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The apparent-time hypothesis is a methodological construct in sociolinguistics whereby language change is studied by comparing the speech of individuals of different ages. If language change is taking place, the apparent-time hypothesis assumes that older generations will represent an earlier form of the language and that younger generations will represent a later form.
Thus, by comparing younger and older speakers, the direction of language change can be detected. The apparent-time method allows change to be studied by synchronic analysis, which examines the state of the language at a particular point in time. That contrasts with real-time sociolinguistics, which compares data from two points in time to observe change directly.
Apparent-time analysis assumes that most features of language are acquired during childhood and remain relatively unchanged throughout an individual's lifetime once that individual is past a certain age. Therefore, a speaker's speech is a reflection of speech patterns acquired during language learning as a child.