Language acquisition

I studied linguistics and literature, and I’ve worked as a German teacher for several years. Naturally, language acquisition deeply fascinates me, and the differences in the proficiency among individuals keeps startling me: why do some adults learn a new language a lot faster than others? Why do some children do better in primary school than others? This post isn’t about dogs, for a change, but about another passion of mine: linguistics.

The first three years of life are crucial …

Simply hearing language isn’t enough for children (and adults!) to start speaking on their own: interactions, communication – and, as Susan Schneider (150) has it, the consequences that go with them – are crucial.

US preschools work very hard in order to create equal opportunities for all children, but in spite of these efforts, years later, children from low-income families tend to do worse in school than children from high-income families. The scientists Hart and Risley wanted to find out why. They recorded an hour of parent-child interactions in 42 US American families over 2.5 years. During the time of the recording, the children were younger than 3. Hart and Risley visited the families again when the children were 3 years old, and once more when they were 9 or 10. The respective parents were categorized as either “professional,” “welfare,” or “working class”. Socioeconomic status itself turned out to be a poor predictor (Schneider 152), as mirrored in the fact that children from working class famlies could be found both amoung highly successful and the least successful students – they were present in the entire range. Sex, race, birth order and family size were poor predictors as well.

However, there was a big difference in the achievements of the children of welfare and professional parents: the children of professional parents tended to have a much bigger vocabulary at age 3, and achieve significantly better results in school at age 9 or 10. This was (of course) not due to genetic factors, but due to the type of environment the children grew up in: professional parents tended to provide enriched environment for their children, while welfare families didn’t. Enriched environment, in this case, refers primarily to verbal interaction, i.e. the chance for the children to hear, speak, and get feedback, thereby learning from consequences. Professional parents spoke about 11 million words per year to their children. Welfare parents only spoke about 3 million words. Children with less opportunity to interact learned less. A lot less: At age 3, during the recordings, “the professional parents’ children were using larger vocabularies than the parents on welfare were.” (!) (Schneider 152, my emphases) Of course, the welfare parents had larger vocabularies – but they did not use them when talking to their children.

This first difference makes a difference in school: children with big vocabularies have an easier time learning to read.

The second big factor contributing to the professional children’s advantage was the positive-to-negative ratio (think, among other things: praise-to-scold ratio). The positives and negatives are consequences – and as we all know, consequences will either make us do more or less of something. Children (and adults) who receive lots of positive feedback are encouraged and motivated to speak, learn, and try out more things in the future. In the families who talked the most, the ratio ranged up to 6 positives per 1 negative. In the least talkative families, it looked quite different: 2 negatives for 1 positive. That is to say, children of families who talked a lot tended to hear several hundred thousand more encouraging words than children from welfare families. (Schneider 152)

We see: an enriched start in life – the first three years are crucial! – has positive effects all throughout childhood and will help children achieve better results in school later in life!

Second language proficiency in children and adults

During my first year at the linguistics department, Gunther Kaltenböck pointed out in his intro to linguistics lecture that children were better at learning a new language than adults. In fact, adults would never learn a language to the same level of proficiency as children did.

Until today, I used to hold this belief, and whenever I met a second-language German speaker whose sprachgefühl was indiscernible from the most eloquent native speakers, I marveled at their seemingly exceptional talent. Note that I’ve met lots of second-language German learners whose language capacities rivaled those of the best native speakers. I’ve even had the honor to teach some of them.

Susan Friedman points out something that is not entirely surprising to me, given that I know brillian German-as-a-second-language speakers: reasearch shows that the ability to learn a new language with native-like proficiency is not necessarily lost in childhood. Thanks to EBSCO, I can quickly pull up the respective journal and Ellen Bialystok’s article on my home screen, which tackles just this question.

Bialystok describes two studies that showed that language acquisition may not be primarily defined by the age of the learner, but rather by the structural similarities between first and second language, and by the time the learner spends immersed in the second language. (116)

She agrees that indeed, the average child tends to learn new languages faster than the average adult. However, she points out the gaping difference between two common statements:

(A) “On average, children are more successful than adults when faced with the task of learning a second language.” (117) This is a descriptive statement that implies concurrence, but no cause/effect relationship between age and successful language learning.

