The Critical Period Hypothesis
The Critical Period Hypothesis was first proposed by Montreal neurologist Wilder Penfield and co-author Lamar Roberts in their 1959 book Speech and Brain Mechanisms, and was popularized by Eric Lenneberg in 1967 with Biological Foundations of Language.
The Critical Period Hypothesis is the subject of a long-standing debate in linguistics and language acquisition over the extent to which the ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age. The hypothesis claims that there is an ideal time window to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment, after which further language acquisition becomes much more difficult and effortful.
The critical period hypothesis states that the first few years of life is the crucial time in which an individual can acquire a first language if presented with adequate stimuli. If language input doesn’t occur until after this time, the individual will never achieve a full command of language—especially grammatical systems.
The evidence for such a period is limited, and support stems largely from theoretical arguments and analogies to other critical periods in biology such as visual development, but nonetheless is widely accepted
The Critical Learning Hypothesis in Second Language Acquisition
The theory has often been extended to a critical period for second-language acquisition (SLA), although this is much less widely accepted. Certainly, older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that younger learners display, despite often progressing faster than children in the initial stages. David Singleton states that in learning a second language, “younger = better in the long run,” but points out that there are many exceptions, noting that five percent of adult bilinguals master a second language even though they begin learning it when they are well into adulthood—long after any critical period has presumably come to a close.
While the window for learning a second language never completely closes, certain linguistic aspects appear to be more affected by the age of the learner than others. For example, adult second-language learners nearly always retain an immediately identifiable foreign accent, including some who display perfect grammar (Oyama 1976). Some writers have suggested a younger critical age for learning phonology than for syntax. Singleton (1995) reports that there is no critical period for learning vocabulary in a second language.