It's a well known fact that the earlier children are exposed to languages the better, as young children have a better ability to learn new languages than adults.

  • Why is this?
  • At what age does a human's mind start to lose this ability?
  • What causes the change?
  • Does this phenomenon have a name?
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ The Critical Period is a large part of what you're talking about but at the moment I don't have the time for a full answer $\endgroup$
    – Ben Brocka
    Jan 19, 2012 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ This TED video answers some of your questions: Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies $\endgroup$
    – bfrs
    Apr 23, 2012 at 5:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Been meaning to post an answer involving plasticity for a while now. Basically, neuroplasticity decreases with age, and is a big advantage for learning while it lasts. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2015 at 19:02

1 Answer 1


It's theorized that there is a Critical Period of language development in children below the age of five (roughly, as age ranges always are in Developmental Psychology).

Probably the most significant and readily verifiable finding is that a critical period exists for the learning of Phonemes. Research has suggested children readily differentiate phonemes from all human languages at very early ages; less than 5 years old. There is much debate in Linguistics on this matter and many articles covering the discussion .

After this Critical Period most children and adults can only accurately differentiate and produce phonemes present in their native languages and have difficulty producing and differentiating phonemes from other languages. This is why when learning a language late in life learners often struggle with pronunciation.

A classic example of this is the difficulty native Japanese speakers have with English L and R sounds. As L2, late-in-life second language learners they struggle differentiating the actual sounds and thus producing the different sounds.

There are some interesting theories in what can overcome this deficiency in learning "late" (L2) second languages, see Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of Foreign Languages and Teaching Second-Language Phonetics to Adults.

In addition Noam Chomsky has some interesting interviews and publications about language development in children, such as his interview with Lillian R. Putnam.

Note that Chomsky's opinions and theories are controversial, particularly his concept of a "Language Acquisition Device", which is Nativist to an extreme. There is much material on Chomsky's Theories of Language Acquisition but I would take his theories with a grain of salt.

The Critical Period has been found to apply even to children learning sign language. A good overview on this situation is The critical period for language acquisition and the deaf child's language comprehension : a psycholinguistic approach by Rachel I. Mayberry.

The critical period hypothesis for language acquisition (CP) proposes that the outcome of language acquisition is not uniform over the lifespan but rather is best during early childhood. The CP hypothesis was originally proposed for spoken language but recent research has shown that it applies equally to sign language

  • $\begingroup$ Is the critical period what defines children as "universal learners"? I have heard cognitive scientists use the term "Universal Lerner" and want to know if that's the same thing. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Jan 19, 2012 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ Chomsky's approach of language development is nativist, as you mentioned. I find it a little descriptive. It does not tell you why those critical periods exist that way. I think that it lacks explanation. My opnion is that this stage like behavior stays as a group of abstract rules, and weakens the theory. $\endgroup$ Feb 14, 2012 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @KemalTaşkın Lots of Chomsky's ideas lack good explanation or supporting evidence, which is why I hesitate to bring him up in discussion. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Brocka
    Feb 14, 2012 at 14:42

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