Age as a Factor in Second Language Acquisition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

32 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition
2.1 The Critical Period Hypothesis
2.2 Evidence for and against the Critical Period Hypothesis 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. Explanations for Age-Related Differences in Second Language Acquisition

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It is commonly known that children with regular faculties and given normal circumstances easily master their native language (L1). Unfortunately, perfect language mastery is rarely the result of second language acquisition (henceforth SLA). One of the central questions that SLA has tried to answer since its establishment as an independent field of study within applied linguistics is why learners of a non-native language (L2) evince such a high degree of interindividual variation in their final attainment relative to the L2 components and skills they have acquired. In order to offer a satisfactory response to this key issue, SLA researchers have posited the existence of a set of individual factors of a very different nature, such as aptitude, motivation, attitude, personality, and intelligence, among others, that might explain such variation. However, one of the most obvious potential explanations for the lack of success of L2 learners compared to L1 learners is that the acquisition of a foreign language begins at a later age than that of the mother tongue does (cf. Larsen-Freeman / Long: 153). Thus, it has been prevalently assumed that age itself is a predictor of second language proficiency. The influence of age is actually assessed to be not only significant but even decisive on the degree of L2 competence and performance attained (cf. Abello-Contesse et al.: 7).

If age indeed is a factor which determines upon the success in SLA – is there an optimal age to start learning a foreign language? It is often claimed that children are superior to adults, that is, that the younger the learner of a foreign language, the more effective the learning process and the better the outcome obtained. This assumption often derives from a distinctive element in the study of the age factor, the so-called critical period hypothesis (henceforth CPH), predicting that if the acquisition of a foreign language starts between the age of 2 and 12-13 (i.e., puberty), the process will be straightforward and the product will be complete (which is usually claimed to be the case in the acquisition of the L1), while individuals who begin their learning after this point – a kind of biological border – will find the process considerably difficult and the final outcome will be incomplete. Even though the CPH constitutes a strong and recurrent research line within the SLA, at the same time it is a changing and controversial area in practice since it tends to generate antagonistic positions among the SLA researchers. Thus, there exist also studies which dispute the assumption that children are superior to adults in learning a foreign language and maintain the exact contrary. Likewise, the explanations for the critical period as well as their empirical foundations have been questioned by different researchers (e.g., Krashen; Long). Is there indeed evidence for a critical period in SLA? Are there really age-related differences between young children, older children, and adults? And does the age of onset constitute a source of personal variation that is powerful enough to account for the varying levels of achievement that learners eventually reach? Since educators are interested in knowing what the best time is to start their instructions and how far older students can progress, the age factor is not only of great significance for SLA theory but also for language teaching practice. An important question which arises in this context is whether there is sufficient conceptual and empirical reason to justify making educational decisions on the basis of SLA research concerning the age factor. As is generally known, in Germany educational authorities decided to reduce the onset age of the first foreign language from the fifth to the third grade of elementary education. There are other countries as well which introduced the so-called “early start in L2 learning”[1]. Does this reform, consisting primarily or exclusively in lowering the age of onset of L2 learning, conform to the results of the SLA studies on the age factor?

This paper focuses on research which has been carried out on maturational constraints for SLA and hereby tries to find answers to the here posed questions.

2. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition

Few aspects in first language or second language learning have engendered more controversy than the age factor. Differences in interpretation are nothing new in any research area, of course. Here, however, disagreements as to both the facts and their explanation are very pronounced. The views range from the position that children are in all respects more efficient and effective second language learners than adults to the complete contrary position that adolescents and adults are more efficient and effective second language learners than children (cf. Singleton, 1995: 1f.). According to Singleton, at least four divergent opinions among the SLA researchers can be listed: In the first place, the ‘younger = better’ position, secondly, the straightforward counter-proposal, namely the ‘older = better’ position, thirdly, the ‘younger = better in some respects’ position, and fourthly, the ‘younger = better in the long run’ position. Among the wide range of studies, there is evidence relevant to each of the four positions on age-related differences in second language learning efficiency. In the course of this paper, several studies and opinions on the age factor in SLA will be presented and discussed[2]. The further intention hereby is to ascertain whether one or more of the positions can be excluded and, if at all possible, whether one view can be assessed as the most evident or convincing.

