Children pick up languages with a sponge-like ease, but for many adults at different stages of life learning a foreign language is an overwhelming, if not an impossible, task. Or so it seems.
Today we would like to focus on the question in the title: What is the best age to learn a new language? And, consequently, is any age better than another for language acquisition?
Many people believe that the ultimate success in language learning depends on how early a person is exposed to a certain language. In the late 1950s neurolinguists even introduced the critical period hypothesis. Soon the idea of a biologically based critical period for language acquisition became a popular way of explaining the supposed success of children and the failure of adults in learning a second language. (1)
However, ‘the earlier the better’ rule of thumb is being questioned more and more. (2) The existence of a critical period in itself is not disputed, but the age is no longer the only, nor the most determining, predictor of success in language learning. (3)
Today we will take a closer look at the age question. We hope to be able to give you enough reasons not to give up your language studies because of age – whatever that age might be.
Children learn naturally, adults learn better
When you consider the age myth in language acquisition, there are a few things you need to take into account. Firstly, the research on the effects of age has concentrated largely on examining immigrants’ level of proficiency in the target language. Secondly, the analysis was based on their age of arrival in a new language community. Early exposure to the second language in a natural setting is consistently believed to be a clear advantage, but this shouldn’t be hastily generalized to formal learning contexts. (4)
In fact, when it comes to formal – i.e. systematic and intentional – language acquisition, adults learn even better because they are better learners. This implies that their cognitive development in the first language is far more advanced, they are able to make higher order associations, generalize and understand theories integrating the new language input with their previous knowledge. (5)
Personal learning capacities obviously vary from learner to learner. Still, research has shown that adult learners simply have greater cognitive and linguistic capabilities than younger learners. (6) As for learning vocabulary and language structures, being an adult learner is more of a benefit than a disadvantage. (5)
Pronunciation – adult learner’s weak point?
One thing that researchers seem to agree on is that younger learners are more efficient at acquiring a native-like accent in the target language. Some studies even claim that if exposure to the language doesn’t begin in the childhood years, it is genuinely challenging to acquire an authentic accent. (3)
However, research has also shown that accent may be the least important component of overall language proficiency: even a strong foreign accent does not necessarily lead to a reduction of comprehensibility. (3) You can obviously be fluent and feel confident and comfortable speaking even though your accent lacks native-like perfection.
Lastly, even in studies which indicate that catching the right accent gets harder with age, “the evidence is for a trend rather than an inexorable law”. (3) If you are motivated, choose an effective method and practice, you can significantly improve your pronunciation.
So you can learn a new language at any age. Some aspects of language learning are more challenging for adults than children, and we learn differently at different ages. However, nobody’s language studies are automatically doomed to failure just because of age. WordDive has happy users born in the early 1930s as well as in the late 1990s – a statistic we are truly proud of!
Happy language learning everyone – you are just the right age to start!
References and further reading:
(1) Hakuta, Kenji, Bialystok, Ellen & Wiley, Edward (2003). Critical evidence: a test of the critical-period hypothesis for second-language acquisition. Psychological Science, 14(1): 31-38.
(2) See, e.g., Birdsong, David (Ed.) (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis.
(3) Sigleton, David & Ryan, Lisa (2004). Language Acquisition: The Age Factor. 2nd edition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
(4) Muñoz, Carmen (2010). On how age affects foreign language learning. Advances in Research on Language Acquisition and Teaching: Selected Papers, 39–49. © 2010 GALA
(5) Ali, Shamim (2013). Adult Language Learning: Insights, Instructions and Implications. GRIN Verlag.
(6) Smith, Ann F. V. & Strong, Gregory (Eds.) (2009). Adult Language Learners: Context and Innovation. TESOL.