Critical period effects in second language learning: the influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language

Cogn Psychol. 1989 Jan;21(1):60-99. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(89)90003-0.


Lenneberg (1967) hypothesized that language could be acquired only within a critical period, extending from early infancy until puberty. In its basic form, the critical period hypothesis need only have consequences for first language acquisition. Nevertheless, it is essential to our understanding of the nature of the hypothesized critical period to determine whether or not it extends as well to second language acquisition. If so, it should be the case that young children are better second language learners than adults and should consequently reach higher levels of final proficiency in the second language. This prediction was tested by comparing the English proficiency attained by 46 native Korean or Chinese speakers who had arrived in the United States between the ages of 3 and 39, and who had lived in the United States between 3 and 26 years by the time of testing. These subjects were tested on a wide variety of structures of English grammar, using a grammaticality judgment task. Both correlational and t-test analyses demonstrated a clear and strong advantage for earlier arrivals over the later arrivals. Test performance was linearly related to age of arrival up to puberty; after puberty, performance was low but highly variable and unrelated to age of arrival. This age effect was shown not to be an inadvertent result of differences in amount of experience with English, motivation, self-consciousness, or American identification. The effect also appeared on every grammatical structure tested, although the structures varied markedly in the degree to which they were well mastered by later learners. The results support the conclusion that a critical period for language acquisition extends its effects to second language acquisition.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Attitude
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • China / ethnology
  • Critical Period, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Identification, Psychological
  • Korea / ethnology
  • Language*
  • Learning
  • Linguistics*
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Self Concept
  • Time Factors