Scientists Point Critical Period for Learning Language

Saturday, May 5, 2018 - 12:55

Based on a new study that has been carried out in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), children must start to learn a new language by the age of 10 to achieve the fluency level of a native speaker.

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, MIT News reports.

According to the study, 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.”

To obtain their findings, which were published in the journal Cognition, researchers at MIT and Harvard studied the results of a grammar quiz completed by almost 670,000 participants, the biggest ever data set on language and learning.

"We tested English-speakers in nearly every country on Earth," said Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College who authored the study as part of his postdoctoral qualification at MIT, "And although we didn’t focus on it in this paper, we learned a lot about how English varies from place to place and dialect to dialect. It turns out that the grammars of the world Englishes vary in complex and interesting ways."

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