Salvaging A Childhood Language

Childhood experience with a language seems to help adult learners speak it with a more native-like accent. Can analogous benefits be found beyond phonology? This study focused on adult learners of Spanish who had spoken Spanish as their native language before age 7 and only minimally, if at all, thereafter until they began to re-learn Spanish around age 14 years. They were compared with native speakers, childhood overhearers, and typical late-second-language (L2)-learners of Spanish. Both childhood speakers and overhearers spoke Spanish with a more native-like accent than typical late-L2-learners. On grammar measures, childhood speakers—although far from native-like—reliably outperformed childhood overhearers as well as typical late-L2-learners. These results suggest that while simply overhearing a language during childhood could help adult learners speak it with a more native-like phonology, speaking a language regularly during childhood could help re-learners use it with more native-like grammar as well as phonology.