Re-examining the ‘critical period’

Children “soak up languages like a sponge,” say the lay public enrolling their kindergartners in Mandarin classes. This assumption is likely based in part on the “Critical Period Hypothesis“–a popular, yet controversial belief that language learners can more easily acquire new languages before a certain age, typically thought to coincide with puberty.

But is this hypothesis true?

Research to date has been inconclusive. Though some evidence of a learning advantage for children has been found, criticisms of the Critical Theory Hypothesis are many.

Some point out that children are better learners of many things, simply because they are used to learning in classroom settings. Some also point out that children’s learning isn’t as easy as we think — it’s just been too long for many adults to remember how challenging their childhood study really was. And many critics note concerns with the impact of this claim on learners beyond this “critical period,” worrying that assuming that they cannot effectively learn languages past a certain age, these learners will doubt themselves and lose motivation.

A new study of this subject has shed further light on this matter. University of Essex linguistics professor Monica Schmid and her research team used brain scans to study the impulse reactions of native speakers of German hearing German sentences with grammatical errors. They then repeated the task with German learners, to see if there was variation in how learners of different ages recognized the errors.

The team did find some variation based on age, but nothing marked enough to support the notion of a critical period:

“Native German speakers, on hearing mismatches such as das Garten or der Haus show a strong brain response to this error, typical of detecting a grammatical mistake. The 66 second-language learners often either had no response at all or appeared to treat it like an error of word choice, not of grammar. This was particularly the case for those who had learnt the language later in life. But the change was gradual across the entire age range – there was no “bump” – suggesting there is no particular “critical period” and that it’s just a question of not leaving it too late before you start learning.” (Schmid, 1990.)

This is good news for those kindergarteners loaded up with language classes, as well as us grown-ups still hoping to master Korean!

Read Schmid’s article here at The Conversation for her full account of the study.

Discussed in this post:

Schmid, M. (2016). “At what age is it easiest to learn a second language?” The Conversation. Accessed at on June 21, 2016.