Critical Period: Hypothesis & Definition

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins

Emily Cummins received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and French Literature and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. She has instructor experience at Northeastern University and New Mexico State University, teaching courses on Sociology, Anthropology, Social Research Methods, Social Inequality, and Statistics for Social Research.

Experts believe that the best time in a person's life to learn a new language is during the first few years of life, also known as the critical period. Learn how this hypothesis was formed and understand the factors that affect language acquisition. Updated: 12/06/2021

What Is the Critical Period Hypothesis?

Has someone ever said to you that you're too old to learn a new language? If so, this person was hinting at the main point of the critical period hypothesis, which argues that there is an ideal period for acquiring languages. A hypothesis is simply a proposed explanation made by a scientist, which can then be tested. Basically, the critical period links language acquisition to age.

This means that once we hit a certain age, our ability to learn our own language is greatly diminished. Although the original hypothesis was developed to understand how babies learn their first language, researchers have also extended the concept to study the best times for people to learn a new language.

The critical period, according to this theory, is the first few years of a person's life. So, assuming you are presented with the appropriate stimuli, you will be much more likely to learn a language when you're 3 than when you are 30!

As you get older, you will have a hard time with new languages, especially their grammatical systems, or the set of rules that all languages have, such as the order of nouns and verbs in a sentence. You might also have a hard time mastering an accent that sounds close to a native speaker.

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  • 0:00 What Is the Critical…
  • 1:13 Development of the Hypothesis
  • 2:20 Challenging the Hypothesis
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Development of the Hypothesis

The neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was one of the earliest champions of the critical period, believing that children up to 9 years old are quite capable of learning a second language.

So, why can't older people learn languages as easily? The evidence for the critical period comes from a few places. First, there is something called neuroplasticity, which basically refers to how your brain changes and adapts as you grow. What does this have to do with learning a language? Basically, as you get older, your brain is less 'flexible.' This makes learning something very challenging, like a language, quite difficult. A child's brain can more easily adapt to new information.

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