How The Brain Learns A Second Language : Short Wave Becoming fluent in a second language is difficult. But for adults, is it impossible? Short Wave hosts Maddie Sofia and Emily Kwong dissect the "critical period hypothesis," a theory which linguists have been debating for decades — with the help of Sarah Frances Phillips, a Ph.D. student in the linguistics department at New York University.

You can watch a related video about Emily learning Mandarin here. It's part of the Where We Come From series.

'I'm Willing To Fight For It': Learning A Second Language As An Adult

'I'm Willing To Fight For It': Learning A Second Language As An Adult

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1006247481/1007015176" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

There are over 7,000 known languages spoken by people around the world. Olga Klimentyeva / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium hide caption

toggle caption
Olga Klimentyeva / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

There are over 7,000 known languages spoken by people around the world.

Olga Klimentyeva / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

Becoming fluent in a second language is difficult. But for adults, is it impossible?

Science says no.

Short Wave hosts Maddie Sofia and Emily Kwong dissect the "critical period hypothesis," a theory which linguists have been debating for decades — with the help of Sarah Frances Phillips, a Ph.D. student in the linguistics department at New York University. We explore where the theory comes from, how it applies to second-language acquisition, and what it means for Emily's efforts to learn Mandarin Chinese as an adult.

We are publishing a special episode in the Short Wave feed on Sunday, June 20th — all about Emily's journey to reclaim her heritage language at age 30 and unpack why she never learned Mandarin Chinese in the first place.

This upcoming episode is part of the Where We Come From series, featuring stories from immigrant communities of color across generations, in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. Find more stories here.

YouTube

Special thanks to sociolinguist Amelia Tseng, Fluent City, Dennis Yeuh-Ye Li, Megan Arias, and the Kwong family, especially Christopher Kwong, Timothy Kwong, Linda Kwong, and Amanda Kwong. The team at Where We Come From is Anjuli Sastry, Michael Zamora, Julia Furlan, Diba Mohtasham, Nicole Werbeck, and Yolanda Sangweni.

This episode was produced by Thomas Lu, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Indi Khera. Alex Drewenskus was the audio engineer.