Professor Brian MacWhinney Sparks Discourse at 16th Annual APPLE Lecture

Professor Brian MacWhinney. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

Professor Brian MacWhinney. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


If you have ever tried to master a new language, you might have realized that it is a gradual, and often frustrating process. Unfortunately, many researchers agree that acquiring a second language with fluency can only be achieved before adolescence, much to the dismay of adult learners.

Professor Brian MacWhinney, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, however, offers a more hopeful response to the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH), but not before tackling 11 different theorems in support of it, of course.

According to Prof. MacWhinney, 85 percent of students at Carnegie Mellon University, consider the Critical Period Hypothesis as valid, and he agrees that the evidence in favor of it is strong.

The Program in Applied Linguistics and TESOL held their annual APPLE (Applied Linguistics and Language Education) Lecture on April 22, 2016. As per the 16-year APPLE tradition, faculty entrusted the decision of the featured guest lecturer to students in the Program via open online voting.

Students attending the 16th annual APPLE lecture. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

Students attending the 16th annual APPLE lecture. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


This year’s nominated speaker, Prof. MacWhinney, presented in both an afternoon colloquium, “A Shared Infrastructure for Studying Second Language Acquisition”, geared toward AL/TESOL faculty and students, as well as an evening lecture, “Limits on Success in Second Language Learning”.

Program Associate, Carol Lo, explained that the afternoon lecture gives AL/TESOL students an opportunity to interact with the guest speakers in a more intimate setting and engage with theories in their field. Ms. Lo explained of the open lecture, “Anyone who is interested in the topic can come. In a way, we want to do the community a service.” Attendees to the open lecture included TC alumni and faculty from other universities.

In the open lecture, Professor MacWhinney asserted that adults can achieve native speaker level of a second language with good instruction and high exposure to the language. Time, however, is a major barrier to language learning facing adults because adults must respond to daily responsibilities and the demands of their careers.

His Unified Competition Model outlines a set of “risk factors” that might prevent learners from reaching native proficiency. These include linguistic concepts such as entrenchment, transfer, overanalysis and social isolation. To combat these risk factors, Prof. MacWhinney details supports that may protect against these risks, which include resonance, decoupling, chunking and participation. In the afternoon colloquium, Prof. MacWhinney explained his program to support language learning in detail.

Prof. MacWhinney noted some of the problems with the Critical Period Hypothesis, citing Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, Lenneberg’s Lateralization theory and Ullman’s Proceduralization theories to name a few, all of which support CPH. Prof. MacWhinney believes that many of these theories are, in fact, valid, but do not often tell the full story. For example, entrenchment, or the concept that ideas and knowledge become fixed, does indeed occur, according to Prof. MacWhinney, but it does not fully explain why some second language learners are able to obtain a proficient speaking level.

Doctoral student in the Applied Linguistics/TESOL Program, Natalie Saez, speaks at the APPLE Lecture. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.

Doctoral student in the Applied Linguistics/TESOL Program, Natalie Saez, speaks at the APPLE Lecture. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


Prof. MacWhinney later outlined several theories which might support native level proficiency, among them, a study done by Bongaerts, where researchers found that adults can lose their native accents with sufficient effort.

Prof. MacWhinney, who speaks 10 languages himself, points toward social factors as the culprit in the success of language learning. In the case of toddlers and young children learning a new language, he proposed that the influence of parents, schools and peers puts children at risk of not obtaining full proficiency. Perhaps more interestingly, he indicated that the unwelcome attitude toward immigrants has a detrimental effect on language learning. With adults, isolation is one of the primary risks for not mastering the second language. Isolation is often created by lack of time, scarce or infrequent instructional support and formal schooling.

“There are so many other variables that can override the effects of age, that it’s hard to have a position on this,” said Ms. Natalia Saez, AL/TESOL doctoral student, of the Critical Period Hypothesis.

Farah Akbar, also an AL/TESOL doctoral student says, “I think it’s also important to keep in mind that it’s a hypothesis. You can run it, you can test it, it depends on how you do it. But it’s a hypothesis which has gained a lot of attention. It’s something that was introduced back in the early sixties. The debate is still going on, you may or may not support it depending on where you come from in the field.”

TESOL_AL Apple Lecture 04.2016_14

Professor MacWhinney with students during Q&A. Photo by Margaret Ferrec.


Both Ms. Saez and Ms. Akbar noted they were interested in attending this year’s APPLE lecture due to the professor’s esteem as well as the current and innovative nature of his work. “He’s related to cutting edge research in [Second Language Acquisition] right now,” said Ms. Saez. “Hearing his perspectives and opinions and how he is demystifying old ideas related to ultimate attainment, related to a certain time period when it’s possible to learn a language is very interesting to hear.”

Ms. Akbar noted, “This year I especially wanted to attend because this professor, the work that he’s doing, is so up and coming. Plus, he has a technology and second language acquisition strand, which is what I’m interested in.”

Both Ms. Akbar and Ms. Seaz both promoted the Second Language Research Forum being held this September, which will highlight the past 30 years of instructed SLA which will include workshops, presentations and colloquia with both foreign and domestic plenary speakers.

For more information on the APPLE lecture, click here.



Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.