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Age in second language acquisition by Birgit Harley

By Birgit Harley

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She asserts that: "acquiring any representational system, or recreating one for the purposes of a specific task, falls squarely within the realm of problem-solving" (Karmiloff-Smith, 1979a:114), and that "children work on linguistic 'objects' in the same way as on physical objects; they need to be sorted, classified, organized into systems" (Karmiloff-Smith, 1979b:234). Karmiloff-Smith's work on the L1 acquisition of the determiner system in French (a lengthy process of sorting out functions that is not complete until age 810) calls into question the Chomskyan Page 13 hypothesis of an innate faculty for language that is rapidly activated and that is different in nature from other cognitive abilities.

Reflecting on the basic difference between natural settings for language learning and the typical foreign language classroom, Macnamara (1973, 1974) maintains that a vital ingredient in children's successful language learning in the nursery and the street is their involvement in real communication with members of the target language group. This ingredient is normally lacking in the foreign language classroom. To the extent that it is possible to introduce real communication into the classroom, he maintains, it will be possible to teach languages successfully in school regardless of the age of the pupils.

Over the years, various hypotheses have been proposed to account for these informal observations, and a number of empirical studies have been designed to investigate the question of "the optimal age to learn a second language" (Asher & Garcia, 1969). A survey of the literature yields a remarkable diversity of explanatory hypotheses for the perceived advantage of children versus older learners. " In the article cited, Larsen-Freeman proceeds to add yet another possible factor to the list; language input, which she suggests may differ in a way that favours children (see also Wagner-Gough & Hatch, 1975).

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