Cognitive scientists define critical period for learning language | MIT News

Photo of several children writing on a chalk board
May 2, 2018

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office
May 1, 2018


Excerpt:  A great deal of evidence suggests that it is more difficult to learn a new language as an adult than as a child, which has led scientists to propose that there is a “critical period” for language learning. However, the length of this period and its underlying causes remain unknown.

A new study performed at MIT suggests that children remain very skilled at learning the grammar of a new language much longer than expected — up to the age of 17 or 18. However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10.

“If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old. We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that,” says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who conducted this study as a postdoc at MIT.

People who start learning a language between 10 and 18 will still learn quickly, but since they have a shorter window before their learning ability declines, they do not achieve the proficiency of native speakers, the researchers found. The findings are based on an analysis of a grammar quiz taken by nearly 670,000 people, which is by far the largest dataset that anyone has assembled for a study of language-learning ability.

“It’s been very difficult until now to get all the data you would need to answer this question of how long the critical period lasts,” says Josh Tenenbaum, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an author of the paper. “This is one of those rare opportunities in science where we could work on a question that is very old, that many smart people have thought about and written about, and take a new perspective and see something that maybe other people haven’t.”

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is also an author of the paper, which appears in the journal Cognition on May 1.


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Read the scientific paper reference in the article: "A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers" by Hartshorne et al, in Congnition at URL: