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Questioning the Relevance of the Theory of Critical Window in First and Second Language Acquisition

Questioningthe Relevance of the Theory of Critical Window in First and SecondLanguage Acquisition

Therole of language among humans is indispensable. Indeed, language iscrucial for successful socialization and learning. Besides, in theface of global diversity, the second language acquisition has alsobeen welcome as outright in supporting successful communication andsocialization of people with different cultural dispositions.Globalization has exposed people to the world, and individuals areinteracting seamlessly, justifying the need for persons to strive andverse with different languages to fit in the society. The secondlanguage acquisition also has an additional advantage — thatmultilingualism is associated with high academic creativity andachievement (Bongaerts,Planken and Schils 23).

Onthe overall, the perceived importance of language continues to serveas an impetus to continued thinking and research on processes anddynamics of language acquisition, purposing to integrate thederivative knowledge in learning the practice. The notion of criticalwindow stage is perhaps one of the most controversial insights forconceptualizing the processes of language acquisition. The theorypremises on the view that language is most easily and be successfullyacquired within a certain window frame of human growth anddevelopment, outside of which it becomes difficult or problematic forlearners to master. In particular, questions have been raisedconcerning the relevance of the critical period.

Thepurpose of this essay is to explore the validity of the criticalwindow in first and second language acquisition. In this case,validity is approached based on the evaluations of the premises thatunderpin the theory, as well as the empirical evidence. This paperargues that the critical window period for language acquisitionexists and has much to do with the neurological structuraladjustments, and not mere psychological dynamics such as shiftingmotivations and growing sphere of interests as popularlyhypothesized.

Toaccomplish the stated goal, the rest of the paper is organized asfollows. First, the concept of the criticalwindow period and its premises are examined. Secondly, the validityof the critical period is evaluated from the perspective ofneurological science. Eventually, the position is explored based onempirical evidence, leading to the conclusion.

Understandingthe Critical Window Period Hypothesis

Theliterature on the role of critical window period in mediatinglanguage acquisition is documented, offering plausible accounts. Thecritical period hypothesis posits the first years of humandevelopment are always critical periods by which individuals canacquire language successfully and with relative ease if exposed toadequate stimuli (Reis,Ingvar and Ingvar 12).If the language input is delayed until the period lapses, theindividuals never master the command of the tongue, or could strugglemuch.

Theproponents of the hypothesis have often derived evidence from thescenarios in the second-language acquisitions. Indeed, older learnersexperience the inherent difficulty of achieving the fluency ofnatives that the young learners show, and this is despite the factthat they have high cognitive abilities. According to Castro-Caldas,Petersson, Reis, Ingvar and Ingvar (12),while there are certain exceptions such as the case in which about 5percent of the adult bilinguals can master the second language theylearn in their adulthood, it is indisputable that the younger onestarts learning the language, the better he is likely to master it inthe end.

Flege,Mackay, and Piske (53) hasfurther noted that, although the window for second languageacquisition never closes completely, the process of acquisition ofcertain aspects of language turn out to be particularly constrainedby the age. For instance, adults acquiring the second language alwaysretain certain forms of identifiable foreign accents, even those whoexhibit high mastery of language grammar. The most consistent accountfor the existent of foreign accents is that approaches topronunciations or phonology are affected by the age of learners.

Inthis regard, the discussions allude to the view that the more onedelay in seizing opportunities of the critical window to master alanguage, the more he is likely to strain in learning and using thelanguage.

TheCritical Window Period vs. the Neurological Perspective — Does theCritical Window Really Exist?

Whilethe evidence of physical brain developments corresponding to thecritical period is non-observable, neurological perspectivesnevertheless give a plausible account to believe in the existence ofthe language acquisition window, and even provides some insights toadd to the evidence. For instance, Espinosa(53) haselaborated that since speech pronunciations are dependent on theneuromuscular functions, older learners in the second languageacquisition contexts are unlikely to master the native accent, andthis is particularly because they already passed the critical periodfor mastering the neuromuscular functions.

Moreover,several authors have concurred that the youthful stage is the mostcrucial phase by which one can learn successfully and easily masterphonology, rather than syntax and morphemes (Castro-Caldas,Petersson, Reis, Ingvar and Ingvar 22Flege,Mackay and Piske 213).However, Flege,Mackay, and Piske (63)note that there might be no critical period for mastery of vocabularybecause the associated learning processes are conscious, mediated bydeclarative memory. Under ideal circumstances, the attritions of theprocedural memory changes with age, resulting in the increasedutilization of declarative memory in acquiring new languages, whichis a relatively different process from the acquisition of the mothertongue (Flege,Mackay and Piske 256).The flexibility of the procedural memory happens to wanesignificantly after the age of 5 years. This change always impedesthe ability of the second language users to communicate the languageautomatically — they must use much effort to integrate thecomponents of speech, which can be ascertained by measuring theactivity of the brain (Birgit89).Indeed, a study by Moyer(79) successfullyshowed that learners exposed to second language at an earlier ageshow lower levels of activity than those exposed at an older age.


