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Review of  Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Mitsuyo Sakamoto
Book Title: Language Acquisition
Book Author: David M. Singleton Lisa Ryan
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.468

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Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2005 12:06:01 -0500
From: Mitsuyo Sakamoto
Subject: Language Acquisition: The Age Factor, 2nd ed.

AUTHOR: Singleton, David & Ryan, Lisa
TITLE: Language Acquisition
SUBTITLE: The Age Factor, 2nd edition
SERIES: Second Language Acquisition 9
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2004

Mitsuyo Sakamoto, Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning of
the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto


This volume consists of seven chapters, beginning with a historical view of
age-related research in language acquisition. Logically, the authors survey
research concerned with L1, then extend the discussion to L2. Theoretical
perspective is discussed in detail, providing readers with ample research
findings which illustrate the complexities involved in defining the critical
age for second language acquisition. The book ends with practical
implications for actual language teaching.

First chapter is a short introduction which visits the common
notion "younger is better" in learning a language, followed by a brief
discussion on innateness, universality, and uniqueness of human capacities
to acquire languages.

The authors explain the resurgence of popularity in age-related research in
terms of applied dimension, where countries such as Italy, France,
Germany, Ireland and Scotland are now introducing early foreign language
teaching. This trend reflects the popular belief in Critical Age Hypothesis
(CAH; or Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH)), but the authors are quick to
provide both evidence for and against CAH. This provision of both
perspectives is an overall characteristic of this book, guiding the reader
through an exploratory inquiry in age-related issues in language

Chapter 2, "Evidence of speech milestones" is a collection of first language
acquisition research findings, beginning with the research on newborns.
The first year of vocalization process is explored with the focus on
phonological development based on baby's babbling, cooing and crying.
Interestingly, all newborns are described to adhere to an unitary sequence
in terms of vocalization development. However, at the same time, babies
are reported to produce phonemes idiosyncratic to their parent language in
the first year of life.

The discussion continues onto the comprehension of first and subsequent
words on the part of infants. Classic seminal works in this domain are
introduced, including that of Brown (1973), Crystal et al. (1976) and Wells
(1985), with helpful tabulated summary of findings from each study. It is
reported that a considerable unity is observed among infants in terms of
syntax development, but not for lexical, semantic and pragmatic aspects.

The discussion of "what children can do when" is then extrapolated in
Chapter 3 to the domain of CPH explored in terms of L1-related evidence.
The classic discussion of Lenneberg's (1967) neurological account of critical
period is provided, while providing the reader with evidence that supports
the notion of CPH as well as counter-evidence that questions the existence
of a clear cut-off point in language learning. This is done via discussion of
various research, including the study of the deaf, feral children, and
children with Down Syndrome. The discussion is extended to the learning
of L1 after puberty, including the learning of slangs and new vocabulary,
well-formedness and lengths of sentences, and even pronunciation.
Overall, evidence shows that the development in these domains is
continuous, even after puberty.

Chapter 4 explores CPH with respect to findings in SLA research. This
chapter begins with an inquiry in the rather simplistic assumption "younger
is better" in terms of language learning, followed by a discussion of the
other extreme notion, "older is better". The two notions are aggressively
scrutinized, again weighing the plethora of evidence in support of as well as
against CPH. Then the discussion shifts to a more convincing and
somewhat neutral notions, "younger is better in some respects"
and "younger is better in the long run". Throughout the chapter, the reader
is introduced to, and somewhat inundated with, classic works in the area of
age and SLA, for example, Patkowski's (1980) investigation of the English
grammatical competence of 67 immigrants in US, Harley's (1986) study on
different varieties of immersion programs in Canada, Seliger et al.'s (1975)
survey on English and Hebrew proficiency among immigrants in US and in
Israel, Oyama's (1976, 1978) research on Italian immigrants to the US,
investigating the English accent and listening comprehension skill,
Mägiste's (1987) study of response time needed in a naming task for
German speakers residing in Sweden, Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle's (1979)
seminal work on English speakers learning Dutch, and Johnson and
Newport's (1989) findings from oral grammaticality judgment test they
conducted with language learners of different age groups, just to name a

Chapter 5 is titled, "Theoretical perspectives", and provides a rather vast
exploration on the biological as well as social and cognitive factors that
impact language learning. For example, the deterioration of sensory acuity
as well as cerebral hemispheral specialization with increase in age is
discussed. Affective domains of language learning are explored through
the discussion of studies such as Guiora et al.'s (1972) work on language
ego and Schumann's (1975) study on the socio-psychological distance
between L1 and L2. The qualitative differences in input that children and
adults receive are also discussed in this chapter. While it is noted that the
Child Directed Speech (CDS) is often tuned to the infant to supply abundant
cues and comprehensible vocabulary to aid comprehension (e.g., Hatch,
1978), adults are noted for their ability to obtain more input (e.g., Scarcella
& Higa, 1982) thereby allowing them to learn the language more quickly
compared to younger learners.

