The critical period hypothesis is a theory in the study of language acquisition which posits that there is a critical period of time in which the human mind can most easily acquire language. This idea is often considered with regard to primary language acquisition, and those who agree with this hypothesis argue that language must be learned in the first few years of life or else the ability to acquire language is greatly hindered. The critical period hypothesis is also used in secondary language acquisition, regarding the idea of a time period in which a secondary language can be most easily acquired.
With regard to primary language acquisition, which refers to the process by which a person learns his or her first language, the critical period hypothesis is quite dramatic. This idea indicates that a person has only a set period of time in which he or she can learn a first language, usually the first three to ten years of development. During this time, language can be learned and acquired through exposure to language; simply hearing others talking on an ongoing and regular basis is sufficient. Once this time period is over, however, those who agree with the critical period hypothesis argue that primary language acquisition may be impossible or greatly impaired.
There is a great deal of research into human brain development that supports this hypothesis, but it is still difficult to prove. One of the only conclusive ways to prove this hypothesis would be to have a person isolated from infancy until about the age of ten, without exposure to human speech. Such upbringing would be unthinkable, however, so this type of experiment cannot be conducted and the hypothesis remains largely unproven.
Unfortunate situations in which a child has been abused and isolated by his or her caregivers have provided opportunities to support the critical period hypothesis. In at least one instance, medical care and study of the child did demonstrate that full language acquisition was nearly impossible. Though this occurrence did support the hypothesis, secondary factors such as possible brain damage make the evidence flawed.
The critical period hypothesis is also frequently applied to secondary language acquisition, though in a somewhat less dramatic way. With regard to secondary language, many linguists and speech therapists agree that a second language can be acquired more easily when someone is young. Studies of the brain indicate that in youth the brain is still developing more quickly and new linguistic information can be processed and incorporated into the brain more easily. Once this period is over, however, secondary language acquisition is still certainly possible, though it can be more difficult.