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Adults and Children’s Acquisition of L2 Phonology

and Critical Period*

Khalid Abalhassan,

Hamdan Alshalawi,

Indiana Universtiy of Pennsylvania 

Arizona State Universtiy

* To appear shortly in ICS Journal (Mar. 2000).



A question of considerable theoretical and practical importance--Is there a critical period for the acquisition of a second language phonology--is seriously debated. A group of researchers propose that there is no critical period and that older learners are better in learning a second language than younger learners. On the other extreme, there is a group of researchers who believe that a critical period for the acquisition of a second language phonology does exist and that younger children are at an advantage of this critical period in learning a second language. A third group thinks it is difficult to draw a clear conclusion about this issue. This paper, however, will attempt to cover  six studies and findings of the major conflicting points of view related to the critical period and the acquisition of an L2 phonology. Following that theoretical background, an empirical study will be conducted to study  the difference between adults and children in the acquisition of L2 phonology. 


A good amount of research has been directed toward finding out whether there is really a critical period of language in every individual, after which it is impossible to learn a second language without an accent. Nevertheless, it seems that opinion among SLA researchers regarding the existence of a critical period in second language learning is “sharply divided” (Long, 1990).

Some researchers (e.g., Johnson and Newport, 1989; Patkowski, 1990; Oyama, 1976) suggest that younger learners are at an advantage and that children can attain a native-like accent in a second language. In contrast, other researchers (e.g., Neufeld, 1978; Snow, 1987; Genesee, 1988; Asher and Price, 1967) claim that “older is better” and reject the “young is better” notion. Even for SL pronunciation ability (Long, 1990). The third group (e.g., Singleton, 1989; Burrill, 1985) thinks that the data are mixed and ambiguous.

In this section we will present four studies of those who are convinced that older L2 learners are more efficient and more successful in attaining a native-like pronunciation, and two studies of those who believe that younger L2 learners are more efficient and successful than older learners and that critical period exists in L2 learning. Then, we will discuss some aspects of the methodologies employed in those studies. After that, we will draw our own conclusions concerning the critical period and the acquisition of phonology in a second language.

A limited experiment is going to follow the theoretical background to our topic. Finally, we will include our recommendations and implications which we find useful for teaching ESL.



The critical period is a time during the life span of an organism in which the organism is more sensitive to environmental stimulation than at other times during its life (Colombo, 1982). Bateson and Hinde (1987) state that critical period “implies a sharply defined phase of susceptibility preceded and followed by lack of susceptibility” (p.20).


The “older is better” opinion

The advocates of this viewpoint claim that older L2 learners (i.e., adults) are at an advantage and are more successful than younger ones (i.e., children), not only in the acquisition of L2 syntax and morphology, but even in phonology.

Another important counter-evidence to the notion of a critical period for phonology is offered by Neufeld (1978), whose research is relied upon heavily by critics of the critical period notion in SLA (e.g., Ellis, 1985; Flege, 1987; Snow, 1987; Genesee, 1988), [ reported in Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991]. Neufeld conducted his study on 20 adults native speakers of English. After receiving 18 hours of intensive instruction in Japanese and Chinese phonology, the 20 adult subjects reported ten statements in each language. The tape later was played to three native speakers of each language (Chinese and Japanese). Three of the 20 subjects received NS rating in one language, and one of the three did so in both languages. These findings led Neufeld to conclude that accent-free SL performance is possible and that there is no critical period for L2 acquisition.

In his test of learning development in Swedish of immigrant children of school age in Sweden, Ekstrand (1976) studied 2,189 eight to seventeen-year-old subjects learning Swedish as a second language over a two year period. Tests for pronunciation, transcription from dictation, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, free oral production, and free written production were administrated to these subjects. Ekstrand found a steady improvement with age and also found that the older children performed better than the younger children in pronunciation, listening comprehension, reading, free writing, and speaking.

