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Can the critical period be saved? A bilingual perspective



The idea that there is a critical period (CP) for language acquisition that starts sometime after birth and ends sometime around puberty has been central to language studies since Chomsky's paradigm shift that embedded language acquisition into human biological development (for discussion, see Bialystok & Kroll, in press). From early on, the critical period argument was loosely extended to include second language (L2) acquisition, an idea buttressed largely by anecdote: “children learn foreign languages so much better than adults” in spite of evidence to the contrary (Goldberg, Paradis & Crago, 2008; Snow, 1987). The review by Mayberry and Kluender (2017) describes the existing literature on L2 acquisition and adds recent empirical evidence from investigations of individuals learning American Sign Language (ASL) at different ages, often as a first language (L1) to offer important clarifications and insights to this debate. Their argument rests on a clear distinction between processes used in L1 or L2 acquisition to re-evaluation of some of the more extreme claims of the CP view. In brief, they argue that L2 acquisition is not a good test of the CP argument, a point with which we agree. However, our view is that CP effects on language acquisition are even more limited than Mayberry and Kluender suggest and we offer two further arguments to support their own formidable evidence and conclusion.

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Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Ellen Bialystok, Department of Psychology, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3,


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* Preparation of this manuscript was supported by in part by NIH Grants HD052523 and AG048431 and NSERC Grant A2559 to EB and NSF Grants BCS-1535124 and OISE- 1545900 and NIH Grant HD082796 to JFK.



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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
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