Language Learning Benefits Of Critical Period Vs Adulthood Education Essay


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Who are better second language learners, children or adults? It is much debated what effects critical period has exactly on learning a first or even a second language. Several studies tried to investigate the topic, and more or less they agreed on the same things: children seem to have an advantage over adults (Johnson and Newport, 1989, 1991).

Learning a second language while one is still in his or her critical period will result in a better understanding of grammar, pronunciation, and therefore an overall higher proficiency in that language. The sooner a child starts learning a second language, the higher levels he or she could attain in it. It is commonly agreed that critical period ends after puberty, and its effects does not apply later.

The Critical Period Hypothesis suggests that the earlier one starts learning a second language, the better he or she will be at it. Johnson and Newport (1989, 1991) investigated what way age affects second language acquisition. They examined a group of native Chinese and Korean people, children and adults alike, who learned English during their stay in the USA.

They divided the group into two halves, one contained those under the age of 15, the other those above the age of 17. Their main are of concern was to investigate what hardships the subjects faced with regard to 12 common rule types of English grammar (see the complete list at Johnson and Newport, 1989, p. 88).

Their findings support the argument that the earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better he or she gets in it. They found that "[those] who arrived in the United States before the age of seven reached native performance on the test" (Johnson and Newport, 1989, p. 90). This performance declined as the subject was older.

They concluded that "[h]uman beings appear to have a special capacity for acquiring language in childhood, regardless of whether the language is their first or second" (Johnson and Newport, 1989, p. 95).

This conclusion alone, however, is not solid enough to provide efficient proof that children are ultimately better than adults in acquiring a second language. J and N must have felt the same, as they conducted another research in 1991.

In this research they tried to find out whether there is a connection between the declining of critical period effects over age and any possible loss of universal grammar. They based their investigation on two earlier articles which both stated that adults use only a limited amount of universal grammar principles.

The investigated area was wh-question formation, in connection to the "universal syntactic principle, subjacency" (Johnson and Newport, 1991, p. 224). They conducted two tests, both with native Chinese speakers, because they "cannot get the correct answers for English subjacency structures by strict transfer from their native language" (Johnson and Newport, 1991, p. 227).

The first test questioned adults, who learned English after their critical period; the other young adults, who learned English as children. In the first, 23 Chinese speakers were compared to 11 native English speakers' performance on the same test. Native speakers achieved a higher score.

In the second test, 21 people were tested in the same way as those in the first group. Depending on the age they started learning English, their scores declined with maturation, just like in the previous study. Therefore, both "[s]ubjacency and language-specific rules show comparable declines with age of acquisition (Johnson and Newport, 1991, p. 249)."

Grammar is one thing, but it alone is not enough to prove that the early learners face an advantage over adults. Every language has two main components, of which syntax is one, phonology is the other. Pronouncing a language correctly is just as important as speaking with correct grammar.

Pronunciation of an L2 is also affected by the critical period. Here it is also possible to start out from the argument that "the earlier in life that one begins to learn a second language, the better one is apt to pronounce it" (Flege et al., 1997, p. 169).

The research Flege et al based upon their work was an earlier finding about the "relation [that] exists between non-natives' age of learning English as an L2 and their degree of perceived foreign accent in English" (Flege et al., 1997, p. 170). Earlier findings concluded that "L2 is usually spoken without accent if learning begins by the age of 6 years" (Long, as cited in Flege et al., 1997, p. 169).

Flege and colleagues, however, inspected the issue from another perspective as well. They considered the possibility that L1 use affects L2 pronunciation. They examined a group of native Italian speakers who spoke English for more than 30 years on average, but used their mother tongue to a different extent.

Their utterance of some sentences in English was judged by native English speakers whose only duty was to identify those speaking with an accent. The results were very interesting. Italians who used their mother tongue less spoke English more clearly than those, who spoke Italian more often. This means that one can achieve native like pronunciation when only the L2 is used, L1 is not, regardless of age.

Still, children are clearly at an advantage when speaking of second language acquisition. If starting at a very early age, they can become native like both in pronunciation and grammar. This competency, however, gradually fades away; adults have more difficulty depending on how long they studied the second language, and how old were they then. In general, it can be concluded that if one wishes to speak a second language well and sound native like, he or she has to start early and speak in the target language more than in his or her mother tongue.

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