Success has no age limit.
It can come during youth or in old age. Literary legend Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote,” is one such example. He spent his early life in the Spanish military where he sustained injuries from gunfire and eventually lost the use of his left hand.
As if that was not enough bad luck, he was captured by Barbary pirates and enslaved for five years. After his release he worked as a tax collector but was imprisoned twice for mismanagement. Despite all of this chaos, he went on to publish his literary masterpiece in his late 50’s!
So if you think you have a lot of baggage, let him be an inspiration to you! Don’t be fooled by those who say that you are too old for a new venture like language learning.
And speaking of learning a language, what is the perfect age to learn one anyway?
The truth is that there is no perfect time to learn a language. Each age group has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is just that children learn naturally, while adults learn better. Because of this, it may appear as if children pick up a language faster and easier. However, adults are more efficient learners.
Let’s look at a popular theory that has led some to believe that young learners have an advantage when it comes to learning a language.
The Problem with Our Current Understanding of Language Acquisition
It is assumed that learning a language as a child offers profound benefits and native-like acquisition, illustrated in the Critical Period Hypothesis.
This theory states that there is a specific “window” to acquire a language and suggests that language acquisition is a biologically-determined characteristic of a human being. This window is open from birth until sometime between the ages of five and the onset of puberty.
Statistically, young learners do acquire near native like skills in their second language and they also seem to outperform students who started their language learning pursuits later in life. However, there is no universally accepted theory of when the cut off age is (aside from being before the onset of puberty).
And although researchers have taken the Critical Period Hypothesis into the realm of second language learning, it is important to note that the theory originally applied to the acquisition of a person’s first language. It did not necessarily have heavy implications for second language acquisition.
The other issue we face when we hear that children learn a language better is that the idea of language is broad. There are the four tenets of language—listening, speaking, reading and writing. Within those tenets, we find other components like grammar, pronunciation, idioms, vocabulary, etc.
In certain areas of language, young learners will have an advantage. But at the same time, adult learners also have strengths due to the strong foundation that has been laid in their first language.
Let’s break down some of the components of language and analyze which age group seems to learn a specific skill faster/better.
Who’s Got the Upper Hand in Each Language Component?
Speaking in a language quickly and naturally seems to favor young learners. That can be because they are generally not as self-conscious as adults and are not afraid of making mistakes. Fossilization is a concept that can hinder adults.
This is when parts of the language, such as a grammar structure, were learned incorrectly and have been fossilized in the memory in such a way that it is nearly impossible to correct.
Speaking expectations are also higher for adults. A child can say, “No want!” in their second language and it’s cute. An adult is expected to form complex, grammatically correct sentences. Of course, native speakers are pretty lenient when they understand someone is learning a language, but that doesn’t change the expectations adults put on themselves!
Younger learners have an advantage when it comes to listening comprehension because they have more authentic opportunities. Language surrounds them—from their parents to other adults to the radio, or they are put in classrooms where they have to listen to a second language. As an adult, we have to find these authentic experiences and that can prove to be a little more difficult.
However, when an adult is given the same types of opportunities, they will excel because they’ll be able to identify the nuances of the language. That is, they know what to listen for—grammar structures, inflection, cognates, etc. Also, their attention span is a wee bit more developed.
This leads to pronunciation. Harboring good listening skills can help your ears distinguish between different sounds, especially sounds that are foreign to your native language. The younger you are, the easier it is to pick up pronunciation because your mouth has not fossilized into your native language sound set.
Reading and writing
Reading and writing are learned skills that obviously improve with age and practice. Therefore, reading and writing favor adult learners. While young children are still learning the concept of print and writing, adults have a stronger grasp of grammar concepts and an arsenal of strategies for reading comprehension.
In fact, many adult learners may even feel more comfortable reading and writing a language before they feel comfortable speaking it.
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Now that we’ve got an idea of where the strengths lie for different age groups, let’s look at how a learner at any age can become fluent in a second language.
The Age of Success Doesn’t Expire: How to Learn and Love a Language at Any Age
Birth to Age 4
To understand the effortless ease children seem to pick up a second language, it is important to understand their world. From the first year of life until the start of school, learning is not done through sit down classroom lessons and textbook assignments, but in a more holistic way. The world is something new that the child explores through the senses.
They learn through sight, taste, smell, sound and touch. They experience the language. They are embraced and embodied by the language. The language is just another stimulus among thousands of stimuli that the child is trying to make sense of.
