Critical period hypothesis (Linguistics, long)

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Flamenca's picture
Critical period hypothesis (Linguistics, long)

On “Sexuality” thread, critical period hypothesis in learning a language as an L2 came up (in this case, compared to some possible critical point in sexual orientation), and since it’s something it’s still in dispute, and for me, as a student of other languages, a fascinating topic as well, I thought it deserves its own thread.

This hypothesis proposes that the first few years of lives are crucial to learn a language as first, if presented with proper stimuli. Humans are not supposed to be able to acquire complete native skills of another language (especially complex grammar or same accent) after that critical point (around 11-15 years old).

This hypothesis is mostly based on experiences with deaf and feral children, such as Victor of Aveyron’s (in who Tarzan’s character was inspired) or Genie’s (a girl whose father thought was intelectually disable and decided to keep her alone locked in a room since she was 2 years old, until she reached age 13).

I also studied this hypothesis (via Yule, Chomksy, Piaget, Lenneberg, etc.), as an accepted theory, when it’s not, and my opinion is the same as Cervantes Institute's (Spain’s official institution to promote my language around the world): The fact that adults who initiate L2 learning are unlikely to reach a native level (meaning some real complex grammar aspects or exact imitation of the accent) are not only based on phisiological aspects, but motivation, actual need, time spent, etc. (article in Spanish:

This is mainly why I changed my mind:

- Feral kids’ studies are ambiguos and inconclusive (we can’t be sure whether Victor of Aveyron or Genie didn’t suffer from severe mental illness caused by human deprivation itself).

- Some studies show, under certain conditions, native-like accent has been acquired, if affected by reasons such as identity or motivation, rather than a biological critical period (check Italian Luca Lampariello’s amazing second language acquisition skills out, for instance:, so the second language could be mastered as it was one's first.

Any thoughts? Is it possible to extrapolate some of these aspects to religious learning or sexual orientation as it was suggested?


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algebe's picture
It's an interesting question.

It's an interesting question. As your article suggests, I think there are multiple periods when you can learn languages to native or near-native fluency. It depends on attitude, motivation, and perhaps brain plasticity. Adults tend to question everything and to be ashamed of making mistakes, so they never really acquire the new language properly.

I started learning Japanese at the age of 16. I lived in Japan for a total of eight years, and acquired near-native fluency in speaking. My approach was to speak at every opportunity without worrying about mistakes, and to experiment. In other words, I tried to act like a child. I'd say words and observe the reaction of other people. So I think it's possible to learn a language post-puberty in an immersion situation.

My daughter, who spoke nothing but Japanese for her first three years, picked up fluent English after a few weeks in a New Zealand kindergarten. The way she learned was mysterious, almost telepathic. And I don't think she was even aware of the process.

Perhaps this is because of brain plasticity. I don't know. I do know that when you approach a new language with preconceived ideas based on your own language, you get nowhere unless you can set aside your adult mind and think like an infant again. Perhaps there's a parallel in religion. If you're deeply indoctrinated as an infant, the belief process gets hard-wired, like your first language. Like learning a second language as an adult, the only way out is to become a child again.

Flamenca's picture
the only way out is to become

the only way out is to become a child again. A great post, @Algebe.

According to my own experience learning other languages, especially English, I can't prove my own brain plasticity, but I'm sure motivation and being unafraid of mistakes -but careful to avoid them- have been key to my learning. You expressed it so beautifully...

Your answer about brain plasticity being relevant to religion arises another questions: Is it also more likely to become an atheist when you are younger then? And again: Could brain plasticity be relevant to other human features, such as sexual bias, as it was inferred on the forementioned thread?

PS. Btw, I've never lived abroad. My most input of English in a row were a few weeks in Florida as a teenager and I was already out of the "critical period". And I don't know if I will ever be able to impersonate a native (especially accent mimic) but I can tell mastery certainly correlates with practice, as the guy from the video shows.

ʝօɦռ 6IX ɮʀɛɛʐʏ's picture
Feral children are rare, but

Feral children are rare, but there are other things which hint at it. For example, many song birds need to learn their song from a male bird, during a certain period or they'll never learn it properly.

