A continuing debate in language acquisition research is whether there are critical periods (CPs) in development during which the system is most responsive to environmental input. Recent advances in neurobiology provide a mechanistic explanation of CPs, with the balance between excitatory and inhibitory processes establishing the onset and molecular brakes establishing the offset of windows of plasticity. In this article, we review the literature on human speech perception development within the context of this CP model, highlighting research that reveals the interplay of maturational and experiential influences at key junctures in development and presenting paradigmatic examples testing CP models in human subjects. We conclude with a discussion of how a mechanistic understanding of CP processes changes the nature of the debate: The question no longer is, "Are there CPs?" but rather what processes open them, keep them open, close them, and allow them to be reopened.
Keywords: GABA; attention; infancy; language acquisition; parvalbumin; perineuronal net.