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Is There a Critical Period for Language Learning?

Many rumors circulate about a natural ability to learn languages and the advantage children may have that dissipates with age. Let’s take a closer look at second language ability and age. By looking at studies on both sides, different perspectives and valid points emerge. Also, by highlighting the factors that can be controlled in learning, absorbing new or renewed language enthusiasm is hard to avoid.

What is a Critical Period in Language Learning?

A “critical period” is a wordy term for a cutoff point after a fertile learning age. The following statements regarding an age where learning a foreign language are common:

  • “Children learn languages easier than adults”
  • “If you start learning a language too late, you can’t become fully fluent”
  • “Children are little sponges for language”
  • “Just put your child in an immersion school or hire a native-speaking nanny, then you don’t have to try to teach them at home or wait for high school classes!”

These statements all relate to the “critical period” hypothesis. Many people have noticed or heard that children who immigrate to a new country learn the language faster than their parents. Children who simply have a foreign nanny also wow people with their language ability. Immersion pre-schools with native teachers produce amazing results, particularly in terms of the children’s accents.

The critical period hypothesis states that children have better language-learning abilities. Their abilities start to drop at a certain age. Estimates about the exact age cutoff for a linguistic critical period vary. Supposed cut-off ages for the critical period, including those based on research, include the first few months of life, age 5, the preteen years, or age 18.

The key question

The key question about critical periods has to do with biology. It’s a question of nature versus nurture. Is children’s (supposedly) superior ability in second-language acquisition due to biology? There are many related questions along with this one. Are the brain and the sense organs, like ears (which are neurological too), more fit to learn languages earlier? Or is children’s superior ability a product of one or more unidentified factors? Could it be that frequently learning more information regularly than adults makes the difference? Or are adults just not trying as hard as children? A final question might be: are weak critical periods overblown?

Again, the key question for a language acquisition critical period is, is it children’s nature, as in their neural equipment, or is it nurture, something controllable about their environment, that gives them a (supposed) edge? If it’s nurture, as in one or more environment-based factors, adults might be able to arrange better, critical-period-like conditions for themselves. They might be able to learn by using clues about what helps children.

Why Does the Cutoff Age Matter?

A cutoff age matters for both children who have been set up to learn by parents and for adults who want to learn themselves. Do schools and parents need to prioritize language learning in the early years instead of waiting until high school classes? If children’s advantage is not biological, can adults create the same conditions for themselves that help children learn so well?

Age’s importance for adults

Although an adult may excel with many other types of information, like math, history facts, problem-solving, or even first language skills (like English), second languages usually challenge at some point. Typically, adults are surprised by the difficulty of second language acquisition. The amount of studying and practice required to reach a level where they can write, speak and understand consistently can feel overwhelming. Exceptions would be people with significant language ability or experience.

Adults also wonder whether it’s worthwhile to take on a new language. It’s just a practicality. Since language acquisition requires a large investment of time, money, and mental energy, knowing whether you have enough resources is key. A second language can help with a career. Foreign languages are great travel skills. However, depending on the goals, getting to certain functional proficiency levels is key.

Another important consideration for adults is choosing a language. Suppose an adult wants to learn a language; looking at the situation from an informed view of the likelihood of mastering that foreign language is just practical. If a person believes they’re past a critical period or doubts their aptitude, they’ll pick a language less different from their own. For example, a native English speaker would want to choose a romance language over Arabic for an easier language acquisition experience.

Age’s importance for children

Parents wouldn’t want to miss a possible critical period because, compared to older children and teenagers, getting young children language exposure is less work for parents. It’s often less expensive too. The children learning don’t have to work as hard either. Learning at an early age is more fun for learners and parents if they join in!

One huge advantage is young children can learn to pronounce very well. They’re already pronouncing new words all the time. Mistakes don’t usually bring them down; they’re used to errors being part of the learning process. That’s because they’re newer at life. They have less ego involved in their learning endeavors. They’re constantly learning. In the error-prone language game, children have this unique advantage of resilience.

Language Fun

Age is also important for children because their learning style is more pleasant. It’s not as much rote (laborious) exercise. Children can watch and read story-based language material. The plot drives them along. Animated people and animals catch their attention. Songs liven things up. They don’t need to bear long grammar lessons. A three-year-old does not need to learn about sentence structures. Memorization drudgery, begone!

