Children Don't Learn Languages Easier Than Adults (It's A Myth)

There is a popular myth floating around, which suggests that children are somehow more capable of learning than adults are. People love this myth, because as adults it gives them a convenient excuse for not learning.

The myth is particularly popular in the realm of language learning. It's just accepted as true, without any argument, that children have some sort of amazing, otherworldly ability to learn languages, and that somehow that ability is lost as we get older. Really! People believe that some biological function for which we are evolved can, somehow, just magically disappear when we reach the age 16!

Sorry, I don't believe in magic.

These are the real differences

The differences between how children learn and how adults learn are stark and unmistakable. Children are surrounded by input when they learn. There are speaking aids: repetition, gestures, pictures, etc. Many people even use a "dumbed down" version of the language when talking to children. And yet we don't do any of these things with adults.

Children acquire a language. It's presented to them through use. It's situational and relevant. Children hear the word "eat" and are presented with food. Children hear the word "apple" while being offered a delicious red fruit. They hear the word "no" in an angry voice as mom swats them on the ass. And yet as adults, we get a list of words and a book of grammar.

Children are always immersed as they are acquiring their first language. It's not compartmentalized into a time of day, and a particular book, and a lesson and a strategy. They learn because they can't escape it. They learn because it is necessary to survive.

Children also have no past experience to compare it to. Everything they learn is being learned with a completely open mind, whereas adults are constantly trying to apply their current assumptions and expectations to any and all new information they receive.

The myth is... teaching!

The reason adults don't learn like children is because they believe in the myth of teaching. In other words, it's ego. It's the foolish belief in convenience and shortcuts. Adults don't learn because they think they can take a shortcut and "be taught". You can't.

If I had read as many books as other men, I should have been as ignorant as they are. — Thomas Hobbs

I've said it before: language is not a fact. It can not be taught. It can not be learned through study. Language is a skill. Skills must be acquired. Skills must be practiced. Children learn to talk the same way they learn to walk. You can't be taught walking. You have to figure it out for yourself. The same thing is true with language.

Sure, someone can help you keep your balance, and they can even force you to put one foot in front of the other, but until you do the work of operating your own legs, and until you build the strength, the balance, and the stamina you will not walk. Not on your own. And likewise, until you build the vocabulary, the grammar, the hearing, pronunciation, and comprehension, you can not talk.

Books are handy. Grammar is a convenient road map. Classes are comfortable. But these are just the language-learning equivalents of mom or dad holding you up by your arms while you kick your legs and learn to put one foot in front of the other.

Eventually, you have to stand on your own. And indeed, eventually you have to fall on your own. You are no different than a child in this respect. The difference is a myth.


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  • According to what you said, this would mean if I now go abroad and live among people speaking a foreign language I will acquire it out of necessity and learn it and eventually end up speaking it like a native. In practice, though, this wouldn’t happen. My past experiences can’t simply be erased and my first language influence is too dominant once I pass a certain age. This is exactly what scientists refer to when talking about a critical period after which it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to acquire (or learn) a new language to perfection. Is that a myth too?

  • Great Post Randy! I'll also add that children have no option but to learn. It's absolutely essential for them to learn to communicate in the language if they want to be understood. They don't get embarrassed or worried about what people will think about them. They make many errors and then get corrected over and over again until they get it correct. Their pronunciation improves over time. They learn to speak faster and develop a the flow of the language - eventually. And each and every one of them do this successfully.Children seem to get smarter and smarter while adults feel as though they get dumber and dumber. Makes no sense.If adults learned a thing or two from children and didn't subscribe so much to information having to be pushed in their faces, and they actually practiced the language they would learn better.Learning from the world is essential. No book can substitute the lessons learnt from life.

  • No, you're absolutely right that past experiences can't be erased. That's why an open mind is so important.

  • I don't believe speaking like a native was ever mentioned in the post. Children have years of practice. Children also get corrected with pretty much every mistake. Adults don't.The ability to empty one's mind and leave one's native language behind is something that grows. Another skill that many fail to recognise.We can't expect our minds to change the way they think in a heartbeat. Those changes will only become habitual through constant deliberate practice. It is difficult at first. But it gets easier. Fact.I'm a linguistics student and I sit in second acquisition lectures. There are many theories. Many conflicting. I do not deny that there are truths, but they are to be taking with a pinch of salt.I do not believe it becomes increasingly difficult to learn a language as we get older. It's all dependent on how you set out to learn.If you throw an adult into five years of immersion. Given the same conditions. The adult will speak the language better than a native speaker of five years old. Fact.You could argue that the conditions will never be the same for an adult and a child. I say that's where being an adult becomes handy, because you can create the environment needed to learn best.

  • Why wouldn't that happen? In my experience people don't learn in immersive environments because they are too lazy or afraid to really try and end up hiding away in a group of expats. Or they make enough progress to be able to get their point across and aren't social enough to need to improve more.When necessity is truly there for full time real relationships and the person doesn't just give up, then they will definitely keep learning. Speaking like a native is a strawman argument and irrelevant to simply learning to speak fluently. (Speaking with no accent is an unnecessary goal for most people).

  • Well said Randy! I'm sure you'll have lots of people disagree with you, but it's time we put an end to this lazy-ass argument that is an excuse for millions to not even try to learn, or to throw thousands of dollars at grammar and vocabulary based learning methods.

  • Yeah, I'm sure there will be tons of controversy over this one. In just one hour it's already one of my most popular posts ever...

