The age factor in second language acqisition

Term Paper, 2010

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition
2.1 The Critical Period Hypothesis
2.2 Evidence for and against the CPH in Second Language Acquisition
2.2.1 The ‘Younger = Better’ Position
2.2.2 The ‘Older = Better’ Position
2.2.3 The ‘Younger = Better in Some Respects’ Position
2.2.4 The ‘Younger = Better in the Long Run’ Position

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Human beings have the capacity to acquire not only a mother tongue, but also second or third languages (cf. Towell/Hawkins 1994: 1). Consequently it is not unusual that we find much more bilingual and multilingual individuals than monolingual in our world today. Broad levels of population deal with different languages in addition to their mother tongue (cf. Tucker 1999: A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education) and this knowledge is more and more seen as normal in nearly every area of life. The potential for acquiring second languages seems to last throughout one’s lifetime but depends on many variables. According to Muriel Saville-Troike individual learners acquire second languages differently in consequence of influencing factors like age, sex, aptitude, motivation, cognitive style, personality or learning strategies (cf. Saville-Troike 2006: 82). Age as an effective factor in second language acquisition is thereby one of the most controversy variables and recurring themes. The question of whether, and how, age affects this acquiring process has been a major issue in second language research since its establishment.

This paper should examine the relationship of the age to second language acquisition. Therefore a number of several studies provide different point of views and some of them will be specified in this paper. The structure is based on the book ‘Language Acquisition: The Age Factor’ by David Singleton and Lisa Ryan (2004) which was also used as main source.

In conclusion a critical review on the several positions will be carried out to see whether there is an optimal age to start acquiring a second language or not and whether a critical period hypothesis in second language acquisition exists or not.

2. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition

On one hand the term ‘second language acquisition’ refers to the learning process of another language after acquisition of one’s mother tongue is complete (cf. Ellis/Barkhuizen 2005: 3). On the other hand the term is also used for the study of how people acquire a second language. In this term paper ‘second language acquisition’ is used as the label for the field of study (cf. Ellis/Barkhuizen 2005: 3).

As with other topics, different interpretations can also be found in the lively discussion on the age factor in second language acquisition. Singleton and Lengyel explained the issue in the following way:

“A great variety of views have been expressed on the age question, ranging from the position that children are in all respects more efficient and effective second language learners than adults to the exactly contrary position that adolescents and adults are in all respects more efficient and effective second language learners than children.”

(Singleton/Lengyel 1995: 1 f.)

Therefore he pointed out four differing aspects: First of all, the ‘younger = better’ position, secondly, the ‘older = better’ position, thirdly, the ‘younger = better in some respects’ position, and fourthly, the ‘younger = better in the long run’ position (cf. Singleton/Ryan 2004: 61 ff.).

2.1 The Critical Period Hypothesis

Within the scope of linguistic research, the theory that there is a critical or sensitive period for language acquisition plays an important role. The critical period hypothesis, also known as the critical age or sensitive period hypothesis, caused a great deal of discussion in language acquisition research up to the present day. The popularity of the critical period hypothesis is attributed to the biologist Eric Lenneberg. In his book ‘Biological Foundations of Language’ (1967) he stated that maturation constraints the child’s capacity on learning language. First language acquisition relies on brain plasticity and can no longer be accomplished once hemispheric development is complete. If language acquisition does not occur before puberty, some aspects of language can be learnt but full mastery cannot be achieved (cf. Lenneberg 1967: 178 f.). Lenneberg based this theory on different types of evidence. On the one hand he cited feral and abused children as evidence for this thesis. Those were not able to acquire language normally after they were found. On the other hand deaf children whose development in spoken language stopped after puberty serve as evidence (cf. Lenneberg 1967: 155 ff.).

Lenneberg focuses primary on first language acquisition but already in the early seventies the theory was extended to a critical period for second language acquisition and has been tested by numerous researchers in various aspects of language over the years. The following four chapters will explain some of these studies more in detail and should provide evidence and counter-evidence for the existence of a critical period in second language acquisition.

2.2 Evidence for and against the CPH in Second Language Acquisition

2.2.1 The ‘Younger = Better’ Position

As its name implies, this position vindicates the point of view that younger second language learners are more efficient and successful than older learners.

This view has not only been a popular belief for centuries, there is also scientific evidence from several studies conducted on the age factor.

As an example for such a study I would like to refer to an experimental research by Susan Oyama (1976). In their article ‘A Sensitive Period for the Acquisition of a Nonnative Phonological System’ she published a study with 60 male Italian-born immigrants (cf. Singleton/Ryan 2004: 64 ff.). Those entered to the United States at ages ranging from six to 20 and all of them had a length of residence from 5 to 18 years. The subjects were tested for degree of approximation to a native American English accent (cf. Singleton/Ryan 2004: 64). Therefore they were required to read a short English paragraph with phonological difficulties and to recount a frightening story from their personal experience (cf. Oyama 1976: 265). The speech samples were recorded and mixed with control samples at irregular intervals. The last 45 seconds of each speech sample were taken, because they varied in lengths. All samples were heard by two American-born graduate students in linguistics and were judged for degree of accent. They used a 5-point scale ranging from ‘no foreign accent’ to ‘heavy foreign accent’ (cf. Oyama 1976: 266).

In interpretation of data Oyama found a strong effect of age at arrival. Subjects who arrived at a young age were showing fewer accents than older ones. Based on this result Oyama concluded that age is an important factor to achieve a native like accent and younger subjects performed better than older ones (cf. Oyama 1976: 267 ff.).

Another study which appeared to offer support for the ‘Younger = Better’ position is a research by James J. Asher and Ramiro García from 1969 (cf. Singleton/Ryan 2004: 63). In their article ‘The Optimal Age to Learn a Foreign Language’ they describe an experiment with 71 Cuban immigrants who moved to California. The subjects were between the ages seven and nineteen, most of whom had been in the United States for five years. Besides, there was a control group of thirty Native American children for comparison. They all acquired their English in the same region. Both the Cubans and the control group uttered the same English sentences on recordings and judges had to assign the speakers to one of four groups: native, near native, slight foreign or definite foreign speaker (cf. Asher/García 1969: 335).

The subsequent diagram should illustrate the findings of this research. It can be seen from the chart that not one of the 71 Cuban immigrants was judged to have a native pronunciation. However, many subjects acquired a near-native English pronunciation and the highest probability to achieve this level had children who came to the United States between the ages of 1 and 6 years. Moreover, the older a child when entering the United States, the lower the probability to achieve a native-like accent. Furthermore it was found that a longer residence increased the probability of pronunciation fidelity (cf. Asher/García 1969: 340).

From these results, Asher and García concluded that there seemed to be a relationship between the child’s age on arrival and the acquisition of a near-native accent. The younger subjects outperformed older ones in the process of cquiring a near-native accent in second language (cf. Asher/García 1969: 341).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The age factor in second language acqisition
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
Language Acquisition
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ISBN (Book)
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Language Acquisition, Age Factor, Critical Period
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Felix B. (Author), 2010, The age factor in second language acqisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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