In the second part of our blog series on myths surrounding language learning, we’re exploring the myth that you have to be under a certain age to learn a new language. Do children really learn everything better than adults, or are there some advantages to being older and learning a new skill?
If you’re over the age of ten, or sixteen, or even eighteen, then what’s the point of trying to learn a new language, anyway? There are plenty of articles, all across the internet, that all say you have to start learning a new language as young as possible, or you’ll never learn it to a good level at all.
But is that even true? Can you learn a language once you’re a teenager, or an adult, even, and expect to do so to a high level?
Well, now the experts are saying that you can. A recent study found that although grammar-learning ability does decline with age, this age is later than was previously thought—and even then, there are plenty of people who start learning languages later in life but still reach an almost-native level.
Before we dive into exactly what this means, it’s important to note that when you’re learning a language, it’s good to know what your goals are. These are always flexible—you could get into learning a language and then realise you only want to use it when you’re on holiday, or you could start learning a language you’re unsure of and then find out you love it—but generally, most learners only want to learn to a beginner/intermediate level.
This basically means being able to have a conversation and get around, not discussing very complex topics like an expert would!
Obviously, if you know your goal is to be able to have a conversation, then the question of native-like fluency doesn’t apply—but the issue with this myth is that it’s everywhere. Ask most people who want to learn a language why they haven’t started yet and, after citing lack of time (which is a fair reason), lots of them say that they’re too old, or just can’t do it.
Well, we already cracked the myth that you need to have some kind of language learning gene to speak a new language (spoiler: you don’t!), so it’s time to take this one on, too!
So, Can Adults Learn Languages?
There are two parts to this age question that we need to look at. One is: can you learn a language at all once you’re past a certain age?
Of course you can—there are heaps of people who learnt a second language later in life, in a varying array of circumstances. As long as you have a desire to learn, and you put the time in (note: that doesn’t mean five hours a day, every day—just try and be as consistent as you can and you’ll start seeing progress), you’ll learn. Human brains are wired to see patterns and learn new things and yours is highly unlikely to be the sudden exception.
So, then: can you learn a language as well as a child can?
The reason this myth has become so wide-spread is because of the way children learn compared to adults. It is, quite literally, effortless. Children living in their target language environment seem to pick up words and phrases that just slip through adults’ brains, but that is because that’s the way we’re wired to learn when we’re young and just beginning to understand the world around us and, here’s the kicker, it’s a really ineffective way to do so.
Not that you can’t learn the way a child does—using aspects of that method works really well—but you also have an adult brain, with one language already built in, and so you can ‘hack’ this method to make it work well for you.
Take the uTalk app, for example. We use a method that would work well for children—taking images and matching them to words and phrases—but whereas a small child might have to learn the phrase all in one go, your adult brain is going to pick up on those patterns (‘Oh, so that bit must mean ‘where is,’ because I’ve seen it in ‘where is the bank,’ and ‘where is the beach’…) and you’re also going to be able to map the vocabulary to words you already know.
In fact, studies have shown that adults acquire vocabulary at a far faster rate than children because while a child will have to have the word repeated over and over to assign it to a new concept, you already have the concept in your brain. You just slap the new word on it next to the one you already know and, voila, you’ve got it!
You’re also pretty likely to have a longer attention span than your average four-year-old, so while you might not be spending six hours a day in a target language nursery, you can take that half an hour you’ve carved out of your day and really knuckle down and learn.
The one advantage children continue to have over adults is their ability to produce sounds—and it’s this and the intuitive grasping of some grammar rules that can give them the edge. We’re born with the ability to distinguish between all phonetic sounds, with this dropping off between the age of ten and twelve months. However, children spending time with a native speaker still seem to have an easier time learning all those new sounds and so often end up with a more native-sounding accent.
Grammar is the same kind of deal—because the children are learning the rules of their first language around the same time as they’re puzzling out the rules of their second, it takes a while, but they stick a little more intuitively than for adults in most cases. However, with enough time and effort (and exposure to native materials!), adults can learn grammar this well too.
What it comes down to, in the end, is what your new language is worth to you. Unless you’re planning to become a spy, you probably don’t need to pass for a native speaker. Plus, we all know from experience listening to foreigners speak English that making mistakes doesn’t mean you won’t be understood. Native speakers make mistakes all the time, in fact. It’d probably be stranger if you never did!
So, if you were on the fence about learning a language before, we hope you’re not now. Yes, after five or six years, a child might be babbling away in Mandarin or Spanish, but if you’re willing to spend some time on it, you could be enjoying a conversation even sooner—in a few months, even!
If we’ve managed to convince you, why not try learning a new language with us? Our app has over 140 languages and we’ll teach you around 2,500 basic words and phrases the way a child would learn—but we’re sure you’ll get there much faster!