Only Children Can (Really) Learn

It is a proven fact: the age of acquisition of a foreign language is a strong predictor of ultimate similarity to native speaking.  In other words, aiming for a native speaker level requires engaging in early learning. This is not only the finding of any adult marveling at the ability of young children to learn, or alternatively lamenting his own challenges to go beyond certain thresholds. These are also facts that all scientists now agree on.

This does not mean that adults cannot learn at all. Quite the contrary, adults can often start learning a second language much faster than children. During their lifetime they have developed cognitive abilities that are superior to those of children. When they tackle a language, they are immediately capable of structuring their learning and organizing their knowledge ; drawing phonetic, syntactic or semantic comparisons with other languages or language groups ; understanding or generalizing a rule.

But in the long run, the time and the energy that adults have to devote to their learning far exceed those of children. And it is not long before obstacles start popping up. Pronunciation is usually an insurmountable issue that emerges right from the outset. Adults soon reach a general cap in their learning. For many learners, building sentences is a conscious effort rather than the natural flow or the near reflex of a native speaker. Even highly talented adult learners will sooner or later be betrayed by a facet of speech : a sound never produced, a phrase never used, or a mistake never made by a native speaker.

Language proficiency and age of acquisition

Ultimate level of language proficiency, as a function of age of acquisition (credit : inspired from Patricia Kuhl)

So children learn much better than adults; yet adults can learn to some extent.  This is why the historic notion of a critical period is now giving way to that of a sensitive period for learning.  When the notion of a critical period prevailed, it was believed that at a certain age – somewhere between 4-5 years-old and teen-age depending on the authors – the ability of learning would drop drastically and almost vanish overnight. More refined theories would identify several critical periods depending on the element of language structure: phonology, morphology, semantics…  Except for phonology today’s belief is different. It is now generally accepted that there is a sensitive period that ends before the teenage years ; language learning is much easier during this sensitive period than afterwards.

Have you yourself noticed the great ease displayed by children when learning, compared to adults ?

You will find out in our next post why children learn better.

7 replies
  1. Laura Rosen
    Laura Rosen says:

    This is absolutely true. I learned long ago, and see it in real life, that the absolutely cut-off age for learning a new language with a perfect native accent is 11. By age 12, you will have a slight accent no matter how well you learn the new language.

  2. Fernanda Conti
    Fernanda Conti says:

    That’s true! My native language is portuguese and since i was 4 years old i learn German (which I can speak very well) and English (as well). And now, I’m interested on learning new languages, so I started a french course and for me it’s very easy to learn and understand everything.

  3. Jonathan Lomaki
    Jonathan Lomaki says:

    I am extremely disappointed in the educational system here in the US, but in particular in the school system where I work. There is no emphasis on creating a well-rounded student or any acknowledgement of the realities of language acquisition and language learning…students aren’t introduced to foreign language here until age 14! And we wonder here why students show little aptitude and enthusiasm for language study. The sad part is that the entire curriculum is centered around the district’s ability to pay for instruction in all the various areas. Ours is not a wealthy district by any means, and the school system reflects that in its bare-bones course offerings and emphasis on practicality.

  4. World Languages
    World Languages says:

    It’s true that children can acquired certain languages when they are young, but it’s also true any adult can learn another different language from his or her mother tongue. Acquire a language is very different from learn it. Only children have that capacity of ‘acquiring’, but everybody no matter his age can learn a language.That’s why In your chart it says ‘age of acquistion’ NOT ‘age of learning’.

    • The VivaLinguist
      The VivaLinguist says:

      Hello World Languages and thank you for your interest in our blog.
      Science has proven unequivocally that the learning of adults, while it can take place, is necessarily capped. The chart is really showing the level of proficiency as a function of the age of learning or acquisition (here the terms are used interchangeably). Thank you again.

  5. Ellen Jovin
    Ellen Jovin says:

    Of course it is easier for young children to acquire a language well, and I want them to start earlier in schools than they do. However, I am mildly obsessed with the idea of getting “mature” adults to appreciate the pleasures of language study well into old age. Language-learning is a restorer of youth! It is fun (when done right)! It can open new worlds to people until the day they die! And grownups have things going for them mentally and intellectually that children do not. It’s not all downhill for us!

  6. Languages Around the Globe
    Languages Around the Globe says:

    Actually, it’s not impossible for someone to learn another language to native proficiency after the “Critical Period”. It is difficult, but for some reason we all seem to forget why that doesn’t matter.

    Children do *NOT* learn languages “better” than adults, and I’m so incredibly sick of hearing it. It invalidates adult language learning and convinces many to never try. I could rant and rave about how NOT true this is, but I’m sure I don’t need to.

    Adults have their own strengths when it comes to language learning that children cannot have.

    And there’s really no difference between “acquiring” or “learning” another language. It’s all language acquisition, it’s not impossible, saying otherwise doesn’t help anyone.


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