Second Language Learning

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A Brief Literature Review and Self-reflection on the Critical Period Hypothesis


Is there really an ideal age at which second language learning should begin? Is there only a slim chance for an adult learner to master a second language? These thought-provoking questions arising from the Critical Period Hypothesis, as well as the interesting phenomena relating to the hypothesis that occurred during my life as a teacher make it the focus of discussion of the essay.

The Critical Period Hypothesis: A highly debatable issue

One prominent proponent of the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) was Eric Lenneberg (1967), who based his hypothesis on neurological development. He explained that there is a maturation process called cerebral lateralization, during which the brain loses its plasticity as it gradually matures. This process, starts at around two, is supposed to be completed at puberty, after which it is very difficult or even impossible for a learner to successfully acquire a new language. The CPH has been widely discussed in the area of second language acquisition (SLA) and has aroused much controversy. The CPH is most closely linked to the acquisition of the phonological system. As put forward by Scovel (1988), it is not possible for learners beyond the age of 12 to attain a native-like pronunciation though they might be able to master the syntax and vocabulary of a second language. A similar view regarding phonological attainment was propounded by Flege and Fletcher (1992, p.385). They concluded from their studies that ‘a foreign accent first emerges at an age of L2 learning of between 5 and 8 years’, which probably implies, in the domain of phonology, that the ‘critical period’ ends even earlier than what Lenneberg proposed. This coincides with later studies conducted by Krashen (1973), who claimed that lateralization is completed at around age 5. Mark Patkowski (1980) conducted a study on how the age factor is related to the acquisition of linguistic features other than accent. The findings further supported the CPH as the results indicated that the age factor is very important in a sense that it limits the learner’s development of a native-like mastery of various linguistic features of a second language. Jacquline Johnson and Elissa Newport (1989) also carried out a study relating to the rules of English morphology and syntax and found that those earliest starters got the highest scores on the grammaticality judgement test. Despite some clear evidence that supports the CPH, a remarkable research undertaken by Catherine Snow and Marian Hoefnagel-Ho_hle (1978) provided evidence against it. The findings revealed that both adolescent and adult learners could surpass the children learners by making enormous and rapid progress in a wide range of language knowledge. White and Genesee (1996) also revealed in a grammaticality judgement task that late starters are able to achieve near-native proficiency. Robert Dekeyser (2000) done something along the line of Johnson and Newport and found that adult and children might have different way in learning language.

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