Learning a foreign language is a complicated process in which age plays an important part. There is a common knowledge that the younger you are, the better and faster you learn a new language. However, adults might not be the ones to wear a dunce hat when it comes to learning a new language.

Children and new languages

Children are thought to be better at language-learning than adults. They acquire the language subconsciously, through perceptual channels. They learn the language at the same time as they develop their emotional regulation systems. This TED Talk, ‘The linguistic genius of babies’, clearly shows that the age factor is a major one in language learning.

Babies and children are language geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline. After puberty, we see a dramatic fall. No scientists dispute this curve, but laboratories all over the world are trying to figure out why it works this way.

Adults and new languages

While the genius of babies when it comes to language-learning isn’t denied, there are some arguments to say that adults might be even better than youngsters at learning languages. In an article from the Telegraph, Anne Merritt questions whether children are really better at foreign language learning. Here are her findings:

  • Adults have pre-existing language knowledge. They simply have a more developed understanding of how a language works.
  • Pronunciation is stronger in children (but it doesn’t matter!). Pronunciation is not actually an indicator of fluency.
  • Adults and children are measured differently. Adults require more vocabulary and language competence in order to be considered fluent.
  • Adults and children both succeed with the same resources. Adults who can’t achieve success in language learning are often the ones who study at home using educational software or apps. Without teacher support, or steady conversation partners, it’s easy for study to become unstructured.

Adults can be very good at learning languages. There would be no polyglots in this world if language-learning stopped at age seven. But these people exist and are living proof that it can be done. Alex Rawlings grew up in south London and is now studying German and Russian at Oxford University. Last year he was named Britain’s most multilingual student, speaking 11 languages. He says:

Learning new languages never stops: there is always more to learn, new places to go, and new people to meet.

Find what other multi-language speakers have to say about what drove them to master more than one language in this article.

The proper age for learning a new language

Anyone can learn another language at any age, but the older they are, the more they have to work at it. Adults have to make a conscious effort to learn something that children acquire naturally. While a child learns any language instinctively, adults need to turn to their intelligence to learn the rules. For example, when learning a new language, the child will instinctively understand different grammar rules or the topic of sentences without any need for formal instruction. Adults, on the other hand, will have to cognitive strategies to achieve this.