The Age-Factor in Second Language Acquisition. Is There a Critical Period?

Term Paper, 2013

28 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. First and Second Language Acquisition
2.1. First Language Acquisition
2.1.1. The Behaviourist Theory
2.1.2. The Innatist Theory
2.2. Second Language Acquisition

3. The Critical Period Hypothesis
3.1. The Critical Period in First Language Acquisition - The Case “Genie”
3.2. The Critical Period Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition
3.3. The Optimal or Sensitive Period
3.4. Younger vs. Older Learners
3.4.1. The “Younger = Better” Position
3.4.2. The “Older = Better” Position
3.4.3. “Younger = Better in the Long Run” Position

4. Implication for Second Language Teaching
4.1. The Constructivist Classroom
4.2. Second Language Instruction from a CLIL-Perspective

5. Conclusion



Der Erwerb einer Zweitsprache, insbesondere Englisch, ist zur heutigen Zeit wichtiger denn je. Von daher ist es von großer Bedeutung den Fremdsprachenunterricht in der Schule zu verbessern. Um dies zu tu müssen Lernfaktoren, wie zum Beispiel Alter, Motivation oder Talent stärker untersucht werden.

Die folgende Arbeit geht der Frage nach, ob das Erlernen einer Zweitsprache durch das Alter beeinflusst wird, insbesondere ob es eine kritische Periode in Zweitspracherwerb gibt, die das erfolgreiche Erlernen negativ beeinflusst. Die allgemeine Meinung, dass Kinder die erfolgreichsten Sprachenlerner sind wird kritisch hinterfragt und mit konträren Positionen verglichen. Abschließend werden die Ergebnisse genutzt um Konsequenzen für den Zweitsprachunterricht zu ziehen.

Second language acquisition, in particular English, is nowadays more important than ever before. As a consequence, it is of great importance to improve second language education at school. In order to do this, learner factors as for instance age, motivation or aptitude have to be considered more closely.

The present research paper considers the question if second language learning can be affected by age, particularly if there is a critical period that can affect the learning success in a negative way. The common sense that children are the most successful language learners will be examined and compared to contrary opinions. In a last step, the results will be used to draw conclusions for second language instruction.

1. Introduction

The role of the learner in the second language classroom has become more important during the recent decades. Whilst the teacher was formerly the centre of the learning process, functioned as an instructor and occupied the majority of the speaking time in the classroom, researchers nowadays suggest to introduce learner-centred teaching. It is widely known that every student learns differently and therefore has different needs that should be taken into account in language teaching. The different factors, such as motivation, aptitude, intelligence and also age are seen as predictors for the success in language acquisition and second language researchers are interested to find out more about these factors in order to improve classroom instruction.

Age, as a determining factor is of great interest for second language researchers and teachers, because it is commonly known that every normal and healthy child is able to learn a first language successfully and it even seems to do this easily. In contrast, second language students are usually older and have to work hard to acquire the target language and it is very rare that second language learners achieve the same proficiency as native speakers. Therefore the question arises, if there is a perfect age for second language acquisition and if the assumption that an early start in second language learning can be a predictor for success.

In the present research paper, I would like to consider the different results in the second language research about the “Age-Factor” in order to find out if there is a perfect age for the begin of second language acquisition and if the results are useful to improve second language instruction. The focus on this purpose will be a consideration of the critical period hypothesis which states that acquiring the first language successfully is only possible in early childhood. This research paper aims to examine if this hypothesis can be transferred to second language learning and if so, in which extent it affects second language acquisition and which appropriate steps must be taken in second language teaching.

At first this paper will give a short introduction to first language acquisition and important language learning theories. This step is important to get an idea how languages are learned in order to understand the significant differences between first and second language acquisition and to understand the impact of individual factors on language learning. The famous behaviourist theory by Skinner and the innatist theory, supported by its main pioneer Noam Chomsky, will be confronted with each other to exemplify different ideas on language learning. An important aspect of the innatist theory is Chomsky’s theory of the Universal Grammar (henceforth UG), an innitial ability to understand grammar rules during first language acquisition. This is also of great importance for the later consideration of the critical period hypothesis, because of the assumption that the Universal Grammar is not available for the learner after maturation. We will have a look at the study about “Genie”, a girl who failed in first language acquisition and who serves as the parade example for the critical period hypothesis.

After examining the critical period hypothesis in second language acquisition, the paper aims to have a closer look on when language learner should be exposed the second language. Therefore, the “younger = better” position, the “older = better” position and the “younger = better in the long run” position will be confronted.

In a last step, the results of this research paper are taken in to account in order to improve second language teaching in the classroom setting. In this chapter, the constructivist classroom and Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) are introduced to initiate the implementation of modern and student-centred second language teaching.

2. First and Second Language Acquisition

2.1. First Language Acquisition

Before looking at second language acquisition it makes sense to have a closer look how first language1 in early childhood is usually acquired. As Lightbown and Spada (2013) remarked: “Language Acquisition is one of the most impressive and fascinating aspects of human development,” (p. 5) and it raises the question how children are able to accomplish the highly challenging demands of learning words and putting them together in meaningful sentences in a complex grammatical language.

