I have heard countless people say that learning your first language is quite different than learning a second or third, and that you can never really learn a second language just as well as your mother tongue. That if you don’t learn a language while young, you’ll never sound like a native speaker.
But is that really true?
Today I am going to discuss whether or not children really are better language learners than adults.
So when you look at the research, the overwhelming evidence seems to point to the fact that children are fantastically effective language learners, and that adults are, in fact, fantastically poor ones.
So much so that a lot of language learning apps use “learn like a kid” as a tagline to suggest that if you use their product, you’ll learn the language at a much deeper and intuitive level than you would otherwise.
You hear it said that “children are just incredible learners, they absorb everything, they learn so fast”.
We hear this so often that it’s easy to take it for granted, especially in the domain of language learning. Children are obviously marvelously skilled language learners who can master a language in a fraction of the time an adult could.
But the truth is that things are more complicated than that.
Recently, I stumbled upon a very interesting article discussing results of a study led by MIT scientists.
The study found that (and I quote)“if you start learning a language before the age of 18, you have a much better likelihood of obtaining a native-like mastery of the language’s grammar than if you start later. This is a much older age than has been generally assumed and is really interesting for reasons I’ll get into a bit later. This data has also given us a really amazing insight into language learning in general and shows that adults of any age can obtain incredible mastery nearly as quickly as children”.
I’m happy to say that these findings are in line with my own personal experience as a long-time language learner.
In fact, thanks to the very first video I made on YouTube twelve years ago, I have come into contact with dozens of incredible language learners who have acquired native-like skills across a wide range of languages. In some cases, these people have attained mastery in one or two languages well beyond the age of 20.
So, what did the study at MIT find that contradicts the widespread belief that if you don’t learn a language before you hit puberty, you are doomed to speak like Tarzan.
Here is my take on it:
For the sake of simplicity and brevity: let me break it down into three main areas :
I know it sounds ridiculous, but theoretically, while school is designed or at least intended to be the place where we “learn stuff”, sometimes it is the place where we actually unlearn things we used to do quite well and spontaneously. That’s surely the case in language learning.
Before you enter school, there are no tests, no grades, and no judgment bestowed upon you for using the wrong verb or preposition in your mother tongue. You acquire language within a positive emotional environment that does not judge your ability, but rather fosters communication.
When adults learn a foreign language, their learning approach has changed drastically; it has been molded to fit the learning style that is enforced in schools, and at university.
Think about it.
How many times have you avoided speaking a language fearing of being judged? Or felt ashamed when someone pointed out a mistake you made?
How many times have you avoided interacting in a foreign language because you were afraid to mess up? Or told yourself that the time for speaking will come someday, but not today?
As an adult language learner, all of those doubts and limiting beliefs only slow you down.
As a child learning to speak your mother tongue, you didn’t have any of that. You just used the language to cooperate, play, and communicate.
Fortunately for adult language learners, all hope is not lost: you can still learn to play and communicate through your target language, just as kids do.
In fact, through trial and error and experience, adults who have experience with language learning become proficient, proactive, and at times fearless learners, who use their target language in all possible situations and environments.
Beyond the presence or absence of limiting beliefs, there are also significant differences in the way that children and adults learn, and how well those learning methods cooperate with the way the brain naturally learns and absorbs new information.
Let me give an example we’re all familiar with: vocabulary lists.
If you’ve ever been in a language class before, you’ve experienced what it’s like to be given a list of foreign language words to memorize.
Maybe you decided to learn these words by repeating them out loud to yourself, over and over. Or maybe you were told to write down the word (and its translation) several times, until you had properly memorized it.
Whichever way you used, in that moment you were practicing what is called “rote memorization”, which is probably the memorization technique most often promoted in school.
What most people don’t know is that rote memorization is a very brain-unfriendly way of learning anything. Studies have shown that even if you spend hours trying to “cram” information into your head through memorization, it won’t stick—at least not for very long.
Now think about how small children learn languages; Have you ever seen a baby holding a vocabulary list? I don’t think so.
Children learn languages in the most natural way possible—through context! They see and hear a word being used over and over in specific situations, and then they just naturally connect the word to its appropriate meaning.
And here’s the thing: kids aren’t perfect at this. Children make mistakes with language all the time. But if they make a mistake, and use a word wrong, they don’t stop and cry about it—they just adjust their understanding of the language, and keep on experimenting!
This is what you, as an adult, need to re-learn. You don’t need to forget everything you know, but rather you need to remember what it’s like to draw connections between concepts in a natural way, through gradual, continuous exposure.
Life Circumstances (External Factors)
One more place where children have a natural advantage over adults is in their life circumstances.
Children lead vastly different lives than adults do. Children (particularly those not yet in school) have few responsibilities, and thus are free to spend the vast majority of time playing, experimenting, and simply absorbing as much information they can about the world around them.
In terms of language, they don’t even have a choice; they have to learn the language they are exposed to by their parents and family members—it’s the only way they can survive, communicate, and have their needs met.
Adults, on the other hand, have what children do not—responsibilities.