How to love language learning at this age
Language “lessons” should consist of pointing and naming objects, singing and playing games (the same types of activities you do in a child’s first language). Children don’t have the hang-ups that adults do, nor do they have to worry about first language interference or other language learning errors.
Children will begin to understand way before they can speak, so take advantage of that time to lay the foundation of their vocabulary development. Avoid “baby talk” and have discussions with them in the grocery store. Use descriptive language around the house and get silly with your words! If only all language lessons were so low-key!
From ages 5-12 things begin to change. The child enters the early years of their formal education and learning focuses more on intellectual exercises such as reading and writing and less on the integration of the five senses. One new inhibiting factor is introduced into a child’s learning experience—fear of failure or inadequacy.
As a child grows, it is common to see them hold back due to fear of being wrong. This can culminate into foreign language anxiety. Unfortunately, it is one of biggest enemies of language learning and can be present well into adulthood. A great way to overcome this is to realize that most people are happy to see a foreigner learning their language and are ready to help!
How to love language learning at this age
Since we’re also concerned with a child’s social/emotional development along with language development, one of the best things you can do is to model how to appropriately deal with embarrassment. Let children know that even if they make mistakes, it’s okay. It’s part of the process!
Offer generous amounts of encouragement. This provides the child with motivation to continue and find pleasure in the task at hand.
When it comes to formal lessons, teachers can obtain the best results by incorporating movement into the lesson. Movement can help children focus better and help aid memory retention.
Parents can also immerse the target language into as much of the family’s daily routine as possible. Listening to music, playing or watching cartoons are great ways to support and and engage in your child’s language learning!
Another important factor to mention is that a child’s knowledge of his or her first language has implications on second language acquisition. So at this age, it’s important to make sure there are no gaps in a student’s understanding of certain skills like phonological awareness and reading comprehension in their first language.
Early Adolescence – Young Adult
After the onset of puberty, a child is in the early adolescence to young adult phase, which spans from the ages of thirteen until your college years. This is the time period after the critical period.
During this time, most school programs have already introduced foreign languages as a required subject. Unfortunately, its importance it not always stressed and some school districts even offer foreign language once a week instead of everyday.
Language learning at this stage is heavily dependent on the school curriculum. The biggest limiting factor during these years is motivation. A determining factor of whether or not a child has interest in a foreign language can depend on the foreign language program and the way in which the teacher or professor engages with the class.
How to love language learning at this age
It is important that teachers and professors motivate and engage the students in such a way that they elicit an emotional response. This connection helps them relate to the material and gives them an incentive to learn.
A great way to accomplish this is by making the content relevant to the students’ interests, while at the same time offering variety and a challenge. Take advantage of storytelling techniques or CLIL activities (Content and Language Integration Learning). This makes the lessons fresh, interesting and exciting.
Like with young learners, parents should offer their support. However, encouraging tasks such as reading and watching films in the target language are more age appropriate since they are activities that can be done alone or with others.
If you did not have the privilege of being brought up in a multilingual home (and learn two languages simultaneously with seemingly little effort on your part), learning as an adult might be the next best thing. As an adult you are learning a language because you want to.
You are self-motivated and not forced to learn to fulfill a school requirement. Self-motivation is a great factor when it comes to achieving goals.
This gives you the most important tools available to the language learner—determination and consistency! A language cannot be learned by cramming a lot of information in one sitting. It must be practiced little by little on a continuous schedule. Determination will help get you through the monotony of consistency.
In addition, another advantage an adult has is that they already know how to learn. They’ve spent years in school and learned how to memorize and study. This makes their learning abilities more efficient.
How to love language learning at this age
A useful tip for adult learners to remember is do not try so hard! That may sound counter-intuitive, but more does not always mean better. Taking on too much at once is almost a surefire way to get burnt out and give up on your goals. Consistency is key! Small incremental steps each day will give the best results in the long term.
In addition to this, it is important to remember that the main function of language is communication. Therefore, it is very helpful to study content that is used in everyday situations that you encounter. This makes learning more relatable and practical to your life.
You’ll also need to find good resources that appeal to you, so use a platform like FluentU that offers a wide array of tools to help you learn a foreign language. You’ll learn by watching videos, news, movie trailers, talks and more. With FluentU, you are able to immerse yourself in your target language and learn through native language content.
In the end, age should never be a prohibiting factor. Don’t get frustrated at what those at different ages can do.
Instead, embrace the wisdom and experience that comes with your current age and use that to your advantage!