The reasons why children start to learn their first language has been of great interest for linguists and psychologists during the last decades and it was suggested that children learn their mother tongue as a result of their “natural desire to please their doting parents, who wait impatiently for them to utter a recognizable word” (Saville-Troike, 2006, p. 13), while another suggestion was that their first language acquisition develops because of their urge to communicate their needs. Lenneberg (1972) emphasises that the needs of individuals are always subjective and difficult to define, Therefore a needs-hypothesis would be useless to make investigations about the relevant language developments during maturation. In contrast it is more important to consider the nature of the maturation processes.

Lenneberg (1972) makes clear that children do not start to speak earlier than at the age of approximately 18 months, not because of a lack of physical capabilities (eg, motoric or mechanical ability of articulation), but because of psychological, or better, cognitive abilities. At the age of three years children have usually already a good control of their vocal tract and can articulate words properly, while other motoric abilities eg. the finger and hand coordination development is still far from being accomplished.

2.1.1. The Behaviourist Theory

The best-known controversy on the issue, which also leads us back to the question how languages are learned, comes from the psychologist and behaviourist B.F. Skinner, whose suggestion was that children learn language primarily by imitating the people (usually their parents) in their environment (Mitchell & Myles 12). Encouraged by their environment to use the language spoken around them, children would continue to imitate sounds and practise sound patterns until they use language correctly. According to this theory the environment would have a very important impact on the child’s language development (Lightbown & Spada 2013).

Imitation is an important issue in language learning, bur there are difficulties about the definition of the term imitation, for instance imitation is often used similarly to repetition. But imitation is a complex process that requires activity of the learner and is selective. Children do not imitate the same words again and again like a parrot, they rather seem to imitate selectively (Lightbown & Spada 2013). Oksaar (2003) emphasises that imitations and individual creations alternate with one another.

Lightbown and Spada (2013) show in the observations of 24-months-old Cindy how a child varies between word imitations and individual constructions, which demonstrate the language development (p. 16):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

After Cindy has learned the new word “carrot”, she was also able to use the new word in other sentences. She obviously did not only learn the new word, but also the meaning of that word, which gave her the possibility to build new individual sentences with it (Lightbown & Spada).

2.1.2. The Innatist Theory

According to Lightbown and Spada (2013), “classical behaviourism is not a satisfactory explanation for the acquisition of the more complex grammar that children acquire” (p. 19). In respect of the complexity of the human language the linguist Noam Chomsky has argued that it would not be possible to acquire it entirely only through imitation (Mitchell & Myles 2004). He suggests that there must be an innate predisposition for language and expectations about the language rules and patterns, such as word classes or grammar rules (Mitchell & Myles). Lightbown and Spada add that “children are born with a specific innate ability to discover for themselves the underlying rules of a language system on the basis of the samples of a natural language they are exposed to” (Mitchell & Myles, 2004, p. 20). They also point out that imitation and practise alone cannot explain the new sentence structures children develop by themselves. They cannot only be the repetitions of sentences they have heard in their environment (Lightbown & Spada). Chomsky argued from his innatist perspective that “children are biologically programmed for language and that language develops in the child in just the same way that other biological functions develop” (Lightbown and Spada, 2013, p. 20). For Chomsky language acquisition is similar to learning how to walk and that the environment only has a basic contribution.

Lenneberg’s (1972) research on babies of deaf and normal speaking parents delivers also evidence against the behaviourist theory. In his research Lenneberg found out that even if the interaction of deaf and normal speaking parents differed, there was no difference in the age of starting to produce gurgling sounds and the development of the voice in both groups. In later researches with older children of deaf parents he could find the same development as in normal speaking families.

Chomsky points out that children know more about language than they are expected to know only from imitation because of their ability to form new sentence structures by themselves.

This would lead to a logical problem in Skinner’s behaviourist theory. “Even children with very limited cognitive ability develop quite complex language systems if they are brought up in environments in which people interact with them” (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 21). The fact that all children, from abusive and rejecting families, and not only the smartest ones or the most encouraged children, usually acquire their first language successfully (Lightbown & Spada) supports Chomsky’s objections.

