Excuses, Excuses

Jul 24, 2011

For as long as I can remember, the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in language learning has been that children are far more capable of easily learning a language than adults.  In linguistic circles, this notion is know as the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).

In a non-academic nutshell, CPH suggests that there is a certain period, generally thought to run from early childhood until the early teen years (the exact period seems to vary, depending on whose work you read).  This period is said to coincide with the state of physical plasticity of the brain that starts to wane as adulthood approaches.  As such, it should be harder for adults to learn new languages than it might’ve been for them in youth.

CPH is, however, somewhat controversial in linguistics circles.  Some evidence exists to prove that it applies more to acquiring one’s First Language (L1) than to Second Language (L2).  Other evidence suggests that CPH implies that adults learning a language will never quite get the pronunciation/accent of acquired languages right, but that it doesn’t impede the learning of vocabulary, idiom, etc.  CPH definitely seems to have some implications.  Exactly which implications?  The jury still seems to be out on that.

Personally, CPH has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I learned 3 of my languages after the CPH had already run its course on me.  Professors have dismissed me, saying I’m an “outlier.”  Yet, I’ve known a lot of people who have acquired a second language well into adulthood and learned to speak it rather well.  Anecdotal evidence aside, a look at the current literature on CPH also seems to suggest that I may have been on to something.

I’ve always argued that adults have more language learning tools at their disposal than do children.  Adults already have a grammatical “matrix” built up upon which to “hang” new languages.  Adults already have life experience and the ability to recognize patterns.  Children are having to create (or discover) this “matrix” as they acquire their L1.

Children definitely have an advantage in that they don’t really see what they are doing as “learning.”  No stress = ease of acquisition and retention.  Adults can get hung up on perfecting grammar and pronunciation, while children don’t mind that their utterances aren’t perfect.  “Why can Superman can fly?” is still a perfectly valid question that makes perfect sense, even though it suggests that the child uttering it hasn’t figured out deletion yet.  An adult might be horribly embarrassed to make such an error.  Such embarrassment and stress can definitely adversely affect learning.

NewScientist has published a new article which states that new research may suggest that, under certain conditions, adults may actually be better at learning languages than children:  Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language.  Potentially very interesting stuff.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have any anecdotal evidence of your own that seems to debunk CPH?

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