The critical period

There’s a hypothesis that we have a critical period for acquiring languages during our childhood, and that learning a language in later life, roughly after the age of 12 or 13, is difficult because of this. As a result of this theory, it’s widely believed that the earlier you start learning a foreign language, the more successful you’ll be.

According to an article I came across today, the different aspects of language acquisition take place at different times and rates. If there is a critical period, there probably isn’t one single one but many. We continue to improve our knowledge of our language(s) throughout our lives.

The article suggests that one reason why most of us find it difficult to learn new languages is because our brains have are set up to handle the language(s) we already know, and find other languages challenging, especially ones that differ significantly from our native ones.

The conclusion is that our language learning abilities decline with age, so the earlier you start learning languages the better, but “there is no particular age beyond which the effort is hopeless”.

This entry was posted in Language, Language acquisition.

9 Responses to The critical period

  1. Declan says:

    I couldn’t agree more in a sense. The Irish that I learnt before the age of around 10 is very natural to me. The pronunciation is also very natural to me. I never have any difficulty in that respect.

    Saying that, I learned very little in that period so I do disagree that we are like sponges or any other of those ‘it’s easy at that age’ claims. It just becomes more natural.

  2. Polly says:

    I often fear that I am incapable of gaining aural fluency in a language due to my limited success with Russian. But, the fact that I get little to no real life exposure to the lang. tells me that it has less to do with age than with opportunities to listen.

    I think that my hypothesis is worth investigation: The brain will absorb language resulting from actual face to face interaction differently and more quickly than from books, radio, TV, etc..
    Children learn language from interaction, mainly – not from books or CDs.

    Now to find some deep-pockets for funding such an experiment…

  3. Joanne says:

    I think Polly is on to something. I would add that situational contexts influence how easily a language is learned (or retained) after childhood. Without opportunties to use the language on a regular basis in an interactive context, there are fewer reasons for the brain to hang on to it, especially with all the things the language is competing with. On the other hand, if the language learner needs to use the language every day and has that motivation to improve it, then it’s more likely to be easier to learn.

    Just thinking “out loud”…

  4. Joe DeRose says:

    I thoroughly agree that childhood is not some magical time for language acquisition, based on my own experience and a few logical assumptions:

    My Own Experience: I didn’t start studying any languages (other than my native English) until I was 13 or 14 years old, but since then I have picked up, with varying degrees of proficiency, Spanish, French, Sign Language (ASL), German, Italian, and Arabic. Native speakers of these languages invariably compliment my accent and conversational depth, and express surprise and the short amount of time I have had formal studies in the language. Much of that undoubtedly is just flattery and good-naturedness, but it is still true that I don’t find language studies intimidating even now at 43 years old. I started with Arabic last year in preparation for a vacation, and I’m doing better with it than the highly motivated Muslim kid across the street who started studying at about the same time. (We were going to try to converse together, but he’s struggling with the language.)

    Logical Assumptions: It’s true that babies learn languages very efficiently. But intellectual honesty demands that we factor in a few other important facts: (1) Babies are highly motiviated; probably at a level of 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. They simply cannot get what they want until they master this skill, and they have no alternative form of expression other than crying, which is not an efficient form of communication. (2) Babies are not doing anything else. It’s just like the way people on strict weight-loss regimens manage to lose weight when they are locked in a house with a trainer, only nutritional food, and constant motivation, even though they cannot achieve that success in their regular environments. Babies don’t have to hold down a job, shop for groceries, balance the checkbook, console their friends, etc. All they have to do is figure out better ways of communnicating. (3) Once babies start getting a handle on language, their parents, teachers, older siblings, etc. all start working with them to teach new words and correct grammatical errors. But in most cultures (at least those that I have visited), it is taboo for adults to correct the grammer of other adults who are struggling with a foreign language. Rather, one simply tries to understand, and offers a word here or there if the person is struggling.

    I have absolutely no knowledge of Hindi. But I suspect that if you dumped me (even at 43 years old) in a Hindi-speaking environment and treated me like a baby (no use of any other language or gesturing, no free choice until I successfully made a request in Hindi, no other responsibilities whatsoever, and constant correction of linguistic mistakes), I think that with my adult mind I would make faster progress in learning Hindi than a baby would. Perhaps I could never shed my accent, but I am convinced that my vocabulary skills would far outpace the infant.