2.1 The Critical Period Hypothesis

The original formulation of the CPH is based upon the work of the German-born American neurologist Eric Lenneberg (1967). The hypothesis implies that children have a special innate propensity for acquiring language that is determined by biological factors – so to speak a biological clock that limits the period during which natural language acquisition can take place. This assumption is based on the biological observation that the brain of a child is plastic whereas the brain of an adult is rigid and set. According to Lenneberg, during early childhood language appears to be more spread out across both brain hemispheres, but as the child grows older and the two hemispheres become increasingly specialised for certain functions, language gradually relocates, settling in the left one. The CPH holds that primary language acquisition must occur during a critical period which starts at about the age of 2 years and ends at puberty (around the age of 12 or 13) with the establishment of lateralisation of the language function. Lenneberg argues that language acquisition before the age of 2 is impossible because the brain has not developed the capacities it needs. After puberty the natural acquisition of language is blocked because the brain has lost its cerebral plasticity. Of course, Lenneberg does not deny that language learning is possible after puberty. However, “automatic” acquisition from mere exposure to a second language seems to disappear: “Most individuals of average intelligence are able to learn an L2 after the beginning of their second decade, although the incidence of ‘language-learning blocks’ rapidly increases after puberty” (Lenneberg: 176). Moreover, he notes that foreign accents cannot be overcome easily after the end of the critical period. According to the neurosurgeon Penfield, an adult cannot learn a language as a child does because the adult learns through structures that have lost their flexibility. The child, on the other hand, can acquire one or more languages with ease because the corticothalamic speech mechanism in the child is still in the process of development (cf. Penfield / Roberts, 1959, in McLaughlin: 48).

Since its conception in the 1960s, the CPH has been closely linked to innatist claims which gave rise to the well-known innatist theory of first language acquisition advocated by the theoretical linguist Noam Chomsky, emphasizing the essential role that biological contributions, as opposed to the child’s social life and cultural experience, appear to play in L1 development. Since children acquire their native language by mere exposure with facility and an enormous speed, Chomsky maintains that the only explanation possible is that children are pre-programmed to acquire language at a definite point in their development. The well-known term he uses for this biological equipment is the Universal Grammar. Apparently, the view that the child possesses a capacity for language that the adult has lost has been formalised in the CPH.

According to Paul M. Chandler, there is compelling evidence that humans are biologically “wired” to learn language optimally within a time frame (Chandler: 62). The well-known and tragic case of Genie, who had been isolated from language until nearly the age of 14 and was not able to learn even the rudiments of the computational system of a first language afterwards, has been assessed by many linguists as support of the CPH. Michael H. Long notes that the data on Genie are consistent with the “weak” version[3] of the CPH. The girl showed that language acquisition is possible starting after puberty, but that learning will be irregular and incomplete (cf. Long: 257). There exist other similar cases of feral children and child abuse, and all of them support the CPH – the children were able to learn language after puberty, but their learning became more irregular and fell further short of native levels of achievement the later it had begun (cf.: ibid).

Further support for the CPH comes from neurological investigations of unilateral brain- damaged children and adults, who have lost their ability of language after accidents[4]. Whereas the children were apparently able to transfer the speech function to the unharmed hemisphere and could thus recapture their complete speech capability, the adults mostly remained speech disturbed. Lenneberg saw this as evidence that children are less lateralised than adults and, vice versa, that adults are more lateralised than children (cf. McLaughlin: 49).