(B) Compare a different statement: “Children are better language learners than adults.” (117) This statement goes beyond concurrence. Rather than describing, it makes a claim about how learning takes place. If children are “better” language learners, there has to be “biological differences between child and adult mechanisms” (118).

Statement (B) assumes two things: there is a sensitive period for first-language acquisition – a finite window of opportunity to master your first language, as it were. There is also a sensitive period for second-language mastery. The mental language-learning meachanism undergoes an irreversible change at certain age, and this change closes the window for first and second language mastery.

Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture: is there a sensitive period for first language acquisition? Fact is, we don’t know for sure.

In any case, if there is a sensitive period for first language acquisition, there may or may not be a similar sensitive period for second language acquisition, depending on how the sensitive period for first language acquisition works: there may either be an identical sensitive period for language acquisition (first and second), which naturally closes at a certain age (for first and second languages), or the language learning mechanism may only need to be “switched on” within a certain sensitive period by means of first language acquisition, and after being switched on, a second language may be learned at any time later in life.

Bialystok argues that if there is a sensitive period for second language acquisition, empirical data about the degree of proficiency obtained in a second language must be unambiguously linked to the age when learning the second language began across studies. While the “acquisition age leading to a decline in attained proficiency is consistent across studies”, evidence on whether the reason for this actually is a sensitive period for language acquisition is not clear. (118)

In order to sort out the evidence, “sensitive period” must be defined. Bornstein (qtd. in Bialystok 119) identifies 4 categories comprising 14 dimensions that must be specified in order for learning to be contingent on a sensitive period. Skills Bornstein found to be contingent on a sensitive period include sociability in dogs, imprinting in chicks, aggression in mice, social behavior in monkeys, and acquisition of birdsong. But is language acquisition in humans one of them? The simple fact that there may very likely be an optimal time for language acquisition does not suffice to add it to this list: all of Bornstein’s criteria must be met. Let’s take a look.

A problematic dimension is “system,” which bornstein defines as the “structure or function altered in the sensitive period” (Bialystok 120). For language acquisition, this means that it must be specified that and in what way the part of the brain responsible for language competence changes at a certain age.

However, while there are many studies showing that younger learners tend to be “more successful in attaining native-like proficiency in a second language” (125), there is no unequivocal evidence that this is due to a biological change of the nature of the linguistic system/linguistic competence rather than, say, different environmental factors experienced by younger and older learners. For example, children who immigrate to a new country aged 6 or younger tend to receive schooling entirely in the second language. From an early age, their education is identical to the schooling of native children. In contrast, teenagers and young adults, who still may receive some education in English, will have received a bigger proportion of their education in their native language. In contrast to younger children, who benefit from the same (first-) language instructions as the native children on the syllabus in primary and secondary schools, older kids miss out on these kinds of instructions, and can therefore be expected to perform differently later in life.

Also, the average competency of older learners is smaller, some older learners reach equal fluency, phonological and grammatical competence as younger ones. (Bialystok 125). This, of course, is counter-evidence to the common assumption that the window for native-like competence closes at an early age. (Some linguists hold that perfect proficiency can only be easily obtained until the age of 7, is still obtainable until puberty, but cannot be obtained after puberty – i.e. the onset of puberty closes the sensitive window).

To make a long story short, Bialystok et al. conducted two experiments in order to see precisely what accounted for the difference in second language proficiency in different learners. They found the crucial factor not to be age of learning, but the structural similarity of first and second language, independently from when learning of the second language commenced.

This result is intriguing, and so is one of the experiments that lead to it: English and German native speakers who learned French as a second language were tested for proficiency. When given the task to determine the gender of an unknown noun, surprisingly, the speakers who had begun studying French at a later age scored higher, while their native language (English or German) did not affect the results: both German and English speakers relied on the phonological cues of the noun in order to determine its gender. However, when given the more challenging task of deterimining the gender of a noun presented together with a picture that conflicted with the phonological gender cue of the noun, age did not make a difference – but the native language did: German speakers took into account both the phonological cue of the word and the picture’s semantic information. English speakers only relied on the phonological cues of the word. Why?

