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Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis

时间:2008-8-7栏目:英语论文

Birdsong, David (Ed.) (1999)

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Is there a single key issue in the field of second language acquisition / learning, an as yet unresolved matter on which all else depends? A good case could be made for the question of whether or not there is a critical period for second language learning being just such a key issue. In other words, does the nature of second language acquisition change if the first exposure to the new language comes after a certain age? This question is closely linked to the question of whether first language (L1) acquisition and second language (L2) acquisition are essentially the same process, or very similar processes, and if so whether this is the case for some learners, or for all. In practical terms, it could be central not only to such issues as the optimal age at which children should start learning foreign languages, but also to the best teaching/learning approach for adults. Krashen's Input Hypothesis (Krashen, 1985) is totally undermined if a critical period does indeed exist, since the hypothesis assumes not only that L2 acquisition is similar in nature to L1 acquisition, but also that this is the case for learners of any age. Alhough many would claim that Krashen's theories are seriously flawed in any case, their influence in the field of second language teaching can hardly be denied. Issues such as the relative importance of lexis and syntax in teaching materials must ultimately link back to the way in which second language knowledge is organised in the brain. If that organisation is different in learners who have first been exposed to L2 after a certain age, then this has a bearing on choice of teaching approach. Yes, I believe there is a strong prima facie case for regarding the debate over the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) as a central issue.

The concept of a critical period is well known in nature. One example is imprinting in ducks and geese, where it is claimed that ducklings and goslings can be induced to adopt chickens, people, or even mechanical objects as their mothers if they encounter them within a certain short period after hatching. (Note, however, that the exact nature of even this apparently well-documented instance of a critical period is now coming under fire; see Hoffmann, 1996). In humans, on the basis of extant evidence, it seems that there is a critical period for first language acquisition; those unfortunate persons who are not exposed to any language before puberty seem unable to properly acquire the syntax of their first language later in life. (Inevitably, our knowledge in this area is sketchy and unreliable, being based solely on a very few cases, of which that of "Genie" is the most celebrated and best known; see Eubank and Gregg's article in Birdsong for a discussion.) [-1-]

Provided that a person learns a first language in the normal way, the question is then whether there is a certain biologically-determined critical period during which that person can acquire further languages using one mental mechanism, probably resulting in a high level of achievement if learning continues, and after which the learning process for new languages changes, so that the learning outcome will not be as good. Note that we are not talking here about the commonly-observed and widely-accepted generalisation that learning gets harder as one gets older; nor is the question one of whether changes in attitudes or situation alter the learning process as one gets older. The issue is whether a fundamental change in the learning process and thus in potential learning outcomes related to second languages occurs in the brain at a fairly fixed age, closing a biological "window of opportunity" (although as Birdsong points out in his introduction to this book, there is no single formulation of the Critical Period Hypothesis, but a number of different versions of the theory).

This book contributes to the debate by juxtaposing a number of papers which consider the CPH from a variety of points of view, and which arrive at a variety of conclusions. Most of the papers in the book are based on talks given at an AILA symposium on the CPH which took place in Finland in 1996. It must have been quite a conference; the names of the contributors to this book make up a Who's Who of researchers in fields related to the CPH issue, and the diversity of the opinions held by the contributors must have made for some sharp exchanges. The book contains research papers by both proponents and opponents of a CPH for SLA, thus drawing the reader into the controversy.

What you get in the book is what you might expect from the above description. First, it must be said that it is a fairly tough read. Some of the writers are easier to follow than others, but these are research papers, and anyone unfamiliar with the fields covered--and there is a considerable range of fields--is likely to have to work quite hard at some of the texts at least. Second, there is no overall conclusion, even though the editor does have his own clearly-expressed view. This is not because of differences in the interpretation of data; it is because the various writers operate in different areas of research, each casting a different light on the central issue. These varied areas of research produce conclusions which point in different directions, and because of the lack of common ground on which to debate, the differences cannot easily be resolved. Third, there is an unevenness about the book. Some writers report on tentative conclusions from ongoing research; others simply reproduce material on completed projects which can be found in almost identical form elsewhere. The relevance of the research presented to the central issue also varies. These points might be regarded as drawbacks. But the compensation comes in having so much relevant and fairly up-to-date material on the issue collected together in one volume, providing insights into current knowledge and thinking from a variety of angles.

In his introduction, Birdsong briefly surveys the background to the debate, outlining some of the arguments previously advanced for and again

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