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Critical Period

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English

The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) holds that there is a critical time period for a person to learn a new language with native proficiency. This period typically starts at around age two and ends before puberty¹. The hypothesis implies that acquiring a new language after this critical window will be more difficult and less successful.

What is the critical period in psychology?

In developmental psychology, the critical period is the maturing stage of a person, where their nervous system is primed and sensitive to environmental experiences. If a person doesn't get the right environmental stimuli during this period, their ability to learn new skills will weaken, affecting many social functions in adult life. If a child passes through the critical period without learning a language, it will be very unlikely for them to gain native fluency in their first language².

Critical Period Graph of Language acquisition in years StudySmarterGraph of the ease of language acquisition - StudySmarter

During the critical period, a person is primed to acquire new skills because of the brains' neuroplasticity. The connections in the brain, called synapses, are highly receptive to new experiences since they can form new pathways. The developing brain has a high degree of plasticity and gradually becomes less 'plastic' in adulthood.

Similar to the critical period, researchers use another term called the 'sensitive period' or 'weak critical period'. The sensitive period is similar to the critical period since it's characterized as a time in which the brain has a high level of neuroplasticity and is quick to form new synapses. The main difference is that the sensitive period is considered to last for a longer time beyond puberty, but the boundaries are not strictly set.

First language acquisition in the critical period

It was Eric Lenneberg in his book Biological Foundations of Language (1967), who first introduced the Critical Period Hypothesis concerning language acquisition. He proposed that learning a language with high-level proficiency can only happen within this period. Language acquisition outside of this period is more challenging, making it less likely to achieve native proficiency.

He proposed this hypothesis based on evidence from children with certain childhood experiences that affected their first language ability. More specifically, the evidence was based on these cases:

  • Deaf children that didn't develop native proficiency in verbal language after puberty.

  • Children that experienced brain injury had better recovery prospects than adults. It is more likely for children with aphasia to learn a language than it is for adults with aphasia.

  • Children who were victims of child abuse during early childhood had more difficulties learning the language since they were not exposed to it during the critical period.

Genie, the feral child

As a child, Genie was a victim of domestic abuse and social isolation. This took place from the age of 20 months until 13 years old. During this period, she didn't speak to anyone and rarely had any interaction with other people. This meant that she wasn't able to develop adequate language skills.

When authorities discovered her, she could not speak. Over a few months, she acquired some language skills with direct teaching but the process was quite slow. Although her vocabulary grew over time, she had difficulty learning basic grammar and maintaining conversations.

The scientists that worked with her concluded that because she wasn't able to learn a language during the critical period, she wouldn't be able to achieve full competency in language for the rest of her life. Although she made clear improvements in her ability to speak, her speech still had a lot of abnormalities, and she had difficulty with social interaction.

The case of Genie supports Lenneberg's theory to an extent. However, academics and researchers still argue about this topic. Some scientists claim that Genie's development was disrupted because of the inhuman and traumatic treatment she suffered as a child, which caused her inability to learn a language.

Second language acquisition in the critical period

The Critical Period Hypothesis can be applied in the context of second language acquisition. It applies to adults or children who have fluency in their first language and try to learn a second language.

The main point of evidence given for the CPH for second language acquisition is assessing older learners' ability to grasp a second language compared to children and adolescents. A general trend that can be observed is that younger learners grasp a complete command over the language compared to their older counterparts³.

Although there may be examples where adults achieve very good proficiency in a new language, they usually retain a foreign accent which isn't common with younger learners. It is because of the function that the neuromuscular system plays in the pronunciation of speech.

Adults are unlikely to attain a native accent since they are beyond the critical period to learn new neuromuscular functions. With all this being said, there are special cases of adults who achieve near-native proficiency in all aspects of a second language. For this reason, researchers have found it tricky to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Some have argued that CPH doesn't apply to second language acquisition. Instead of age being the main factor, other elements such as the effort put in, the learning environment, and time spent learning have a more significant influence on the learner's success.

Critical Period - Key takeaways

  • The critical period is said to take place in adolescence, typically from 2 years old until puberty.
  • The brain has a higher level of neuroplasticity during the critical period, which allows new synaptic connections to form.
  • Eric Lenneberg introduced the hypothesis in 1967.
  • The case of Genie, the feral child, offered direct evidence in support of the CPH.
  • The difficulty adult learners have in learning a second language is used to support the CPH.

1. Kenji Hakuta et al, Critical Evidence: A Test of the Critical-Period Hypothesis for Second-Language Acquisition, 2003.

2. Angela D. Friederici et al, Brain signatures of artificial language processing: Evidence challenging the critical period hypothesis, 2002.

3. Birdsong D., Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Routledge, 1999.

Critical Period

The critical time for a person to learn a new language with native proficiency.

The brain is more neuroplastic during this period, making it easier for a person to learn a new skill.

Eric Lenneberg proposed the idea in his book 'Biological Foundations of Language' (1967).

Adults are beyond the critical period so their brains are less neuroplastic than children, this makes it more difficult to learn a new language.

The common period for the critical period is from 2 years old until puberty. Although academics differ slightly on the age range for the critical period.

Final Critical Period Quiz

Question

What period of a person’s life is the critical period?

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Answer

From around 2 years old until puberty.

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Question

How are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


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Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

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What field of linguistics did Lenneberg play a major role in creating?


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Lenneberg played a major role in the development of the field of biolinguistics.

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Where was the idea of the critical period first introduced?


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In the book ‘Biological Foundations of Language’ (1967) by Eric Lenneberg.

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Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


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Answer

She didn’t have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

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True or False? Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


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False. It is more difficult, but adults can still develop full proficiency in a second language.



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True or False? Lenneberg believed language was developed through social means.


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False. Lenneberg believed that the capacity for language acquisition was innate in all humans and that the learning pathways were already there.

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True or False? Lenneberg believed that a spoken language environment was needed to learn a language.


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True. Although he proposed that language acquisition was innate in all humans, he believed that the right environment was also necessary.

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What factors determine how successful an adult is in learning a second language?


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Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment and their age.


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Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


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Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted for change which affects their pronunciation of a new language.

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What period of a person's life is the critical period?


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Answer

From around two years old until puberty.

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Why are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


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Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

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What is the sensitive period?


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Answer

A period where a person has a high level of neuroplasticity and can learn new skills quickly.

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Where was the idea of ​​the critical period first introduced?


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Answer

In the book 'Biological Foundations of Language' (1967) by Eric Lenneberg.

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Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


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Answer

They didn't have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

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Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


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False

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True or False? The only reason Genie didn't obtain native proficiency in English was that she didn't learn during the critical period.


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False. Although researchers propose that to be one of the main reasons, Genie was subject to abuse and neglect which could have also contributed to her inability to learn.

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Question

The study of deaf children supported the CPH in first language acquisition.


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Answer

True. 

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Question

What factors affect how successful an adult is when learning a second language?


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Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment, and their age.

Show question

Question

Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


Show answer

Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted to change which affects their ability the pronunciation of a new language.

Show question

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