language acquisition differ from the CP hypothesis. Through these points, I shall attempt to determine the viability of the proposed concept of there being a defined critical period for native-like pronunciation of a second language.
What, precisely, is meant by “critical period”, in relation to linguistics? The term and hypothesis were popularised by Eric Lenneberg (1967), which he explained as being the time during which a language much be acquired. According to him, if a child reaches the end of the CP, at puberty, without having fully mastered the language, they will never be able do so, although it is still possible to learn and become competent in it (Lenneberg, 1967, p. 180). His work took evidence from neurology, and stated that the offset of the CP was coincident with the onset of puberty, which is when the brain assigns each of the left and right hemispheres specialised tasks, one of which is both spoken and written language in the left side of the brain. Based on language acquisition requiring neuroplasticity, it was concluded that “for the purposes of learning languages, the human brain becomes progressively stiff and rigid after the age of nine.” (Penfield & Roberts, 1959, p. 236). This concept was supported by evidence showing children being able to completely transfer the language functions to the right hemisphere following injuries which left the left damaged. For adults, however, this transfer following injury has a much lower success rate, as their brains have lost the plasticity and ability to adapt to large changes needed to do this. There was also evidence in the cases of feral children, who had not been exposed to language until relatively late in their lives. For example, taking the case of Genie, a thirteen-year-old girl who had been kept isolated and was abused from birth by her father. Upon discovery, she seemed the ideal opportunity for study, and was taken in and educated in language. However, her progress was...
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