At One-year of Age
People, a lot of them anyway, do not want to believe what I am about to say: Children lose the ability to hear L2 phonemes at around 1-year of age. (Werker & Tees, 1983). This is fact, but when I point it out, reactions range from skepticism to outright denial. People just do not want to believe it.
Research has demonstrated that newborns are able to detect the sounds of any language they are exposed to. This ability enables them to learn any language. However, as infants start focusing on the phonemes of their native language or languages, their perception becomes language-specific. By the time children are 1-year old, they have lost the ability to perceive the sounds they are not habitually exposed to. That is to say, as infants approach one-year of age, they become attuned to the sounds in their native language, while becoming insensitive to the sounds not present in their native language. A recent article from Development Science (Ramirez et. al., 2016) put it this way:
A central phenomenon in phonetic learning is the transition from universal to native language specific phonetic discrimination: Until about 6 months of age, infants are capable of discriminating among many, if not all, the phonetic units of the world’s languages. By 12 months of age, a perceptual narrowing process is well under way: Infants’ sensitivity to native speech sounds increases, and their sensitivity to non-native (foreign language) speech sounds decreases.
This is not to say teachers have not had success teaching children these sounds. Children can learn to distinguish, and pronounce the sounds, and good teachers may do what is necessary instinctively. However, it is good to have a firm understanding of the best methods for teaching listening and pronunciation skills, and it is good to know why they are effective.
The next few posts will discuss the implications of this for teaching children English as a foreign language. In the meantime, if you want to see videos demonstrating how children’s perception becomes language specific, go to aka-kara english.com. Click on “Theory” under the “Our Goals” heading.
Ramirez, N., Ramirez, R., Clarke, M., Taulu, S., & Kuhl, P. (2016). Speech Discriminationin 11-month old bilingual infants: a magnetoencephalography study. Developmental Science. DOI:10.1111/desc.12427.
Werker, J. F., & Tees, R. C. (1983). Developmental changes across childhood in theperception of non-native speech sounds. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 37(2), 278-286.