Age Effects on Second Language Acquisition

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2015

10 Seiten, Note: 1,7

Jule Dorin (Autor:in)


Table Of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Critical Period Hypothesis

3. Studies on the Critical Period Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition
3.1 Johnson and Newport
3.2 Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle
3.3 Asher and Price

4. Innatism and the Age Factor

5. Thoughts about a Sensitive Period for Second Language Acquisition

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

It is a widespread belief that the acquisition of a foreign language is much easier for children rather than for adults. It is said that the younger the learner, the better the outcome will be. The same applies for the assumption that an adult learner of a foreign language cannot reach native-like competence, no matter how long the process of acquisition will take, whereas a child indeed can acquire a perfect language without even the hint of a foreign accent. Furthermore, there is a common notion that the age of onset of the acquisition of a second language plays a role in it's further development. Indeed, the acquisition of a foreign language can be a frustrating and very tough experience for adults in, whereas it seems to be a facile and fast proceeding process for children or adolescents.

A possible answer to these beliefs may be found in the Critical Period Hypothesis, which states that the age is a major factor for second language acquisition (henceforth SLA) and that there is a time span, where the acquisition of a language functions best. On the other hand, there are studies which want to make clear that in fact, the contrary is true or as well that age has no influence at all when it comes to SLA.

This paper aims to find out if there indeed is a connection between the learner's age and his level of proficiency in the L2.

2. The Critical Period Hypothesi

The Critical Period Hypothesis (henceforth CPH) was formulated by the neurologist Eric Lenneberg in 1967. It states, that language can only be acquired during a particular period of time, which he calls the critical period. According to Lenneberg (1967), the implied time span begins at the age of two years and ends around puberty (Singleton / Ryan, 2004: 33). From a neurological point of view, this is due to the fact, that the process of lateralization, a process, where different functions are distributed to the right and left hemisphere of the human brain, has not been accomplished yet (Singleton / Ryan, 2004: 33). This might be a plausible explanation for the assumption that it is easier to acquire either a first or second language for a child rather than for an adult, as the “immature brain exhibits markedly more plasticity than the mature brain” (Singleton / Ryan, 2004: 40) and therefore is more flexible. Furthermore, only an immature brain is capable of transferring language functions from one part of the brain to another.

At the beginning, the CPH was developed in order to describe the acquisition of a L1, but it can be transferred to the acquisition of a second language as well. According to Singleton and Ryan (2004: 32), the term “critical period” refers „to a limited phase in the development of an organism during which a particular activity or competency must be acquired if it is to be incorporated into the behaviour of that organism.“ In terms of the acquisition of a language, it bears the meaning, that both, the onset of the acquisition has to occur within that phase and acquisition can only take place within that time span in order to develop fully, because beyond, no native-like competence can be achieved anymore. Cases like the one of Genie, for example, have shown that there indeed must be something like a critical period for the acquisition of a L1.

3. Studies on the Critical Period Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition

In the past decades, several studies have been conducted, in order to investigate whether age has an effect on SLA and therefore to provide evidence for the CHP or reject it, not all of whom came up with the same result. Below, some of the studies will be presented briefly. As the discussion is very extensive, there will only be short presentations of some studies, which I thought to be interesting for the further discussion.

According to Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle (1978: 1114), there are two possibilities to research the hypothesis. The first is to compare the acquisition of a L1 and L2 and the other one is to compare L2 acquisition of subjects, who widely differ in their age.

3.1 Johnson and Newport

One of the studies was carried out by Jacqueline S. Johnson and Elissa L. Newport in 1989, presented in the article “Critical Period Effects in Second Language Learning: The Influence of Maturational State on the Acquisition of English as a Second Language” with the preliminary thought, that if there indeed is a critical period for language learning, “it should be the case that young children are better second language learners than adults and should consequently reach higher levels of final proficiency in the second language.” (Johnson / Newport, 1989: 60) Johnson and Newport have stated “The maturational state hypothesis”, which implies, that “[e]arly in life, humans have a superior capacity for acquiring languages. This capacity disappears or declines with maturation.”(Johnson / Newport, 1989: 64) Furthermore, it is indifferent, which language is acquired and it is not important, what kind of prior linguistic experience there already is.

Johnson and Newport compared the knowledge of English of 46 native speakers of Korean or Chinese, who both had lived in the U.S. between 3 and 26 years and who had arrived to the U.S. at the age from 3 to 39 by testing them on grammatical structures of English. According to White (cf. VanPatten, 2007: 44f), grammatically judgment tasks are the most common method in order to investigate on the L2 knowledge, because they show up the state of interlanguage, a learner occupies at a particular time. Johnson and Newport opted for Asian native speakers, because there are little or no similarities between those languages and English. The participants of the study were asked to evaluate whether different spoken English sentences were grammatical, in order to test their individual proficiency in English syntax and morphology. Furthermore, the sentences were on the level of competence of 6- or 7- year old native speakers.

Johnson and Newport came to the result that there is a relation between the age of acquisition and the ultimate performance in the second language. According to them (1989: 89), “there was a significant correlation between age of arrival and performance on every type of syntactic and morphological rule [they] tested.” Additionally, they came to the conclusion, that participants, who had arrived to the U.S. before the age of 7, have achieved native-like performance, whereas “there was a linear decline in performance up through puberty” (Johnson / Newport,1989: 90) for participants, who had arrived after the age of 7 and what is interesting as well is that there was no more decline in performance with increasing age, after puberty (Johnson / Newport, 1989: 90). By that, they have pointed out the correctness of their maturational state hypothesis, as well as they have confirmed the hypothesis that the younger a learner is, the better results he will achieve.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 10 Seiten


Age Effects on Second Language Acquisition
Universität Paderborn
Second Language Acquisition
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
396 KB
SLA, second, language, acquisition, learning, age, effects, age effects, innatism, innatist
Arbeit zitieren
Jule Dorin (Autor:in), 2015, Age Effects on Second Language Acquisition, München, GRIN Verlag,


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