Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis

By David Birdsong | Go to book overview
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Ultimate Attainment in L2 Pronunciation: The Case of Very Advanced Late L2 Learners

Theo Bongaerts University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands

It is now more than three decades ago that Lenneberg ( 1967) advanced the hypothesis that there is a critical period, roughly between age 2 and puberty, for the acquisition of language. He argued that, due to a loss of neural plasticity, languages could no longer be completely successfully acquired after the close of that period. Whereas Lenneberg's claims were not restricted to the acquisition of accent, Scovel ( 1969, 1988) singled out pronunciation as the one area of language performance that was subject to the constraints of a critical period. His arguments were that pronunciation is "the only aspect of language that has a neuromuscular basis," requires "neuromotor involvement," and has a "physical reality" ( Scovel 1988, p. 101). He predicted that learners who start to learn a second language (L2) later than around age 12 will never be able "to pass themselves off as native speakers" and will "end up easily identified as nonnative speakers of that language" (p. 185). Clearly, such arguments and predictions hinge on the assumption that basic neurologically based abilities are irreversibly lost around the onset of puberty. 1

It should be noted, however, that Scovel ( 1988) allowed for the possibility that there may be some "superexceptional" L2 learners, about 1 out of 1,000 in any population of adult learners, who are not bound by the biological constraints of the critical period. Indeed, a number of studies published between 1988 and 1995


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Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis


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