Is there a ‘cut-off age’ for learning languages?

© iStock.com/pixelfit

By Antonella Sorace & Thomas Bak

The idea that there is a critical period for language learning has been around for a long time, at least since Eric Lenneberg’s 1967 book “Biological Foundations of Language”, which proposed that the acquisition of a first language can be successful only if children are exposed to it in early infancy. The concept was then naturally extended to second language (L2) acquisition, given the much greater variation in outcomes among adult language learners. However, conclusive evidence for the biological nature of child-adult differences and for a well-defined cut-off point has not been found.

At the University of Edinburgh, we study speakers at the very upper end of the L2 proficiency range, who can pass for native speakers at least at some levels: the very existence of these speakers shows that it is possible for adults to be very successful at learning a second language later in life. But why do we find so much more variation? There are many different factors contributing to this, including a shorter time scale and the fact that full immersion in the L2 environment can’t be taken for granted for adults in the same way as it can for children. There is evidence that multilingualism helps: the more languages are known, the easier it becomes to learn more. And recent research also shows that the brain of much older adults responds very well to the challenge of learning a new language, even if high proficiency levels are not reached.

Also, the “critical period” might be different for different aspects of language. It is difficult for an adult to learn new sounds to a level of being perceived as a “native speaker”, in fact, this is the case even within the same language in terms of dialects and local accents. In contrast, the rules of grammar can be learned later and we continue to learn new vocabulary throughout our lives, as new words emerge in all languages. Importantly, the fact that with age it might get more difficult to learn some aspects of language (as is the case with many other activities, such as engaging in sports or playing musical instruments) should not discourage us from doing it. On the contrary, learning languages might be one of the best ways of keeping our mind agile in later life!

Useful links

Here’s when it gets more difficult to learn a new language, according to science

Students should learn second language to prevent dementia in later life

Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium 2018

Our 2018 inaugural research symposium aims to provide an opportunity for researchers in Edinburgh and from across our Bilingualism Matters international network to come together to share and exchange ideas on any aspect of bilingualism, with a focus on dissemination potential beyond the academic world.  

Important Dates – PLEASE NOTE CHANGE TO ORIGINAL DATES
02 March 2018              Submissions open
31 March 2018              Submissions close
Early April 2018            Panel meet
Early April 2018            Notification of acceptance
May 2018                       Registration open (free to students; £30 others)
07 September 2018       Symposium (9am to 3.30pm)

Call for submissions
Presentations should be for an academic, interdisciplinary audience, avoiding specialist jargon. We are interested in receiving proposals for presentations on any aspect of bilingualism, including, but not limited to:

  • typical and atypical child bilingualism 
  • adult language learning and lifetime bilingualism 
  • cognitive effects of bilingualism and other types of experience 
  • bilingualism and bidialectalism 
  • bilingualism and social cognition 
  • bilingual education 
  • the neurolinguistics of bilingualism 
  • bilingualism in policy making 
  • sociological and social aspects of bilingualism

Our panel of expert reviewers will choose abstracts for 15-minute talks and posters, based on the following criteria: 

  1. Rigour of research
  2. Originality of research 
  3. Potential for dissemination through Bilingualism Matters network 

Submission Format

  • Abstracts should be max. 300 words in Arial (11 point), excluding tables and references.
  • Additional max. 50 words in same document is required describing how your research is relevant to the needs of the general public, policy makers or professionals (health, education etc.)
  • These should be submitted on one A4 page.
  • Figures, tables, examples and references can be on a second page.
  • Document to be uploaded in pdf format.
  • Submit anonymous abstracts to Easychair at the following link: https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=bmrs2018

Indicate a preference for oral or poster presentation, and provide up to five keywords. The application will ask for the title, the name(s) of author(s) and their affiliation(s) separately and submissions to the panel will be anonymised.

Contacts
If you have any questions or require further details please contact us by email or phone.
Email: bilingualism-matters@ed.ac.uk
Phone: (44) (0)131 650 2884

 

Bilingualism Matters with ‘Little Linguists’ at Heathrow Airport

This Easter, we worked with Heathrow Airport to promote language learning for children, as part of their ‘Little Linguists’ scheme. Our Director, Professor Antonella Sorace, advised in the development of packs of fun flashcards in different languages, designed to spark an interest in language learning for the thousand of families passing through the airport over the Easter 2017 weekend. [Read more…]

Irish Gaelic: political football or treasure?