Concerning the mentioned cases of abused and feral children as well as brain-damaged individuals, it must be beard in mind that they refer to the acquisition of the first language. Likewise, regarding the origin of the CPH, we must not forget that Lenneberg’s conception of it was made outside of the field of SLA. Its implications addressed the process of L1 acquisition by looking at the relearning of impaired L1 skills by native speakers of English. Stork remarks in this context:

“Gegen die Methoden der neurolinguistischen Läsionsforschung wird heute häufig vorgebracht, dass nicht geklärt ist, ob von den Beobachtungen ‘kranker’ Gehirne auf die Organisation ‘normaler’ Gehirne geschlossen werden kann. Läsionen können in Funktionsbereiche anderer Regionen dieser Hemisphäre hineinwirken oder auch die Tätigkeit der anderen Gehirnhälfte beeinflussen.“ (Stork: 42).

Lenneberg focuses essentially on the limitations to non-normal primary language acquisition. Thus, the CPH is not a neutral or independent hypothesis concerning its overall theoretical orientation, but it comes from biology and refers to a limited phase within the development of an organism that turns out to be meaningful or irreversible for the acquisition of a particular function (cf. Abello-Contesse et al.: 15). Proceeding to the field of SLA – is there also evidence for the CPH?

2.2 Evidence for and against the Critical Period Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition

2.2.1 The ‘Younger = Better’ Position

The position which derives most directly from the conception of the CPH posits quite simply that younger second language learners are globally more efficient and successful than older learners, and (in most versions) that puberty marks the onset of a decline in second language learning capacity. This view has not only been a popular belief for centuries, there is also scientific evidence from several studies conducted on the age factor.

One such study, carried out by Asher and García in 1969 and presented in their article “The Optimal Age to Learn a Foreign Language”, is an experiment with 71 Cuban immigrants to California ranging in age from 7 to 19 years, most of whom had been in the United States for about five years. 19 American high-school children, all native speakers, acted as judges of randomly ordered recordings of the Cubans and of a control group of 30 native speakers uttering the same set of English sentences, scoring them for fidelity of pronunciation on a four point scale, the extremes of which were ‘native speaker’ and ‘definite foreign accent’.

The researchers found that not one of the 71 Cuban immigrants was judged to have native pronunciation. However, many were assessed to speak with near-native pronunciation, and the highest probability of being so judged occurred in relation to children who had entered the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 6 years and had lived there over a period of between five and six years. Moreover, the younger a child had been when entering the U.S., the higher the probability of a native-like accent, this probability being further increased the longer the child had lived in the country. For the test persons who were 13 or older, nobody who lived in the U.S. between 1 and 4 years had a near-native pronunciation, and only 17 % of these children who lived in the United States between five and eight years had a near-native speech. From these results, Asher and García draw the conclusion that some variable within child development is a powerful determinant of pronunciation fidelity for second languages and that this variable may be biological. They suggest that pronunciation may be a learning based on copying. (cf. Asher / García: 341).


[1] In Korea, the onset age was lowered from the seventh to the third grade beginning in 1997. In Spain, first foreign language teaching starts already in the first grade (since 2004).

[2] Within the scope of this paper, I can merely present two to three studies in favour of each of the positions. Of course, there exists a good deal of further studies for the different views. Although not described in this paper (or at least not in detail), they will be taken into account when it comes to drawing conclusions.

[3] The CPH has been divided into a strong and a weak version. The strong version predicts that no first language learning will be possible if a child is not exposed to language before puberty. The weak version holds that some learning will be possible after the age of 13, but that native-like abilities will be unattainable, and that the course of development will become more irregular and will fall further short of native levels the later the age of onset (cf. Long: 256f).

[4] The investigations were conducted by Basser in 1962, reported in McLaughlin: 49f.

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Age as a Factor in Second Language Acquisition
Free University of Berlin  (Institute for English Linguistics)
Second Language Acquisition
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ISBN (Book)
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It is commonly known that children with regular faculties and given normal circumstances easily master their native language.Unfortunately, perfect language mastery is rarely the result of SLA. One of the most obvious potential explanations for the lack of success of L2 learners compared to L1 learners is that the acquisition of L2 begins at a later age than that of the mother tongue does.Thus, it has been prevalently assumed that age itself is a predictor of L2 proficiency.
Factor, Second, Language, Acquisition, Second, Language, Acquisition
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Jasmina Murad (Author), 2006, Age as a Factor in Second Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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