Chapter 6 extends the discussion to a pedagogical paradigm, concentrating
the discussion on providing L2 curriculum in primary schools and teaching
L2 to older adult learners.

By weighing the research evidence provided in earlier chapters, the authors
come to conclude that early exposure to L2 is important in SLA, not
necessarily due to maturation constraints, but simply for the amount of
input one may gain from early L2 learning. That is, earlier one starts, the
more language contact one gets.

As for the older adult learners, general processing of information may be
slower, and their ability to handle oral-aural material may be limited. They
may also have problems with phonetic coding due to their decreased
hearing acuity. These needs should be addressed and curriculum designed

The final chapter is a short one, illuminating the complex role age plays in
language acquisition. Given a vast but varied research findings in the area,
the authors contend that it is not possible to claim a clear cut-off age in our
abilities to learn a language. In fact, they provide a rather seemingly
pessimistic statement on the research of age and language acquisition,
claiming that perhaps "the idea of a critical period specifically for language
development may well have had its day" (p. 227). Their stance however is
not an abandonment or a dismissal of research in this area. Rather it
reflects the acknowledgement as well as appreciation on the part of authors
for their understanding of language acquisition "result(ing) from the
interaction of a multiplicity of causes and that different phenomena may
have different combinations of causes" (Ibid.). The authors conclude with a
call for further longitudinal detailed studies that investigate the effects of
early and late L2 programmes.


This is an informative volume which densely packs discussions pertaining to
age and language acquisition from multiple perspectives, ranging from that
of neurobiological to social. The layout and content is very similar to the
first edition (Singleton, 1989), but this volume includes more up-to-date
discussions in the field of age and SLA research: The book provides classic
studies documented in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as more current
research in CPH in recent years (e.g., Birdsong, 1999). It is a wonderful read
for those who are unfamiliar with the research in this area, as the authors
are skilled in presenting plenty of evidence as well as counter-evidence that
supports or negates the existence of CPH. This approach is one that allows
readers to engage in profound and meaningful thoughts on the matter. At
the same time, I found the approach to be somewhat confusing, and also
frustrating from time to time, as I was often left with more questions than
answers in terms of CPH. Is there CPH or isn't there?! Readers are left to
derive their own conclusions based on the presented research findings.

The manner in which the material is presented is logical and
straightforward, allowing the reader to easily follow the discussion. The
volume is also comprehensive and balanced in nature, allowing the reader
to access an overview of research in this area, from the classics to
contemporary. The other side of the coin to this strength, however, is that
not any one particular research is discussed in great detail, as that is not the
goal of this book. For a closer read of each study, the authors provide an
extensive list of references at the end of the volume so that each article can
be further searched.

As mentioned earlier, this book tries to present a comprehensive, balanced
view; therefore I am reluctant to recommend a partial reading of the book.
I fear that this could possibly lead to only a partial, and somewhat distorted
view of the issues pertaining to age and language acquisition, which surely
is not the intention of the authors.

While the discussed research in the book all pertained to language learning
and age, I was puzzled by the seemingly unfit description of certain
studies; for example, Braine's (1977) study is described to have
investigated the adolescent and adult immigrants' use of Hebrew in Israel
based on census data (pp. 71-72). The amount of language use is equated
with language learning ability, which I argue is not necessarily the same.
Similarly, the discussion of the poor learning of Irish in Ireland on the part
of primary school students by Harris (1984) is presented as an evidence
against "younger=better" hypothesis (p.82), but the information given
reflects, I believe, more of a social reality rather than that relating to age.

As someone who had studied the phenomenon of optimal age for learning
languages earlier, I had been convinced for quite some time with the
argument of cerebral lateralization proposed by Lenneberg (1967) and its
effects on language acquisition. However, ample research findings
presented by the authors in this volume afforded me an occasion to re-visit
and re-evaluate this notion, questioning my conviction about hemisphere-
specificity of our brain and its relation to language-related capabilities.
While the discussion was compelling and fascinating, as an applied linguist I
found some discussions to be rather scientific and technical, and therefore
somewhat difficult to follow, especially the discussion pertaining to the
anatomy of the brain and research findings afforded by brain-imaging

One study, which I expected to be included in the volume but nevertheless
not mentioned, was Virginia Collier's (1987) study on Limited English
Proficient (LEP) students residing in the US. Her study showed how students
who arrived in the US after age 12 showed the greatest amount of
difficulties in catching up to the national norm. Then again, this study did
not look at language acquisition in isolation per se, but rather at academic
achievement made (including English acquisition) by L2 learners of different
age groups.

