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5 - Pressed for time: age constraints in second language acquisition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2009

Julia Herschensohn
Affiliation:
University of Washington
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Summary

Introduction

Early in the novel Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee's hero Henry Park meets his future wife (a speech therapist, naturally):

“People like me are always thinking about still having an accent,” I said …

“I can tell,” she said.

I asked her how.

“You speak perfectly, of course. I mean if we were talking on the phone I wouldn't think twice.”

“You mean it's my face.”

“No, it's not that,” she answered … “Your face is part of the equation, but not in the way you're thinking. You look like someone listening to himself. You pay attention to what you're doing. If I had to guess, you're not a native speaker. Say something.”

(ibid., 12)

Henry's perfect pronunciation on the phone seems to confirm the widespread belief that younger learners are more adept than older ones at language acquisition, but his self-consciousness belies the dilemma of immigrants whose nonnative origins surface in subtle ways, both linguistic and social.

Chapter 3 presents evidence that there are biological factors that limit the ability of children to acquire L1 completely under deprived circumstances (with deprivation either of environmental input or of the organismic cognitive system). Normal L1A – most of which takes place in the first four years of life – is quite uniform in schedule and process cross-linguistically. It may be delayed up to age five, but subsequently shows progressive deterioration through childhood.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2007

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