We as adults have dozens and dozens of things we have to attend to each day: our jobs, our families, our health, and much much more. We don’t have all of our needs met almost automatically, as children do. We have to fend for ourselves, and in most cases, that means spending a lot of our time doing things just to keep our lives in order.
With much of our time dedicated to our responsibilities, there’s embarrassingly little time left for non-essential things like language learning. And that’s normal even if you consider language learning a priority.
The other issue that separates adults and children is choice.
As an adult, you most likely don’t have an urgent, life-or-death need to learn your target language. You already have a language you can use to live your life just fine, so learning a new one isn’t essential.
And that goes even for people who live abroad, in countries where their target language is spoken. We all know stories of expats who only ever learn a few phrases in their target language, even if they’ve lived abroad for decades.
Put simply, adults have the choice to learn only as much language as they want or need, while a child (in most cases) does not. So children are naturally compelled to learn more effectively.
One last benefit that children have over adults is time.
Have you ever seen official estimates of how many hours of learning it takes to learn a language to fluency?
For example, it is said by some institutions that it takes about 500 hours of active learning for an English speaker to become fluent in Spanish, and about 2200 hours for that same English speaker to learn Japanese to fluency.
That may seem like an awful amount of time to you and me, who probably don’t have more than an hour per day to dedicate to language learning.
Let’s do the math:
Spanish: 500 hours / 1 hour per day = 500 days (or 1.37 years to reach fluency)
Japanese: 2200 hours / 1 hour per day = 2200 days (or 6.02 years to reach fluency)
That’s a long time, especially if we’re learning a language like Japanese. Do you know many adults who have the discipline to stick to something for an hour a day for six years, especially if they have a choice not to?
Now let’s look at the situation for the average child.
When a child is learning their mother tongue, they are immersed in it practically every moment of their waking lives. On average, children sleep around 8 hours every day, meaning they get to spend 16 hours totally immersed in their language.
Let’s say this immersion begins the moment they are born, and continues all the way until they turn 18.
16 hours per day x 365 days per year x 18 years
That’s 105,120 hours of total language immersion by the time you reach adulthood!
That number of immersion hours is absolutely enormous when compared to the number of hours that are necessary to actually reach fluency in a language, as I described earlier. Children spend so much time with their native language, that they can reach fluency in a small fraction of the time that adults need.
Can an Adult Learn Like a Child?
Okay, so we’ve covered all of the factors that give children a huge advantage over adults when it comes to language learning.
Knowing all this, is it possible to imagine a scenario where an adult learns a language like a child does?
I think so. Allow me to illustrate with a brief story:
A short time ago, I was in Krakow, Poland, working on a video for the famed Easy Polish channel on Youtube.
Specifically, I worked with Justyna and Patrycja, the two girls who comprise the Easy Polish team.
While together, we spent the whole day working and filming, though we did have the occasional moment to eat meals and relax. The whole time, we spoke nothing but Polish with one another. We discussed our lives, or work, and a wide variety of other topics.
As I practiced my Polish, I observed how Justyna and Patrycja interacted and used their language with one another, and how they did the same with me. From seeing these interactions, I learned a great deal of new things about the Polish language and how it is used. Justyna and Patrycja were also kind enough to correct my Polish, when necessary.
All in all, this was an amazing linguistic experience. For that entire day, I was completely immersed in the Polish language and culture. I used it with people, heard it spoken around me, and saw how people used it with one another.
And this, in a nutshell, is the kind of experience children get to live. Not just for one day, but for nearly every day of their lives.
If an adult could live an experience like the one I had in Krakow, but do it continuously for years on end—all while maintaining an open mind—then I am sure they could reach a native-like level, eventually.
I truly believe that you can acquire native-like skills in any language, at any age.
The older you start, the more challenging this becomes; however, if you are determined, the challenge will never become too great.
Science supports this; while it was once thought that after the age of 10 it is impossible to learn a language to native-like fluency, studies have now shown that native-like fluency can be achieved even much later, after the age of 20.
This is what I’ve discovered in my own life. There are many adults who have reached fluency in languages that they started learning long after childhood. The important thing is that these people made conscious choices to overcome the internal and external limitations that adult learning so often saddles us with.
The truth is that human beings best acquire language simply through a positive environment, no matter their age. If you can develop a solid grasp of a language, you can use this to your advantage to greatly accelerate your learning—especially if you move to a foreign country and create an environment that mimics many of the advantageous conditions that child learners often find themselves in.
So, no matter how old you are now, as you read this article, no matter what your language experience is, you can learn any language if you want to. Your mind is a powerful tool, and you are infinitely capable of using it to learn foreign languages and change your life, just as I have.
Now, what about you?
Have you reached a high level in a second language after the age of 18?
If you have, then leave a comment below sharing your story. I can’t wait to read all about it.
English is my second language. I learned some English in school before 18 like everyone else; I was not interested in it, so it was not much actual learning though.
But at age 15 or 16 I had become interested in technical literature at home and consequently learned something in my free time.