Theliterature on empirical evidence for critical period hypothesisexist, but with many relying on the case studies of children who hadinitially been deprived of language, and who attempted to acquire anew language after the lapse of the critical period. In particular,the advocates of the hypothesis have cited three followingcircumstances.

Firstis the case of a deaf and mute child by the name Isabelle who wasfound at the age of six after having spent most of her time in adark, isolated room. Upon exposure to the new language, she succeededin mastering it. She successfully explored all the stages oflinguistic development at a satisfactory rate, taking only two yearsto cover what average children would take six years. By the time shewas eight, her language mastery was indistinguishable from otherchildren of her age, and this was possible because she had beenexposed to the tongue within a critical period (Castro-Caldas,Petersson, Reis, Ingvar and Ingvar 32).

Thesecond case scenario was Genie, who was discovered when she wasfourteen. Considering she had been exposed to the new language whenshe was already past the critical period, she exhibited a slowerlanguage acquisition progress. For instance, she took relatively longto utter two words such as `Mummy play.` She would instead usecertain primitive sentence organization forms such as `No wantdrink`. While her ability of mastering vocabulary turned out to beexemplary compared to other children, her grammar was poor, a resultattributable to the fact that she had started learning the newlanguage when she had already grown past the critical period(Espinosa43).

Thethird case of reference is Chelsea, who began learning a new languagewhile in her thirties. Like Genie, Chelsea exhibited a poor grammar,but her mastery of vocabulary was even much better. She created poorsyntaxes such as “`the bus is a woman and the coming’ (Flege,Mackay and Piske 23).

Thestudies on the critical periods have also been extended to animals,in which the animals under investigations are deprived certainstimuli for a given period. Additional sources of evidence have beenderived from studies of deaf people exposed to new forms of signlanguage. All these studies have shown that individuals exposed tolearn a new language at an early age performed better andeffortlessly compared to those who had attempted acquiring it a laterage (Bongaerts,Planken and Schils 42).


Inconclusion, the aim of this paper was to explore the validity of thecriticalperiod hypothesis as it pertains to the first and second languageacquisition. Validity has been evaluated based on the premises thatit offers, as well as the empirical evidence that supports it. Thediscussion has successfully defended the view that the criticalwindow period for language acquisition exists and has much to do withthe neurological structural adjustments, and not mere psychologicalprocesses such as shifting motivations and growing sphere ofinterests as popularly envisaged.The critical period hypothesis posits the early years of humandevelopment are always certain times by which individuals can acquirelanguage successfully with relative ease if exposed to adequatestimuli. If the language input is delayed until these periods’lapses, the individuals either never master the command of the tongueor struggle to catch up.

Basedon the neurological explanations, the attritions of the proceduralmemory changes with age, marked by increased reliance on declarativememory in acquiring new languages, which is a relatively differentprocess from the acquisition of the mother tongue. The flexibility ofthe procedural memory happens to wane significantly after the age of5 years, a change that impedes the ability of the second languageusers to communicate the automatically and efficiently. Theliterature on empirical evidence for critical period hypothesisexist, but with many relying on the case studies of children who hadinitially been deprived of language and who attempted to acquire thelanguage after the lapse of the critical period. All these studiesshow that individuals exposed to learn a new language at an early ageperformed better and effortlessly compared to those who had acquiredit a later age.


Birgit,Harley. Agein second language acquisition.College-Hill Press, 2013

Bongaerts,T., Planken, B., and Schils, E. &quotCan late learners attain anative accent in a foreign language? A test of the Critical PeriodHypothesis&quot. InSingleton, D. Lengyel, Z. The Age Factor in Second LanguageAcquisition.Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. pp.&nbsp30–50.2013. Print

Castro-Caldas,A., Petersson, A., Reis, S., Ingvar, M., and Ingvar, M. &quotTheilliterate brain: Learning to read and write during childhoodinfluences the functional organization of the adult brain&quot.Brain.121(2012)1053–63, Print

Espinosa,Linda. &quotSecond language acquisition in early childhood&quot. InRebecca Staples, New Cochran, Moncrieff. EarlyChildhood Education: An International Encyclopedia. Westport,CT: Praeger Publishers., 2013. Print

Flege,J., Mackay, I. and Piske, T. &quotAssessing bilingual dominance&quot.AppliedPsycholinguistics.23(2013): 567–598. Print

Moyer,Alene. &quotUltimate attainment in L2 phonology: the criticalfactors of age, motivation, and instruction&quot. Studiesin Second Language Acquisition.21(2013): 81–108. Print