Kids Might Not Be Better Than Adults At Learning New Languages After All
Adults, it’s time to rejoice, it’s not too late for you to effectively learn a new language.
Learning a new language can be a fun, challenging, and rewarding task. The value of knowing multiple languages is intangible. It can give you more opportunities in your career, help you communicate while you travel, and also improve your brain health.
That last point isn’t an exaggeration. Studies have shown that bilingual individuals tend to be more intelligent, have better reading abilities, and also delay the onset of dementia. These benefits are being experienced by more people than you think, it has been estimated that more than half of the world’s population knows more than one language.
Unfortunately, many adults claim that it’s too late for them to learn a new language. They claim that the days of being a mental sponge and soaking up knowledge are long gone.
It is true that children’s brains are different from full-grown adult brains. But how exactly does that effect language learning abilities? Let’s separate the myths from the facts and get to the bottom of this.
The Critical Period Hypothesis
Ask anyone on the street whose better at learning new languages, and 99 percent of them will tell you that kids have the advantage. They’ll tell you that kids are more natural at learning new languages and that adult brains are too set in their ways and will have difficulty learning something new.
We’ve all heard that before, but do you know where these widely held beliefs come from? Enter the Critical Period Hypothesis. This is the foundation of the claim that children are better at learning new languages.
This hypothesis claims that there is a critical, or ideal period in one’s life when he/she would be much better suited to learn languages. This critical period lasts throughout childhood and is generally said to end during puberty in one’s teen years. After this point, it is said that one’s ability to acquire a second language is significantly diminished.
For such a widely held belief, you may be surprised to learn that there is actually limited evidence to support this hypothesis. For that reason, the Critical Period Hypothesis is one of the most debated issues in linguistics.
The Argument Against The Critical Period Hypothesis
Many people claim that the Critical Period Hypothesis does not apply to secondary language acquisition. While many agree that children and adults have different brains and learn differently, there’s no significant evidence to suggest that children are better and/or faster at learning a different language when compared to adults.
Believe or not, there have even been studies where adults learned a second language faster than children in a controlled environment.
The reason it is so hard to compare children to adults is because the way our brains intake new information is different. Since adults and children do not learn the same way, it’s difficult to determine who is better at learning a second language.
However, the differences between adults and children have shown some patterns when it comes to learning a second language. Children have been shown to be better at certain things while adults have the advantage when it comes to other things.
Differences That We’ve Seen
This may not come as a surprise to you, but very few adults who learn a new language are able to achieve a native-accent. On the other hand, children who learn second languages are more likely to appear to sound like a native speaker.
So why aren’t adult learners able to shake off their foreign accent? The simple answer is that children’s brains are better at noticing pronunciation and infliction differences, and then mimicking them through speech. The more complicated answer would be that pronunciation comes from neuromuscular function, and once adults pass their critical period, they aren’t able to learn any new neuromuscular functions.
Don’t stress just yet, adults. There is good news for you here too. During the beginning stages of secondary language acquisition, adults have been shown to progress faster than children. This is believed to happen because adults are able to recognize structure and vocabulary a bit better than children, and are also able to understand and apply rules of speech quicker than children.
This last fact seems to disprove the Critical Period Hypothesis, while the difficulty of adults attaining a native-accent seems to support it. These are just two examples out of several, but you can start to see why the Critical Period Hypothesis is so widely debated in the field of linguistics.
What Matters When Learning A New Language
Researchers have claimed that there are other factors other than age that are more important when it comes to learning a new language. So listen up, adults, you can still learn a new language, it’s not too late for you.
Teachers will probably tell you that the biggest factor is motivation. Many adults don’t even bother trying to learning a second language because they feel that it’s too late, which is indeed a severe lack of motivation. Make no mistake, an adult who is more motivated than a child can learn a new language much quicker than an unmotivated child.
Another interesting factor is reading level. Simply put, if you are a master at your first language, then learning a second language would be easier for you. On the flip side, people who struggle with reading or comprehension with their first language could be worse off when learning a new language.
Lastly, effort is generally agreed to be more important than age (shocking, right?). Learning a new language is tough. However, people at all ages all over the world are doing it, and you can too. All you have to do is to put in the effort. Most people are able to achieve fluency in a new language as long as they put in the work for it.
What do you think?
Do you think kids or adults have the upper hand when learning a new language? What experiences did you have when learning a new language? Let us know in the comments!
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