The Influence of Age Factors on Second Language Acquisition

Table of Content

The study of age factors in second language acquisition is a highly debated subject in the field of linguistics. The aim of this study is to verify the hypothesis that commencing second language learning at a young age enhances the probability of attaining native-level proficiency. This hypothesis draws support from both the Brain Plasticity Theory and the Critical Period Hypothesis.


The Definition of Second Language Acquisition

When examining second language acquisition (SLA), it is crucial to have a clear definition. SLA encompasses the conscious or subconscious processes of learning a language that is not one’s native tongue, in various settings such as natural, tutored, or classroom environments. It involves the development of phonology, lexis, grammar, pragmatics, and other aspects of knowledge.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

To effectively study second language learning, researchers must consider two key distinctions. Firstly, it is important to differentiate between “second language,” “foreign language,” and “target language.” Learning a second language takes place in a country where it is widely spoken while learning a foreign language occurs in a country where it is not commonly used. For example, if someone learns English as a Chinese speaker in the United States, it is considered a second language; whereas if learned in China, it is seen as a foreign language. The term “target language” simply refers to the specific language being learned regardless of whether it is an L2 or foreign language.

Secondly, some researchers like Krashen make distinctions between second langue acquisition and second langue learning because they believe these processes are separate from each other. According to this perspective, “acquisition” refers to acquiring an L2 through exposure while “learning” involves consciously studying an L2.

Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition

When it comes to second language acquisition (SLA) in individuals of different ages, the focus is often on age. Age is a practical factor to consider as it can be easily measured compared to other general factors. Furthermore, there is a widely held belief that children are more adept at learning languages than adults. In SLA research, puberty is regarded as a crucial stage for language acquisition and typically occurs during adolescence between 13 and 15 years old. It plays a significant role in this process. Lenneberg conducted a study on the biological foundations of language and categorized participants into six age groups: 0-3 months (cooing emergence).

  • 4 to 20 months ( from babbling to words)
  • 21 to 36 months (acquisition of language structure)
  • 3 to 10 years ( grammatical refinement and expansion of vocabulary) 11 to 14 years ( foreign accents in L2 learning)
  • Mid-teens-senium (SLA is increasingly difficult).

According to him, foreign accents tend to develop in second language acquisition (SLA) during puberty. Additionally, SLA becomes more challenging after puberty.

General Theories of Age Factors in SLA

Brain Plasticity Theory

The Brain Plasticity Theory of Penfield and Roberts is often used in the study of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) to explain why younger individuals have an advantage in learning a second language (L2). The concept of “plasticity” comes from observing children with aphasia, who experience language impairment due to brain damage from injury or disease. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by shifting functions between regions, particularly during early childhood. According to this theory, young children’s brains are receptive to language acquisition at a cellular level.

The flexibility and adaptability of cells, controlled by the biological clock, may impact the capacity to acquire a new language. As people grow older, changes in their biological clock affect cell plasticity, leading to a decline in language learning ability. According to Penfield and Roberts, the most optimal age range for acquiring a second language is between 4 and 8 years old because brain plasticity is at its peak during this period.

Critical Period Hypothesis

The concept of the “critical period” in language acquisition, closely related to “plasticity”, refers to a time during childhood or puberty when learning a language becomes significantly more challenging. Lenneberg first proposed this idea in 1967, stating that it is generally easier to acquire complete speech before the end of neurological plasticity. After this point, language acquisition becomes slower and less successful. Lenneberg also noted that individuals who develop persistent aphasic symptoms due to left-hemisphere injury tend to develop a “foreign accent” in second language acquisition (SLA) around puberty. However, there is disagreement among researchers about when exactly this critical period ends. Johnson and Newport conducted a notable study suggesting that it ends around age 15. To evaluate grammaticality judgment, a large group of subjects who immigrated to the United States at various ages were tested. The results showed that after approximately ten years of living in the US, individuals who arrived as early as age five experienced a noticeable decline in their language abilities.

Age and Second Language Acquisition

Comparison between L1 Acquisition and SLA

Studying the process of first language acquisition in children is a common practice among scholars and researchers. This is done to gain insights into Second Language Acquisition (SLA), which refers to learning a second language. Acquiring a second language is different from acquiring a first language. While children can effortlessly acquire their native language without any limitations, learning a second language is not as easy or successful. Although many individuals learn a second language, only few achieve the same level of proficiency as they have in their first language. In contrast, almost all children become fully proficient in their first language. Researchers have tried to use similar methods and address similar issues used in studying first-language acquisition to provide valuable insights into SLA. Understanding how children acquire their first language and identifying similarities and differences between child-first-language-acquisition and SLA will undoubtedly contribute to enhancing capabilities for acquiring a second language.

Differences between L1 Acquisition and SLA

Ellis discusses the distinctions between first language acquisition in children and second language acquisition (SLA) in a thorough manner.

