Do children learn second languages easier than adults? A comparative analysis of child and adult second language acquisition

Term Paper, 2014

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. A definition of Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

3. The role of age in SLA
3.1 Critical and sensitive periods in the learning process
3.2 The relevance of age in SLA

4. Differences in child and adult SLA

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. Declaration of Authorship


In the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) researchers often get confronted with a con- troversial issue: Are children better second language learners than adults? Do they always out- perform older learners? These questions are not very easy to answer because there are always specific learner differences and individual learning conditions when starting to acquire a second language, such as social or psychological influences.

After a general introduction into the field of SLA, this term paper will focus on the relevance of age in second language learning. Theories of critical and sensitive periods during the learning process will be examined in order to emphasize that age has an important impact on effective SLA. Afterwards, specific differences in child and adult SLA will be taken into consideration; how do children acquire a second language and how is it different from the acquisition of an old- er person? By answering these questions differentiated it might be possible to come to a conclu- sion whether children or adults are better second language learners.

1. Introduction

When older people realize that in our modern digitalized and multicultural society the English language (as an example) has become omnipresent, some of them ask themselves whether it would be worthwhile to learn a second language. Some people attend courses in order to learn English or French but lots of people hesitate because they think that they will not be very suc- cessful or that it might be even “impossible“ to acquire a second language at a higher age. On the other hand, there are lots of parents who give their children the chance to learn languages at very early stages of age, such as in kindergarten or other educative institutions even before school en- try. This kind of behaviour has something to do with the role of age in the process of Second Language Acquisition: Who is better in second languages, children or adults? Krashen and Scar- cella (1982) state that “the question of age differences has clear theoretical and practical signifi- cance: Educators are interested in knowing the optimal age to begin instruction in second lan- guages, and want to know just how far the older students can progress“ (p. 9).

According to this opinion, there must be a stage of development where people are more likely to acquire a second language than in other stages of their life. Consequently, this does also mean that there must be some kind of a critical stage where SLA becomes more difficult. These ideas will be discussed in this term paper in order to understand how age influences SLA and how success can be achieved when acquiring a second language.

The role of age is only one aspect of SLA; others, such as motivation, crosslinguistic influences or social dimensions of L2 learning can also be taken into consideration when dealing with SLA. In order to concentrate on the specific aspect “the relevance of age“, the first part of this term paper will deal with an explanation of SLA in general. Thus, it is possible to understand what SLA actually is and it also provides important basic information for the main topic of this paper.

2. A definition of Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

The fundamental question in SLA is “how do humans learn languages after they learn their first?“ (Ortega 2009, p. 1) Therefore, SLA refers to the process of learning a language which is not a person’s mother tongue (L1). Mostly, second languages are acquired later in life but with regard to the concept of multilingualism, there are also lots of children who grow up with more than one language at the same time. In order to consider this „bilingualism“ or “multilingualism“ this must happen before the age of four. In general, the research field of SLA “tends to focus on the pathways towards becoming competent in more languages than one“ (Ortega 2009, p. 4).

SLA research is mainly interested in two language contexts: Naturalistic and instructed language learning. Whereas naturalistic SLA means that the learner acquires the language through infor- mal opportunities, instructed SLA concentrates on formal study of the language, for example at school. Nevertheless, in most cases the acquisition happens through a mixture of both. People attend courses at school in order to learn the basic rules: Grammar, syntax or word order. Often, these rules have to be taught through instruction because they vary a lot from the people’s L1. Ideally, real second language production happens outside the classroom. Social interactions, mul- ticultural neighbourhoods and other informal influences help people to use the language actively. Based on this idea, it is important to consider the aspect of “acculturation“ which is remarkably important for L2 learning success. A study from the late 1970s by John Schumann showed that language instruction is not the only predictor for success: “Schumann predicted that great social distance between the L1 and L2 groups […], and an individual’s affective negative predisposi- tions toward the target language and its members (e.g. culture shock, low motivation) may con- spire to create what he characterized as a bad learning situation that causes learners to stagnate into a pidgin-like state in their grammar, without inflections or mature syntax“ (Ortega 2009, p. 59). This is also known as the “Acculturation Model“ which shows very clearly that social inter- actions are highly important for L2 success.

In order to summarize important factors for optimal L2 learning the following three main “environmental ingredients“ (Ortega 2009, p. 79) can be mentioned: acculturated attitudes, comprehensible input and negotiated interaction. These requirements are needed to successfully acquire a second language through informal situations.

After this general introduction into SLA and the ways how L2 success can be achieved, the following part of this paper goes into more detail about SLA with regard to children and developmental stages where a second language can be learned easily. Another focus will be the question whether there are also ages during childhood and/or adulthood where SLA becomes more challenging. Is there actually an “optimal age“ for the acquisition of a second language? Which kinds of “maturational constraints“ (Krashen & Scarcella, 1982) have to be considered when talking about SLA at a higher age? The following part will deal with these questions in order to finally provide differences in child and adult SLA.

3. The role of age in SLA

3.1 Critical and sensitive periods in the learning process

In the context of language development with a particular focus on the age factor it is important to ask whether there is a “critical period“ for effective SLA. Pawlak (2012) explains that “for biologists a critical period is a limited phase in the development of an organism during which a particular capacity must be established if it is to be established at all“ (p. 98). With regard to SLA this explanation means that language development must be established until the “critical period“ in order to be a successful language user later on. Thus, if it does not get established until this period it will not be established at all.

