If you’ve been interested in languages for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard that the best time to learn a language is during childhood. Ask anyone and they’re likely to tell you that kids have an incredible ability to learn languages that adults just can’t match.
We can’t argue that there are definitely some aspects of language acquisition that children excel at. But why? And if kids are the language-learning champions, is there any hope for adults?
Below, we’ll talk about the best age to learn a language. We’ll also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of language learners young and old.
- What’s the best time to learn a language?
- Why are kids such good language learners?
- What are adult learners’ strengths?
What’s the best time to learn a language?
Let’s get right into it: When it comes to gaining native-level proficiency in a language, it’s true that children do better.
A 2018 MIT study analyzed an English grammar quiz given to almost 670,000 people of various ages who started learning English at different points in their lives. The study found that the optimal time to learn a language is between birth and the age of ten—this is known as the “critical period.” However, the ability to learn grammar remains quite strong until about 18. After that, the critical period comes to an end.
What happens after 18?
There’s no definitive answer as to why the critical age for learning a language ends around 18, but there are a couple of possible contributing factors:
1. Biology: The brain begins to lose plasticity—the ability to change or rewire its connections.
2. Culture: People over the age of 18 might no longer be immersed in the language they were learning as they leave secondary school, move away from home and get jobs.
Why are kids such good language learners?
Young people can learn languages more easily than their older counterparts for several reasons. Here are a couple of key factors:
Children’s brains have more plasticity, meaning they can make new neural connections more easily than adults can. As we mentioned above, that plasticity begins to decline in adulthood. To expand on this, kids’ inhibitory neurons—a kind of brain cell that decides what we learn based on our experiences—are much more receptive than those of adults. Basically, their brains absorb new information way more readily than adults’ brains do.
Imagine a family that has just moved from the United States to Japan. Who do you think is more likely to become fluent in Japanese: a seven-year-old child or her parents? It’ll likely be the seven-year-old. In a new place, the child has to face the social pressure of learning a new language to make friends, so her motivation is probably higher. She’ll also be more successful at gaining fluency because she’ll be exposed to the language every day at school, which isn’t typically the case for adults.
What are adult learners’ strengths?
After everything we’ve discussed so far, you might be thinking that things look a little bleak for adult learners. Sure, it’s true that an adult will have a harder time sounding like a native speaker. But there are actually a few areas in which adults surpass kids in the language-learning arena!
Children are great at listening to a native speaker and imitating their accent, essentially absorbing linguistic skills. This is known as implicit learning. What adults are better at is learning a language explicitly: for example, learning grammar rules in a classroom setting. Young children lack the cognition and attention span to be effective explicit learners.
Memorizing and increasing vocabulary
Adults are able to expand their vocabulary more effectively than children thanks to their advanced literacy skills, a better memory and a longer attention span. Older learners can also remember more vocabulary words than children after a brief learning period.
It’s a common assumption that kids are faster at learning a new language than adults are. On the contrary, adults can pick up a new language faster than kids (at first). It is true that due to the additional language exposure kids have in the classroom and through social relationships, they ultimately acquire stronger language skills—but they’re not faster!
The best time to learn a language is whenever you’re ready
As far as acquiring native-level proficiency, kids have a lot going for them. But that doesn’t mean adults are out of luck. If you’re an adult learner, there are things you can do to boost your chances of success. For example, some researchers suggest picking a language that’s similar to your native tongue. So go for it! With some effort and commitment, you can learn a new language successfully—no matter when you start.
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.