The results of these tests revealed little or no age differential in relation to phonetic/phonological skills. In general. The adult and adolescent beginners showed a significant initial advantage over the younger learners. However, the age differences of performance were decreasing at the second and third times of testing, and the children had caught up with the adults and adolescents on pronunciation by time 2.


The ‘younger is better’ opinion

The supporters of this opinion argue that younger learner are at an advantage and that children (not adults) can attain a native-like accent in the second language.

Another example is Asher and Garcia (1969). The subjects for this study were 71 Cuban immigrants to California ranging in age from 7 to 19 years, most of whom had been in the U.S. for about 5 years. A group of native speakers of English (high-school children) acted as judges of randomly ordered recordings of the Cubans and of a control group of 30 American-born children uttering the same set of English sentences. The judges used a four-point scale ranging from ‘native speaker’ to ‘definite foreign accent’, for judging the pronunciation of the subjects.

Asher and Garcia found that not one of the 71 Cuban subjects was judged to have native pronunciation. Nevertheless, many were considered to speak with near-native pronunciation, and the highest probability of being so judged occurred in relation to children who had entered the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 6 years and had lived there over a period of 5 and 6 years. Thus, Asher and Garcia conclude that:

“The implications from the data were that Cuban children had the greatest probability of achieving a near-native pronunciation of English if they were 6 or younger and lived in the United States more than 5 years. Children who came to America when they were 13 or older had a small chance of acquiring a near-native pronunciation even if they lived here for 5 years or more. Children who were between 7 and 12 when they arrived here and then lived here 5 years or more had a 50-50 chance of a near-native  pronunciation (p.339).


Critical Review of Literature

In this section we will present some notes and comments dealing with the methodology of the works reviewed previously in this paper as well as comments dealing with issues related to the critical period and second language acquisition.

1-     It seems to us that Asher and Price’s (1967) study cannot be cited as counter-evidence to the critical period hypothesis for the acquisition of a second language phonology (i.e., pronunciation). Their study has nothing to do with pronunciation, since it focuses on the listening comprehension and retention of Russian.

2-     All the studies, reviewed in this paper rejecting the existing of a critical period for language acquisition, used children ranging from eight to ten years old as subjects representing their younger-children group.

3-     Methodologically speaking, choosing subjects within the range of 8 or 9.5 years to represent younger children in such studies can be viewed (or considered) as a serious limitation and major flaw in these studies.

4-      Regarding Neufeld’s studies (e.g., 1978), Long (1990) and Scovel (1988) critically presented interesting criticism of the methodology of Neufeld’s work. Scovel and Long, first, argue that the non-native subjects tested in the French studies were an elite few, drawn from a true bilingual environment (Long, 1990:267). Second, they (Long and Scovel) think that the speech sample in all Neufeld’s studies was extremely limited. Third, they point out that Neufeld’s instructions to the ratters (judges) may have influenced the findings.

On the other hand, Asher and Garcia (1969) found a length-of-residence effect.  In addition, it might be worth noting that some researchers (e.g., Tahta et al., 1981:266; Scovel, 1988:115-118) have pointed to this issue. For example, Tahta et al. (1981), under a sub-title: Years of residence in L2 country, reported :

“Asher and Garcia (1969) found a length-of-stay effect ; they studied the range of 1-8 years of residence. Oyama (1976) found no such effect, studying the range 5-18 years (Tahta et al., 1981:266)”.  


The Study


            This study will test three Saudi children and three adults who are their parents. The subjects were chosen according to these factors which are meant for control:

1.     length of  residence in the United States.

2.     age of arrival.

The number of subjects (interviewees) was increased by adding two native speakers for test of validity which is to be explained next. For the pilot study, one non-native speaker was tape-recorded only to be used to test the scale but not for the study.