The notion of a “critical period“ has become a major issue in SLA research; Pawlak (2012) says that “attempts to apply the critical period notion to language development along these kinds of lines have been collectively labelled the critical period hypothesis (henceforth CPH)“ (p. 98). The CPH states that “there is a specific period of time early in life when the brain exhibits a spe- cial propensity to attend to certain experiences in the environment (for example, language) and learn from them“ (Ortega 2009, p. 13). Evidence for this hypothesis is very strong because there are cases of deaf babies who were raised by parents with the ability to hear. Studies showed that babies who do not experience spoken or sign input “usually exhibit incomplete acquisition of their late-learned first language“ (Ortega 2009, p. 14). This study conducted by Rachel Mayberry (2007; Mayberry and Lock, 2003) also came to the conclusion that with the help of cochlear im- plants the babies got at the age one through four, they were actually able to recognize sounds which had a significant impact on their language development. In contrast to that, deaf babies who received implants after the age of two showed slower progress in L1 acquisition.

Another example of evidence for the CPH has been established by Curtiss, 1977 and Rymer, 1993 who found out that children who were “deprived from regular participation in language use and social interaction until about the age of puberty“ (Ortega 2009, p. 13) also showed very bad language development. Due to very tragic circumstances, such as kidnapping and imprisonment for instance, it is possible that those traumatized children cannot learn their mother tongue prop- erly because there is no interaction with other people around them. The factor of age is important here because this circumstance can only happen when the child is at a developmental stage be- fore puberty. This shows that the main development of a language starts around age 1-2 and gets almost complete at the age of puberty.

These examples show that there must be a critical period for the acquisition of a person’s L1 but it still has to be proven that this can also be transferred to L2 learning processes. As a starting point, L2-related interpretations of the CPH can be summarized as Pawlak (2012) states that “after a certain maturational point the L2 learner is no longer capable of attaining to native-like levels of proficiency, and/or needs to expend more conscious effort than in earlier L2 acquisition and/or makes use of different mechanisms from those deployed in L2 acquisition during child- hood, and, in any case, there is a sharp decline in L2 learning potential […] beyond a particular maturational stage“ (p. 99). It seems to be obvious that at a certain point it becomes more chal- lenging to acquire a second language; some researchers state that this point is around the age of puberty, however, this does not mean that it is impossible to learn the language. Eventually, it takes more time but it is still possible. This refers to the aspect of “native-like proficiency“ which basically means that it is very hard for learners who started SLA after puberty to speak a second language like a native speaker. Based on this fact, Pawlak (2012) refers to a study by Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2000: 155) who “affirm that there is no recorded case of a post-pubertal L2 beginner behaving in every detail like a native speaker“ (p. 99). However, an approach to native- like proficiency can be achieved by more effort, as professionals assume.

With respect to the CPH, Saxton (2010) describes that “the general idea is that a particular kind of experience has greater effect on development when supplied during a given (critical) period than at other times. If the key experience is not available during the critical period, there is a negative effect on development, more strongly negative than if the experience is missing outside the critical period“ (p. 52). This is a very comprehensive explanation; not only can it be applied to SLA, but it is also true for other areas of development, such as learning a music instrument for instance.

To summarize the hypothesis of a critical period in L1 and L2 acquisition Saxton (2010) further states that “the effects of the environment on development are especially strong during the critical period and have a much weaker effect once the critical period has ended“ (p. 76). In addition, the critical period can be seen as a “window of opportunity“ (Saxton 2010, p. 76) where developmental progress is more likely to be achieved than at a later point.

However, there are certain problems with the idea of the CPH: Although there is evidence that a critical period exists, researchers are not quite sure which aspects of a language have to be learned properly during this period. It is not clear if syntax, phonology or other aspects of a lan- guage are dependent on this specific period. Which of these have to be learned during this time frame? Another problem is that “many of the subject populations studied may have cognitive deficits that affect language learning, quite apart from any critical period effects […]“ (Saxton 2010, p. 76). Maybe some young language learners have slight mental disabilities or suffer from a lack of concentration with the effect that they do not learn the language as properly as others. If a person has a speech impediment it might be possible that problems concerning articulation do already occur in their L1; thus, it is very problematic to decide if there is “a clear cut-off point at puberty in language learning ability“ (Saxton 2010, p.76).

These examples of problems regarding a CPH in SLA show that it is hard to define a critical pe- riod for a static time frame within the development of a learner. The borders of a critical period can be fluent depending on individual development and also cognitive learning mechanisms.

3.2 The relevance of age in SLA

As the idea of the CPH has now been described, the following part of this paper deals with the relevance of age in SLA and particularly the question why age is so important. Why does age matter? Additionally, a first distinction between early and late SLA will be drawn in order to explain the effects on language outcomes.

Saxton (2010) describes a study by Johnson and Newport (1989, 1991) in which 46 people with Chinese or Korean as their L1 were tested. All these people had moved to the USA at different ages (ranging from age 3 to 39). The main idea of this study was to see if the early movers showed better language proficiency than the late movers; therefore, all participants had to stay 9,8 years in the USA until language tests were provided. The researchers wanted to guarantee that everyone had the same length of stay in order to make sure that everyone had the same time of language experience in their L2. Finally, “Johnson and Newport (1989) asked their partici- pants to judge 276 English sentences on 12 different aspects of morphology and syntax. Half of the sentences were perfectly grammatical, while the remainder were tampered with in some way, as below“ (Saxton 2010, p. 67):

The farmer bought two pig at the market. Three bat flew into our attic last night.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Do children learn second languages easier than adults? A comparative analysis of child and adult second language acquisition
University of Kassel  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Introduction to Second Language Acquisition
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Kevin Salzmann (Author), 2014, Do children learn second languages easier than adults? A comparative analysis of child and adult second language acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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