According to Chomsky (2002), every language speaker possesses an intuitive linguistic knowledge, which guides his linguistic behaviour. This knowledge is used unconsciously and automatically all the time to understand and produce language. Chomsky supports the hypothesis that there is an innate core for human language acquisition, called the Universal Grammar. “The Universal Grammar approach claims that all human beings inherit a universal set of principles and parameters that control the shape human languages can take, and which are what make human languages similar to one another” (Mitchell & Myles, 2004, p. 54). It is universal because every human being is endowed with this innate core and there is no limitation for a particular language, this biological endowment is fundamental for all languages of our species (Chomsky 2002). In other words “No one is genetically predisposed to learn English rather than Amharic” (Smith, 2004, p. 36), but they have an innate knowledge of principles which enables them to acquire every language, depending on their language environment during the first years. If this empirical hypothesis, that this system applies to all human languages, is true, it can also serve as an explanation for the similarity of the different languages of the world (Mitchell & Myles) “If children are pre-equipped with UG, then what they have to learn is the ways in which the language they are acquiring makes use of these principles” (Lightbown & Spada 2013, p. 20). Another interpretation for the term “universal” could be that all human languages exploit the same elements, for instance consonants and vowels, nouns, verbs and adjectives, clauses and so on (Smith 2004).

Chomsky’s hypothesis about the Universal Grammar could also deliver an explanation for the remarkable similarity of the developmental sequences in early language learning. According to several researchers, children acquire their first language in predictable patterns during the first three years (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, pp. 6-7). Roger Brown, one of the best-known researchers in this area, argued, according to his longitudinal study of language development in early childhood, that there were 14 different grammatical morphemes, which are acquired by children ( Brown cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2013, pp. 7-8):

- present progressive- ing (Mommy running)
- plural - s (two books)
- irregular past forms (Baby went)
- possessive - s (Daddy’ s hat)
- copula (Mommy is happy)
- articles the and a
- regular past - ed (she walk ed)
- third person singular simple present
- s (she run s) - auxiliary be (he is coming)

Brown and his colleagues found out that children acquire the grammatical morphemes in the same order. It is not possible to skip one morpheme, learn one from the bottom of the list and come back to a former one (Lightbown & Spada 2013). Even though the children did not learn every morpheme at the same age, they followed the same order, which delivers evidence for an “order of acquisition”.

2.2. Second Language Acquisition

The interest in how people acquire a second language has been an important issue for researchers since the second half of the 20th century, when the world seemed to become smaller, the World Wide Web made communication possible all over the world and people expanded their communication to each other beyond their local speech communities (Ellis 1997). Today very often people do not learn a language only for pleasure, but for educational reasons or securing employment.

Even though the term “second language” seems to be transparent, it needs to be clarified at some points. The term “second” eg. does not have to refer to the second language of the learner, it can also refer to the third or fourth language. It also does not have to mean a “foreign” language, for instance when the learner learns the language naturally because he is living in the country of the target language. But even in an instructional classroom environment it is customary to speak about the “second” language (Ellis). Birdsong (1999) emphasises that second language acquisition of adults is very different from first language acquisition and while children have a “birthright” to acquire linguistic competence completely, adults vary significantly and hardly achieve language levels as that of natives.

3. The Critical Period Hypothesis

Children usually learn their first language in their early childhood. The innatist theory delivers evidence that there is an innate predisposition to acquire language in early childhood, when the child receives stimuli by its environment. Several researchers argue that this ability comes to an end not later than after puberty and that, if the child has not learned its first language by then, the language cannot be learned in all its complexity any longer.

Lenneberg (1972) found remarkable evidence for a limited period for language acquisition in not inherited disorder. The chance, for instance, to recover from aphasia is much better for children than for adults. According to Lenneberg, an adult who lost his ability to speak did not “lose” the language, but the organization of his language. While children can learn their language again, an adult, in contrast, will usually never be able to restore his communication skills again, if they are not restored in the first five months.

As Birdsong (1999) points out, there is “a limited developmental period during which it is possible to acquire a language, be it L1 or L2, to normal, nativelike levels” (p. 1.). This period is called the “Critical Period Hypothesis” (Ortega, 2011, p. 8). “For biologists a critical period is a limited phase in the development of an organism during which a particular capacity must established if it is to be established at all” (Singleton and Leśniewska in Pawlak, 2012, p. 98). According to Lightbown and Spada (2004) developments in the brain at the end of the critical period are responsible for the loss of the innate predisposition in early childhood, which interferes the language acquisition for older learners, because after puberty it is not based on the innate biological structures any longer. Some researchers suppose the beginning of the critical period even at a younger age and even speculate that there is the possibility, “that there are multiple CPs for linguistic competence, with different time courses” (Eubank Gregg, cited in Birdsong, p. 75).

The decline of the ability to learn languages is seen in the development of the brain during maturation.

Developmental changes in the brain, it is argued, affect the nature of language acquisition, and language learning that occurs after the end of the critical period may not be based on the innate biological structures believed to contribute to first language acquisition or second language acquisition in early childhood (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, p. 93).


1 The first languange is usually acquired before the age of three years among people who speak to them and as a part of growing up (Saville-Troike 2006).

Excerpt out of 28 pages


The Age-Factor in Second Language Acquisition. Is There a Critical Period?
University of Kassel  (Anglistik)
Englische Fachdidaktik
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ISBN (Book)
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English, Age-Factor, Second Language Learning, EFL-classroom
Quote paper
Jana Schmidt (Author), 2013, The Age-Factor in Second Language Acquisition. Is There a Critical Period?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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