Finally, I found the argument that advocates for early L2 learning based on
a greater amount of language exposure is somewhat misleading. Basing
their claim on findings from the studies by Snow and Hoefnagel-Höhle
(1979) and Harley (1986), simple mathematical calculation of time of
exposure to the target language is measured for those learning L2 in a
naturalistic environment versus those studying in a formal setting. For
example, the authors claim how "a year's worth of naturalistic L2 learning is
equivalent in input terms to something approaching four years of total
immersion in a school situation" (p. 201). Given this speculation, the
authors call for a more longitudinal research which controls this
discrepancy in amount of language exposure between the two groups.
While reconceptualizing language acquisition in such a way is fascinating,
the sheer fact of multidimensionality and complexity in learning any
language, which the authors precisely note themselves at the end of the
book, leads one to wonder if controlling the amount of exposure alone will
lead to any enlightening revelation pertaining to age and SLA. Naturalistic
language learning is not only quantitatively but qualitatively different from
that of formal language learning, and any comparisons between the two
must address this qualitative difference.

For those who are thinking of embarking on a study pertaining to age and
language acquisition, this is an essential, compelling introductory reader.
Each chapter except for the introduction and conclusion offers a summary
at the end, assisting the reader in understanding the content. For those
who are more versed in the area of age-related SLA research, this book will
allow one to revisit the notions pertaining to the area, furthering one's
inquiry in complex yet fascinating possibilities of critical periods in
language learning.


Birdsong, D. (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period
Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Braine, M. (1977). The acquisition of language in infant and child. In C.
Reed (ed.) The Learning of Language. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Brown, R. (1973). A First Language: The Early Stages. London: George,
Allen and Unwin.

Collier, V. (1987). Age and Rate of Acquisition of Second Language for
Academic Purposes. TESOL Quarterly 21, 4, Dec, 617-641.

Crystal, D., Fletcher, P. and Garman, M. (1976). The Grammatical Analysis of
Language Disability. First Edition. London: Edward, Arnold (Second
Edition. London: Cole and Whurr, 1988).

Guiora, A., Beit-Hallahmi, B., Brannon, R., Dull, C. and Scovel, T. (1972b).
The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on
pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study.
Comprehensive Psychiatry 13, 421-28.

Harley, B. (1986). Age in Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.

Harris, J. (1984). Spoken Irish in Primary School: An Analysis of
Achievement. Dublin: Institiúd Teangeolaíochta Éireann.

Hatch, E. (1978). Discourse analysis and second language acquisition. In E.
Hatch (ed.) Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings. Rowley,
MA: Newbury House.

Johnson, J. and Newport, E. (1989). Critical period effects in second
language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition
of ESL. Cognitive Psychology 21, 60-99.

Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York:

Mägiste, E. (1987). Further evidence for the optimal age hypothesis in
second language learning. In J. Lantolf and A Labarca (eds). Language
Learning: Focus on the Classroom. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Oyama, S. (1976). A sensitive period for the acquisition of a non-native
phonological system. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 5, 261-84.

Patkowski, M. (1980). The sensitive period for the acquisition of syntax in a
second language. Language Learning 30, 449-72.

Scarcella, R. & Higa, C. (1982). Input and age differences in second
language acquisition. In S. Krashen, R. Scarcella and M. Long (eds.) Child-
Adult Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury

Schumann, J. (1975). Implications of pidginization and creolization for the
study of adult second language acquisition. In J. Schumann and N. Stenson
(eds.) New Frontiers in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA; Newbury

Seliger, H., Krashen, S. and Ladefoged, P. (1975). Maturational constraint in
the acquisition of second language accent. Language Sciences 36, 20-2.

Singleton, D. (1989). Language Acquisition: The Age Factor. Clevedon,
UK: Multilingual Matters.

Snow, C. and Hoefnagel-Höhle, M. (1979). Individual differences in second
language ability: A factor analytic study. Language and Speech 22, 151-62.

Wells, G. (1985). Language Development in the Pre-school Years.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Mitsuyo Sakamoto received her Ph. D. in 2000 in Second Language
Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the
University of Toronto. She wrote her Master's thesis pertaining to the
optimal age for SLA under the supervision of Dr. Birgit Harley of OISE/UT.
Her primary area of interest is bilingualism, specifically language
acquisition, maintenance, loss, and continuity among immigrant children as
well as adults.

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