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How Critical is the Critical Period for Language Development?
How Critical is the Critical Period for Language Development?
The critical period hypothesis of language development is the idea that there is a range in the early years of human life when a second language is most easily acquired, and after that, acquisition is more difficult and less successful. This theory was originally put forth in 1959 by Penfield and Roberts in their book “Speech and Brain Mechanisms.” They claimed that prior to roughly 9 years old, a child's brain has a “specialized capacity for learning language” (p. 240). Subsequently, other language researchers seemed to confirm their hypothesis, including Lenneberg, who believed that “foreign accents cannot be overcome easily after puberty (1967, p. 176).

While a lot of linguists and language acquisition experts over the years have agreed that age plays an overall factor in determining the degree of ease with which one acquires a second language, it gets more ambiguous when we start to drill down on when, why, and to what degree. This subject matter is very interesting to me, and as a pronunciation instructor, I have been especially most interested in why. This is mostly because pronunciation and sound have been such favored targets of researchers who believe the critical period theory is absolute.

In my experience with adult students, I have found that a calculated intervention to effectively address and make sense of the disconnect between visual and auditory information the student is receiving from written and spoken English, along with an interactionist approach, can serve to accelerate and enable pronunciation transformation. The more difficult the language pair is, the more dramatic the effect. In other words, providing a system for processing the sounds, targeted ear training, constant communication in the second language, and feedback from a native speaker partner goes a long way toward creating a similar “adult version” of a child’s learning environment, which seems to level the playing field a lot. I believe both Tim Donner and Krashen’s respective interactionist methods seem to reinforce my instincts in this respect.

When discussing these types of dynamics, I also think about the key differences in the two learning environments. One of these differences is the fact that adults need to read and write immediately or very soon to survive, but children can wait. Another notable difference (and I believe very relevant to pronunciation) is the order in which one learns the four basic skills. Young children listen first, then speak, and then eventually read and write. Adults need to read and write immediately at, or very soon after, the same time they learn to listen and speak in order to survive in their new environment. Add to this all of the other responsibilities involved in being an adult, and it’s no small wonder that there is a difference in effort when it comes to acquisition.

For these reasons, I personally suspect that age itself is less a factor than originally thought. I don’t believe, however, nor will I state unequivocally, that it is never a factor at all.


Doner, Tim. (2014). Breaking the Language Barrier. TEDxTeen.

Krashen, Stephen D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

Penfield, Wilder and Lamar Roberts. (1959). Speech and Brain Mechanisms. Princeton University Press.

lrngo users in over 190 countries

Second Language Writing Sketch
It can be very intimidating for anyone who needs to write in a language that is not their primary language. This is especially true when it comes to academics, where your paper is not only judged on content, but also on grammar and the correct use of the language itself.

However, it turns out one of the most helpful ways to improve your writing in your second language is to write about your own writing process. You can find out more about the validation of this statement here: Transforming ESL Writing Fear Through Autobiography.

Below is an introspective technique that I recommend for both language teachers and students designed to increase writing ability in your second or other language. It is called the Writing Sketch. (For a set of exercises to help facilitate writing your autobiography and telling your own story in a second language, see the Life Sketch.)


Compose brief paragraphs for each section below to begin compiling an autobiographical sketch of your second language writing experience. Answering the preliminary questions about your first language will help you reflect on how you learned to write in your new language and what that experience has been like for you, while also providing a current assessment of your writing strengths and challenges. This exercise concludes with helping you develop a plan to begin improving your second language compositions.

Learning to Write

  • What is your first language, and do you listen, speak and read in that language?
  • Are you comfortable writing in your first language? Describe the kinds of writing you have done.
  • Can you write in other languages? If so, state the kinds of writing you have done.

Learning to Write in your Second Language

  • Describe why you decided to learn your second language.
  • Describe your most helpful second language instructor, and how that person taught you to write.
  • Describe your most challenging second language instructor, and how that person taught you to write.

Second Language Writing Strengths and Challenges

  • Describe what it is like for you to write in your new language when you are given a writing assignment.
  • Describe your most memorable second language writing assignment.
  • Describe your most difficult writing assignment in your second language.
  • When you prepare a writing assignment in your second language, what challenges do you encounter?

Improving Your Second Language Writing

  • Describe one writing challenge you want to work on.
  • What kind of help do you need to meet this challenge?
  • Write a brief plan for working on this challenge to review with your peers and instructor.