Using the brain’s natural ability to mimic language combined with fun, toddlers and young children may not even need to even notice their second language lessons are such. Suppose there is, in fact, a critical period, and we know that first language acquisition isn’t interrupted. In that case, children’s fun and games are a pleasant, inexpensive way to take advantage of fun or experience-based learning. Using the brain’s natural ability to mimic language during a sensitive period for learning is just more pleasant and efficient.

In effect, this looks like taking advantage of free and inexpensive options or supplementing pricier options with them. From TV shows to computer games to family members to native nannies, supplemental options abound. Sharing the cost of a group or online class is possible. Sending young children to summer camp can provide an immersive, fun experience. If immersion preschool is their first experience, they won’t have known any alternative. There’s less resistance from younger kids.

Focus on Reasons Anyone Can Learn

While science may point to certain sensitive periods, science also keeps changing. By focusing on the brain’s natural ability for anyone to learn, the second language acquisition process begins and stays more positive.

Focus on reasons adults can learn

The best advice to adults who are demoralized based on witnessing a child learn quickly or learning their critical period has possibly closed is simple: focus on what you can control. The quality of your materials or class, your effort, and your consistency in language learning are all controllable. Getting a fun in-person or online conversation partner is within your power. Maybe even try to immerse yourself locally or travel to do so. Have good times with your language, even if it’s only for a few days.

There are certain humps you can get over in language development, after which it becomes easier to consume fun material in that language. With better skills, it’s also easier to play games or have a rewarding conversation. In general, after the beginner level, using your language can be a blast.

Once you can consume material in that language, as in watching TV, music videos, and other videos, the plot can keep you going. It’s the same with books. Listening to music is a really fun way to learn as well.

Focus on reasons children and teenagers can learn

As with adults, it’s best to focus on the reasons why your child can learn a second language well, not whether a certain period may have closed. The research on the critical period in language acquisition may keep changing. However, most children are learners. They’re resilient and curious.

Young Children’s Attributes in Learning

Children are learning all the time—their unfamiliarity with the world around them demands it. Simply exposing them to interesting and fun foreign language material can go a long way. Here are some good-news tips for children and teenagers learning a foreign language.

Young children are in the midst of practicing listening to different sounds in their native language. In scientific terms, their auditory processing skills are superior. Their vocal equipment frequently tries to make new sounds too. As we age, we get less pronunciation practice because we already know our first spoken language. Young children exposed to the right sort of language practice can pronounce beautifully. Their accents make older language learners jealous!

Children are students in school and of the world. They’re continually working on and improving their learning skills. After tackling spelling lists in their first language in third or fourth grade, they move on to producing a definition for words on tests. Later, they need to demonstrate they can use vocab words in a sentence. While students are progressing toward more precision, creativity, and applying words, they can be using those same skills for second language acquisition.

In addition to their own developing learning skills, new learning tools spring up all the time. Apps like Quizlet make learning any sort of material with flashcards easier. Unless students have the advantage of learning in an immersive way, languages require a lot of self-quizzing, which Quizlet facilitates. Anki is another flashcard app that fights against humans’ natural patterns of forgetting. It lets users practice only when it’s most efficient.

Teenagers and Young Adults’ Attributes in Learning

Students keep memorizing through high school and higher education or vocational training. Adults tend to only memorize once in a while. Work exceptions might be if they give presentations, recite daily specials, or sell products with many features and parts. Many adults learning late in life are disappointed at their absorption level when learning a foreign language. Taking advantage of memorizing skills when they’re honed is key. Even if there’s a gap, relearning words is much easier than the first time a person learns them.

Even language nerds find grammar a humbling experience every now and then. Although we think of grammar as a topic for students under age sixteen, most students learn new grammar and word patterns in their first language until age eighteen or through college. This is great news for second language learning ability. As students read denser, older, or more artistic texts in English and history classes, they’ll encounter more clauses strung together. For example, following this sentence takes more effort:

“After having dusted, but before vacuuming, John rearranged the books on the shelves, as he did once a year.”

The order of John’s actions isn’t sequential. This convoluted order emphasizes the rearranging of the books while deemphasizing the cleaning chores. Processing a complex sentence like this in one’s first language is useful for foreign-language learning. Many languages have a word order that varies from the standard word order in English. Subject-verb-object is the standard progression of a simple English sentence. A much simpler sentence following that pattern would be, “John dusted the shelves.” A full but simple multi-part (multi-verb) sentence would be: “John dusted, rearranged the books on the shelves, then vacuumed.” By high school, most students can process the first convoluted sentence above “After having dusted…” Being able to follow a long and non-sequential sentence like that one is great for approaching non-subject-verb-object sentences in a second language.

