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Lenneberg’s theory on the optimal age to learn a second language

Whilst nagging us to do our French homework, we’ve all had our parents lament: “I wish I paid more attention during my French classes when I was at school.”

They’re not alone. A survey by the British Council found 53% of adults regret not taking advantage of learning other languages at school.

It seems to be generally accepted that we should learn a second language when we’re still young. But is age really an important factor when learning a second language?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer: Well that’s a bit more complicated.

What’s the theory?

Eric Lenneberg, linguist and neurologist, came up with a theory for second language acquisition called the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).

Setting the stage for a long standing, and ongoing debate in linguistics and language acquisition, the CPH suggests that if second language learning does not occur during the period critical for language acquisition (between age 2 and puberty, age 13), the individual will never fully achieve a solid command of the language including its grammatical systems.

A younger brain adapts easier

During the critical period the brain is more “plastic”, meaning that the brain is better able to mould and adapt to change. The loss of plasticity generally begins at puberty which explains why it’s more difficult to learn languages later in life.

Particularly affected are the ability to acquire intonation and pronunciation, suggesting native-like acquisition is unlikely the older you are when acquiring the second language.

Your first and second language are also stored in different parts of the brain

The Critical Period Hypothesis also suggests that in addition to not having a mother tongue-command of the language, learning another language outside of this optimal window also means the learning process itself will be more difficult.

This is because in late bilinguals (those who acquire a second language after the critical period) the two languages are actually stored in separate locations within the brain.

When languages are learned before the age of 13 however, both languages are activated within the same area of the brain.

But there are still some perks of being an adult learner

There is some good news. Adults do have some important advantages: Our cognitive maturity and familiarity with language systems in general can speed things along considerably.

Having knowledge of our own mother tongue (which is far greater than that of someone in their younger years) means we can learn faster than children to whom the entire concept of language is foreign.

Age is not an overriding factor when learning a language

Whilst age is an important factor in language acquisition, it isn’t everything and Lenneberg’s theory shouldn’t discourage you from picking up another language.

What the Critical Period Hypothesis does tell us is that it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak a second language free from accents and the occasional grammatical slip-up. This should be of comfort to any student of a foreign language; it’s not realistic to try to speak perfect French, German, Italian, whatever. What matters is that your subject understands your message.

For those using translation in a business context, the CPH is a useful reminder that there is no substitute for native language expertise. If you want flawless translation or interpretation, there is no one more qualified than a native speaker with professional experience.

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