Psycholinguistics And Second Language Acquisition

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In general, Lennebergs critical period hypothesis proposed that certain linguistic events must happen to the child during the Critical Period for development to proceed normally and language is acquired most efficiently during this period. Traditionally, the Critical Period Hypothesis is used to explain why second acquisition is so difficult for older children and adults. In this essay, the role of critical period in second language acquisition will be examined by using authoritative experiments, as well as my own experience.

To begin with, the way in which Critical Period accounts for second language acquisition should be clearly clarified. Johnson and Newport (1989) refine the formulation of the Critical Period Hypothesis and explain how it interprets second language acquisition. They distinguished two further hypotheses: Exercise Hypothesis and Maturational State Hypothesis. Both of them assume that humans have a superior capacity for learning language early in life. These two hypotheses predict that children will be better than adults in acquiring the first language but only the latter one predicts that children will be superior at second language learning. Indeed, the Exercise Hypothesis even suggests that adults might be better than children because of their better learning skills possibly.

Research has addressed the issue that whether there is an age-related effect on second language acquisition. First, there is a research states a point of view contrary to popular opinion. Most people think that children are better in acquiring both first and second language. However, Snow (1983) proposed that adults were actually no worse in acquiring second language and may be even better. Although it is difficult for a fair comparison because children have more time to learn language adults, Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle (1978) conducted a research by comparing English children and adults in the first year of living in Holland learning Dutch. The young children (3-4 years old) scored lowest of all groups. Experimental and anecdotal evidence suggested that adults have a persistent foreign accent and phonological development might be the one area for which there is a critical period. Even if there are limitations of this study, it is possible that adults can acquire second language more efficient than children.

Certainly, there is some evidence for a critical period for second language acquisition. Johnson and Newport (1989) found evidence for a Critical Period for second language acquisition. They looked at native Korean and Chinese immigrants (3-39 years old) to the USA and found a large advantage for younger over older learners in making judgements about whether a sentence was grammatically correct. They found that their participants correlated strongly and significantly in the early arrivals (age 3-15) but not in the older arrivals (age 17-39). Johnson and Newport took this to suggest that “language learning ability slowly declines as the human matures and plateaus at a low level after puberty”. This study is an important evidence of the presence of the Critical Period in second language acquisition. In fact, there is another study which examined the effects of maturation on pronunciation by using immigrants with various ages of arrival as subjects can also show that the Critical Period really exists in SLA. Thompson (1991) collected data from 39 Russian-born subjects (4-42 years old) who had immigrated to the US. The result pointed to a strong link between a subject’s age of first exposure to English and the nativeness of his or her accent. From these two researches, it can show that the Critical Period really exists in second language acquisition.

Apart from the authoritative experiments mentioned above, my personal experience of learning Putonghua can also support the Critical Period in second language acquisition. When I learnt Putonghua in primary school, my knowledge of Putonghua, especially the pronunciation, was acquired easily and quickly by imitating the pronunciation of my teacher immediately. However, I did not learn Putonghua in secondary school and learnt it again from last year. In other words, all the knowledge of Putonghua has lost and I needed to learn it from the beginning. Actually, I found it is more difficult for me to learn Putonghua when getting older with the influence of my first language Cantonese. Since the vocabularies and pronunciations of these languages are similar, I easily pronounced incorrectly or used some wrong vocabularies like Cantonese. Compared with the learning experience in primary school, I need to use much more time acquire Putonghua as second language more accurately and develop my language proficiency at adult stage.

To conclude, there is still some debate on whether there is a critical period for acquiring language. However, there is a general agreement that childhood immersion in a second language environment leads to widespread success in achieving native-like proficiency in that language. Likewise, the exposure to a second language in adulthood is marked by a failure to attain native-like competence. Therefore, the importance of age effects on second language acquisition is hardly controversial by a number of supportive studies on this hypothesis.

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Harley, T.A. (1995). The Psychology of Language: From Data to Theory. East Sussex, UK: Erlbaum.

Johnson, J.S. & Newport, E.L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive psychology, 21, 60-99.

Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.

Snow, C.E. (1983). Age differences in second language acquisition: Research findings and folk psychology. In K. Bailey, M. Long, & S. Peck (Eds.), Second language acquisition studies (pp. 141-150). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Snow, C.E., & Hoefnagel-Hohle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development, 49, 1114-1128.

Thompson, I. (1991). Foreign accents revisited: The English pronunciation of Russian immigrants. Language Learning, 41, 177-204.