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The critical period hypothesis

The critical period hypothesis, argues that there is an ideal period for acquiring
languages. A hypothesis is simply a proposed explanation made by a scientist, which
can then be tested. Basically, the critical period links language acquisition to age.
This means that once we hit a certain age, our ability to learn our own language is
greatly diminished. Although the original hypothesis was developed to understand
how babies learn their first language, researchers have also extended the concept
to study the best times for people to learn a new language.

In the field of second language acquisition (SLA), how specific aspects of learning a
non-native language (L2) may be affected by when the process begins is referred to
as the age factor. Because of the way age intersects with a range of social,
affective, educational, and experiential variables, clarifying its relationship with
learning rate and/or success is a major challenge.

Lenneberg (1967) holds that primary language acquisition must occur during a
critical period which ends at about the age of puberty with the establishment of
cerebral lateralization of function.

There is a popular belief that children as L2 learners are superior to adults (Scovel
2000), that is, the younger the learner, the quicker the learning process and the
better the outcomes. Nevertheless, a closer examination of the ways in which age
combines with other variables reveals a more complex picture, with both favorable
and unfavorable age-related differences being associated with early- and late-
starting L2 learners (Johnstone 2002).

In the current literature on the subject (Bialystok 1997; Richards and Schmidt 2002;
Abello-Contesse et al. 2006), references can be found to (i) multiple critical periods
(each based on a specific language component, such as age six for L2 phonology),
(ii) the non-existence of one or more critical periods for L2 versus L1 acquisition, (iii)
a sensitive yet not critical period, and (iv) a gradual and continual decline from
childhood to adulthood.
It therefore needs to be recognized that there is a marked contrast between the CPH
as an issue of continuing dispute in SLA, on the one hand, and, on the other, the
popular view that it is an invariable law, equally applicable to any L2 acquisition
context or situation. In fact, research indicates that age effects of all kinds depend
largely on the actual opportunities for learning which are available within overall
contexts of L2 acquisition and particular learning situations, notably the extent to
which initial exposure is substantial and sustained (Lightbown 2000).

In research conducted in the context of conventional school programmes, Cenoz

(2003) and Muoz (2006) have shown that learners whose exposure to the L2 began
at age 11 consistently displayed higher levels of proficiency than those for whom it
began at 4 or 8. Furthermore, comparable limitations have been reported for young
learners in school settings involving innovative, immersion-type programmes, where
exposure to the target language is significantly increased through subject-matter
teaching in the L2 (Genesee 1992; Abello-Contesse 2006). In sum, as Harley and
Wang (1997) have argued, more mature learners are usually capable of making
faster initial progress in acquiring the grammatical and lexical components of an L2
due to their higher level of cognitive development and greater analytical abilities.


I believe that as teachers, we can appreciate this controversy closely around the critical
period. I have had the opportunity to work with students of all ages, from primary to high
school and I have realized that to develop skills for learning L2 there is no specific age; older
and younger may be able to achieve an appropriate level in language acquisition. However,
I can appreciate that teenagers acquire grammar rules and in general they learn language
easily than young children, as well as, young children have a better pronunciation than
teenagers. In my own point of view, it is because teenagers have developed more cognitive
abilities and about the pronunciation young children are learning language as L1 and L2,
then they learn what they are earing in a better way than teenagers. Teachers should help
students in this belief considering their learning process by implementing methodologies
and learning environments that fit their characteristics and needs, without leaving
aside the motivation according to their ages.

Abello-Contesse, C. (2009). Age and the critical period hypothesis. Taken from:
Retrieved on September 20, 2017.

British council. Critical period. Taken from: Retrieved on
September 20, 2017.

Snow, C and Hoefnagel-Hoihle, M. (2010) The Critical Period for Language Acquisition:
Evidence from Second Language Learning. Taken from: Retrieved on
September 20, 2017.