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Just Learn English!… It’s Not That Easy

Immigrants who speak English well have more advantages and integrate into American society better than immigrants who are limited English proficient. So why doesn’t everybody just learn English? Unfortunately, it is not that easy.

The Critical Period Hypothesis, first proposed by neurologists in 1959, states that second language acquisition will be relatively fast and successful if it occurs before the age of puberty.  After puberty, language learning requires greater effort that yields less than perfect results.


In line with this hypothesis, those non-English speaking immigrants who arrive in the US after the critical period of language acquisition attain significantly worse eventual English skills than those who arrived as children or were born in the United States. In fact, one study suggests that the ability to speak English proficiently already starts to decrease after the age of 8. [i]

In 2009, the median age to the United States at arrival for immigrants was 22, and about half of immigrants arrived between the ages of 16 and 30. So, it should come as no surprise that 50% of all US immigrants are “Limited English Proficient,” or, as the US Census defines it, speak English “less than very well.”

Since increased age works against language learning skills, it makes sense that many immigrants need assistance communicating in US society. As a result, Community Interpreters play an important role in providing direct access to critical services (such as those provided by hospitals) for those who arrive in the US after the critical language acquisition period and who cannot communicate effectively for themselves.

[i] Age at Arrival, English Proficiency, and Social Assimilation Among U.S. Immigrants, By Hoyt Bleakley and Aimee Chin, June 2009.

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