Critical period effects on universal properties of language: the status of subjacency in the acquisition of a second language

Cognition. 1991 Jun;39(3):215-58. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(91)90054-8.


Recent studies have shown clear evidence for critical period effects for both first and second language acquisition on a broad range of learned, language-specific grammatical properties. The present studies ask whether and to what degree critical period effects can also be found for universal properties of language considered to be innate. To address this issue, native Chinese speakers who learned English as a second language were tested on the universal principle subjacency as it applies to wh-question formation in English. Subjects arrived in the U.S.A. between the ages of 4 and 38 years. They were immersed in English for a number of years (a minimum of 5) and were adults at the time of testing. Non-native performance on subjacency was found for subjects of all ages of arrival. Performance declined continuously over age of arrival until adulthood, (r = -.63). When immersion occurred as late as adulthood, performance dropped to levels slightly above chance. In all of the analyses performed, subjacency did not differ from language-specific structures in the degree or manner in which it was affected by maturation. These results suggest that whatever the nature of the endowment that allows humans to learn language, it undergoes a very broad deterioration as learners become increasingly mature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Language Development*
  • Learning*