Language learning at any age

by on April 30, 2016

What’s the best age to learn a new language? Like most things in life, the answer is probably an evasive “it depends.”

“Wow, I bet they just soak it up like sponges!”

When I started teaching elementary school Spanish, I frequently heard such comments from my friends, my students’ parents, and others.

The idea that children learn languages especially quickly and easily is certainly widespread. It’s supported by both common sense and a substantial body of research touting the flawless mimicking ability and extraordinary plasticity of young brains (Lenneberg, 1967; Penfield & Roberts, 1959; Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979).

According to the “critical period” hypothesis, children must acquire a first language in early childhood or forever lose the ability to master speech like that of a native speaker—and the hypothesis is often extended, albeit in a less extreme form, to second language acquisition. Such ideas have encouraged throngs of parents to sign their tots up for language courses, and simultaneously discouraged them from hitting the books themselves. But are they entirely true?

According to popular belief, my students should be breathing in the language almost accidentally. But I’ve had first graders cheerfully greet me with, “Hola, amigos!” and fifth graders cower in fear the first dozen times I presented them with a full sentence.

Once, a preschooler who spoke French at home and was usually silent at school answered my “¿Cuántos gatos hay?” with a hesitant “un, deux, trois…” and an uncertain flash of the eyes. Stuck between a sigh and a smile, I reminded him quatre, cinq” and gave him his sticker. Sometimes, being three is tough enough in one language.

Even in pronunciation—that stronghold of critical-period supporters—there were disappointments: strange substitutions for tricky sounds and stubborn skewing towards the quirks of the written language. So, am I just the worst teacher ever, or are these guys just not as linguistically brilliant as they’re cracked up to be?

Meanwhile, I have friends who are learning complex languages, even on their own, well into their teens, twenties, thirties, and beyond. Are they all in possession of a rare ability to continue learning in their linguistic twilight years? Or is fluency within reach for anyone… if they dare to stick their neck out?

Other studies have found flaws in the old “childlike ease” theories; some showing equivalent or even faster language-learning progress in learners who are in their adolescence and beyond (McLaughlin, 1992; Geneses, 1981; Harley, 1989; Newport, 1990; Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975; Florander & Jansen, 1968; Asher and Price, 1967; Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978).

That’s not to say that there’s no benefit to teaching children languages. To the contrary, language learning can open children’s minds in a variety of ways, such as fostering a cross-cultural perspective and developing critical thinking skills.

Still, there is probably no single best age to learn a language. After all, what do we even mean by best? Speed? Ease? Native-level pronunciation and subtleties? Older children and adult learners may not make phonological distinctions as readily or grasp the finest shades of meaning quite as intuitively as a young child, but, in exchange, they have metacognition—the ability to understand their own learning process—and other tools that babies don’t. Having already mastered at least one language, they don’t need to learn a new one from the ground up—and maybe shouldn’t. They have the self-determination and the resources to pick a language to study and delegate their own time and money to it. They are also more likely to have greater self-discipline, patience, and perspective.

One reason children may seem to learn languages faster than adults is simply that they are more likely to find themselves in ideal language-learning environments: immersive, high-motivation situations, such as immigrating—through no choice of their own—to a new country and being put into a new school surrounded by both teachers and peers who do not speak their native language. Is it any wonder then that they learn faster, in that environment, than their parents who may be able to keep speaking their native tongue in their workplace or community, and must balance language-learning with a variety of adult responsibilities? As young children have a smaller vocabulary and use less complex grammar than adults, they also have less distance to make up between a new acquired language and their native language—possibly further adding to the illusion of speed and ease in language acquisition.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to understand it comes down to this: the youngest children are still developing their native languages and how to think in general. On one hand, learning languages while this is all still coming together means the language has the chance to be wound up in this original understanding, giving the kid that often longed-for native pronunciation and execution if they keep up with the language throughout their education.

On the other hand, it may take children just as long, if not longer, to achieve functional use of the new language, since they are still building their own. My preschoolers can hardly be expected to memorise the names of numbers or colors in Spanish when they are still working out how to count or divide the visual spectrum into their distinct and correct names in any language. For adult learners, why reinvent the wheel, trying to understand tough grammatical concepts from the ground up when a simple analogy to your own language might provide a completely suitable shortcut?

As far as the “child-like ease” theory encourages teaching children languages, it doesn’t hurt. But when it discourages adults from engaging in language study—believing it to already be too late—it can do real harm. After all, by the time someone is old enough to read about the latest language-acquisition research, they are usually past the so-called critical period.

When adults talk about languages, they’ll often take on a sort of wistful tone. “I always wanted to learn Spanish,” they’ll say, or “I wish I could speak German.” Such laments imply that the window of opportunity for language learning is over, and the child-learner theory only fuels that sense of futility.

But take heart! There are many people learning languages later in life. Consider Ellen Jovin, the polyglot behind the Words and Worlds of New York language blog and grammar company Syntaxis. Now 50 years old, Jovin’s language studies are still going strong—she’s currently tackling Arabic and Swedish, among others.

Jovin explains that she doesn’t think language learning has gotten noticeably harder for her through the years, and notes that if she is past her peak for proper pronunciation, she has probably been over that hill since puberty. “I may forget more things,” she writes, “but if I do, I forget I have forgotten them, so I feel utterly untroubled.”

Are there advantages to ageing when it comes to language learning? Jovin finds grammar easier as her accumulated knowledge aids her in understanding new languages. And, more importantly, she says “I have oodles more patience than when I was younger, and I know how to manage myself better and keep myself motivated, how to accept and outsmart my weaknesses, and those benefits outweigh any drawbacks of aging for me. My only complaint is that my feet hurt today.”

While a lot of people learning languages later in life are “polyglots” who are already quite comfortable with the concept of learning another language, there is no reason to believe that such a task is impossible for those embarking on their second-ever language. Irish polyglot Benny Lewis, of Fluent in 3 Months fame, didn’t start learning languages until his 20’s—after college and well past the fabled sweet spot of early childhood. His late start hasn’t prevented him from reaching fluency in seven languages and a conversational level in four more.

The greatest challenge for older language learners may be psychological rather than intellectual.

“People think they’re too old, which makes them too old,” says Jovin.

“Being willing to take chances with new things, being willing to laugh at yourself, being willing to be a beginner at one thing even if you are used to being a leader or boss in other aspects of your life, learning to let go of self-consciousness, remembering that many people actually bloom intellectually later in life—these things all support effective language-learning as an older person.”

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