All three types of adult-child comparisons cited earlier related to the cognitive domain of human behaviour. Human cognition develops rapidly throughout the first 16 years of life and less rapidly after adulthood. Some of these changes are critical, others are more gradual and difficult to detect. Jean Piaget outlines the course of intellectual development in a childthrough various stages: the sensorimotor stage from ages 0 to 2, the preoperational stage from ages 2 to 7, and the operational stage from ages 7 to 16, with a crucial change from the concrete operational stage to the formal operational stage around the age of 11. The most critical stage for a consideration of first and second language acquisition appears to occurs, in Piaget’s outline, at puberty.It is here that a person becomes capable of abstraction, of formal thinking which transcends concrete experience and direct perception. Cognitively, then, you can make a strong argument for a critical period of language acquisition by connecting language acquisition and the concrete/formal stage transition.
Ausubel (1964) hinted at the relevance of such a connection in noting that adults learninga second language could profit from certain grammatical explanations and deductive thinking that obviously would be pointless for a child. Whether adults do in fact profit form such explanations depends, of course, on the suitability and efficiency of the explanation, the teacher, the context, and other pedagogical variables. We have observed, though, that children do learn second languages wellwithout the benefit–or hindrance–of formal operational thought. Adults, possessing superior cognitive capacity, often do not successfully learn a second language. Is this capacity, then, a facilitating or inhibiting effect on language acquisition? Ellen Rosansky (1975:96) offers an explanation noting that initial language acquisition takes place when the child is highly “centred”: “He is not onlyegocentric at this time, but when faced with a problem he can focus (and then only fleetingly)on one dimension at a time. This lack of flexibility and lack of decentration may well a necessity for language acquisition.” Young children are generally not “aware” that they are acquiring a language, nor are they aware of societal values and attitudes placed on one language or another. It is said that“a watched pot never boils”; is it possible that a language learner who is too consciously aware of what he or she is doing will have difficulty in learning a second language?
You may be tempted to answer that question affirmatively, but there is both logical and anecdotal counterevidence. Logically, a superior intellect should facilitate what is in one sense an intellectual activity. Anecdotalevidence shows that some adults who have been successful language learners have been very much aware of the process they were going through, even to the point of utilizing self-made paradigms and other fabricated linguistic devices to facilitate the learning process. So, if it is true that mature cognition is a liability to successful second language acquisition, clearly some intervening variables areallowing some persons to be quite successful second language learners after puberty. These variables may in most cases lie outside the cognitive domain entirely, perhaps more centrally in the affective–or emotional–domain.
The lateralization hypothesis may provide another key to cognitive differences between child and adult language acquisition. As the child matures into adulthood, the lefthemisphere (which controls the analytical and intellectual functions) becomes mere dominant than the right hemisphere (which controls the emotional functions). It is possible that the dominance of the left hemisphere contributes to a tendency to overanalyze and to be too intellectually centred on the task of second language learning.
Another construct that should be considered in examining the...