Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Critical Period

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Critical Period

Many of us are exposed to language from birth and we seem to acquire it without even thinking. But what would happen if we were deprived of communication from birth? Would we still acquire language?

The Critical Period Hypothesis states that we would not be able to develop language to a fluent level if we are not exposed to it in the first few years of our lives. Let's have a look at this concept in more detail!

Critical period hypothesis

The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) holds that there is a critical time period for a person to learn a new language to a native proficiency. This period typically starts at around age two and ends before puberty¹. The hypothesis implies that acquiring a new language after this critical window will be more difficult and less successful.

Critical period in Psychology

The critical period is a key concept within the subject of Psychology. Psychology often has close links with English Language and Linguistics with a key area of study being Language Acquisition.

Critical period Psychology definition

In developmental psychology, the critical period is the maturing stage of a person, where their nervous system is primed and sensitive to environmental experiences. If a person doesn't get the right environmental stimuli during this period, their ability to learn new skills will weaken, affecting many social functions in adult life. If a child passes through the critical period without learning a language, it will be very unlikely for them to gain native fluency in their first language².

Critical Period Graph of Language acquisition in years StudySmarterGraph of the ease of language acquisition - StudySmarter

During the critical period, a person is primed to acquire new skills because of the brains' neuroplasticity. The connections in the brain, called synapses, are highly receptive to new experiences since they can form new pathways. The developing brain has a high degree of plasticity and gradually becomes less 'plastic' in adulthood.

Critical and sensitive periods

Similar to the critical period, researchers use another term called the 'sensitive period' or 'weak critical period'. The sensitive period is similar to the critical period since it's characterized as a time in which the brain has a high level of neuroplasticity and is quick to form new synapses. The main difference is that the sensitive period is considered to last for a longer time beyond puberty, but the boundaries are not strictly set.

First language acquisition in the critical period

It was Eric Lenneberg in his book Biological Foundations of Language (1967), who first introduced the Critical Period Hypothesis concerning language acquisition. He proposed that learning a language with high-level proficiency can only happen within this period. Language acquisition outside of this period is more challenging, making it less likely to achieve native proficiency.

He proposed this hypothesis based on evidence from children with certain childhood experiences that affected their first language ability. More specifically, the evidence was based on these cases:

  • Deaf children that didn't develop native proficiency in verbal language after puberty.

  • Children that experienced brain injury had better recovery prospects than adults. It is more likely for children with aphasia to learn a language than it is for adults with aphasia.

  • Children who were victims of child abuse during early childhood had more difficulties learning the language since they were not exposed to it during the critical period.

Critical period example

Genie, the so-called 'feral child' is a key case study in regards to the critical period. As a child, Genie was a victim of domestic abuse and social isolation. This took place from the age of 20 months until 13 years old. During this period, she didn't speak to anyone and rarely had any interaction with other people. This meant that she wasn't able to develop adequate language skills.

When authorities discovered her, she could not speak. Over a few months, she acquired some language skills with direct teaching but the process was quite slow. Although her vocabulary grew over time, she had difficulty learning basic grammar and maintaining conversations.

The scientists that worked with her concluded that because she wasn't able to learn a language during the critical period, she wouldn't be able to achieve full competency in language for the rest of her life. Although she made clear improvements in her ability to speak, her speech still had a lot of abnormalities, and she had difficulty with social interaction.

The case of Genie supports Lenneberg's theory to an extent. However, academics and researchers still argue about this topic. Some scientists claim that Genie's development was disrupted because of the inhumane and traumatic treatment she suffered as a child, which caused her inability to learn a language.

Second language acquisition in the critical period

The Critical Period Hypothesis can be applied in the context of second language acquisition. It applies to adults or children who have fluency in their first language and try to learn a second language.

The main point of evidence given for the CPH for second language acquisition is assessing older learners' ability to grasp a second language compared to children and adolescents. A general trend that can be observed is that younger learners grasp a complete command over the language compared to their older counterparts³.

Although there may be examples where adults achieve very good proficiency in a new language, they usually retain a foreign accent which isn't common with younger learners. It is because of the function that the neuromuscular system plays in the pronunciation of speech.

Adults are unlikely to attain a native accent since they are beyond the critical period to learn new neuromuscular functions. With all this being said, there are special cases of adults who achieve near-native proficiency in all aspects of a second language. For this reason, researchers have found it tricky to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Some have argued that CPH doesn't apply to second language acquisition. Instead of age being the main factor, other elements such as the effort put in, the learning environment, and time spent learning have a more significant influence on the learner's success.

Critical Period - Key takeaways

  • The critical period is said to take place in adolescence, typically from 2 years old until puberty.
  • The brain has a higher level of neuroplasticity during the critical period, which allows new synaptic connections to form.
  • Eric Lenneberg introduced the hypothesis in 1967.
  • The case of Genie, the feral child, offered direct evidence in support of the CPH.
  • The difficulty adult learners have in learning a second language is used to support the CPH.

1. Kenji Hakuta et al, Critical Evidence: A Test of the Critical-Period Hypothesis for Second-Language Acquisition, 2003.

2. Angela D. Friederici et al, Brain signatures of artificial language processing: Evidence challenging the critical period hypothesis, 2002.

3. Birdsong D., Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Routledge, 1999.

Frequently Asked Questions about Critical Period

The critical time for a person to learn a new language with native proficiency.