German is structurally more similar to French: both languages classify nouns by means of gender, and German speakers were already familiar with this concept when learning French: they only had to learn the specific attributions made in French nouns, but not the concept itself. English, on the other hand, does not classify nouns by means of gender at all. Hence, English speakers had to learn both the concept of gender in nouns, and the specific attributions of French nouns.

When native French children learn a language, two gender-assignment strategies can be observed (Bialystok 127): young children determine the gender of a French noun with the help of the phonological features of the word. Older children still rely on phonological features, but incorporate semantic information as well.

The experiment showed that English speakers applied the strategies of younger native French children when determining gender, while German speakers applied the strategies of older children. It can be concluded that the structural similarity of your first language to a second language affects the probability you will reach native-like proficiency in a second language, while age not necessarily does – or not in the ways that would be expected, anyways.

This is due to the fact that “[t]he overarching structure that sets out linguistic categories are not built up from scratch in second language acquisition; yet, no two languages fit perfectly into the same organizing structure.” (Bialystok 131) Flege (469f) defines two ways of dealing with this problem when learning a second language:

1. categoriy assimilation, i.e. extending the boundaries existing (first-language-based) categories so that the second language fits in as well. This may, for example, cause a foreign accent in a second language.

2. category dissimilation, i.e. creating new categories for the foreign language altogether, which are independent of the categories formed by the first language. This may, for example, enable the learner to acquire an accent that’s indiscernible from a native one.

Children tend to be more likely to apply the second strategy because, being children, they are a point in life where they create new categories all the time anyways. According to Bialystok (132), children tend to form new phonetic categories only until 5 or 6 years of age! Adults, on the other hand, tend to apply the first strategy: they tend to consolidate knowledge and look for similarities.

Bialystok (132) concludes: “The effect is that children would appear to be more successful language learners, as indeed they are, but the reason for the difference is not because of maturational limits on language learning but because of stylistic differences in learning at different times in life. Moreover, there is nothing inevitable about these differences; they are only tendencies. The child advantage, therefore, has no biological basis, no exclusionary function and reflects no sensitive period.”

A study by Werker (qtd. in Bialystok 133) suggests that young children are more likely to phonetically master a second language to the same level as native speakers is not due to changes in the “hardware” or even the “software” of the brain: rather, it’s due to the fact that young children can focus on the phonetic information of a new word alone in order to distinguish it from other words, while older children and adults focus on different things at the same time, thereby not getting as clear a phonetic image. Adults are capable of changing their focus through training, which enables them to acquire new phonlogical systems later in life!

Summing up, the descriptive statement (A) about age and language learning is true, but the causal statement (B) isn’t. The childhood advantage is not caused by a sensitive period: it does not fit the parameters defined by Bornstein: there is no maturational constraint on second language acquisition.

Now, enough with all the theory! What does this mean for everyday practice as a language learner or teacher? Well, it means that for adults to successfully master a second language, they need not be exceptionally talented or highly intelligent. All they need to do is “recreate some of the social, educational and experiential advantages that children enjoy” (Bialystok 134).

On a different note – we are leaving entering the territory of empowerment and motivation here -: if you are a teacher, simply making your students aware of the simple fact laid out in the last paragraph might improve their performance, and if you are a student, reading this article may just have given you a learning advantage over your peers: it has been shown that letting students know that their effort can make a difference is empowering and motivating, and so is learning that your effort can be meaningful by means of reading about it in an article. (Blackwell qtd. in Schneider 174).


Bialstock, E. (1997): The structure of age: in search of barriers to second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 13, 2: 116-137. [Retrieved via EBSCO]

Flege, James E., Schirru, Carlo, and MacKay, Ian R.A. (2003): “Interaction between the native and second language phonetic subsystems.” Speech Communication 40: 467-491.

Panagos, R. J. (1998). “Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young american children.” Remedial and Special Education, 19(6), 371.

Schneider, Susan M. (2012): The Science of Consequences. How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world.

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