Niclas Abrahamsson, associate professor, Centre for Research on Bilingualism
 
"It's very rare that adults acquire a native-like attainment of a second language," explains Niclas Abrahamsson, an associate professor at the Centre. "The few examples that exist have in the past been cited as an argument against the existence of a critical period around puberty after which native-like acquisition of an L2 is extremely rare."

Abrahamsson's latest study, "The Role of Language Aptitude for High-level L2 Proficiency" –an exploration of the role of language aptitude in early versus late second language acquisition– suggests that these native-like speakers of a second language aren't just counter examples to the so-called "Critical Period" hypothesis; they demonstrate that some individuals have an exceptional talent for learning languages in adulthood.

"In one study we looked at forty-one Spanish speakers who, as adults, passed for native speakers of Swedish," explains Abrahamsson. "Eleven learned Swedish between the age of 13 and 23; the others learned Swedish between the age of 1 and 11."

The research revealed that what the late native-like learners had in common was an above average and sometimes exceptional aptitude for learning languages. In contrast, the early learners native-like language skills could be explained by the fact that they were much younger when they first learned the language. For this group, aptitude was shown to have only a marginal effect.

"This is very interesting in terms of our ongoing understanding of the process of how we learn languages," says Abrahamsson. "It's evident that language-learning aptitude is more significant than previous research initially suggested. It clearly plays a significant role in whether or not we become highly proficient in a second language, especially as adults."

Abrahamsson's project is one of nine sub-projects within the High-level Proficiency in Second Language Use Research Program at Stockholm University – funded by The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond).

This initiative brings together linguists from across the Faculty of Humanities at SU to investigate advanced, near-native, or even native-like, levels of proficiency in second language speakers.

"The program is trying to develop a better understanding of the cognitive and psycho-linguistic, linguistic-structural, and socio-psychological and societal conditions that allow language learners to attain such impressive levels in a second language," explains Abrahamsson.

The program also seeks to explore what constraints prevent speakers from going all the way and become entirely like first language speakers.

Initial findings were presented at an International Conference on High-Level Proficiency in Second Language Use at Stockholm University on October 23-25 2008.

The High-level Proficiency in Second Language Use Research Program is set to run until 2011.

Text & interview: Jon Buscall. Jon Buscall is a freelance journalist.