History and English classes in high school also present older, more historical, academic, or even legal language-filled texts. Many students see at least snippets of these texts in their textbooks. For example, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution present challenges that help in foreign-language learning. The Constitution reads: “No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty-five.” The same scanning and inferring skills students develop, or watch the teacher use, to produce a version intelligible today: “Representatives must be twenty-five years old” can help students find meaning in a foreign language sentence.

Recent Science on Age’s Effect on Language Development

Studies supporting many different viewpoints on the critical period for language development exist.

Research for a certain language acquisition period   

Good news for parents of older children—or teenagers who aspire—emerged in 2018. Youngsters continue to learn foreign-language grammar well until age 18. However, starting by age 10 was an important cutoff. When trying to master English grammar, beginning by age 10 was important. Nevertheless, other researchers had previously found that the second language critical period differs from that of the first language. In any language, the likelihood of reaching native proficiency, as in high fluency, declines after age 10.

This is good news for parents, as foreign language classes in US schools are beginning earlier, dropping into middle school. Likewise, new online-language-learning options crop up every year. After switching to online learning during the pandemic, more families have the skills to get students online lessons.

The findings that students learn grammar well until age 18 were based on a grammar quiz taken by 670,000 students amid language acquisition. This is a large number of participants, which makes the results more certain. It’s not clear why age 17 or 18 is the cut-off. Researchers speculate whether it is due to cultural or biological processes and changes. ALTA wonders whether the narrowing of information high school graduates learn had an impact. Even in college, some majors will mostly rely on their existing grammar and take a few types of classes outside their major.

As mentioned above, different researchers studying first-language critical periods did find an important early critical period. Children who do not receive enough language input in the first year of life experience language deficiencies. They have trouble mastering grammar and proper word order. This is interesting info indicating a certain early critical period. The study was conducted with babies who were raised in isolation, deaf, or had a thiamine deficiency. It has implications for interventions for thiamine-deficient and deaf children.

However, in babies, neural pruning, which is when the brain eliminates neurons that are not useful in its current environment, has been obvious for a while. What would truly support a critical foreign-language period would be finding brain development or changes not influenced by the environment in the form of schooling and learning tendencies that change at age 17 to 18.

Language acquisition period criticism

Luckily for older people or parents of teenagers who want to learn a language, the critical period hypothesis does have its critics. In addition, there is research indicating adults can learn foreign languages with high proficiency and fluency. Another point in favor of older children and adults’ potential is that research in favor of a critical period doesn’t always point to a particular age. It’s also difficult to weed out the advantages of young people’s learning skills and forced compliance with teachers’ requests that reaching conclusions about critical periods is never simple.

Critical Period Opposition Research

In 2001, Stefanik found evidence disproving a critical period in the Slovak language (as cited in The Critical Period Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition: A Review of the Literature). Although the study didn’t include many participants, its results did have the positive advantage of the older age of participants. People who worry about young children’s advantages of a sensitive period will be pleased to know that all participants began learning Slovak after the age of sixteen. The evidence didn’t point to them having much of a disadvantage in reading a Slovak text and writing an essay.

The additional positive news comes from the fact that 5% of adult bilinguals began learning in adulthood. While 5% isn’t high, it is a more positive percentage than it would seem at first glance. That’s because it’s easier to make a child comply with learning the target language. Immersion and pronouncing new words aren’t always comfortable. Adults have the autonomy to slip out of most uncomfortable learning situations.

A child who is in an immersion school or a decently comprehensive language class cannot disenroll, leave the room or skip class. A child with a native-speaking family member, nanny, or tutor must communicate and learn if that is how the situation is set up. Even having a child watch target-language cartoons a few mornings a week can tap into a critical-period-like effect. The child may not want to watch the cartoons. However, if deprived (by the parent) of an exit option or something more interesting to do, they usually do pay attention. Most children get sucked into watching fun characters have adventures on the screen, even if they don’t understand the words at first. Eventually, it’s more entertaining than staring at the carpet in protest or fiddling with their socks.

Meanwhile, it’s much more difficult for an adult to get engrossed in target language instruction material. Being entertained by art like books and TV shows is less likely. Adult plots are more advanced. The plot points happen faster too. Likewise, pairing an adult with a bilingual person or tutor follows normal social conventions that the adult has more sway over. They can’t be obligated to speak to a tutor or nanny like a child can be.

