Is there an optimal age for second language acquisition? Everybody agrees that age is a crucial factor in language learning. However to which extent age is an important factor still remains an open question. A plethora of elements can influence language learning: biological factors, mother tongue, intelligence, learning surroundings, emotions, motivation and last but not least: the age factor.
Lenneberg´s critical period hypothesis (1967) suggests that there is a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily. Beyond this time a language is more difficult to acquire. According to Lenneberg, bilingual language acquisition can only happen during the critical period (age 2 to puberty). The critical period hypothesis is associated with neurophysiological mechanisms suggesting that in late bilinguals the early and the late acquired languages are represented in spatially separated parts of the brain (Broca’s area). In early bilinguals, however, a similar activation in Broca’s area takes place for both languages. This loss of the brain´s plasticity explains why adults may need more time and effort compared to children in second language learning.
The advantages of early second language acquisition
In early childhood, becoming bilingual is often an unconscious event, as natural as learning to walk or ride a bicycle. But why? According scientific surveys, language aspects such as pronunciation and intonation can be acquired easier during childhood, due to neuromuscular mechanisms which are only active until to the age of 12. Another possible explanation of children’s accent-free pronunciation is their increased capability for imitation. This capability fades away significantly after puberty. Other factors that we should take into consideration are children’s flexibility, spontaneity and tolerance to new experiences. Kids are more willing to communicate with people than adults, they are curious and they are not afraid of making mistakes. They handle difficulties (such as missing vocabulary) very easily by using creative methods to communicate, such as non-verbal means of communication and use of onomatopoetic words. Also the idea of a foreign civilisation is not formed in their minds yet. Only at the age of 8 does it become clear to them that there are ethnic and cultural differences. Last but not least, aspects such as time, greater learning and memory capacity are in any case advantages in early language learning. On the other hand there are surveys which point out the risk of semi-lingualism and advise parents to organise language planning carefully.
The advantages of late second language acquisition
First of all it is important to clarify that by late second language learning we mean learning a language after puberty. Linguists, psychologists and pedagogues have been struggling for years to answer the following question: is it possible to reach native-like proficiency when learning a language after puberty? In order to give an answer we have to consider the following factors: First of all, adults (meaning people after puberty) have an important advantage: cognitive maturity and their experience of the general language system. Through their knowledge of their mother tongues, as well as other foreign languages, not only can they achieve more advantageous learning conditions than children, but they can also more easily acquire grammatical rules and syntactic phenomena. According to Klein Dimroth (see references), language learning is an accumulative process that allows us to build on already existing knowledge. Children cannot acquire complex morphological and grammatical phenomena so easily.
It would be useful to point out that sometimes incorrect pronunciation is not a matter of capability but of good will. According to different surveys, adults do not feel like themselves when they speak a foreign language and they consider pronunciation an ethno-linguistic identity-marker. A positive or negative attitude towards a foreign language should not be underestimated. Another factor to consider is the adults’ motivation to learn a foreign language. When an adult learns a foreign language there is always a reason behind it: education, social prestige, profession or social integration. The latter is considered a very strong one, especially in the case of immigrants.
It is obvious that the language learning processes in adults and children have advantages and disadvantages. However, age is an important but not overriding factor. All people, regardless of age, perceive a language learning process differently and individually. Personality and talent can influence this process significantly: there are shy children and very communicative adults. My (the author’s) conclusion? It is advisable to encourage language learning at an early age. The younger the child is, the more they can take advantage of neuromuscular mechanisms that promote language learning and thus reach a native-like level with less effort and time. Other advantages, such as increased communication abilities, better articulation, tolerance to foreign cultures and personal cognitive development, are among the benefits of early language learning. Yet this does not exclude effective language learning in adults. Under ideal learning situations, with motivation and a positive attitude, everybody can reach an excellent language level!
Written by Katerina Karavasili, translator and Master´s student of German as a foreign language (2014). Former TermCoord Communication Trainee.
Post edited by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).
- Klein, W., & Dimroth, C. (2003) “Der ungesteuerte Zweitspracherwerb Erwachsener: Ein Überblick über den Forschungsstand”, in U. Maas & U. Mehlem (Eds.), Qualitätsanforderungen für die Sprachförderung im Rahmen der Integration von Zuwanderern, IMIS 21, 127-161. Osnabrück: IMIS. Available at: http://bit.ly/2qDhuUH (Accessed 03 May 2017)
- Mutter, Karl und Ritter, Anna (Hg.) (2008) Sprachentwicklung und Spracherwerb fremdsprachiger Kinder. Edition Soziothek, Bern.
- Nauwerck, Patricia (2005) Zweisprachigkeit im Kindergarten, Fillibach Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgrau.
- Pagonis, Giulio (2009) Kritische Periode oder altersspezifischer Antrieb. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main.
- Reich, Hans (2009) Zweisprachige Kinder (Band 16), Waxmann Verlag, Berlin.