When people who are monolingual talk about the possibility of learning a second language, one thing they often remark is that they wish they had done it when they were younger because it would have been easier. It turns out that adults do learn languages more quickly and, in a way, easier than children do, even though this is a widely believed belief—even among linguists.
First, let’s get something straight. So far, research does firmly support the assumption that children acquire a first language at a faster rate than adults. As we discussed in our article “How Deaf People Think,” deaf children who do not learn a complex structured language as infants (and it’s important to note that sign language is just as effective as verbal) often struggle with memory problems, lack of capacity for abstract reasoning, and other cognitive disabilities as adults. Most importantly for our purposes, when these people reach adulthood, they usually have a very hard time learning a first language. Cases involving feral youngsters provide similar examples. So, at least with first languages, children come out on top because it takes less time than never to become fluent.
It goes without saying that when people complain about how hard it is to acquire a second language, they are expressing their dismay at the fact that children can pick up new tongues more quickly than adults.
It takes a huge year or so, give or take, for a child to learn their first few words, and then a few more before they start articulating well, speaking in relatively complex sentences, and featuring a reasonably robust vocabulary. If you’ve ever been around a child, well, you might have noticed that at first, their comprehension leads to their speaking a bit. They still have a long way to go before they can be considered proficient in their native tongue. And by “many years,” I mean decades!
The situation is identical when it comes to kids picking up multiple languages simultaneously. They still need a lot of time and effort to reach a level of proficiency similar to that of an adult in this second language. People believe that kids pick up languages quickly, says linguist Dr. Karen Lichtman. They move at a snail’s pace.
As evidence, think about the research of Israeli linguists Sara Ferman and Avi Karni, titled “No Childhood Advantage in the Acquisition of Skill in Using an Artificial Language Rule,” which supports this idea. Although it is often known that adults are significantly more adept at learning new languages than children are when it comes to explicit learning, the researchers in this study were interested in seeing how adults would do when it came to controlled implicit language acquisition.
Therefore, the researchers in the study came up with a rule that states verbs in a phrase should be pronounced differently when referring to inanimate or animate objects, respectively. The participants were just given a word and asked to pronounce the proper verb based on what they heard, with no explanation of the rule provided. Participants included adults of varied ages, as well as groups of children aged 8 and 12.
What became of it all? The adults mopped the floor with the kids, as one might expect from the paper’s title. In particular, the study found that adults outperformed children at both ages and that 8-year-olds performed the worst across the board, even when it came to explicitly implicit task conditions. Taken together, the effects of maturation on the development of an implicit AMR disprove the simplistic idea that youngsters have an advantage when it comes to learning new languages.
When the kids were tested again two months later to determine who recalled the rule best, the adults were champions again, the 12-year-olds were second, and the 8-year-olds were last.
“Is It True That Children Are Inherently Good at Learning New Languages? (Age and Learning Environment)” is another worthwhile study. In a study headed by the aforementioned Dr. Karen Lichtman, the researchers taught groups of people of different ages a made-up language they named Sillyspeak. Importantly, they imparted the knowledge to certain groups in an indirect manner while others were taught it directly. What became of it all? Adults were more precise than children, regardless of the kind of education (implicit or explicit), according to Dr. Lichtman. While children lagged, grownups raced forward.
The Adult Learning Dilemma
It’s a common belief that adults struggle to learn new languages, especially when compared to the seemingly effortless language acquisition of children. But what’s the underlying reason behind this perception?
As adults, our more sophisticated brains can hinder the language learning process. We often approach language learning by accumulating vocabulary, but may not fully grasp how each word interacts to create grammatically correct sentences. This fundamental understanding can elude us, making language acquisition a more challenging task.
The Challenge of Grammar and Syntax
One key factor that makes language learning daunting for adults is the need to retrain our brains to think in new ways. Picking up the grammar and syntax rules of a new language can be tough, especially if you’ve been accustomed to the structures of your native language for many years. The intricate dance of verb conjugations, sentence structures, and word orders can be a formidable barrier.
Pronunciation – The Lingering Hurdle
Correct pronunciation in a new language presents another formidable challenge. It often involves mastering unfamiliar phonemes or sounds that our vocal cords aren’t accustomed to producing. The process of training our tongues and vocal apparatus to mimic these new sounds can be time-consuming and frustrating.
Is There an Easier Way?
Now that we’ve dissected the challenges, is there a silver lining? Are there languages that are inherently easier to learn?
Some languages are indeed more approachable for English speakers due to their linguistic similarities. Among the Germanic languages, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and German stand out as relatively accessible options. Similarly, Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian share common roots with English, making them more manageable for learners.
The Ideal Age for Language Learning
If you’re wondering about the ideal age to embark on a language learning journey, research suggests that starting early has its advantages. While it’s never truly “too late” to learn a new language, children have a unique edge. They tend to absorb languages, particularly pronunciation, more effectively and efficiently if they start learning them at a young age. Experts recommend beginning language education by age 10 for the best chances of achieving native-like fluency.
So, is it ever too late to learn a new language? Language experts argue that age is not a barrier, but it does introduce differences in how children and adults approach language learning. While children seem to effortlessly soak up languages, adults bring their own set of skills and challenges to the table.
Tips for Adults
- Immerse yourself in the language you’re learning. Surround yourself with it as much as possible. Change your device settings, watch TV shows, listen to music, and read books in the target language. The more exposure you get, the faster you’ll pick it up.
- Define clear, achievable language learning goals. Break down your journey into smaller milestones. For example, aim to learn a specific number of new words or complete a certain grammar module each week. Celebrate your victories along the way.
- Establish a consistent learning routine. Dedicate a specific time each day to practice. Even if it’s just 20-30 minutes, regularity will reinforce your language skills and make learning more efficient.
- Don’t shy away from speaking aloud. Engage in conversations, whether with native speakers or language exchange partners. Speaking helps you internalize the language’s sounds and rhythms.
- Embrace your mistakes as valuable learning opportunities. When you make errors, it’s a sign that you’re pushing your boundaries. Correct yourself and move forward with newfound knowledge.
- Explore the culture associated with the language. Learn about traditions, holidays, and customs. Understanding the cultural context can deepen your connection to the language and motivate you to learn more.
- Leverage language learning apps and online resources. These tools offer interactive exercises, quizzes, and pronunciation practice that can complement your learning journey.
- Language learning can be challenging, but persistence is your greatest asset. On difficult days, remind yourself why you embarked on this journey. Stay motivated and keep pushing forward.
- Don’t hesitate to seek feedback from experienced speakers or language instructors. Constructive criticism can pinpoint areas for improvement and accelerate your progress.
- Build a support system for fellow language learners. Join online forums, communities, or local language clubs. Sharing your experiences and challenges with others can be encouraging and insightful.
- If you have the opportunity, travel to a place where the language is spoken. Immersing yourself in the environment will sharpen your language skills and boost your confidence.
- Cultivate a growth mindset. Embrace challenges and believe in your ability to learn. A positive attitude can make a world of difference in your language-learning journey.
- Keep a language learning journal to track your progress. Document new words, phrases, and cultural insights you’ve acquired. Reflect on how far you’ve come—it’s a motivating reminder of your achievements.
- Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem. Recognize the effort you’re putting in and acknowledge your milestones. Positive reinforcement fuels your motivation.
- Remember, language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay patient, keep practicing, and trust in your ability to learn. Over time, your dedication will pay off, and you’ll become a proficient language speaker.
While the myth that children are inherently better at learning new languages persists, research suggests otherwise. Adults can indeed learn languages more quickly and efficiently than children, debunking the long-held belief.