  • Feature

    • L1 acquisition
    • L2 acquisition
  • Overall success

    • Kids normally achieve perfect L1 mastery
    • Adult L2 learners are unlikely to achieve perfect L2 mastery General failure variation
  • Affective factors

    • Not involved
    • Play a major role in determining the success

Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG) provides a possible explanation for the challenges and increased effort involved in second language acquisition (SLA) compared to first language acquisition (L1). UG suggests that L1 children start with zero states and gradually progress towards a steady-state, gaining knowledge of their innate language abilities. Eventually, they reach a point where they possess comprehensive knowledge of their specific language. In the case of L2 learners, they already have knowledge of their L1 and possess one version of UG called Si, which includes a complete grammar with principles and parameter settings. L2 learners begin at an initial state that consists of both zero states and some initial knowledge, then progress towards a termination state. This distinction in mental states implies that age may play a role in the difficulty of SLA. The presence of zero states and start state in Si suggests that L2 learning tends to occur later rather than earlier. For example, if a Chinese baby is sent to the United States at 10 months old before reaching full physical maturity to acquire their native language, there is a high likelihood that they will easily acquire both perfect mother tongue from their parents and perfect English from their peers and society. The initial state in this case can be referred to as zero states since L2 learning begins before L1 acquisition.Despite their small numbers, bilingual individuals who are equally proficient in both their first and second languages show that successful second language acquisition (SLA) is achievable when initiated at a young age. Therefore, it is expected to encounter multilingual individuals in various regions and countries who speak multiple languages fluently. In Canada, there exists a considerable population fluent in both English and French. Likewise, Hong Kong has numerous individuals capable of speaking English, Chinese Mandarin, and Cantonese; these languages differ not only in terms of pronunciation but also writing systems and occasionally sentence structures.

Similarities between L1 Acquisition and SLA

According to Ellis, the acquisition order is a similarity between SLA and L1 acquisition. There are strong similarities, although not total, between the acquisitional routes and strategies involved in both. However, proving that SLA shares common characteristics with children’s L1 acquisition is challenging due to age being a confounding factor. Age affects learners in physical, cognitive, and affective domains, as highlighted by Brown. Nevertheless, it is generally better to learn an L2 early rather than late. This suggests a sensitive period for both mother tongue and L2 acquisition. Lenneberg predicted that it becomes difficult to learn an L2 after puberty due to completed brain maturation, similar to individuals being unable to acquire an L1 after a sensitive period. The case studies of children isolated from language before and after their critical period provide support for the critical period hypothesis. One notable example is Isabelle, a deaf-mute child discovered at the age of six and a half.She spent time alone in a darkened room before being discovered, but she successfully learned a language because she began learning before the critical period ended. Another example is Genie, a modern wild child, whose abusive father isolated her and physically restrained her in a small bedroom with minimal light and stimulation from the age of 20 months until she turned 13. After this, Genie was hospitalized and treated for malnutrition, and she had opportunities to socialize and learn language. She was beaten for making noise during the isolation period, so she was essentially unable to speak when found. Over the next four years, a linguist named Susan Curtiss observed Genie’s language development and tested its relation to her brain activity. In many ways, including phonological sounds, intonation patterns, two-word phrase combinations, and question production, Genie’s language development differed from that of typical children, although she did acquire a significant number of linguistic rules.

The Similarities between Children and Adults

In China, both children and adults face a lack of English-speaking environment due to primarily learning English through classroom instructions. They communicate in Chinese in their daily lives with teachers, classmates, friends, and parents, which limits their exposure to English acquisition opportunities. Essentially, this means that neither group can naturally learn English like immigrants in an English-speaking country. Additionally, both groups are influenced by their mother tongue, albeit positively and negatively. According to Universal Grammar, second language (L2) learners already have knowledge of their first language and possess one version of UG. Therefore, when learning English, they start with a mental state that already includes Chinese grammar principles and parameter settings. Complicating matters further, young children may be simultaneously learning English while still unfinished in their acquisition of Chinese. In such cases, their initial mental state contains a non-final form of Chinese. Overall, these initial mind states indicate that both children and adults experience varying degrees of influence from the similarities and differences between English and Chinese during the acquisition process of English.

The Differences between Children and Adults in SLA

Children and adults have distinct differences in second language acquisition (SLA). Generally, children use simpler language with basic syntax, a smaller vocabulary, and fewer grammatical endings. On the other hand, adults must translate the new language into the intricacies of their first language, which includes complex structures and an extensive vocabulary. Young children can learn a second language with minimal interference from their first language due to not having fully acquired it yet at preschool age. Furthermore, several developmental, cognitive, motivational, and social factors contribute to children’s relatively easier acquisition of a second language.


Age is an important factor in explaining the disparities between children and adults in second language acquisition (SLA). Children generally surpass adults in their language learning efforts, which can be attributed to their age. Whether acquiring a second language (L2) naturally in an English-speaking country or through formal instruction in a non-linguistic environment like a domestic classroom, both children and adults share similarities and differences.

As learners of English, both children and adults acquire the language in a non-English-speaking setting, and their acquisition is positively influenced by similarities between their native language and the L2, but negatively impacted by differences. The cognitive development of children and adults also varies significantly, encompassing various aspects such as physical development, attitudes, and motivation.

Age also shapes teaching methods. Children prefer a relaxed, play-like atmosphere for studying L2 and are highly motivated by interactive techniques that involve movement. An experiment has confirmed the advantages of these active methods, as students taught using this approach achieved higher average scores compared to those who were not. Additionally, storytelling, singing songs, and games are effective ways for children to learn L2.


  1. Brown, R. A First Language. Cambridge, [M]. Mass: Harvard University Press,1973.
  2. Ellis, Rod. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. [M]. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1985.
  3. Ellis, Rod. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. [M]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  4. Lenneberg, E. Biological Foundations of Language. [M]. New York: Johe Wiley and Sons, 1967.
  5. Peccei, J.S Child Language. [M]. London: Taylor& Francis Limited, 1995.

Cite this page

The Influence of Age Factors on Second Language Acquisition. (2016, Jul 19). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront