Age and Language Learning

Yup, the Bengali author and poet said it rather nicely.  What is it about the stages of life we go through that change the way we perceive the world, and in particular the way we learn languages?

I could say that American English is my native language.  I was immersed in it from the moment I came into the world, and it has largely been the pool I’ve swum in for most of my life.  I jumped into to several different kinds of pools throughout my life for extended periods of time: French when I was 16, Portuguese when I was 18 and Japanese when I was 22.

At each stage, I personally felt that something was happening to me that made it increasingly difficult to ‘learn’ another language.  This is entirely anecdotal, but it raises some incredibly profound questions on the nature of human experience: What mental capabilities do you lose when you slide from childhood to ever increasing increments of age.  And what do we gain?  Or are we losing and gaining or just changing? Narrowing the question to language learning: why is acquiring your first language(s) so different from learning one later in life, especially after puberty?

“Children acquiring their first language complete the feat within a biological window of four to six years.  By contrast, the ages at which different L2 (second language) learners may begin learning the new language range wildly.  Thus, age emerges as a remarkable site of difference between L2 and L1 (first language) acquisition.”

– Lourdes Ortega

These questions aren’t just beyond the ability of one post to answer, or even one blog.  They go beyond the ability of one researcher, or even groups of researchers to give a definite answer to.  And often, as it usually goes with questions seemingly simple on the surface, things aren’t so simple as they seem.

Well, leaving all that aside for now, with these next ideas I guess I’ll just start cooking and hopefully it will be somewhat edible in the end

Big Idea #1: Critical Period Hypothesis

Scanning the horizon of research, what seems to be the case for ‘learning rate’ or speed of acquisition is that adults and older children are quite a bit better at learning a foreign language…at first.  This period of ‘being better’ language learners may last up to three years.  Or even five years! But after that, young learners catch up and often surpass their older counterparts.  This is due to a variety of reasons, adults may have the cognitive tool set to learn some features of a language more quickly but although young children may lag at first, they have a much higher chance of achieving native-like fluency.

This line of thinking shipwrecks us upon the shore of  an important idea in the research: the critical period hypothesis.

The basic idea is that there are certain aspects of our biology that develop at certain times over our lifetime.   When we pop into the world, our baby brains are tuned to perceive the world in a certain way: baby cognitive processes being quite different from those of adults.

This is why it is believed that learning your first language is so much different from your second, or third or fourth. Some researchers think that after a certain age (perhaps from age 9, or maybe from 6-12, or possibly 12-15 depending on who you ask) our mental processes radically change and our brains become more ‘adult like’ in several ways.  What’s more, some of these cognitive processes for language acquisition may be lost after the first year or two of life.

So…what are these changes (or losses or gains) in cognitives processes?

Big Idea # 2 Cognitive processes?

Well, hmmm.  Who knows, something complicated is going on that’s for sure.  There are definitely critical  periods for more basic human faculties, like vision, which we’ve learned from understanding how it works in  animals.  It looks like the brain may be pre-programmed to ‘be ready’ for certain experiences in the  environment at certain stages of life.  Most of the evidence in humans for this, however, comes from really  tragic cases of children who were deprived of social interaction until they reached puberty or some sad cases in  postponed first language acquisition in the deaf community.

But as far as language acquisition goes, although it’s a little inconclusive, some reasons for the possible  closing of the critical period (after which learning a second language like your first becomes impossible, or so it  is believed) may be because of brain ‘lateralization, plasticity, myelination or pubertal increases in oestrogen  and testosterone’ (and although these may be possible factors, there’s just not enough evidence yet to know for  sure).

So, I guess the question is, (and assuming that there might be a critical period or at least some kind of ‘sensitive period,’):

Is it possible to learn to speak another language beyond your first like a native speaker?

I am trying to make my accent so it won’t bother anyone, but I am not going to drive myself crazy trying to pretend I am an American girl when I am from Colombia.

– Shakira

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