How many times have you read or heard that “kids learn languages much more easily than adults“? Probably thousands of times! The problem is that in many cases this cliché, whether it’s true or not, turns into a sorry excuse for giving up learning a language. Is there a best age to learn a second language, and if so, is it as adults or children?
What’s the Best Age to Learn a Second Language, and Why?
I often meet people here in France who have parents from Italy but don’t speak a word of Italian.
“It’s a shame they didn’t talk to me in Italian when I was growing up,” is what they all say. Some choose other popular excuses: “Now it’s too late,” “I’m too old to learn,” or “It’s too difficult to pick up a new language at my age.” My first reaction is to try to convince them that they are totally wrong. Because actually you can learn a language at any age! And it’s even easier for adults than it is for kids.
My personal adventure with foreign languages began in my twenties. And I could cite dozens and dozens of examples of people who managed to acquire a language in a short time when they started studying it at 30, 40 or even 60 years old! In my opinion, people who give up on or fail at learning a language just because there might be an optimal age to learn it are hiding behind an unconvincing excuse.
But “kids are sponges”!
I absolutely do not deny the fact that children have some advantages over adults in language learning. But studies in this field have failed to empirically prove that children’s brains perform better than adult brains. Even “the first-three-years myth” (to use the title of an interesting essay by John Brier) and research on the critical period of learning (up to 12 years old) have not been unanimously agreed upon by specialists.
The purpose of this article is not to debate whether there really is an optimal age to learn a language. Or whether children learn better or more easily than adults. Instead, I want to show that you can start learning a language at any time in your life. Each phase of life has its own strengths.
So let’s take a look at what the best age to learn a second language is, plus 7 benefits that adults have versus children, and how to take full advantage of them!
7 Benefits of Older Language Learners and Why Adulthood is the Best Age to Learn a Second Language
This is one of the main benefits, unfortunately too often forgotten. Adults know exactly why they want to learn a foreign language and how to motivate themselves accordingly. To get a better job, to communicate on a trip, or to keep your brain active. The reasons that can lead us to want to learn a language are plentiful.
Most children don’t quite comprehend these rational arguments. Teaching methods designed for very young learners have to invent a thousand tricks to capture kids’ attention, striving to turn everything into play. Plus, what kid doesn’t prefer playing to studying? In my opinion, motivation is one of the key factors in learning a language. Adults are more capable of using this natural fuel to achieve good results than children are.
2) The Basics
Unlike children, who have to start from scratch (and who are even unable to speak, in the case of newborns), adults can take advantage of the massive amount of shared words to understand and speak a new language. Just think of all the English terms that are now universal, like computer, mouse, weekend, show, bestseller, casual, mob (the list is endless). Adults don’t actually start from scratch. Every time we start studying a new language, we already know a lot of words, often without even realizing it. It’s a huge advantage if you think about it!
People who study Spanish will immediately learn that the Spanish “v” is pronounced like an English “b.” An English speaker who wants to learn French will quickly find out that consonant “ç” is like the “s” in the word “sun.” And even the hiragana writing system in Japanese can almost always be associated to consonants you already know pronounce.
Newborns are unable to pronounce certain sounds for about the first two years of their life, and even then they don’t really make sense (often only their parents understand them). Later on, children might have great difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. My nephew took three and a half years to learn to pronounce my name right. I’m sure that anyone who reads this article will also be able to think of many examples.
In short, our advantage over children is that we know how to speak, we know lots of sounds that are the same in many languages, and we can make connections between phonemes of different languages to understand how to pronounce them.
4) Non-Verbal Communication
How many times have you managed to get by abroad just by relying on non-verbal communication? Using gestures and facial expressions to accompany what we say can be an enormous help to communication. And when we forget what to say, our hands and faces start to “talk” for us.
But in toddlers, this universal language is underdeveloped and is completely non-existent in newborns… So it’s clear that adults have a huge advantage. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking in Spanish, Chinese or Turkish. Your message will come across much more easily when you use non-verbal communication.
One of the most effective ways to memorize a word is to associate it with a mental image. And it’s even better if it’s related to your own experiences. We talk about that in this article, but just to give a quick example, if you want to remember the word “cockroach” (cafard) in French, rather than link it to the English translation, it’s better to link it to the image of a cockroach. Personally, I associated this term with an experience I had. One evening, my friends and I stopped at a hotel in Potenza (we were on the way to Apulia). I was about to go to bed when I saw a cockroach in my bed! In my memory, the word “cockroach” is that specific cockroach that shocked me so much and that I will never forget.
The more emotional our experience, the more easily we associate words with memories and references related to our culture. Since they have little or no experience at all, children can’t really use this extremely effective technique.
6) Freedom and Independence
We all hated this as kids. Up to a certain age, you’re not free to go for a walk, watch TV until late, call whoever you want. In short, a child has to deal with the limits imposed by their parents. Their freedom is inversely proportional to how strict their parents are (more strict = less freedom). Most people don’t get that much-desired freedom and independence until they are nearly adults. To learn a language, it’s essential to speak it. Adults can go out and meet people who speak the language they’re learning, organize a trip, or call a contact in Argentina via Skype to speak Spanish with them, for example. If I had done any of that when I was little, my parents would have taken away my computer privileges for a week!
And then there is the financial aspect. Adults can work for a year, build a nest egg, then live for a year in a country where they speak the language they want to learn. Children can only do that in very rare cases, if their parents agree (and can afford it)! Basically, the infinite possibilities of life are almost always totally restricted to kids. That’s a huge advantage for adults, if you think about it!
7) Critical Thinking and Concentration
Even though I do believe that you should only start studying grammar once you’ve already had some “immersion” in the language, I’m not one to say it is useless to study. Grammatical rules can considerably reinforce what we learn. Seriously studying a language, in the right way and at the right time, always pays off. As adults, we’re much better equipped than children to understand difficult concepts like grammar rules.
What’s more, our ability to concentrate is much greater than when we were children. Just go to an elementary school and try to teach a little bit of French grammar to the students. After just a few minutes, you’ll see that we’ll never be able to keep the attention of a group of children.
Adults can also understand a word’s meaning based on a root or suffix, and the fact that you can form a word using different roots with the same suffix. For example, think of all the words that we can form with the suffix -zione in Italian or -tion in English (e.g. globalizzazione, informazione, globalization, information). Ultimately, when it comes to the ability to concentrate and analyze information, there is no contest between children and adults.
Children VS Adults – Battling Over the Best Age to Learn a Second Language (VIDEO)
If you’re still not convinced, don’t miss Lize’s video on this topic. It shows the benefits that children have when learning languages, and the benefits adults have. Which group do you think will prevail as the best language learners?
I hope this article has opened your eyes to the many advantages that adult language learners have over kids. This article only reflects our opinions, of course (backed up by some science), and we know that not everyone agrees. If you can think of other arguments to add to the debate, share them in the comments!
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