I agree motivation and attitude are important when acquiring a second language. But the fact that you need them at all says a lot. Children do not need to be motivated or have a positive attitude, they learn it without trying. In contrast, they do need motivation to learn math. The article also mentioned about L2 being stored differently from L1. There's been a few examples of people that get hit on the head or have a stroke on their right hemisphere, and as result lose knowledge of their second language.

Immersion might be important, but I don't think its always possible. I think accents are mostly learned. I don't remember when I learned English, that's how young I was. Yet, I still have a subtle Spanish accent. So I'm positive I learned this "stereotypical accent" from my parents, or from my friends at school, or maybe even watching movies. We imitate those we assimilate with. I may have been in America since very young, but I clearly assimilated with other Hispanics without knowing, and gained their accent. Now its something I'll probably never get rid off. Partly because I can't hear my own accent, I think I speak like everyone else, but its others that can tell I'm not from here.

As far as religion goes. I have found it interesting that many atheists, when talking about when they left religion, talk about being around 14 or 16 when they started questioning. Its always seemed strange to me. Technically you're still children at that age, and yet it seems like a critical period in people's self-identity. I know in my experience, I was 18 when I decided to read the whole Bible, and I just kept reading everything I could find after that.

That's partly why I've always rejected the whole "religious people are indoctrinated as children." Because no matter how you were raised, we all reach a point around 14-18 where we separate from that, and become our own person.

CyberLN's picture
“Because no matter how you

“Because no matter how you were raised, we all reach a point around 14-18 where we separate from that, and become our own person.”

The missing link there, though, is that people tend to do what they know. Change is, at a minimum, difficult. The brain seams to resist it. So, indoctrination works. People most frequently stick with what they are taught because of what happens if they diverge from it - an ‘error messages’ is thrown up by the orbital cortex and the amygdala is then engaged. Change take a lot of energy. Being successful at completing it frequently fails.

Flamenca's picture
In my particular case, my

In my particular case, my input before the "critical point" was pretty lousy (a couple of hours a week in a 34-37 children class, since 11 to 16 years old or so, that was all), and for some years now, I use a much more better English now than I probably ever did. And not just because I had recieved more input or better lately, but because I make a conscious effort to improve my skills (and I have more resources available now, so motivation stays always on). So that makes me think that, apart from accent, grammatically there's nothing I couldn't learn with a bit of effort or any other adult could with a proper training on how to do it. But accent is another different thing...

@Breezy I think accents are mostly learned. (...) We imitate those we assimilate with

Yes, very true, and I'm also sure your "Spanish accent" has nothing to do with my "Spanish accent" when we both are speaking English, so that means it's not just the influence of Spanish, whether it's your L1 or a substrate language, but the particular stereotypical accent as you said, one learns. I agree on your example about Maths as well: Learning a language as an adult requires a conscious effort that children don't and that points particularly just to brain plasticity as main factor in early learning.

talk about being around 14 or 16 when they started questioning

I don't need to lie about this. This is not a contest. Finding about "Little Mouse Pérez" (Tooth Fairy) and after that, Santa, plus my father being an agnostic (he didn't speak much about it, but I knew he wasn't sure about any god being real), plus the Bible and other things made me wonder... What if it's all a lie? What if? I didn't have my critical thinking skills developed, not in the least, but I spent a year or so collecting "evidence" in secret for trial, until finally I told my mum I didn't believe in God anymore and I asked her to sign the paper to get me out of Religion class. I was 11. Maybe not a product of critical thinking, but I assure you it was a thoughtful decision, reafirmed when critical thinking was developed, and that I have never regretted later in life. It took me many years to reconcile myself with Atheim, the latter years mainly because of social pressure, not because I thought any god -especially those institutionalized religions present- had actual chances of being real.

Armando Perez's picture
This is good article on the

This is good article on the topic fro language acquisition:

Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Acquisition

There are brain changes during puberty that make much more difficult for adults to learn a language. It is a physical thing. Of course, being the brain as plastic as it is, almost everybody can learn a new language but it will be harder to get a native accent and some complex grammatical structures without specialized training when you are an adult.

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