Old school typewriter

Writing Sketch Prep Sheet


To compose your sketch, reflect on each question below and make notes. Then, prepare an outline and write your piece. The purpose of this exercise is to help you gain writing awareness, rate your second language writing skills, develop a plan to improve future compositions, and discuss it with your instructor.

  1. Name your first language and describe how you learned to write in your mother tongue.
  2. Why did you learn your second or other language and how long have you studied it?
  3. When you have to prepare a writing assignment in your second language, what comes to mind?
  4. Describe how instructors have taught you to write in your new language and the methods they used.
  5. Who have been your best second language teachers, and why are they important to you?
  6. Describe your three best second language writing experiences and why they are important.
  7. Rate your writing skill in your second language, and list your writing strengths and challenges.
  8. Develop a plan for improving your academic writing in your second or other language. Include goals, writing resources needed, and completion dates. Meet and discuss your plan with your teacher and implement the plan.

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Kindness is a Language
Tips For Teaching English in a Language Exchange
Sometimes we hear native English speakers who want to practice language exchange give this response: “I would do it, but I can't teach.” Even worse, sometimes you will hear someone state in plain English, “I would love to learn a second language from this person, but I have nothing to ‘exchange.’” (Um…did you just say that in English?)

While teaching someone else your native language might seem a little scary at first if you have never taught before, it’s important to remember two things: 1) the person across from you is likely going to learn a lot by interacting with you regardless of your lack of teaching experience, and 2) the most important thing is that you want to help. In fact, for anyone practicing language exchange for the first time who might be intimidated by using the word “teach,” you could just as easily use the terminology “help you learn.” It1 might be comforting to know that in all actuality, “I will help you learn English in exchange for you helping me learn your native language,” is a probably a more accurate representation.

Regardless, there is always value in learning a few pointers from those who are more experienced in language exchange and who have taught many people successfully. Here are a few suggestions from one such person. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and certainly there is no one “right way” to teach or practice English conversation, but you can use the list below as a collection of tips or as a basis that you can draw from to help foreign speakers learn.

It’s important to remember the list below does not address the difficulty that the English learner may have pronouncing the words or making the sounds, nor the fact that being understood is necessary to carry on a conversation. For the comfort level of the learner, you might consider helping him or her with the basic sounds as well, and recommending or providing a tool that he or she can use at home to practice so she/he can be understood.

Try teaching in the following order: (Introduce a little more at each lesson, while reviewing what was taught previously):

  • Hello [method(s) of greeting]:
  • How are you?:
  • Thank you:
  • Excuse me / I'm sorry:
  • Yes / No / Maybe / I don't know
  • [Basic pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.)]:
  • [Most basic verbs - to do / to make / to speak / to learn / to study / to go / to come / to like / to love / to know / to understand (without attn to conjugation)]:
  • There are / There is / Are there? / Is there?
  • [Locative pronouns (this, that), Locative adverbs (here, there, over there)]:
  • [Question words (Where? How? Do/Does...? Why? How much? How many?)]:
  • "How do you say [language]"

Teach prepositions, adjectives, numbers and other basics keeping in mind sentence structure and the position and role that they play
  • Expressing desire (I want to go; I want water)
  • Expressing ability and negatives (I can speak / I don't speak / I can't speak)
  • May I...? [asking permission]:
  • Commands [remember levels of politeness/formality]
  • If..., then... / Only if ..., then...
  • But / And / Or:
  • Because..., therefore...
  • For (the sake of):
  • Expressing volition (Let's go! / Let's ...!)
  • Possessives/Modifiers (my, his)/(the big mane, the man who can sing)

After this, the student will have heard enough speech to understand the basics and hopefully what sounds can be made in the language. Heve the student keep interjections in mind "Uhmmm" "Like, like" " Y'know? Y'know?" "Ouch!" "Hey!" and insert them as you say them. If they are trying to recall a word, encourage them to say "Uhhh/Uhmm" in the way you would WHILE you are thinking. In the end, conversation is not about getting it “grammatically right,” it’s about communicating. There’s a time for explaining how things work, but don’t worry about mistakes while you are practicing the actual conversation—just keep going. Then go back to explain and fix things.

Photo Credit: GLady
Photo Credit: BK
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