Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis

Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis

Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis

Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis


In language learning, the rule of thumb is: the earlier the better. Children exposed to language from birth are uniformly successful in first language acquisition (L1A), whereas those deprived of contact with language during childhood are pathologically deficient. In second language acquisition (L2A), the difficulty of learning after puberty is routinely attested anecdotally and has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. It is widely believed that age effects in both are developmental in nature. Native levels of attainment in L1A and L2A are thought to be possible only if learning began before the closure of a "window of opportunity"--a critical or sensitive period.

Increasingly, this popular wisdom is being called into question. Triggering this reevaluation is evidence that some late-starting learners achieve native-like competence in a second language and evidence of age effects past the presumed closure of the window of opportunity for learning. As the debate takes shape, some of the most renowned researchers in the field are weighing in on the issue. Their thoughts and evidence are presented in this volume.

The chapters approach the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) from diverse perspectives and are evenly balanced in favor of and against the CPH-L2A. Each of the contributors brings authority and an international reputation to the question. As the papers encompass many domains of inquiry in L2A--syntax, morphology, phonetics/phonology, Universal Grammar, and neurofunctional factors in language--this volume should appeal to a wide audience of researchers and advanced students.


In August 1996, a number of researchers converged on Jyväskylä, Finland, to participate in an Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée (AILA) symposium entitled New Perspectives on the Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition. Under this banner, the participants took aim at the question of whether, or to what extent, a critical period limits the acquisition of a first language as well as a second language acquired postpubertally. Attendance at the symposium, as well as discussion, was robust. So, too, was the enthusiasm to use the presentations as a nucleus for the present volume.

As major players in this debate, the participants were well aware that positions on this issue run the gamut from outright rejection to empassioned acceptance. It is a question that has been approached by researchers working in linguistic theory, evolution theory, language processing, and neurophysiology, to name but a few of the relevant disciplines. The Critical Period Hypothesis for Second Language Acquisition (CPH-L2A) has spawned an abundance of data, ranging from grammaticality judgments to speech samples to Event-Related Brain Potentials. These data have lent themselves to interpretation in many ways: for example, as consistent with theories of access (or lack of access) to Universal Grammar; as suggesting post-maturational age effects and cross-linguisic (transfer) effects; and as evidence for the tremendous diversity of learner outcomes, ranging from little progress to nativelike mastery.

This diversity is represented in this volume. In addition, I have sought inquiry that cuts across several sub-disciplines of linguistics -- phonetics, phonology, lexis, syntax, morphology -- and that embraces modern sciences with such prefixes as psycho- and neuro- . I have aimed for an informative mixture of theory, evidence, and cautious argumentation. Finally, the contributions to the book are equally divided between the pro-CPH-L2A and the anti-CPH-L2A positions.

In these respects this book sets itself apart from other treatments of the CPH-L2A. By its breadth of inquiry, the volume should appeal to a . . .

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