Why Any Adult Can Learn a Second Language Like Their Younger Self
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?
- How Language Learning Works for Different Ages
- So Who’s Better at Learning a Second Language: Kids or Adults?
- 5 Reasons Why 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. This window is supposedly open from birth until sometime between the ages of five and the onset of puberty.
After that… good luck, don’t get any hopes of sounding like a native. In other words, this is the scientific basis of our poor opinion of adult language learners.
Here’s a video that explains how it works:
But the question everyone wants to know is: “Is it true?” The answer: Maybe. There’s quite a bit of debate over the topic!
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. But it’s 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.
Many researchers have even come out against the theory, some denying that a critical period exists at all.
For example, take David Singleton, 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.
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?
When 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 simply 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.
How Language Learning Works for Different Ages
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.
Children will begin to understand way before they can speak, so this is when they lay the foundation of their vocabulary development.
Ages 5 to 12
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 the 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!
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 child’s understanding of certain skills like phonological awareness and reading comprehension in their first language.
Early Adolescence to 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, so language learning at this stage is heavily dependent on school.
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 how the teacher engages with the class.
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.
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!
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.
As an adult, you’ll also be able to choose good resources that appeal to you. You can even actually learn a language through popular videos and audios such as movie trailers, news and talks. For example, FluentU puts together authentic native content with interactive subtitles to immerse you in your target language:
The program also has a video dictionary, quizzes with text and voice input and flashcard reviews based on each clip you’ve watched.
FluentU works for 10 languages, including French, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, and it’s available on both web and mobile (Android or iOS).
So Who’s Better at Learning a Second Language: Kids or Adults?
Given the different stages above, 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 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, 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.
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 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.
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 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.
Many adult learners may even feel more comfortable reading and writing a language before they feel comfortable speaking it.
Ultimately, 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 Why Adults Can Definitely Learn a Second Language
To sum it up, it’s definitely possible to learn a language as an adult (and even branch out to several and become a polyglot). Here are some science-backed reasons:
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.
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.