Rating Sheet (scale)

            3 Native speakers of English rating the pronunciation of the subjects were given a sheet to use for evaluation (appendix #1 ). Raters’ understanding of the evaluation sheet was very important. In order to achieve that, authors answered all the raters’ questions and helped them have a clear idea about their role in the study. Another rater was also excluded from the study because of sufficient number of raters (3) which the study proposed to have. A random selection was made to choose the rater to be excluded.

Tape-recording, editing, and rating

In order to tape-record the interviews, respondents were tape-recorded as follows:

1.     A reading text is given to the respondent to read out loud.

2.     After respondents are done reading, they are given an impression by interviewer that the interview is finished (Labov’s style to switch from formal to informal situation) by removing the tape-recorder and switching it off when another tape-recorder is still running. To ensure the respondents’ approval of this way of recording, the consent form states that researchers are allowed to do the tape-recording using any type of instrument including everything said during the interview.

3.     Each tape is to be divided into two parts: the formal part and the informal part. Each part will be saved in a separate tape. The reason behind that is that authors wanted to avoid judgments which raters might make based on the first impression which is according to the order of taping would be made by the formal speech of respondents. Some people are better at informal speech than the formal. Rating the two parts together at a time using one tape might affect the judgment’s validity. Instead, raters will listen to each part randomly.

The Reading text

As found in the literature review, Oyama (1976) used a short paragraph for the formal reading part and a recount of a frightening story from  the subjects’ personal experience.

In this study, we decided to make the reading text relevant to the topic to be talked about after the reading and to have the same topic for the informal part. The reason is that we wanted the subjects to keep on the same topic and be able to speak freely instead of generating a new conversation of a different topic. We also wanted not to draw their attention to the fact that what they would be talking about was equally important to our study as the reading part.

Overall Results and Conclusion

 Our conclusions are mainly influenced by the literature review which was the basis for the limited study we did for this paper. The study was conducted in the light of those previous works. Therefore, our focus in these conclusions will stem first from the literature review and then be narrowed down to the findings of our study.                                     

1.      After going over four studies of those who claim that there is no critical period for the acquisition of a second language phonology, we find ourselves strongly inclined to believe in the existence of the critical period  for the acquisition of L2 phonology which is supported empirically by many studies (e.g., Oyama, 1976; Asher and Garcia, 1969; Tahta et al, 1981; Johnson and Newport, 1989; Newport, 1990; Lenneberg, 1967; Payne, 1980; Scovel, 1988; Larsen-freeman and Long, 1991; Patkowski, 1990).

2.      With respect to the length-of-residence factor, we agree with Asher and Garcia (1969) that the number of years lived in the country of the second language is extremely important in determining fidelity of pronunciation. However, we think that the length-of-residence effect on an L2 learner is conditioned by (a) adequate exposure to the language (input), (b) language practice (output or production), and  language evaluation (follow up and correction).

3.      The limited study conducted in this paper requires a bigger number of subjects whose exposure to the input is about equal. No statistical tests on the results could be made due to the fact that only 6 subjects were involved in the study. This study might have had different results (comparing adults to each other) if Salih was not a doctor. However, we don’t believe that Salih, having been a doctor, has caused a significant  variance to the difference between adults and children’s performance.

Here is a brief summary of the findings of this study: (appendix # 3):

1.     The overall performance of children was found better than the adults’ in both formal and informal speech. There was no one adult whose performance has scored higher than any of the other three children.

2.     There was a difference between the adults’ performance. This variation could be examined in future studies to see if it forms a pattern or what if the study had a bigger number of subjects. However, the kind of work, major and time spent among native speakers was a variable which might have caused the difference among adults. For example, Salih is a resident physician whose job requires him to spend many hours a week with native speakers at work at the hospital. For the other two adults, they were graduate students at MSU but they didn’t spend as much time as Salih did.


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Asher, J., and Price, B. (1967). The learning strategy of total physical response: Some age differences. Child Development, 38, 1219-1227.

Bateson, P., and Hinde, R. (1987). Developmental changes in sensitivity to experience. In M. Bornstein (Ed). Sensitive periods in developmental: interdisciplinary perspectives, pp. 19-34.

