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2.1.3. Conclusion: from L1 to L2

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Just like perceptual capacities, the influence of the mother tongue on the infant’s production
capacities appears quickly. Johnson and Reimers (2010) note that the L1 influence is already
present as early as babbling. Following Best’s (1995, for example) Perceptual Assimilation
Model (PAM), the close link that exists between perception and production accounts for the
way children reproduce adults’ articulatory gestures in their babbling, hence the recurrent
debate on whether babbling should be considered to be linguistic or pre-linguistic. Albeit
present, the influence of the L1 is still very recent in the early linguistic behaviour of
children, and the ability to learn a wide range of languages goes on up to a certain age. At
first, infants’ perception and production skills are said to be universal. Young children can
acquire any language with no foreign accent, contrary to older children and adults (Werker,
1995). This may also explain why a lot of children are less embarrassed to speak a foreign
language than older humans are. According to most authors, infants produce all the possible
human sounds during their early vocal behaviour (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1971: 359), even in the
babbling stage. As is well summed up in Abercrombie (1967):

A child, provided it has sufficient incentive, can attain effortless perfection in the
pronunciation of any language with which it may come into contact. When we
grow older, however, and have a foreign language to learn, a level of
performance comparable to that reached by the child is something for which we
have to work very hard. The exact age at which children lose their remarkable
aptitude for copying speech sounds is not known, and much research on the
subject remains to be done. (20-21)

This statement is reinforced by Johnson and Reimers’s (2010: 45): “Any normally developing
child is capable of mastering any one of the thousands of languages of the world equally
well, within a relatively short period of time, without any instruction”. In France, one notices
that more and more bilingual toys designed for very young children are sold, probably to
make the most of this language universal capacity and to reinforce the child’s overall

If the influence of the mother tongue touches perception skills very early, and is present
even in the babbling stage of the early learner’s productions, then one might have misgivings
about the possibility to attain native-like production and perception capacities when it comes
to the acquisition of a foreign language. As will be seen in the next section, the hypothesis of
a critical period for language acquisition (Lenneberg, 1967), among other theories and
experimental studies, runs counter to the view according to which late learners of a language
can attain native-likeness.

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