The Truth About Learning Languages as an Adult
Published on May 9, 2019 / Updated on January 9, 2024
Everybody knows that adults are terrible at learning new languages.
Well…at least that’s what we are told. All the time.
But what if that is the truth?
What if our golden days are gone, and all we can do is hope for fluency and never actually get there?
Today we write the truth about learning languages as an adult, why children are claimed to do it better, and what we can learn from them – even if you work a full-time job, have your own children to look after or are enjoying your retirement as we speak!
The short answer: children are, and adults are too. It all depends on the context in which you interpret the results of several studies.
There isn’t an absolute, solid, unquestionable consensus as to why children seem to perform better at achieving fluency in a second language, but rather several theories that keep coming up and getting tested. The problem is, these studies are often limited in the way they understand ‘fluency’ or what it means to ‘know a language’.
In fact, other studies claim adults are much better at learning languages and that they outperform children in several communicative skills. Again, this happens in a highly controlled environment, and it is difficult to accept any of these studies as absolute truth… which is why you should focus on what you can do for yourself instead!
Let’s take a closer look at what makes each group so special, and what we can learn as adults to improve, now that we can’t go back in time. Unless you can. In that sense, please show us your time travelling machine!
Here are the reasons studies often mention to justify children’s success in learning a new language, especially compared to adults:
Children are not particularly motivated or disciplined to learn languages. The reason they are pushed to talk is because they want people to react and respond to them, be that in their first language or second language. Parents, teachers and classmates interact with them constantly in a given language, and so speaking is a matter of belonging and even survival – not just curiosity or passion.
Children learn a language because they are forced to. They are not particularly motivated or disciplined – they just love being understood and getting positive feedback from parents and strangers alike. Parents love hearing them talk and smile widely when they say something new, which in turn motivates them to repeat and reuse. Strangers love asking questions and listening to their cute answers. Adults? Not so much.
There is no way around this one. Children do have brain characteristics that differ from those of an adult, including a level of plasticity and a capacity for absorption that tends to decline as we grow older (however, it does not disappear as we become adults – more on that here). This means they can remember certain words more easily, and reproduce sounds more accurately and faster.
It is in the interest of parents and teachers that children speak correctly early on in life, and therefore children are constantly corrected and prompted by those around them. Adults, however, tend to be afraid to correct each other and do not want to make each other feel bad, so they unwillingly reward mistakes by not saying anything and not pointing it out – unless, of course, they are actual language teachers. You can always count on those!
Children learn easy vocabulary in small quantities and repeat what their parents, teachers and close family members reinforce more often. They do not study seven chapters a week, several different verb tenses in a weekend and then try to understand the complexity behind everything they are exposed to. They are also not expected to get language certificates to be allowed to study or work in a certain country, be able to plan entire business presentations in their target language or write a formal letter in German in less than a year. Expectations are different for different age groups, and so children naturally seem to be better language learners.
Research has suggested that there is such a thing as decision fatigue – getting physically tired and less patient after having to make lots of decisions, even small ones. A 5-year old has no bills to pay, no family members to look after, no meals to cook, no bosses to please, no 9-to-5 – and therefore, no important decisions to make all day. Enough said. That leaves more space and energy in a child’s brain for efficient memorization, more availability to play around and interact with several types of media in their target language, and more attention to what is happening in their surroundings.
Here are common reasons why adults are considered to be better learners than kids, or at least stronger in their approach.
Adults are brave. They face family conflict, work fatigue, financial trouble, and just the regular nervousness that comes with exposing yourself with your insecurities every single day. And yet, we continue wanting to improve. We show up at the gym, we show up at family parties, we show up at work – and we certainly continue showing up at the language class we signed up for, although we felt insecure and scared of what could happen and what others would think of us. Being logical, strategic and resistant also plays to our advantage.
Adults learn languages because they feel curious, passionate, or just because they still believe they deserve a better career or a better country to live in. Those reasons should speak louder than any other fear or limitation we might have, as we have a better long-term awareness of how our lives could look and feel much better with our new language. This could even be in the form of a language bucket list, like understanding your favourite songs, being able to survive a job interview in your target language or finally communicating with your partner in their mother tongue!
Our vocabulary range is so much wider than that of a child, that we can easily understand the meaning of several foreign words just by understanding common patterns and similarities when comparing them to our native language or others we might know. Additionally, many of the sounds we will learn in a new language, we already know in our mother tongue.
