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The Effects of First Language & the Critical Period on Adult Second Language Learners
March 7, 2013

By Corrina Cameron

Many misconceptions exist when it comes to obstacles facing adult second language learners. What many people believe are ‘logical’ reasons are not necessarily supported by research. I approached my research initially with this uninformed question: Why is it that adults seem to have more difficulty picking up a second language compared to children? What I did not realize was how deep that rabbit hole goes. I will attempt to briefly address two significant issues facing adults acquiring their second language: The effect of the first language on the acquisition of the second in mature learners and the obstacle of the aging mind.

Effects of the First Language on Adult Second Language Learners

In several studies, it was discovered that the first language influenced the second language in three ways. First, a sound from the second language that is not in the first may not be perceived by the learner, and they may not be able to produce it. Second, if the rules from the first language for combining sounds to create words do not work well with the second language rules, the learner will have some difficulty. Lastly, a learner may transfer patterns of stress and intonation from the first language to the second, creating what we commonly call an accent (Ahmadi, 2011, 78). A layman could easily deduce that someone with an accent is originally from a different linguistic culture and that the first language is clearly affecting the pronunciation of the second. It is true that ones first language does in fact affect the pronunciation of the second. Adults in particular are “more vulnerable to the effect of the first language on the second” (Brown , 2007, 73). Sound, stress, rules, and intonation of their first language can be transferred to the second, likely causing there to be an accent (Ahmadi, 2011, 78). However, this does not mean that it is impossible for this native speaker to create the appropriate sounds of the native speaker’s language.

It is a myth that speakers of other languages are unable to produce certain sounds in English. English does have different sounds that can be difficult for ESL students to acquire, but in some cases they can produce the sound in other contexts. Sometimes the difficulty for them is understanding the new symbols for sounds they already know, or sounds that should be created when two words run into each other while spoken. As a teacher, one thing that I can do to help my students with this is to spend time teaching word stress, rhythm, and intonation, and focusing on specific sounds that my class seems to be having difficulty with (Ahmadi, 2011, 76). A study done by Nuefield and Scheiderman (1980) found that near native fluency is achievable in adults when given sufficient help with their pronunciation (Ahmadi, 2011, 78). Other ways of helping students overcome this obstacle is to provide opportunities to have conversation with native speakers, a focus on speech used in real life, and critically listening to voice recordings of their own speech compared to that of native speakers (Ahmadi, 2011, 79).

Teachers should also encourage their students to speak to native speakers outside of class as much as possible. Studies have shown that the “greater the continued use of a first language, the more pronunciation proficiency in a second language will be restricted” (Schouten, 2009, 10). For some of our adults students, it is very easy to speak their first language at home with their family, create friendship with others who speak their first language in the community, and go to shops and restaurants that utilize their first language. Though they may live in London, they are not necessarily immersing themselves in the English language. As their teachers, I believe one way we can encourage them to be immersed in their new city is to bring the city into the classroom or give them homework tasks that require them to go out into the community. This can be done in a myriad of creative ways structured around the needs of the class.  ...

Critical Period regarding Adult Second Language Learners

            The Critical Period Hypothesis is “a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily and beyond which time language is increasingly difficult to acquire” (Brown, 2007, 57). One of the originators of this concept was Lenneberg (1967), who studied first language acquisition to find out when it becomes too late to acquire it. His hypothesis was that after this critical period, language would not develop as completely (Schouten, 2009, 2). Some linguists support the idea of Critical Period Hypothesis, while others believe that this falls short of fully exploring the intricacies of second language acquisition in adults. More recent research has shown that many other factors are involved, such as environment and motivation (Ahmadi, 2011, 76). More specific factors to consider are the length of time the learner has been immersed in the second language culture, their level of educational background, their socioeconomic status, their intelligence, their learning styles, their personality, their personal learning strategies, and the teaching strategies used during their acquisition (Fromkin, 2012, 355-394). However, few researchers can deny that there is some credibility to the Critical Period Hypothesis regardless of the other, sometimes more important, factors.

