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We often hear that when it comes to learning a foreign language, it is better to start earlier than later. Compared to adults, children seem to have a much easier time learning a second language. For example, it is common to see young immigrant children speaking pretty good English within only several months of being placed in American schools whereas some adult immigrants struggle to put together simple sentences in English even after many years of living in the U.S. Moreover, younger children seem to have an easier time learning another language than older children and adolescents. Observations like these have led people to believe that there is an age-related point beyond which it becomes difficult or impossible to learn a second language to the same degree as native speakers of that language. This view is known as the Critical Period Hypothesis (Gass & Selinker, 2008). While second language researchers have grappled with this issue for several decades, there is currently no consensus as to whether or not the acquisition of a second language is constrained by a critical period.

Various empirical studies show that there is a decline in performance in different language domains among older learners of a second language, especially in the area of pronunciation (Butler & Hakuta, 2006). Some researchers have shown a significant negative correlation between the age of arrival in a country and grammar knowledge in a second language. For example, Johnson & Newport (1989) gave a grammaticality judgment test to English learners who arrived in the U.S. between the ages of three and 39 years and found that people who came to the U.S. at an earlier age generally performed better than those who came at a later age. However, no correlation was observed among those who arrived in the U.S. after 17 years of age, and large individual differences were observed.

Other researchers argue that age of initial exposure to a second language is not a critical factor in second language acquisition. Instead, they suggest that individual variables—learner motivation, language learning aptitude, level of anxiety, and amount and quality of second language input—have a bigger influence on the acquisition of a second language (see Gass & Selinker, 2008 for a summary). Moreover, researchers disagree as to what is exactly meant by a critical period. Different scholars have suggested different times for closure of the critical period ranging anywhere from five to 15 years of age, and no clear explanations have been offered as to the reasons for the specific timing of the closure of the period (Butler & Hakuta, 2006). In addition, studies on age and second language acquisition have been mostly limited to grammar knowledge and pronunciation while other aspects of language (e.g., language usage and pragmatics) have not been investigated to the same extent (Butler & Hakuta, 2006).

With regard to second language acquisition in school settings, Genesee (2006) notes that the findings on the effects of starting to teach children through the medium of a second language in kindergarten vs. secondary schools have been varied. Whereas some report that older students in bilingual programs can make impressive progress toward second language learning (Genesee, 1988; Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979), others find that students starting in kindergarten do better (Genesee, 1981; Wesche, Toews-Janzen, & MacFarlane, 1996). But even some scholars who claim that starting earlier produces better results (e.g., Wesche et al., 1996) observe that the differences between early-onset bilingual and late-onset bilingual students tend to diminish as the students approach the end of secondary school. Other researchers (e.g., Singleton, 2001) also show that early second language learners are neither more successful nor more efficient in acquiring a second language than late second language learners.

When we consider the social and educational settings in which children and adults find themselves, we can explain a lot of the differences observed in child and adult second language acquisition. For instance, being schooled in a second language for six to seven hours a day is a significant source of language input for immigrant children. Schools provide children with structured opportunities to develop both spoken and written language through a wide range of academic and social activities. Most adults, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of being in school for six to seven hours a day. Immigrant adults often have limited second language input on the job and little time and energy to study the language systematically when they are not at work. Children’s communicative needs are also less complicated than those of adults, and children’s language practices are often supported through gestures and visuals whereas the same kind of help is normally not available to adults.

But given adequate time, effective instruction, motivation, and support, adults are quite capable of becoming bilingual. For example, the U.S. Defense Language Institute provides resident instruction for U.S. military and other government personnel “in 23 languages and two dialects, five days a week, seven hours per day, with two to three hours of homework each night” (Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), 2012). The language courses last between 26 and 64 weeks, and the school’s website states:

To further advance student knowledge in a particular language, DLIFLC has designed an immersion program which consists of an off site facility where students spend from one to three days in an isolated environment with their instructors and are not allowed to speak English. The facility is equipped with kitchens and sleeping quarters, while the program consists of real-world exercises, from bargaining for food and clothing at a market place, to going through customs, or making hotel reservations. DLIFLC also sends a number of students on 30-day in-country immersions to countries such as Egypt, Korea, China, the Ukraine, etc.

With this kind of intensive, full-time language training, adults can become quite proficient bilinguals. Most adults, however, do not have opportunities like this, which is why we get the sense that they are not as good as children in learning a second language.

So does age matter in developing bilingual abilities at all? The answer is yes, for certain populations. For example, for language minority children, earlier exposure to the societal language may actually prevent them from becoming bilingual. Research shows that immigrant children who are exposed to the societal language at an earlier age tend to have lower proficiency in their mother tongues than those who are exposed to it at a later age (Hakuta & D’Andrea, 1992; Shin, 2002; Wong Fillmore, 1991). For most immigrant children, systematic exposure to the societal language starts when they begin schooling in the majority language. Many start using the school language at home and soon shift entirely to that language (Wong Fillmore, 1991). Thus, instead of becoming bilingual, the children go from being monolingual in the home language to being monolingual in English. This is an example of subtractive bilingualism, a situation in which the socially dominant language replaces the weaker ethnic language (Baker, 2007). For language minority children, achieving additive bilingualism (i.e., learning the second language while continuing to use the first language) may actually require postponing exposure to the majority language for some time (for more on bilingual education models that promote additive bilingualism, see Chapter 8).

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