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Singleton D. The Critical Period Hypothesis: A coat of many colours

Singleton D. The Critical Period Hypothesis: A coat of many colours



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The Critical Period Hypothesis: A coat of many colours
43 (2005), 269285 0019042X/2005/043-0269c
Walter de Gruyter
 Abstract  Research on age-related effects in L2 development often invokes the idea of acritical period – the postulation of which is customarily referred to as the Crit-ical Period Hypothesis. This paper argues that to speak in terms of 
CriticalPeriod Hypothesis is misleading, since there is a vast amount of variation inthe way in which the critical period for language acquisition is understood –affecting all the parameters deemed to be theoretically significant and indeed also relating to the ways in which the purported critical period is interpreted interms of its implications for L2 instruction. The paper concludes that the very fact that there are such diverse and competing versions of the Critical Period  Hypothesis of itself undermines its plausibility.
1. Introductory
Many researchers interested in age-related effects in L2 ultimate attainmentclaim that these effects are due to the existence of a critical period (henceforthCP) for language acquisition. The postulation of such a critical period is cus-tomarily referred to as the Critical Period Hypothesis (henceforth CPH). It willbe the contention of this paper that the implication of the singular form of theexpression CPH (i.e., that there is
such hypothesis) is called into questionby the myriad ways in which the CP for language acquisition is understood – inrespect of all the theoretically significant parameters (age of offset, languagecapacities affected and underlying causes) and also its practical implicationsfor L2 instruction. The paper will review some of the diverse proposals offeredin these different areas and will conclude with the suggestion that, quite apartfrom the accumulating empirical evidence against the idea that language ac-quisition is constrained by a CP, the very fact that there are such manifold andmutually contradictory versions of the CPH of itself calls into serious questionthe notion of a CP in this domain.
David Singleton
2. The notion of critical period
Let us begin by looking briefly at what is meant by CP. An illustrative examplefrequently used in this connection is that of imprinting in ducklings, which, fora limited time after hatching, become irreversibly attached to the first movingobject they perceive – usually, fortunately for them, the mother duck. De Vil-liers and De Villiers (1978), for instance, refer to following behaviour evincedby Mallard ducklings:
This following behavior only occurs within a certain time period after hatching,after which point the ducklings develop a fear of strange objects and retreat in-stead of following. Within these time limits is the
critical period 
for the followingbehavior.(De Villiers and De Villiers 1978: 210)
Another example sometimes offered relates to the developmentof binocularity:
A critical period for the development of binocularity may begin when central ner-vous system cells driven by each eye grow and compete for cortical synapses(Wiesel and Hubel 1963). This critical period may end when the degree and ex-tent of competitive synaptogenesis diminishes and stabilizes, perhaps regulated inpart by the amine system (Kasamatsu and Pettigrew 1979). The critical period fordevelopment of binocularity may take place between weeks 4 and 12 in the cat; 1and 9 in certain monkeys; and years 1 and 3 in man. (Almli and Finger 1987: 126)
On the basis of such examples, CPs can be characterized as being of limitedduration within well-defined and predictable termini and as being related tovery specific capacities or behaviours. We shall see that the precise terminiproposed for maturational constraints on language acquisition by CP advocatesvary across quite a wide range and that there is no consensus either regardingthe particular acquisitional capacities that are deemed to be affected by suchconstraints. We shall further see that researchers diverge markedly in respectof their identification of the underlying causes of maturational constraints onlanguage acquisition and that there are also differing views on the practicalimplications of the notion of CP as far as language teaching is concerned
3. The termini of the CP
Although Lenneberg is generally considered to be the ‘father’ of the CPH,Penfield is widely seen as at least a proto-CP theorist and so let us begin ourdiscussion of the termini of the CP with him. On the basis of differential recov-ery prognoses as between children and adults when injury or disease damagesspeech areas in the dominant hemisphere, and the differential success observedin transferring speech mechanisms from the injured dominant hemisphere tothe healthyminorhemisphere,Penfieldsuggeststhat“forthe purposesoflearn-ing languages, the human brain becomes progressively stiff and rigid after the
The Critical Period Hypothesis
271age of nine” (Penfield and Roberts 1959: 236) and that “when languages aretaken up for the first time in the second decade of life, it is difficult
toachieve a good result
because it is unphysiological” (Penfield and Roberts1959: 255).Lenneberg, for his part, proposes (1967) not only an offset point for theCP (puberty), but also a point at which it supposedly has its onset (age two),the intervening period purportedly coinciding with the lateralization process –the specialization of the dominant hemisphere of the brain for language func-tions. He bases his claim regarding the onset of the CP on his observation thatwhereas “children deafened before completion of the second year do not haveany facilitation [in respect of oral skills] in comparison with the congenitallydeaf”, those who lose their hearing after having been exposed
to the expe-rience of [oral] language subsequent to this point “can be trained much moreeasily in all the [oral] language arts” (1967: 155). His position on this issue isundermined by the impressionistic nature of the data on which it is foundedand by the vast amount of more recent evidence favouring the position thatlanguage development proceeds continuously from birth onwards (even per-haps getting under way
in utero
) (see, e.g., Singleton and Ryan 2004: 33–39).Lenneberg further suggests (1967: 142) that the developmental stage on whichlanguage acquisition is predicated “is quickly outgrown at the age of puberty”,the point at which he posits the lateralization process to be complete. He citesin this connection Basser’s (1962) claims that injuries to the right hemispherecause more language disturbance in children than in adults, and that childrenbut not adults are able completely to transfer the speech function to the minorhemisphere. With respect to L2 acquisition, he asserts (1967: 176) that afterpuberty “the incidence of ‘language-learning-blocks’ rapidly increases”, “for-eign languages have to be
learned through a conscious and labored effort”,and “[f]oreign accents cannot be overcome easily”.There has been a great deal of debate about lateralization, much of it focus-ing on the completion point. Molfese (1977: 206f.), for example, suggests thatthe lateralization of certain “low-level” functions of phonetic and/or phono-logical character may in fact be “complete by the first year of life”, while thesensorimotor cognitive structures underlying the child’s early use of syntax andsemantics may be “represented in both hemispheres”, in which case “his mean-ingful linguistic utterances will be mediated by both hemispheres, althoughperhaps not to the same degree”. This approach predicts a multiplicity of CPs,with the phonetic/phonological CP being posited as coming to an end veryearly on.Other researchers propose an earlier offset of the phonetic/phonological CPacquisition on different grounds. Seliger(1978 argues that as well as a lateral-ization process there is a localization process within the dominant hemisphere.He asserts that phonetic/phonological functions are localized by puberty and

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