            From a neurological perspective, some scholars point to the lateralization of the brain to support the Critical Period Hypothesis. Lateralization is the process of the brain assigning, or “lateralizing”, certain functions to the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere of the brain as it matures. Researchers are divided on when exactly lateralization is complete, but they do recognize that once the brain has completed lateralization it is more difficult for a person to learn a language (Brown, 2007, 58-59). This does not mean that it is impossible for adults to acquire a second language. Marinova- Todd et al., (2000) did a review of the research on adult acquisition of English from which they deduced that regardless of the Critical Period Hypothesis adults still have a chance and can become highly proficient (Ahmadi, 2011, 77). The reason for this could be that the brain can, to some extent, overcome pervious lateralization. Research has found that the right hemisphere is much more active when acquiring a second language because the learner is using strategies that were not used when they acquired their first. In first language acquisition the right hemisphere is not nearly as active and the left is more dominant. However, researchers do say that the evidence is inconclusive and further study must be done (Brown, 2007, 60-61). From a teaching perspective, knowing that our mature students are facing a biological obstacle that is out of their control should help us rethink our expectations of how quickly they will acquire English. However, the knowledge that the critical period can be overcome should give us hope for our students. An attitude of understanding with a side of hope can go a long way in encouraging our mature students to persevere.

             Some researchers seem to think that each aspect of the second language may be more difficult to learn at different ages. For example, they believe pronunciation becomes more difficult to master earlier than vocabulary (Fromkin, 2012, 383). Researchers that looked into the acquisition of second language pronunciation concluding that in order for them to achieve a native like accent they must be exposed to it during childhood. Scovel (1988) went as far as to say that pronunciation is the only area where a critical period exists because it is the only part of language that deals with neuromuscular mastery (Schouten, 2009, 4). There are several hundred muscles that are needed to articulate human language. It requires a huge amount of muscular control to acquire appropriate second language pronunciation (Brown, 2007, 62). However, a study by Bongaerts (1997) done on pronunciation of none-native speakers found that it is possible for adults to acquire a native-like pronunciation, coming against the idea that Critical Period Hypothesis is particularly evident in pronunciation (Schouten, 2009, 7-8). Each adult ESL learner will reach a different degree of pronunciation accuracy. Because of this, Avery and Ehrlich (1992) believe it is important and useful to focus on pronunciation in the ESL classroom. As ESL teachers, we need to remember that many non-linguistic factors affect the degree of pronunciation accuracy our students achieve, including learning goals and type of motivation (Ahmadi, 2011, 78). Every one of our students has different goals in mind for their acquisition of English pronunciation. For some, pronunciation is very important because their career will require them to lecture at a university. For others, their goal may be no higher than to communicate with the cashier at the grocery store. It is important that we know the goals of our students, because what we deem as a ‘success’ may be beneath or above their view of success.


 Much more could have been written here on these two significant issues facing adults that are acquiring their second language. Researching helped me to understand more deeply why it is that adults seem to have more difficulty picking up a second language compared to children. Not only do they have to overcome the effects of their first language on the second language, but they also must persevere through their biological predisposition as mature humans to acquire another language later in life. As a teacher, I endeavor to continue to research more ways in which I can assist my mature students in overcoming these obstacles and to have an understanding and hopeful attitude that they can reach their second language acquisition goals.

Corrina Cameron is a resident of London, where she lives with her husband Dave. She is a local artist, OCT teacher, and TESL candidate at Fanshawe College.


Ahmadi, Mohammad Reza, Abbas Pourhossein Gilakjani. “Why is Pronunciation So Difficult to Learn?” English Language Teaching 4.3 (2011): n. pg. Web 24 Jan. 2013.

Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education, 2007.

Fromkin, Victoria et al. An Introduction to Language. Toronto: Nelson, 2010. Print.

Kekeç, Mustafa. “Overcoming barriers in second language learning.” N.p, 23 June 2011. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.

Krashen, Stephen D. “Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.” University of Southern California, December 2002. p 64-69. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.


Lightbown, Patsy M. “Anniversary article Classroom LA Research and Second Language Teaching.”
Applied Linguistics 21/4 (2000): p. 431-462. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.


Schouten, Andy. “The Critical Period Hypothesis: Support, Challenge, and Reconceptualization.” Teachers College, Columbia University, Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics 9.1 2009. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.




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