The critical period hypothesis says that there is a period of growth in which full native competence is possible when acquiring a language. This period is from early childhood to adolescence. The critical period hypothesis has implications for teachers and learning programmes, but it is not universally accepted. Acquisition theories say that adults do not acquire languages as well as children because of external and internal factors, not because of a lack of ability.

Older learners rarely achieve a near-native accent. Many people suggest this is due to them being beyond the critical period.

In the classroom
A problem arising from the differences between younger learners and adults is that adults believe that they cannot learn languages well. Teachers can help learners with this belief in various ways, for example, by talking about the learning process and learning styles, helping set realistic goals, choosing suitable methodologies, and addressing the emotional needs of the adult learner.

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