The brain is more neuroplastic during this period, making it easier for a person to learn a new skill.

The common period for the critical period is from 2 years old until puberty. Although academics differ slightly on the age range for the critical period.

The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) holds that there is a critical time period for a person to learn a new language to a native proficiency.

An example of the critical period is Genie the 'feral child'. Genie was isolated from birth and was not exposed to language in her first 13 years of life. Once she was rescued, she was able to grow her vocabulary, however, she did not acquire a native level of fluency in terms of grammar. Her case supports the critical period hypothesis but it is also important to remember the effect of her inhumane treatment on her ability to learn language. 

Final Critical Period Quiz

Question

Eric Lenneberg was born in ________ in 1921.

Show answer

Answer

Germany

Show question

Question

How are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


Show answer

Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

Show question

Question

What field of linguistics did Lenneberg play a major role in?


Show answer

Answer

Biolinguistics

Show question

Question

At university, Lenneberg studied:

Show answer

Answer

Psychology

Show question

Question

Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


Show answer

Answer

She didn’t have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

Show question

Question

True or False? Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


Show answer

Answer

False. It is more difficult, but adults can still develop full proficiency in a second language.



Show question

Question

True or False? Lenneberg believed language was developed through social means.


Show answer

Answer

False. Lenneberg believed that the capacity for language acquisition was innate in all humans and that the learning pathways were already there.

Show question

Question

True or False? Lenneberg believed that a spoken language environment was needed to learn a language.


Show answer

Answer

True. Although he proposed that language acquisition was innate in all humans, he believed that the right environment was also necessary.

Show question

Question

What factors determine how successful an adult is in learning a second language?


Show answer

Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment and their age.


Show question

Question

Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


Show answer

Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted for change which affects their pronunciation of a new language.

Show question

Question

Around what age does the critical period start?

Show answer

Answer

2 years old

Show question

Question

Why are adolescents more capable of learning a new language than adults?


Show answer

Answer

The brain of adolescents has a higher level of neuroplasticity since they are still in the critical period.

Show question

Question

What is the sensitive period?


Show answer

Answer

A period where a person has a high level of neuroplasticity and can learn new skills quickly.

Show question

Question

Around what age does the critical period end

Show answer

Answer

Puberty

Show question

Question

Why was Genie unable to develop native proficiency in her first language?


Show answer

Answer

They didn't have the opportunity to develop basic language skills during the critical period.

Show question

Question

Adults are unable to develop native proficiency in a second language.


Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False? The only reason Genie didn't obtain native proficiency in English was that she didn't learn during the critical period.


Show answer

Answer

False. Although researchers propose that to be one of the main reasons, Genie was subject to abuse and neglect which could have also contributed to her inability to learn.

Show question

Question

The study of deaf children supported the CPH in first language acquisition.


Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

What factors affect how successful an adult is when learning a second language?


Show answer

Answer

The effort put in, the time spent learning, the learning environment, and their age.

Show question

Question

Why do adults who learn a second language often have a foreign accent?


Show answer

Answer

The neuromuscular system of adults is less adapted to change which affects their ability the pronunciation of a new language.

Show question

Question

What is biolinguistics?

Show answer

Answer

The study of the relationship between human biology and the evolution of human language 

Show question

Question

What does innate mean?

Show answer

Answer

Born with the natural ability to do something

Show question

Question

True or false, there is evidence that human language once existed without grammar?

Show answer

Answer

False. grammar has always been present

Show question

Question

Lenneberg's theories are in line with who?

Show answer

Answer

Noam Chomsky

Show question

Question

True or false, Lenneberg believed in Universal grammar

Show answer

Answer

False. he rejected the idea of universal grammar

Show question

Question

Which of these best describes Lenneberg?

Show answer

Answer

Cognitivist

Show question

Question

What is the name of the girl in the key case study of the critical period?

Show answer

Answer

Genie

Show question

Question

Genie developed native-level proficiency in her language, despite missing the critical period. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

During the critical period, children require the right ___________ to learn new skills.

Show answer

Answer

Environmental stimuli

Show question

Question

During the critical period, the brain is primed for learning new skills. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

The developing brain has a high degree of __________ and gradually becomes less _______ in adulthood.

Show answer

Answer

Plasticity, plastic

Show question

Question

Similar to the critical period, researchers use another term called  ___________ or ___________.

Show answer

Answer

The sensitive period

Show question

Question

What does CPH stand for?

Show answer

Answer

Critical Period Hypothesis

Show question

Question

Older learners tend to grasp second languages easier than younger learners. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Older learners often retain a foreign language as they are beyond the critical period to learn new neuromuscular functions. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is the main difference between the critical period and the sensitive period?

Show answer

Answer

The main difference is that the sensitive period is considered to last for a longer time beyond puberty, but the boundaries are not strictly set.

Show question

Question

What did Lenneberg study at university?

Show answer

Answer

Neuroscience

Show question

Question

Which of the following of works by Lenneberg?

Show answer

Answer

The Capacity of Language Acquisition (1964)

Show question

Question

What did Lenneberg demonstrate is his book ‘Biological Foundations of Language’ (1967)?

Show answer

Answer

He demonstrated the importance of biological origins in linguistics

Show question

Question

In his paper ‘The Capacity of Language Acquisition’ (1964), Lenneberg developed the idea of ________ in language acquisition.

Show answer

Answer

Innateness

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Critical Period quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.