Effect of age on language acquisition and development

Different aspects of language development have been argued to be better acquired during certain developmental stages. Phonetic (sound-symbol associations), syntactic (phrase and sentence structure or grammar) and morphemic (word structure linked to pronunciation) aspects of language are for instance associated with specific developmental stages beyond which their development is not optimal (Otto, 2010). For optimal phonemes acquisition, the interaction with the language between the period from birth to 10 years of age is advanced to be important, while for syntactic  and morphemic knowledge such critical period is argued to extend to puberty years (12-14) from birth (Otto, 2010, p.43). Other aspects of language development – the semantic (vocabulary) and pragmatic (discourse structures) – do not however seem to be associated with a specific developmental stage and could be acquired throughout an individual’s life (Otto, 2010). With such indications then do interactions with language after the critical periods prevent native-proficiency attainment? This part of the paper evaluates studies on this aspect to make an informed conclusion.

In Maturational constraints on language learning, Newport (1990) supports the existence of critical periods within which one needs to acquire knowledge for optimal development – critical periods hypothesis – (CPH). In the paper it is argued that language acquisition operates “successfully only during a maturationally bounded period” (Newport, 1990, p.12). Consequently, the paper contends that even with a similar input, learners at different maturation stages would hardly achieve the same outcome (Newport, 1990).  Such arguments borrowed heavily from Lenneberg’s (1967) – critical periods – hypothesis and a study that Newport and Johnson had conducted in 1989. In this study 46 native Koreans or Chinese speakers who had acquired English as a second language on arrival to the US were the subjects (Johnson & Newport, 1989, p. 68). Their arrival to the U.S was varied from 3 to 39 years according to which the group was divided into (a) early arrivals – arrival before 15 years of age (n=23, 12 males, 11 females), and (b) late arrivals – arrivals past 17 years of age [n = 23, 17 males and 6 females] (Johnson & Newport, 1989, p. 69). The study tested the participants “knowledge of English syntax and morphology by … [asking them] to judge the grammaticality of spoken English sentences of varying types” (Johnson & Newport, 1989, p. 70). The study found out that early arrivals had a comparative advantage over late arrivals with performance up to puberty being linearly related to age while performance after puberty was lower than pre-puberty participants’ performance, highly variable and linearly independent of age (Johnson & Newport, 1989). Following such a cue various studies have been carried out evaluating how effective second language acquisition (SLA) is past the critical periods.

Birdsong and Molis (2000) replicated Johnson and Newport (1989) study with a sample of 61 native Spanish speakers. Of these 29 were early arrivals (either arrived when they were 16 years or less) and 32 were late arrivals – those that arrived when they were above 17 years( Birdsong & Molis, 2000, p. 239). The results of their study indicated that some of the participants who had surpassed the critical periods were able to achieve a native like linguistic knowledge but this was a modest proportion of the sample (Birdsong & Molis, 2000, p. 245). Birdsong and Molis (2000) further found out that acquisition of the second language could be impacted by language 1-language 2 pairings (similarities or differences in the languages) and language 2 (L2) use (Birdsong & Molis, 2000). Acquisition of L2 could thus be affected by other variables independent of age.

A review of some of the recent studies on the subject provides a more detailed pointer to the issue of critical periods hypothesis (Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006). Among the reviewed studies is one by Marinova-Todd (2003) where 30 individuals from 25 countries learning English as a second language past their puberty ages are used as subjects of the study, with an academic-background matched control group of 30 native English speakers (Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006). The study indicated that the non-natives were deficient to significant extents in relation to pronunciation, vocabulary size, narrative skills and grammatical prowess; but were not significantly different to the natives in semantic comprehension and discourse completion (Marinova-Todd, 2003, as reviewed by Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006).

A second reviewed study was one conducted by Urponen (2004) on 104 Finnish women majority of whom had learned English as a foreign language (Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006). 38 percent of the participants in the study were found to be indistinguishable from the native speakers control group that was used (Urponen, 2004, reviewed in Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006). Other studies reviewed indicated that factors such as “opportunities afforded to individual learners” and the desire of non-natives to be perceived as natives contributed much to attainment of proficiency in a second language even after passage of the critical period (Moyer 2004, as reviewed in Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006, p. 239). Ultimately the review concludes that a strict applicability of CHP may not apply since “native ultimate attainment is available to a number of adults who started learning the target language after puberty” (Nikolov & Djigunovic, 2006, p. 239).

From such indications then there might not be in existence strict critical periods in which language development is achieved and beyond which language acquisition is curtailed. In some cases however, such as where the languages widely vary in respective aspects e.g. morphology, then age could be a contributor to native proficiency attainment in addition to other factors such as opportunity and desire to pursue such native proficiency. Go to conclusion.

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