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Online Assignment #2: Age and Acquisition, Lisette Gngora 1

Many factors affect our ability to learn a new language: social,


biological, cognitive and emotional, among others. Since we grow, develop
and change in each of these areas, it is only natural that our ability to
learn new things and perform them well will be affected. Our age is
directly linked to the different stages of our development and affects our
ability to acquire a second language but does not prevent us from being
able to do it. Although it may appear ideal to begin language acquisition
at a young age, there is absolutely no evidence that an adult cannot
overcome all of those disadvantages save one, accent, and the latter is
hardly the quintessential criterion for effective interpersonal
communication. (H.D. Brown, p.81)
According to Patricia Kuhl (TedTalk, 2010), babies are able to
distinguish every sound of every language until 6-8 months. At that time
they begin to zone in on the sounds they are consistently exposed to
and will ultimately need to communicate in their environment. Her tests
showed that 8-10 month old the babies stop distinguishing sounds from
other languages and respond only to sounds typical of the language(s)
they are exposed to. Another test showed that babies who are exposed to
another language, even at 8-10 months, are able to pick up the new
sounds and respond to them as well. The only factor that truly seemed to
impact their response was the presence of a human being. The same tests
performed using video and audio exposure to the same input, instead of a
human being, received no reaction from the babies. Although the age
factor is important, the babies were able to adjust and respond when
exposed to the sounds of the new language by a human being. The social

Online Assignment #2: Age and Acquisition, Lisette Gngora 2

aspect appears to be more important than the age or input in this case.
Nonetheless, if the babies are not exposed to the language at that young
age, chances are that the statistics they take while listening will remain
limited to the language they are destined to speak due to their
environment. This does not imply that a person cannot learn a new
language later in life, but it could explain the beginning of the process
that ultimately removes the ability to speak a new language without an
accent.
Where Patricia Kuhls lecture focuses on the changes babies brains
undergo, H. Douglas Brown addresses other changes that we undergo
from child to adulthood, which affect our ability to acquire a language.
Brown gives examples of the other factors that affect our ability to learn a
language; each has a direct correlation to age. He speaks of the
lateralization of the brain, and the flexibility of the muscles needed to
create sounds, i.e., mouth, tongue, lips, larynx, throat as we grow
biologically or physically. As we approach puberty, certain functions are
localized to the right of left hemisphere of the brain. Although the left
hemisphere is the one associated with intellectual, logical and analytical
functions, the right hemisphere, which controls more emotional and
social functions, shows more activity in early stages of SLA (Brown,
pp.58-60). As we develop physically, certain muscles are limited to the
flexibility necessary to create the sounds needed for the language(s) we
are to speak. It seems these muscles either attain flexibility for the
language or, in a sense, atrophy for the languages not spoken, as with any
muscle that is not exercised.

Online Assignment #2: Age and Acquisition, Lisette Gngora 3

Important factors to consider in SLA are the social and emotional


changes that the child experiences as he transitions from child to adult.
Along with those changes, the child becomes more aware of himself and
his relation to his environment. He is, after all, a social being. As he nears
puberty, the child becomes increasingly self-conscious and inhibited, less
likely to risk making a fool of himself around his peers. Coupled with his
experiences growing up, the child may associate the language with a
negative memory, for example, reluctantly leaving his friends behind to
move to a new country or perhaps being hurt or abandoned by someone
associated with the new language. These are factors that are not readily
observable but affect second language acquisition all the same. The
cognitive development of the brain occurs whether the person is exposed
to a second language at the time or not. Ideally, the exposure to the
second language and the cognitive milestones will occur simultaneously,
but its not always the case. The factors cited here, as well as others,
interact together to affect the critical period hypothesis (CPH). The CPH
appears to be limited to implicit language learning, mostly associated with
children. However, it is when the CP is basically over that the strengths
associated with explicit learning, most associated with adult second
language learners, take over.
Age factors into the ability to acquire a language, but the only true
weakness adult second language learners consistently exhibit is in
pronunciation. The critical time to acquire the language without an accent
seems to be before puberty. According to research cited by Patricia Kuhl,
children turn into language-bound listeners before they reach their first

Online Assignment #2: Age and Acquisition, Lisette Gngora 4

year and the decline in SLA ability begins at age 7 and may be irreversible
after puberty. Both the readings and Kuhls lecture emphasize the reduced
ability of a person to learn a second language after reaching puberty.
Although Kuhl doesnt address second language acquisition after puberty,
Brown clearly states that an adult is as apt to learn a second language as
well as any child, with the exception of the accent. He contends, and I
agree, that the presence of an accent is in no way an indication of poor
command of the language. Acquiring a language at a young age is
different, not necessarily better, than acquiring it as an adult. Each age
group has strengths that usually compensate for their weaknesses during
the process of SLA.