Post by Dr. Mimo Caenepeel

A few weeks ago, a sideways reference in a larger news item about the current crisis in Northern Ireland caught my attention: the newsreader reported that  ‘support for the Irish language’ was one factor in the complex breakdown of relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP. A quick online check gave me a bit more information. Just before Christmas, the DUP’s community minister Paul Givan decided to withdraw £ 50,000 in funding for an Irish Language (or ‘Irish Gaelic’) bursary scheme. Although that decision has since been reversed, Sinn Féin at the time called it ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

While arguably small fish in an ocean of news, this struck me as an interesting example of the impact of community language issues, not just on daily life but also on political processes. A ‘community language’ is a language used as their primary language by a community of people on a daily basis. While the number of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland who claim to have some knowledge of Irish is increasing (especially in urban areas like Dublin), the use of Irish as a community language is contracting; in fact, Irish is expected to disappear as a primary language by 2025. That puts Irish Gaelic (together with Scottish Gaelic) on the list of UK languages that are ‘definitely endangered’. [Read more…]

Workshop: The selectivity of native language attrition

Venue: University of Edinburgh
Date: 13-14 October 2017

Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh is pleased to host this two-day workshop “The selectivity of native language attrition” as part of the ESRC-funded First Language Attrition Seminar Series (ES/M001776/1) led by Monika Schmid (University of Essex).

Meeting Description

Very broadly, language attrition can be defined as changes in a speaker’s native  language (L1) as a result of increased use of another language (L2). Among the most intriguing questions in research on bilingualism is the selectivity of L1 attrition in first-generation speakers. What exactly changes in the L1?  Why are some linguistic properties more vulnerable than others to change under conditions of diminished exposure and use? Are these the same properties that are variable in heritage speakers, who may have experienced language attrition at an earlier age? An understanding of the relationship between L1 attrition and L2 acquisition in late bilinguals can advance our understanding of language and cognition in multilingualism.

Invited Speakers

Kinsey Bice (Penn State University)
Laura Dominguez (University of Southampton)
Janet Grijzenhout (Leiden University)

Dates

Registration open:                   4 August – 10 October 2017
Seminar:                                    13–14 October 2017

Programme

Download programme (pdf)

Registration

Registration is open via the University of Edinburgh ePay system.
Standard rate: £100.00  Student rate: £50.00
Registration includes lunch and refreshment breaks on both days. Dinner is optional and not included in registration price. Please indicate if you plan to attend the dinner when registering, and further booking details will be sent by email in the coming weeks.

Travel and Accomodation Guide

Download travel and accommodation guide (pdf)

Organising committee

Antonella Sorace (University of Edinburgh, Bilingualism Matters)
Roumyana Slabakova (University of Southampton)

Questions

Please email bilingualism-matters@ed.ac.uk if you have any questions about registration.

Bilingualism Matters Network Dissemination Meeting in Trento, September 2016

 

Trento_Group

On the 13th and 14th of September 2016, researchers from Bilingualism Matters branches around the world came together in Trento, Italy, for the dissemination network meeting ‘Engaging in research on bilingualism’. [Read more…]

Language Lessons on the NHS

Language learning on Good Morning Scotland

Prof. Antonella Sorace discusses language learning in Scottish schools

Bilingualism Matters at the BBC

Antonela Sorace at the BBC studios

Earlier this summer, Bilingualism Matters director Professor Antonella Sorace travelled to BBC studios in London for a recording of world service programme The Forum. Professor Sorace was joined by bilingual writer Gustavo Perez Firmat, and Professor Ellen Bialystok from York University, Toronto. The three panellists discussed the effects of speaking more than one language on a child’s development and identity. The programme was first broadcast on 30 AUgust 2014, and is now available to listen to online.

Listen to the 45 minute discussion with journalist Bridget Kendall on the BBC site: BBC The Forum

While she was at the BBC, Professor Sorace was also asked to give a one minute pitch for an idea that could change the world for the better. Her idea was simple: a a prenatal belt that plays songs and poems in different languages.

Hear Professor Sorace explain more about how the belt would work, and why it would change the world, by listening to the Sixty Second idea to Improve the World podcast: BBC Sixty Second Idea to Improve the World

Take part in research

Volunteer-HandsWithout participants like you, there can be no research into bilingualism.

If you or your family would be interested in taking part in research at the University of Edinburgh, please email us: bilingualism-matters@ed.ac.uk.

Our Researchers will get in touch with you in due course.