Adults are better at learning languages than children – and here’s why
Now let me start by highlighting the myth…
“Children are better than learning languages than adults”
This is simply not true.
The fact of the matter is that children and adults are different. Both physiologically, in terms of their brains, and environmentally.
To put it bluntly, adults brains are more mature and they have a tonne of other stuff to be getting on with in their life!
There is a lot of research to suggest that children’s brains don’t mature fully until the teenage years. (Though experts can’t agree on when that exact time is).
During this ‘immature phase’ – what is known as ‘The window of opportunity’ – the brain is able to absorb and process information at an incredible rate, unconsciously.
Children also have huge amounts of free time to focus on language learning, free from the shackles that hold adults down like bills, mortgages, having to work etc. More on that later.
But does this help with language learning? The answer is yes. Of course.
So doesn’t that mean that children are better at learning languages then?
Actually, no. Numerous studies on language learning in children vs adults have come up with very similar results.
When given learning material and then tested on that material later adults and children perform practically the same in all tests in terms of results.
What is interesting though is that the kinds of mistakes that adults make when compared to children are different.
Children are usually able to pick up accent, pronunciation and intonation much better than adults. They are generally better when it comes to memorisation e.g. vocabulary. Though some adults excel at this as well.
Complex grammar rules and logic are where an adult’s brain outperforms a child’s. Generally children make more mistakes in this area than their adult counterparts.
So why the myth then?
There are a couple of reasons why this myth is so persistent.
Parents often exaggerate the progress of their children learning their first language
Firstly, parents often comment on how quickly their child is picking up words and phrases and beginning to talk. And this is true, children do indeed start to acquire vocabulary from an early age.
The thing is, they actually acquire it incredibly slowly for the amount of time and effort put in.
Think of yourself. You go to a language lesson or do a session on your favourite language learning app and you’ve learnt a couple of new words. With just a few minutes effort, a couple of hours maximum.
A lot of people also suggest that babies and toddlers ‘absorb language like a sponge’. While that is definitely true due to the way their brains are wired (see earlier), their learning is actually very sluggish and inefficient.
Babies and children are lucky if they learn 50 – 100 words a year! Even though their brain is spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week learning. Most toddlers can’t speak properly until at least age 2 – 3. And even then their language ability is pretty basic.
If you paid for a year’s worth of immersive language lessons you’d be asking for your money back!
The appearance of rapid improvement is probably more because they are starting from an incredibly low baseline, so even small improvements make a big difference.
Parents are generally always proud of their child’s progress at anything as well. So there is definitely a bias involved here.
A lot of people mis-understand how bilingual children learn
The second reason for the continued existence of this myth probably comes from how people perceive bilingual children.
Now bilingual children have a tough challenge on their hands.
They are essentially forced to switch between languages 24 hours a day and absorb an incredible amount of complex information. These children have no choice but to learn. It’s a necessity, not a simple desire. And learn they do!
Again, this is more about the amount of time they have available for language learning than being ‘better’. If you had 24 hours every day to learn your chosen language, you’d be amazing. I can guarantee it!
Well you are amazing! But hopefully you get what I mean!
To illustrate the point, just imagine yourself thrust into a new country where nobody speaks your language, you’re forced to make friends, go to school/work where they don’t speak your language. Interact with other kids, colleagues, teachers, adults in a foreign language. You’re going to improve quickly.
The reality is that adults just don’t have that kind of pressure.
Reading this you will almost certainly know someone who either lives in your country or has moved abroad to another country, has been there years and never learnt one word of the language.
This isn’t because they’re not good at languages. It’s because they don’t need to!
They’re just afraid of moving outside of the comfort zone, their life is too busy with other priorities. Language learning is hard. Very hard at times. They simply don’t have a compelling reason to learn the language.
This is what kills the language learning dreams of many adults. It’s easier to claim you’re too old to learn than to actually learn!
Bilingual children simply cannot choose to stay within the confines of one language. Or let other priorities take precedence in their life.
A convenient excuse
In truth, this is where it all stems from. People who say that children are better language learners than adults are usually those who have failed or are failing on their language learning journey. They desperately don’t want it to be their fault. They take comfort in the fact that they seemingly have no control of their linguistic failure and just blame it on age, genetics, environment, or whatever. (There will generally be a few excuses!)
But that’s all it is. An excuse. And a pathetic one at that!
As an adult you can reach conversational proficiency from nothing in any language in a year or two maximum with the right attitude and motivation.
Imagine a 2 year old child being able to speak at length at a business meeting about the local political situation. It’s just not going to happen! It’s something that is very possible for an adult.
Now I’m not going to knock children learning languages at all. Quite the opposite. As a child you are incredibly fortunate not to have the trappings of life pulling on you day after day.
Children have time to learn. Adults don’t. That’s where the myth comes from.
Children have no bills, no mortgage or rent to pay. No need to work (except school). You don’t even need to think about what to cook for dinner or if there’s enough food to last or if you need to go to the supermarket.
Insert more of life’s little things that get in the way from day to day here as I’m sure I’ve left something out!
Like emptying the litter tray, or walking the dog, you get the idea!
The lack of these stressors makes it very easy to spend lots and lots of time learning. Either consciously or unconsciously.
It’s an easy life. And it’s a child’s secret weapon!
That said. There are some factors which enable adults to turn the tables on children in terms of learning.
Why adults have the edge
A lot of people also suggest that babies and toddlers ‘absorb language like a sponge’. While that is possibly true due to the way their brains are wired (see earlier), their learning is actually very sluggish and inefficient as we said before.
Adults have already learned at least 1 language (their own) so can compare vocabulary and grammar in the target language with their own.
Older children have this ability as well, but compared to a baby or toddler who has absolutely nothing to compare things with their progress is incredibly slow. While comparing or blindly translating vocabulary and/or grammar isn’t always recommended, it can certainly help adults get to grips with fairly complex subject matter in a foreign language pretty rapidly.
Another factor is that your average adult has a lifetime worth of experience to use as context to help them learn.
Babies, toddlers, and even young children and teenagers have less context, knowledge and experience of the world with which to help them learn.
Probably one of the biggest factors that makes adult language learners more effective than children is that they are more motivated, focused and patient.
Motivation is huge when it comes to language learning and can be the difference between success and failure.
Adults can pick up strategies on how to learn.
A perfect example of this is to develop memorisation techniques for learning vocabulary such as spaced repetition. An adult using spaced repetition to memorise vocabulary will outperform most children even though they are generally better at memorising things.
Pretty much anything that a child can do, an adult can develop a learning strategy to perform better than a child.
Finally, many adults have developed and are more familiar with their own learning style.
While this certainly doesn’t apply to all adults, those who have become familiar with the way they like to learn and what kind of materials/exercises work best for them are at a huge advantage.
Adults and children are different.
While the brains of children may be adapted for learning they actually don’t pick up languages very efficiently as they have no frame of reference within which to process the complex information being thrown at them.
Some children excel at languages through necessity and having significant amounts of time to invest in language learning vs the average adult. This can make them appear ‘better’ at learning than the average adult.
The experiences, motivation, and strategies that an adult can apply to language learning can make up for any advantages that a child may have.
Anyone can pick up a language at any age. If you want to do something you’ll find a way. If you don’t, well, you’ll make an excuse.
Don’t be that person!
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Founder of the UK Language Project and avid language learner.
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