    Sorry for getting so longwinded, but I am a bit passionate on this subject. I fear that a lot of people use this “I can’t learn new languages after grammar school” as an excuse, and that it holds them back.

    — Joe / Atlanta / USA

  5. James says:

    this kinda comes back to my point weeks ago about how you can learn lots of languages (presuming you are a normal human being). When someone corrects my Spanish to my face I remember it much more than when I just read it in a book. Live somewhere where the language is spoken. There is no other real way to learn it.


  6. GeoffB says:

    Deep pockets are already funding your experiment, and they’re making themselves the guinea pigs. There are high-end language schools and programs around the world, and their results are astounding.

    Working at a mid- to high-end language school, here’s what I’ve found: People with a lot of money and a commitment to learn can do astoundingly well. People with a lot of money and a conviction that they can’t learn do astoundingly poorly. It’s the old joke about “money can’t buy happiness but it let’s you look for it in better places…”

    A second thing I’ve observed: People prepared to make a lot of mistakes learn quickly. People who want to understand everything, know exactly what they’re saying and always get it right… those people get stuck.

    Joe is absolutely right. Further, a baby learning a language makes thousands of sounds in the process of figuring out the sound system of a language. Thousands more utterances follow before the formation of the first mama. Years are allotted to figure out how to construct a simple sentence, where almost anything resembling a recognizable word form garners praise.

    Kids have the edge over adults in language learning, in large measure, because they’re just kids. They scrape their knees riding their bikes. They ruin the rug pouring soda or grape juice. For every toy saved to pass on to their kids or grandkids, three are broken in the rough and tumble of childhood play. They’re monsters and mistake machines. They mangle language too. And then it comes together. When adults manage the same sense of play – for adults, it requires humility, since they’re not just kids anymore – their language learning can become quite childlike, and then, in a matter of weeks, a first bonjour or ni hao is followed by amazing things. Face to face learning, with humility, for fun. I think this is the key. I wish I was one of the customers!

  7. Polly says:


    People prepared to make a lot of mistakes learn quickly. People who want to understand everything, know exactly what they’re saying and always get it right… those people get stuck.

    SO true. I reached a point where I finally just said “to heck wih it, I’m just going to talk even if it means spitting out a string of words all in the wrong case with lousy pronunciation.”
    The truth is, people can understand you even if your grammar isn’t perfect! So, might as well jump in and get started. That was a conscious change in thinking for me.

  8. maki says:

    sincerely, I don’t agree.
    I’m a very lover of languages, in just 1-2 years I bought a lot of dictionaries, a tagalog grammar, and a chinese and a russian language course.
    in some weeks I will have also a sinhala course directly from sri lanka by a friend of mine.
    I found myself quite fast in learning languages, but the strange thing is that I have begun to study languages at 13-14 years old…theorically in my critical period!
    thanks to omniglot I can write cyrillic (I learnt it before a travel to russia when I was 11), korean, hindi, arabic and now I’m learning burmese alphabet…
    so how are things?
    I’m not english speaker, I have started to study it when I was 5-6 but I wasn’t very good, and I found many and many difficult in learning english, but I learnt more in my critical period, the most important one for me in english-learning.
    well…maybe these studies must consider also the “strange” people like me, which do the opposite things…
    that’s is all!
    this blog is really beautiful!


  9. Finlay says:

    Children and babies do not learn languages as quickly as adults do if adults are allowed to parallel language learning situations.

    Pre-school children take up to 12,000 hours to learn, be it one, two or even three languages from birth. Adults have many more skills at hand and if they are given the most natural acquisition environments they can learn within a 200 hour schedule.

    Language learning methodology for most languages comes from the time the scholars were translating the Bible from Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic This was then taken up by the Universities leaving adults with one of the most difficult and soul destroying ways of learning a language.

    Children in my experience do not learn languages faster than adults, rather the situation exists today that adulta are placed under severe historical and poor language learning handicaps.

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