But is language learning really more difficult for adults? Are you too old to learn a language? And if adults can learn languages well, isn't it better to learn just like a child does?
This week, I'll take a look at three of the biggest myths surrounding adults and language learning to prove that language learning as possible at any age.
MYTH #1: Children are Better Language Learners than AdultsWhile there are many studies proving that children find learning a language easier than adults, the idea that children are better at learning languages than adults is a misconception. In reality, children aren't better at learning languages than adults, they just approach language learning differently.
As several researchers have found, adults typically approach language learning with an adult problem-solving process, while children don't let rules and logic limit their learning. They simply absorb everything. Children also don't have the same inhibitions when it comes to practicing, and therefore aren't afraid of speaking and making mistakes, which is crucial for improving their skills. This is one of the reasons why language learning appears easier for children, but in reality adults progress through the early stages of language learning faster than children.
The structure of our brains also plays a role in language learning. Since our brains are hard-wired to learn our first language, children are able to reach a higher language proficiency sooner than adults because their brains are more flexible to the new rules. Children's brains have a higher plasticity, meaning that they can better create new neurons and synapses, or connections between information. This means that it's typically easier for them to memorize and recall information.
Children are not better than adults at learning languages, they simply approach language learning differently and it feels easier to them.
Don't let that idea hold you back, though. Not only can adults pick up the first stages of a language faster than children thanks to their logical approach, one study on second language pronunciation even found that some learners who started as adults scored just as well as native speakers on a pronunciation test. If you become bilingual as an adult, research has shown that learners who are literate in both of their languages and who possess meta-linguistic knowledge (knowledge about language and how it works) even find learning a third language significantly easier.
MYTH #2: I'm Too Old to Learn a New LanguageLet's face it: our bodies are different at age 85 than they are at age 18, and so are our brains.
In the past, scientists believed that our brain development as children more or less determined our brain structure for the rest of our lives. This meant that there was an ideal "window" for learning new things that closed when we were adults. New research, however, has shown that learning is far more complex than we once imagined, and it can occur at any age.
A 2000 neuroplasticity study examined the brains of taxi drivers and discovered that their brains actually changed and formed new neural connections with time (Macguire et al.). That's right: their adult brains actually grew with time. A 2010 study built on this by examining the differences in brain plasticity between younger (21-30) and older (65-80) learning adults. They found that there were "no significant age-related differences in plasticity of white-matter microstructure" between the two groups.
Translation: Our brains grow at any age, so we can learn at any age. Learning a language when we're older is never impossible; it's just different.
Your approach to learning should reflect those differences and keep a few important tips in mind:
- Be patient. Learning a language as an adult is a slower process because we have more demands on our brains and bodies. Don't let this bother you, though. You can and will learn with time.
- Take it step-by-step. Build upon your knowledge gradually and work towards fluency step-by-step. Always go back and review topics that you're not comfortable with and don't be afraid to build in your own mini-steps along the way.
- Use what you know. One of the wonderful parts of learning a language as an adult is that you have years of experiences, knowledge and memories to support your language learning. You already speak at least one language, so use this and your knowledge of other topics to learn a new one. Most importantly, you've learned how to learn, so all you need to do is use this knowledge to study a new topic.
- Learn how you like to learn. You've learned many things throughout your life, and learning a new language is no different from learning another topic, whether it be math, filing taxes, riding a bicycle or playing an instrument. Think of language as just another thing to learn and use the strategies you've already developed to make learning easier.
MYTH #3: Adults Must Learn Languages like ChildrenAs an ESL teacher for adult business professionals, I can't tell you how many times I've seen this theory proven wrong.
This myth has been perpetuated by the assumptions that children are "better" at learning languages than adults, and therefore adults must mimic the way children learn to be successful. Obviously, both of these assumptions are wrong.
First of all, learning a second language is not like learning a first language because it implies previous language learning knowledge and experience. The more we learn, the more our brains change and develop. The new structure of our brains makes learning a second (or third, or fourth) language fundamentally different from learning our first language.
That's why we should never learn our second language the same way that we learned our first language.
Children learn their first language through immersion and by being bombarded by the language for over ten hours per day. For children, learning a language becomes a natural part of their environment. Adults, on the other hand, aren't able to abandon all of their responsibilities and dedicate the same amount of time to language learning. And even if they do, this complete, child-like immersive learning is often frightening, overwhelming and unproductive for adults.
As adults, we prefer to approach language learning more logically. While immersion is still very useful, it is also important for us to learn structures, rules and patterns to help us actively acquire language skills.
The bottom line is that if it works for a child, that doesn't mean that it will work for an adult. In fact, it probably won't. Take advantage of the fact that you have years of learning experience under your belt, and learn a language the smart way (hyperlink: https://www.rocketlanguages.com/blog/how-to-learn-a-language-15-language-learning-tips-and-tricks/).
Age Is No Longer an ExcuseMost importantly, always remember that when it comes to language learning, age is just a number. It's definitely not an excuse. While children and adults do learn differently, adults can take advantage of this difference to help make their learning even easier.
Never let your age prevent you from learning a language. Embrace your experiences and previous knowledge and start learning a new language today!
And meanwhile, to all the language-learning adults out there, keep up the great work!
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher and Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.