There is so much more to language and communication than pronunciation or not having an accent, such as body language and more subtle cues. These are skills that come with age, experience and just being with other people. Children are not as efficient as most adults at quickly understanding and interpreting context to guess meaning, especially when grammar or pronunciation are not spot on.
Research has been conducted on whether age had a major impact on learning effective pronunciation in a foreign language. It doesn’t. Adults performed just as well as younger learners in achieving authentic, native-like pronunciation of a new language. However, do all adults really want to get rid of their accents forever? Some just don’t. Gone are the times when sounding like a native speaker was the number one goal for any language learner. In fact, some people are proud of their accent and have no intention of changing it – they see it as a sign of bravery and commitment!
Many have used this feature of an adult mind as an actual disadvantage. After all, children learn through not caring, rather than trying to understand everything that is placed in front of them. That is true. However, adult logic can help us find patterns in a new language more efficiently, connect the dots more easily, grasp any given grammar concept more quickly and apply a rule more consistently. Why discard that?
As we have seen, there is something to learn from children when it comes to second language learning, but that does not mean you should ignore your qualities as an adult learner. What can we apply to make our language learning more efficient?
Children speak because they feel socially and biologically forced to, in order to belong and be understood by their parents, teachers and classmates. You too need an immediate sense of urgency and reward to improve your language learning. You can achieve this by staying accountable: join a class where you know your attendance will be taken and noticed, and where people actually speak to you as an individual so you have to answer back. Apps are not going to cut it here. Make sure you also record your progress on audio or video and share it with your teacher, parents, pen pals or social media friends to get proper feedback, detailed comments and suggestions for improvement. Which leads us to…
Children talk every single day. They also listen every single day and are constantly asked questions by parents and teachers to challenge them to improve. Have you ever noticed that many adults who claim they just ‘can’t’ learn a language are the ones who study with apps only, read a language manual once a week or attend a class once a month? How is that enough to keep a language fresh, when you don’t actually speak to anybody in your target language? Speaking as soon as possible should be your priority.
Learn the basics first and start by repeating the expressions people use more often, even if you can’t translate every single word or understand the logic behind what you see. The next step is making those basic expressions so natural – through speaking and repeating – that you don’t even have to think about them anymore, before departing to more complex material. The worst you can do is try memorizing entire lists of verbs or cramming for the sake of cramming.
People will listen to a child saying “I love chocolate” in a perfect French accent and say “Oh my goodness, children are fantastic at learning languages, absolute sponges!”. However, they will listen to an adult deliver a presentation in French with a couple of grammar mistakes and some accent issues and claim adults really struggle with languages. Do we see the problem here? Think of yourself as a child who is learning a new language. Would you be that hard on a 6-year old if they could not get everything correct right away?
Accept corrections. Welcome corrections. Embrace corrections. Get angry when you don’t get corrections. And that means embracing mistakes, exposure, repetition and a slight degree of embarrassment. How can you do that? Be upfront with your teachers, tutors, language buddies, social media friends and even family members, if applicable – you want to be corrected and will be angry if you aren’t. Becoming a better version of yourself will always be more important in the priority chain than two seconds of awkwardness.
There is a reason children learn through singing, listening to simple songs on repeat, cartoons and comics. Your brain being relaxed and relieved from the pressure to succeed helps you have more energy and availability to absorb whatever language you need to learn, rather than being self-conscious and worrying about how you will sound. Do continue incorporating your favourite music playlists, TV series and YouTube channels into your routine, but don’t discard some fun cartoons for adults, comics or even karaoke videos that can help you sing along to your favourite tunes in your target language!
You’re not dumber – you just need a different strategy.
Picture this. Would you ever tell an unhealthy, overweight person who is currently on a diet: “You should’ve just started when you were a child, that would’ve been much better and now you wouldn’t have to do this”?
That would be useless and demotivating. Why? Because there’s nothing that person can do about their childhood anymore. That doesn’t mean they should not go for it as adults. We see fantastic results when people commit – so why shouldn’t they? The body works the way it works under certain conditions, and it predictably thrives when we follow certain strategies – the same happens with languages and the brain.
So much is still unknown about the brain and the way it operates. We continue discovering more and more about different games, learning methodologies, tools and different repetition methods we can use to learn languages faster and more effectively.
Start your language learning journey today. Head over to our website and start your trial with Lingoda.