Adults who don’t understand enough may get frustrated. More frequently than is acknowledged, they dislike that they can’t produce more faster or understand. They disenroll from the class. They turn off the French TV show. Simple chores become more pertinent than going through the results of their textbook’s practice quiz. This is one of the reasons that immersion is so effective for adults.

So, age plays out differently and there may be diverse types of critical periods. Children can be obligated to learn a second language much more easily. An adult would need to immigrate to another country or enmesh themselves in a native-speaking community to get the same level of obligation. Adults are only forced to learn a language in the event they become a refugee, their spouse gets transferred abroad, or they must learn it for work or the military. Most adults who don’t want to learn can usually find a way out. Even students studying abroad in high school or college can keep their learning to a minimum and just get by.

Meanwhile, millions of kids worldwide are obligated to learn foreign languages by parents and schools. They push through the tribulations of learning. They often don’t mind as much because learning is the main task in their lives; they do it in many subjects five days a week.

Research that Would Prove or Disprove

While it may seem like scientists and linguists should have more definitive answers about languages’ critical period for learning already, it’s actually not easy to conduct this research. One reason is the lack of ability to force adults into language-learning situations. As mentioned above, it’s usually a dramatic life circumstance.

Depriving children of learning

Depriving children of learning? That sounds mean as children need to learn! In fact, it’s not just mean, it’s unethical. However, if we could limit children to learning only as much as the average adult learns in their daily life, research studies could get closer to determining whether children have superior natural second language prowess.

The average child learns much more than the average adult in a given week. That’s because, in addition to being in school for the purpose of learning a lot quickly, children don’t know much about the world yet. In one week, a nine-year-old may learn how to use a screwdriver, what a yield sign means, and how to make popcorn in the microwave. Every week, skills and facts get added on in addition to those their teachers arrange for them to learn.

Meanwhile, the average adult has known the pertinent traffic signs and how to use the three most basic tools for years. Most adults learn a few things from work, the news, other people, and new technology each week or even just each month. Their learning skills may not be as sharp, whereas children complete the equivalent of a full-time job’s worth of learning.

The scientific method that’s used in studies requires holding factors constant and testing one different factor at a time. If a study were to purposely limit a few children’s learning to only learning a few facts and skills in a month like an adult, that would be unethical. To gather children who have been denied education and haven’t learned many skills at home for study is problematic. Not only is it difficult to do, but it’s also a bit unethical. Education is mandated by law in developed countries because children need to learn to navigate life. The ethical thing to do would be to get them started learning, not study them while continuing to deprive them.

Even if these children could be gathered to compare to adults in a language-learning study, the adults and children would need to be similar in many ways for the study to produce significant results. They’d need to be of similar intelligence scores on standardized tests for language-related skills. Their previous language-learning experience would need to be comparable or non-existent. It would be ideal if both adults and children grew up with similar incomes and family life. Also, a country like the US has many dialects. You guessed it; participants who hailed from one region, like the south or midwest, would produce a better study.

Neurological evidence

Studies that would help determine the existence of a critical period, or multiple critical periods, could also come from neuroscience. Without delving into detailed neuroscience, there are several areas of the brain where language abilities are housed. These include the classic portions called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Other regions include the primary motor cortex and the primary auditory area. Studies watching the development and functioning of these areas will likely give insight into the critical period hypothesis.

The Ego Factor

Children have less ego about learning. That means they’re less hesitant to try new things, like pronouncing a strange word. Trying to arrive at the correct answer and being wrong isn’t usually as demoralizing for young children as for adults. Most children’s egos are more resilient to learning a language. Again, adults who feel embarrassed or negative can usually stop trying to learn a language for the day or forever. Meanwhile, children are more easily obligated by teachers and parents to undergo the uncomfortable “try, try again” needed to develop language skills.

Focus on the Controllable: Learning Tips

As with any learning or skill-based endeavor, focus on what you can control. The science may continue to go back and forth. There will always be anecdotal exceptions. People will find reasons why they struggle with a difficult endeavor, like learning a language.

When you fail, try, try again:

  • take the material in smaller chunks
  • try speaking or writing shorter sentences
  • return to simpler grammar: The dog walks.
  • try rewinding or rereading and make sure you understand the grammar principles. It’s normal to need to relearn grammar many times

The Bottom Line on Language Acquisition:

Language learning is so worth it, although it is often hard. As the great Les Brown says: “If it’s hard, then do it hard!” Even a low proficiency in language learning can be fun, rewarding, and useful. Children who start early will benefit from the time spent, even if they don’t develop language skills.

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