There are many reasons to believe that the popular opinion about how poorly adults learn languages is fundamentally flawed.
Due to the lack of physical evidence for the superiority of language learning in children, a new system of beliefs is beginning to overtake the old, oversimplified model of age and language learning.
But where did these beliefs come from in the first place?
- The Critical Period Hypothesis and Popular Belief
- What’s the Difference Between Kids and Adults Anyways?
- So Who’s Better at Learning a Second Language: Kids or Adults?
- 5 Reasons Adults Can Definitely Learn a Second Language
The Critical Period Hypothesis and Popular Belief
The Critical Period Hypothesis is the academic name for what most of us have come to believe about adults and language learning. Its basic outline is that there’s a fixed period of time in which you can really learn a language and learn it well. After that… good luck. Maybe you can aspire to be like Luigi Risotto, the Italian chef from “The Simpsons” who speaks fractured though understandable English, but don’t get any hopes of sounding like a native.
This critical period is supposed to run from when you’re born to sometime during adolescence, when you’re around 15 years old. In other words, this is the scientific basis of our poor opinion of adult language learners.
But the question everyone wants to know is: “Is it true?” The answer: Maybe. There’s quite a bit of debate over the topic, and it would be hard to say that anything is settled. But many researchers have come out against the theory, some denying that a critical period exists at all.
Take David Singleton for example, a professor of linguistics at Trinity College Dublin. In his papers he regularly criticizes those who side with the Critical Period Hypothesis and in one of them he reviews the relevant literature on the biology of the brain only to conclude that there’s nothing solid about the science of a critical period. That’s right. No one has landed any fatal evidence that this period exists in our brains at all.
So take a breath and let go of all your age-related anxieties.
“But surely adults and children aren’t the same,” you might say. Well of course not.
What’s the Difference Between Kids and Adults Anyways?
I think we can all makes some stabs at the general differences between adults and kids in how they learn. I’ve seen very few toddlers sitting at a desk diligently reading a grammar textbook for hours at a time, though I’m sure there’s probably one somewhere.
But beyond the obvious differences, such as adults being more willing and able to learn in a formal learning environment, there are some hen children learn new things about language, they use the same part of their brain that they use for motor control. Adults, on the other hand, make use of the part of their brain in charge of higher cognitive functions—the part of the brain that develops later.
“Ah hah!” you say. “So there are differences between their brains!” But remember this simple means that how we use our brain changes as we age. It doesn’t mean that how well we can learn things also changes.
How else do adults differ? Well, they have a ton of knowledge already. And that can be both a bad thing and a good thing. Sometimes the sounds and words we’ve learned when we were little make it much harder to pick apart the words from other languages because we’re trying to force them into the mold of our first language.
But sometimes it’s the exact opposite. If you’re a good reader in your native language, those skills usually translate into good reading skills in a foreign language. Sometimes even the sounds in your native language can give you a leg up in foreign language pronunciation, as this study on Korean speakers learning English has shown.
So Who’s Better at Learning a Second Language: Kids or Adults?
Even if the there’s no critical period to learn a language, there’s still the question of who can learn faster. We can break this down into several categories for ease of digestion.
As adults or young adults, pronunciation is our weak point. Most sources tend to agree that while it is possible in rare cases for adults to gain a completely native accent in a new foreign language, it just doesn’t happen that often. Kids are more adept at learning and using the sounds of a language.
But for most adults, this doesn’t really matter. It’s more important to be understood than to sound like a perfect native. After all, isn’t that why you’re learning a foreign language in the first place—to communicate with others?
And on that score there’s a long track record of people who can communicate quite well in a second language learned later in life. Plus, if you really want to speak like a native, go for it! It’s still possible that you could be one of those few adults who really nails the pronunciation in their second language.
Grammar and vocabulary
In grammar and vocab, adults and adolescents actually significantly outperform very young children in the short-term. In the long-term, young children will eventually overtake the older age groups, but only if they’re exposed to the foreign language enough.
In fact, if a young child is being taught in a formal setting, he or she may never catch up to the adult at all. You heard that right. Sometimes adults really can outperform children when it comes to foreign language.
Reading and complex thought
I said it before, but I’ll say it again: If you’re a good reader in your native language, you’ll probably be a good reader in a foreign language. That’s because adults are good at taking knowledge they already have and applying it to very similar new knowledge that they’re trying to acquire. Why reinvent the wheel when you can just make a few adjustments?
And in fact, reading and anything dealing with complex thought is where adults really shine. The critical period in no way applies here, and in fact the opposite could be said: The older the better.
5 Reasons Adults Can Definitely Learn a Second Language
1. Age is only one factor.
We like to worry about age because it seems like there’s an obviously better position to be in: being a child. But since this is something beyond our control, we should instead focus on the myriad of other factors that affect our learning.
For example, factors like motivation, personality, the learning environment and learning strategies are all things we can control which have a huge impact on your success as a language learner.
2. Children aren’t as strong as they seem.
Everyone loves to heap praise on children. Whether it’s a mom or dad doting on their own kid or a child that gets random affection from strangers just for being cute, children tend to get a pass for things that adults would never get away with.
The same is true for language. Children may sound like great speakers, but usually we have low expectations for them. Kids tend to speak in simple sentences using only very basic vocab. This is perfect for a child that doesn’t yet have a need for complex language, but it also means that kids are not really the language superstars we take them to be.
3. Even full-grown adults can reach near-native level.
This was mentioned earlier, but some adults do learn a second language and sound like a native. If your goal is to move to Mexico, buy a farm in a backwater village and blend in with the natives, don’t let anyone dissuade you.
With enough practice under your belt and a can-do attitude, in time you’ll be able to boast about your perfect Mayan grammar.
4. Language learning has health benefits.
Forget about your ineradicable foreign accent. All that work you spend learning a new language will keep your brain healthy for years to come. What does a little imperfection in speech matter when your entire clarity of thought is guaranteed to stay sharp well into old age?
5. Language learning is about connecting.
What is language for? Communicating to other people, of course. Perfection doesn’t need to be our endpoint. In fact, we can just as easily choose an entirely different goal, like making friends in a foreign language.
Don’t forget that you, as an adult, already know how to communicate in your own language. You know how to handle countless social situations. Children, as linguistically invincible as they seem, don’t have that wealth of knowledge. That gives you an advantage, because cultural differences notwithstanding, you already know what to say. It’s just a matter of learning how to say it.
Take advantage of this by watching movies and TV shows with similar plots to the ones you enjoy in your own language. Because you already have some idea of what to expect, this will make it easier to understand what’s going on. If you like this idea, consider trying a virtual immersion platform. FluentU, for example, uses clips from various sectors of pop culture and adds interactive captioning that provide instant definitions for any word.
Language exchanges or individual language partners are an excellent way to expand your social circle. Most people will be quite happy if you can speak just well enough to hold up your end of the conversation.
These are just a handful of the most obvious reasons to not pay attention to age. With so many great possibilities available through learning a foreign language, why should you let a social myth about age and language learning hold you back?
There are lots of things people miss about being a kid, but being able to learn a new language doesn’t have to be one of them.