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Age, aptitude, and nativelikeness in second language acquisition

Niclas Abrahamsson
Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Stockholm University
The incidence of nativelikeness in adult second language (L2) acquisition is a controversial
issue. While some researchers claim that any learner can attain nativelike levels of L2
proficiency, regardless of age of acquisition, others hold that nativelike L2 attainment is, in
principle, impossible. The discussion has traditionally been framed within the paradigm of a
critical period for language acquisition and guided by the question of whether or not second
language acquisition is constrained by the maturation of the brain (for a review, see
Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2003). Furthermore, results from a number of recent studies
suggest that nativelike/near-native adult L2 learners possess a high degree of language
learning aptitude, the positive effects of which may have compensated for the negative effects
of having learned the language outside the critical period (see, e.g., DeKeyser, 2000; Harley
& Hart, 2002; Ioup et al., 1994). Child learners, on the other hand, seem to attain a nativelike
command of the L2 regardless of high or low aptitude, which has led researchers to conclude
that this factor plays no role in early acquisition.
This talk will be based on the L2 ultimate attainment studies on age, nativelikeness and
aptitude recently reported in Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2008, 2009). The work can be
positioned among those studies that have focused exclusively on the apparent counterexamples to the critical period – that is, such rare individuals who appear nativelike in their
L2 despite having learned the language after the closure of the supposed critical period. Our
results suggest, however, that nativelikeness in a second language is, in fact, never attained by
adult learners and, furthermore, much less common among child learners than has previously
been assumed. In addition, the results show that adult learners who appear nativelike in
everyday communication all have above-average language aptitude, and, in contrast to
previous studies, our results also identified small yet significant aptitude effects in child L2
One main conclusion from this research is that sporadic and impressionistic reports on a
few nativelike adult L2 learners do not constitute a solid enough basis for rejecting the
Critical Period Hypothesis – at least not if such individuals always turn out to be (1) nearnative rather than fully nativelike, and (2) exceptionally talanted language learners with an
unusual ability to compensate for the negative effects of maturation.
Abrahamsson, N. & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). The robustness of aptitude effects in near-native second
language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30, 481–509.
Abrahamsson, N. & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of acquisition and nativelikeness in a second
language – listener perception vs. linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning, 59, 249–306.
DeKeyser, R. M. (2000). The robustness of critical period effects in second language acquisition.
Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22, 499–533.
Harley, B. & Hart, D. (2002). Age, aptitude, and second language learning on a bilingual exchange. In:
P. Robinson (ed.), Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning (pp. 302–330).
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hyltenstam, K. & Abrahamsson, N. (2003). Maturational constraints in SLA. In: C. J. Doughty & M.
H. Long (eds.), The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 539–588). Oxford: Blackwell.
Ioup, G., Boustagui, E., El Tigi, M. & Moselle, M. (1994). Reexamining the critical period hypothesis.
A case study of successful adult SLA in a naturalistic environment. Studies in Second Language
Acquisition, 16, 73–98.