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Language acquisition is an area that continues to mystify professionals even in the 21st century. There is a continual stream of research going on that revolves around how humans learn language. Some neurological aspects of language learning will be addressed but not in great detail. The first portion of this article will deal with language acquisition in regards to children; the second portion will deal with language acquisition as it pertains to young adults and adults.
Linguists claim that all young children learn their first language in a specific and systemic way. The process of learning and speaking a language starts at a very young age, in the home, before a child ever sees the fluorescent lights of a classroom. Children receive no formal language teaching from their parents yet by the time they are six years of age, they are competent language users. ?Language acquisition is part of the overall development of children physically, socially, and cognitively?There is strong evidence that children may never acquire a language if they have not been exposed to a language before they reach the age of 6 or 7.? (Clark) Language definitely plays an integral part in the development of a child. Children are exposed to language as soon as they enter the world, whether they hear it from their mother rocking them to sleep and singing a lullaby or from other adoring people who imitate the child in a loving way when they first start to speak.
Before moving on to second language acquisition in young adults and adults, some neurological aspects of learning will be addressed. Some language experts have put forth the Critical Period Hypothesis to explain at what developmental stage a person can no longer learn a second language. The Critical Period Hypothesis states that there is a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired. The argument for this hypothesis claims ?that a critical point for second language learning occurs around puberty,? meaning that by the time a person is 12 or 13 years old, ??they are ?over the hill? when it comes to the possibility of successful second language learning.? (http://www.literature.freeservers.com/image_polat/ccfsla.html#TOCAC) (For the sake of brevity, when using this website as a citation in the following paragraphs, it will be shortened to literature.freeservers). Those who are in favor of this argument have quite a bit of neurological studies to back them up in their beliefs while some would argue that a person can learn a second language at any point in their life, regardless of age. They just have to have the correct stimuli, such as motivation, experimentation, and a positive learning environment.
In regards to second language acquisition, neurological research has shown that ?as the human brain matures, certain functions are assigned--or ?lateralized?--to the left hemisphere of the brain and certain other functions to the right hemisphere. Intellectual, logical, and analytical functions appear to be largely located in the left hemisphere (where language would be assigned) while the right hemisphere controls functions related to emotional and social needs.? (literature.freeservers) (Please see previous citation to see the full hyperlink). This ?lateralization?, as Lenneberg and Scovel call it, ?emerges at birth but is more evident by the age of five and its completion is evident by puberty.? (literature.freeservers)
A different language expert, Obler, claims that there is indeed ?significant right hemisphere participation and that this participation is particularly active during the early stages of learning the second language.? (literature.freeservers) Although there is not significant evidence to back up Obler?s claim about the right hemisphere participating in second language acquisition, the main point is that it is possible for people to learn a second language. Whether the left hemisphere of the brain or right hemisphere participates does not really matter.
The fact is that some people who do learn a second language in their childhood ?may always have difficulty with pronunciation, rules of grammar, and vocabulary, and they may never completely master the forms or uses of the language. There is no simple way to explain why some people are successful at second-language learning and some are not. Social and educational variables, experiential factors, and individual differences in attitude, personality, age, and motivation all affect language learning.? (Clark)
First and Second Language Acquisition in Early Childhood. Beverly A. Clark. (http://ceep.crc.uiuc.edu/pubs/katzsym/clark-b.pdf)
Comparing and Contrasting First and Second Language Acquisition. (http://www.literature.freeservers.com/image_polat/ccfsla.html#TOCAC)