The Age Factor. The Role of Age in Second Language Phonological Acquisition

Term Paper, 2018
12 Pages


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Age as a factor in second language phonological acquisition
2.1. The critical and sensitive period hypothesis on second language acquisition
2.2. Supportive studies vs. opposing views
2.3. The controversy of the age factor

3. Other influential factors in second language acquisition

4. Conclusion

5. References


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

As far as the pronunciation of a second language1 is concerned, the extent of a foreign accent often seems to affect adult L2 learners more than young L2 learners. A widely-known occurrence is that of immigrant families, whose children appear to acquire a second language pronunciation "to the same extent as their first [language]" (Herschensohn 2007: 2) with ease and in a very short time, whereas the acquisition of a second language phonology2 comes with difficulties for their parents in respect to their nonnative-like pronunciation.

It is now questionable, whether the ability of learning one’s second language phonology fades with increasing age. While some linguists indeed suggest an early exposure to an L2 phonology with regard to the critical period hypothesis in order to acquire an accent-free pronunciation, others put forward the importance of motivational and social circumstances that may influence the acquisition of the L2 phonology more than age could.

In the first section, this research paper will present the role of age on L2 phonological acquisition by explaining the strong and weak version of the critical period hypothesis. Furthermore, it will give insight into important studies that either support or decline the opinion of age being a relevant factor for a native-like acquisition of a second language phonology. Subsequently, in the last section it will be sketched to what extent other socio-motivational circumstances among L2 learners can cause individual differences throughout the acquisition of an L2 phonology. Both sections critically examine the relevance of the L2 learner’s age regarding the acquisition of an L2 phonology in order to find an answer to the question if age does affect the acquisition of a native-like pronunciation. As a last step, the main points and findings of this research paper will be summarised in the conclusion.

2. Age as a factor in second language phonological acquisition

As already stated in the introduction, some linguists refer to a critical period hypothesis. This first section will examine the notion of the CPH in respect to second language phonological acquisition. Additionally, both the strong and weak version of the CPH will be discussed. Moreover, the following section will outline important studies and it will be answered, if age is linked to the acquisition of a native-like pronunciation.

2.1. The critical and sensitive period hypothesis on second language acquisition

The critical period is a commonly stated hypothesis that declares a limited time frame during which L2 learners can possibly acquire a second language to native­like standard (cf. Birdsong 1999: 1). The limited time frame is only roughly defined, though. Several ages have been suggested by proponents of the CPH, but most linguists are of the opinion that an L2 is learned most efficiently between the age of six and with the onset of puberty3 (cf. Herschensohn 2007: 2). Strictly speaking, linguists assume that L2A is restricted to a certain age range which implies that neither the acquisition of a second language before the onset of that period, nor the acquisition after that period is possible. While this can be considered as the strong version, "a weaker version would claim that [an early language learning that] begins after the onset of the critical period [...]“ is more efficient (Singleton 1989:38), but that an L2A after the CP is still possible, even if the potential of a native-like language acquisition is decreased. The strong version is generally referred to as critical period, while the weak version is more of a sensitive period. Herschensohn points out that there is yet no convincing evidence for the claim that second language speech will [...] be accent-free if it is learned before the age of about six years and that it will be foreign-accented if learned after puberty. (Herschensohn 2007: 2)

Although it is claimed that a native-like acquisition of an L2 syntax is possible for adult L2 learners, an L2 pronunciation that is “indistinguishable from a native­speaker“ is said to be nearly impossible for adult L2 learners (cf. Hansen Edwards & Zampini 2007: 5), though there are exceptional cases of adult L2 learners that acquired an L2 pronunciation to a native-like level.

This shows that the critical period, popularised in 1967 by Eric Lenneberg (cf. Birdsong 1999: 1), is a highly debated hypothesis which cannot give absolut clear answers in regard to age being linked to a native-like acquisition of a second language. However, certain studies present some findings that support the existence of a critical period, whereas other studies challenge the hypothesis of age being linked to the possibility of becoming accent-free in a second language.

2.2. Supportive studies vs. opposing views

Several studies have been focussed on the second language morpho-syntactic and phonological4 acquisition of L2 learners. In order to present the high controversy of age as a factor for second language acquisition, both the studies that are supportive in respect to the existence of the CP in L2 phonological acquisition and those that decline the CPH will be reviewed.

To begin with the studies supporting the existence of the CP in second language phonological acquisition, one should take a closer look on the case study on speech production5 of Flege, Yeni-Komshian and Liu (1999) with Korean immigrants, and especially on Ioup’s study (1984) with L2 learners whose pronunciation was evaluated by linguistically trained judges. In regard to the production of L2 speech sounds6, Flege et al. had 240 Korean immigrants to the USA with different AOA recite sentences in their L2 to native-speakers of English. These native-speakers "[rated] the quality of their accents" (loup 2008: 44). As can be seen in figure 1.1., the earlier the Korean immigrants arrived in the USA, the lower their accent rating was (cf. Flege et al. 1999: 85). This implies that the age of arrival and therefore exposure to the L2 surely has an impact on the production of L2 speech sounds on native-like standard and that young L2 learners are better at producing native-like accents. loup, as well, let native-speakers of English judge the speech production of adult L2 learners and came to the conclusion that adult L2 learners of English were easily identified by linguistically trained native-speakers (cf. loup 2008: 44). One could argue that loup’s study is quite convincing regarding the existence of the CP in L2 phonological acquisition. Next to the adult L2 learners, who had to write own texts and read them aloud, native-speakers of English had to read these texts, too. While the „syntactic information" of the written texts was native-like, the judges could state clearly, who is a native-speaker and who is an L2 learner of English by listening to their recitation. Even though L2 learners were able to produce syntactically correct texts, age seems to play a huge role when it comes to native-like speech production. In order to compare the quality of native-like accents between adult and young L2 learners, Flege (1991) analysed "[the] production of VOT7 values of the English phoneme8 /t/" of native-speakers of

Spanish who learned English as an L2 either from early on or as adult learners (loup 2008: 46). Again, adult L2 learners were not able to present a native-like pronunciation of English, since they "produced values that were midway between the monolingual Spanish and English values" (loup 2008: 46), while young L2 learners of English had identical VOT values to native-speakers of English. This signifies repeatedly that young L2 learners are more successful in becoming accent-free in a second language than adult L2 learners.

Overall it can be said that L2 leaners who started acquiring a second language after the critical period were less successful than young L2 learners in regard to producing native-like accents. These studies do not point out the impossibility of second language learning as an adult learner, though. While it is indeed possible for adult L2 learners to acquire an L2, becoming accent-free9 seems to be a phenomenon that is only achievable if learned within that critical period.

In contrast to the studies that are supportive for the existence of the critical period hypothesis in L2A, one might wonder if there are exceptional cases that prove second language phonological acquisition on native-like level to be achievable for adult L2 learners. One successful case of native-like second language phonological acquisition after the close of the critical period is the adult L2 learner of Egyptian Arabic Julie who moved to Egypt with her husband. Special about Julie’s language acquisition is the lack of formal instruction. That is why she cannot read or write Arabic, yet she learned Arabic simply through talking and listening to native-speakers that could not communicate with her in her L110 or another language. Somehow Julie managed to acquire Arabic to native-like standard which is justified by the fact that "[...] her language acquisition situation resembled the environment for child L1 acquisition" (loup 1994: 77). After 2 1/2 years of stay in Egypt, she was already judged as a native-speaker of Arabic. In another study, White and Genesee (1996) interviewed 89 L2 learners of English who were between 16 and 66 years old, i.e. subjects that learned English as an L2 after the suggested time frame of the CPH. Their aim was to analyse whether one can possibly become native-like in an L2 and they found adult L2 learners that achieved native-like proficiency (White & Genesee 1996: 258). Furthermore, they point out that [...] the fact that ultimate attainment can be fully native-like regardless of age [...] does not mean that it is always so, or that attainment of near­native speaker status is typical. (White & Genesee 1996: 259)


1 Second language (L2) refers to a language one acquired after one’s first language(s) that has/ have been learned as a child from birth on.

2 Phonology is the study of how sounds are organised and used in languages; second language phonology refers to the study of the organisation of speech sounds in a second language in particular.

3 In this research paper, children between six and 12 years will be referred to as ’young L2 learners’. L2 learners above that age are referred to as ’adult L2 learners‘.

4 A morpho-syntactic acquisition involves the acquisition of morphology, i.e. the study of the form of words, and syntax, i.e. the arrangement of words to create sentences.

5 Speech production is the utterance of any speech sound.

6 Any distinctive sound occurring in speech is a speech sound. One might also refer to it as spoken language.

7 VOT stands for voice onset time and refers to the duration between the release of a plosive (/p/, /b/, /t/, /d/) and the beginning of vocal fold vibration.

8 A phoneme is the smallest meaning-distinguishing unit in the sound system of a language.

9 This generally means that an L2 learner is able to speak on native-like level.

10 L1 stands for first language and this indicates the mother tongue of a subject.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Age Factor. The Role of Age in Second Language Phonological Acquisition
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
factor, role, second, language, phonological, acquisition
Quote paper
Isabel Richter (Author), 2018, The Age Factor. The Role of Age in Second Language Phonological Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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