Bornstein, M. (1989). Sensitive periods in development: structural characteristics and casual interpretations. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 179-197.

Burrill, C. (1985). The sensitive period hypothesis: A review of literature regarding acquisition of a   native-like pronunciation. A 20-page paper presented at meeting of the TRI-TESOL Conference (Bellevue, WA).

Colombo, J. (1982). The critical period concept: Research, and theoretical issues. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 260-275.

Ekstrand, L. (1976). Age and length of residence as variable related to the adjustment of immigrant children with special reference to second language learning. In G. Nickel (Ed.), Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Applied Linguistics (V.1, pp. 179-198), Stuttgart, Hochschulverlag.

Ellis, RR. (1985). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flege, J. E. (1987). A Critical Period for Learning to Pronounce Foreign Languages. Applied Linguistics, 8, 162-177.

Genesee, F. (1988). Neuropsychology and second language acquisition. In L.M. Beebe (Ed.), Issues in second language acquisition: Multiple perspectives ) pp.81-112). Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

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

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. (1991). An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research, New York: Longman.

Lenneberg, E. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley &Sons. Ch. 4., Language in the Context of growth and Maturation, pp. 125-187.

Long, M. H. (1990). Maturational Constraints on Language Development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12, 251-285.

Lorenz, K. (1937). The Companion in the Bird’s World. Auk, 45, 245-273.

Neufeld, G. (1978). On the Acquisition of Prosodic and Articulatory Features in Adult Language Learning. Canadian Modern Language Review, 34, 163-174.

Newport, E. (1990). Maturational Constraints on Language Learning. Cognitive Science, 14, 11-28.

Olson, L. and Samuels, S. J. (1973). The Relationship Between Age and Accuracy of Foreign Language Pronunciation. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 66, 261-283.

Oyama, S. C. (1976). A Sensitive Period for the Acquisition of a Phonological System. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 5, 261-283.

Patkowski, M. (1990). Age and Accent in a Second Language: A Reply to James Emil Flege. Applied Linguistics, 11, 73-89.

Payne, a. (1980). Factors Controlling the Acquisition of the Philadelphia Dialect by out-of-state Children. In W. Labov (Ed.) Locating Language in Time and Space (pp. 143-178), NY: Academic.

Scovel, T. (1988). A Time to Speak. A Psycholinguistic Inquiry into the Critical Period for Human Speech. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

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

Snow, C. E. (1987). Relevance of the Notion of a Critical Period to Language Acquisition. In M. Bernstein (Ed.), Sensitive Periods in Development: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (pp. 183-209). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Tahta, S., Wood, M., and Lowenthal, K. (1981b). Foreign Accents: Factors Relating to Transfer of Accent from the first Language to a Second Language. Language and Speech, 24, 265-272.


Appendix #1

Oral Pronunciation Rating Sheet

Respondent #       

Please read the following scale to rate the audio-taped interviews you are going to listen to. You will need to respond to two parts in each tape, the formal (reading) and the informal (conversation with interviewer).



Descriptions of Pronunciation


Has a native pronunciation (almost no foreign accent).


Has  a noticeable foreign accent which doesn’t affect comprehension


Has a considerable foreign accent which requires listener to pay strict attention to his/her meaning.


Has so many pronunciation problems that frequent repetitions are necessary


Has such poor pronunciation that speech is mostly unintelligible.


Appendix #2



I,                      give my consent to Mr. Khalid Abalhassan and Hamdan Alshalawi to tape record my conversation that I will have with them including everything said during the interview.

I understand that Mr. Alkahtani and Mr. Abalhassan are going to do the tape-recording using any type of instrument available. I further understand that they are  students at the MA/TESOL program at MSU and are going to use the interview data only for research purposes.

 Signed:                                                Date:

© 2000, Khalid Abalhassan & Hamdan AlShalawi. Rights are reserved for authors and publishing journals.