The Critical Period Hypothesis: Support, Challenge, and Reconceptualization Andy Schouten1 Kanda University of International Studies
Given the general failure experienced by adults when attempting to learn a second or foreign language, many have hypothesized that a critical period exists for the domain of language learning. Supporters of the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) contend that language learning, which takes place outside of this critical period (roughly defined as ending sometime around puberty), will inevitably be marked by non-nativelike features. In opposition to this position, several researches have postulated that, although rare, nativelike proficiency in a second language is in fact possible for adult learners. Still others, in light of the robust debate and research both supporting and challenging the CPH, have reconceptualized their views regarding a possible critical period for language learning, claiming that in combination with age of exposure, sociological, psychological, and physiological factors must also be considered when determining the factors that facilitate and debilitate language acquisition. In this paper, a review of literature describing the support, challenges, and reconceptualizations of the CPH is provided.
The presence of highly developed cognitive abilities allows adults to outperform children in most areas of learning. Yet in the realm of language learning, children seem to have a notable advantage. Virtually all children are able to master their native language, and most children who are surrounded by a second language at an early age can acquire this language with nativelike competence. Among adult language learners, however, incomplete mastery of the target language appears to be the norm. The presence of this phenomenon has raised the question as to whether or not some type of critical, or sensitive, period exists for language learning. In other words, both casual observers and scholars have posited that children have a particular advantage in acquiring language—be it a first or second language—before they reach a certain age (usually believed to be sometime around puberty). After this critical period has ended, whatever mechanisms have accounted for this advantage disappear, and as a result, those seeking to acquire a language with native-like proficiency are markedly less successful than their younger counterparts. 1
Andrew Schouten is a lecturer in the Department of International Communication at Kanda University of International Studies, in Chiba, Japan. His research interests include the effects of maturation on Second Language Acquisition, as well as the impact of anxiety on language learning. Correspondence should be sent to Andrew Schouten, Kanda University of International Studies, 1-4-1 Wakaba, Mihama-ku, Chiba-shi, Chiba, Japan, 2610014. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 1
Teachers College, Columbia University, Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 1 The Critical Period Hypothesis: Support, Challenge, and Reconceptualization
Considering the realm of first language acquisition only, Lenneberg (1967) sought to determine the age at which it becomes too late for an individual to acquire language. Using different types of evidence including data from recovered aphasics, the development of language in the mentally disabled, and the effects of sudden deafness on people of different ages, he surmised that due to structural reorganizations that occur within the brain during puberty, any language skills which were not learned before this restructuring occurs would remain permanently underdeveloped. Consequently, the ages between the onset of language development during infancy and the restructuring of brain functions during puberty...