At age 19 I spent many hours every week speaking with a Pakistani researcher in his lab about technical stuff and learned slowly during a year or two to express myself.
From age 27 I started to speak a little English at my work place every day. So after many years reading and speaking English, at age 42 I realised that I was able to do advanced English editing for book publication, often finding things to improve written by native speakers. But still I have not mastered to write or speak at native level, but it is enough for me.
It was only at school I felt intimidated and thus avoided to express myself. I was lucky to overcome that later as an adult by spending time in a friendly atmosphere in many different places.
In summary I spent very little time in studying English as a language, I was just trying to use it.
At age 57 I started to learn foreign languages by studying them. It is slow, but I love it.
Thank you, So much for sharing and tips. I liked the way you shared your post with the help of video, Great work, Keep Posting.
Thank YOU for the nice words Saayed!
Luca has been one of my mentors (he doesn’t know that) on the road to Fluency. He and Steve Kaufman have been my role models even though I don’t aspire becoming a multi language speaking polyglot. Most of the techniques and tools that I’ve adopted in my language learning routine as well as my students are based on their teachings and language learning habits. Thank Luca for your incredible work. Keep it up!
Thanks a bunch for the glowing words JC! =)
There is no doubt that language ability varies by person. However the MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test) is defective: it tests for reasoning ability (as does the Law School Admission Test, which I aced). But my memory has always been poor (I could never learn lines for amateur plays in a reasonable time, and learning vocabulary — lists work when you are trying to learn professional terms — has been arduous.) In my experience — I put 4 children into French schools (Africa, Korea, England, Switzerland: I was a diplomat) that’s a good way to make a small child actually bilingual: but the language deteriorates if the child does not continue into high school where language blossoms and a wide vocabulary is learned. I am helping raise one of my 9 grandchildren using OPOL: from birth Ii have spoken to him solely in French, he goes to a French school in Battersea, he speaks to his mum in English. We plan to put him into the Lycée français for high school (one of my daughters went there, but from 12-16 was in the English stream, still her French was best among the kids until an older sister married a Frenchman whose English was limited. Funnily enough, they speak only French to each other in San Francisco but their two daughters speak little French. This is all anecdotal. But having studied Korean at the Foreign Service Institute and observed diplomats of varying language ability over my former career it is obvious that anyone can have fun with a language in adulthood but few can master it to the degree of writing a saleable novel. Most technical works by scientist adult language learner have to be edited. But some, with fabulous memory and excellent reasoning ability are exempt from the limits I described. My grandson is Swiss-British. I’d like to teach him German but my German, despite one year in university and great effort in my 70s — and I passed the reading exam for the PhD in economics at Columbia back in the day — is only useful to me for trivial conversation or reading technical works in my own subjects. And as for Korean, I could read a newspaper article one economics or commerce but never carry on a useful conversation. That would have taken me years of solid effort and I was only paid for one year of full-time classroom study. FWIW.
In my personal experience, the first 2 languages learned are Italian (in Italy before age 6) and French in school at age 6. I consider them on an equal footing with mother tongues. I would define myself as perfect bilingual. I don’t feel any difficulty neither in one nor in the other, then small mistakes are always made. While those learned later, from adolescence onwards (English, Dutch, Spanish), even if I have excellent passive knowledge, I do not master them as well as the first two.
A question about children. If you are an adult, you can find any (and often very good) material on the internet to learn almost any language. For now, I have found a perfect Russian course for me on YT. But for my six year old son, who goes to school in Dutch (Flemish), I look for good lessons to start French and Italian, but I don’t find interesting things, there seems to be less material suitable for children. Do you know anything about it, have you already made (or could you make) videos about it?
I enjoyed reading this article! I found it to be informational and quite intriguing. I am new to the field of linguistics. I am graduating in January 2022 with a Bachelor’s in Applied Linguistics with a minor in cognitive studies. I was able to connect theories and concepts that I have studied to the information presented. It gave me more of a real-world application understanding. Children have the ability to learn many things because they are free spirits that are eager to learn. I think as we get older we lose that excitement to learn at times. As adults, we are trained creatures of habits who will use our own fear to limit additional learning. I have a baby girl that is 2 months old and our native language is English. When the time comes, it is my desire to start teaching her a second language as I am learning as well. I want her to obtain this knowledge at a young age so that when she is older, she will have mastered code-switching. I started learning Spanish in High School. I dislike that I did not continue with it into my adulthood. There are some words and concepts that stuck with me to the point where I can understand what a Spanish speaker is saying and I can have a basic conversation. Now that I am older, I have used those building blocks to practice with people around me who speak Spanish. Native speakers have a way of teaching Spanish that is easier to understand the context difference, pronouns, etc.
My mother language is Mandarin. As I started learning English when I was 4, learning English wasn’t hard for me at all; English was a natural thing that comes into my daily life. I would not have to struggle with learning how to pronounce English vocabulary or even phrases, all comes so naturally. So I recommend learning a language when you’re a child. Learning a new language as an adult takes more time and effort.
This is so true, sadly the majority believes that it is not possible to learn a language after a certain age.