  • You, Benny, seem to have missed the point slightly. I wasn't talking about accent, but it's funny you should mention that as you don't seem to acquire any at all - I take it this isn't your ''goal''? Fair enough, but why would you feel the need to emphasise it? I heard you speak Czech and I thought it was pretty weak, so if your goal was to read something out badly in a foreign language then you suceeded. yes, you certainly aren't the ''too lazy and too afraid'' type. is that why you deleted our conversaion on twitter after I suggested you never spoke Czech in this video but merely read it out?

  • lol :D
    Kill the messenger :P

  • It's not completely accurate to say children learning languages faster is a myth--the science supports this, particularly with the pronunciation of sounds.That said, it's completely true that this isn't an excuse to go out and learn languages. It's also easy to *forget* all the advantages you have as an ADULT learning languages, including an existing language that you can reference and use as a structure for words. As people like Benny have shown, no adult starts a language from scratch, although a new child clearly does. Focusing on the advantages can mean you can speak about intelligent topics earlier, even if the accent takes a more practice to erase."Myth" probably isn't the right word, but "excuse" definitely is.

  • Why would I not like what you're saying, Benny? My English is better than your bastardised versions of the languages you claim to speak fluently. Why the heck do I have to speak English to you if you're such a polyglot? Hahahaha Can you see the paradox here? I certainly can!!

  • Everyone keeps calling it "science", but I have yet to see any such science. I guess I'm open to the possibility that it does exist, but I've never actually seen any real, data-driven, scientific proof that somehow, upon reaching a particular age, I will magically LOSE an ability to perform the task for which my brain evolved. So far, all I've ever seen are conclusions being drawn. And I'm sorry if this sounds arrogant... but that ain't science.

  • Good on you for uncovering the truth Ewe! Because I reply in English to comments in English I'm definitely not a polyglot, and because a Polish girl says so, all my (non-Polish) languages are worthless.I used to hate trolls, but it's so much fun now to read their irrelevant rants :D What do you think Randy, should I keep feeding this one? It would be such a paradox!!!11!!

  • I'm staying out of it.

  • Probably best to just let her get the last word in so she can do a victory dance. Her illogical rants against me have nothing to do with this article.

  • I'm a bit surprised... you called her a troll, but you seem to be doing most of the trolling. Maybe it would be best to just let it go.

  • Oh my goodness, yes! This is one of the things I feel strongly about. I talk about it often. I've had many people tell me, "I can't learn languages." I usually say something along the lines of, "Well, you learned English . . ."I feel sorry for people who tell me it's hard for adults to learn a language. That leads to a speech from me about why they're wrong. And they usually end up agreeing with me after hearing everything.A friend of mine said, "Fluency ends at 12." I asked what he meant and he said, "In other words, we'll always need a dictionary when we speak Russian." I thought, "I still need a dictionary with English sometimes. Does that mean I'm not fluent in English?" :)Great post!

  • Another thing. When I was in Ukraine, one of my co-workers told my boss, "You son speaks Russian really well." She said, "Not really. I've been teaching him for five years and this is all he knows."I think we're more impressed with children learning than with adult learning. Since we're not always consciously teaching children like we do adults, we're surprised when children remember. People expect adults to have it all together, when, in reality, we're just big children ourselves.

  • There is a lot of scientific backing to the idea that our brains change in fundamental ways as we age--this isn't magic. Studies on birds show them going through crucial developmental critical periods. If they do not hear their species' birdsong during that period, they are unable to ever learn to sing it properly. This is not to say that human brains are like bird brains, but simply to say that the idea that biological functions can change as brains develop is not "magic". Study of so-called "feral children" has shown that if a child is raised without language, after a certain point he/she is unable to develop proper language skills even in the proper environment. Again, it's not exactly the same thing, but it does indicate that some biological capabilities can disappear after a critical period. In this post there are a lot of assertions about the way things are, but no backing for those assertions. You may very well be right, but just saying something doesn't make it true. Do you have any studies or science to back up your opinions?

  • I'm not the one calling my opinion "science".Opinion is opinion.

  • People can say all they want about adults being unable to learn. That's fine, because I'm happy being a 35-year-old kid. :)

  • Exactly.

  • Calling this phenomenon a myth sounds a little over-the-top. I was under the impression that some form of critical period for language acquisition was fairly well established. I may be wrong about that, but at worst I would expect to find it 'disputed'; there has to be a ton of peer-reviewed research in this area, and I doubt any of it attributes this 'critical period' hypothesis to magic. Such questionable research hopefully goes unpublished.
    I always assumed language acquisition worked best (or at least differently) during early childhood for the same reason that you want to avoid serious emotional trauma at that age (scarring and such), or for the same reason you don't want your 12 year old drinking a pint of vodka every day (more prone to addiction): stuff just sticks with you more readily if it gets into your brain while it's still developing and organizing itself.
    Now, the above is strictly the rambling of someone (me) that is not conversant in this field, but I would think questions like this would be fairly cut-and-dried to someone who is.

  • Oops, sorry. There were actually paragraph breaks in there at one time...

  • Fair enough--you didn't say your opinion is science. All I'm suggesting is that given there is so much that is unknown about our brains and how we learn, a little humility from all sides is in order. That being said, I will freely admit that we might as well assume we don't have some adult-learner-handicap when we approach learning a language.

  • Whether you believe you *can* or *can't*, in the end you're probably right.

  • Calling it a "myth" maybe be over-the-top, but calling it "the contested issue of a critical period" only guarantees that no one will waste time reading what I have to say.Whether people like it or not, the fact remains that I'm an adult, and I learn languages. A lot of them. And natives mostly tell me that I'm doing really well. So a bunch of monolingual scientists studying the brain can cook up whatever excuse they like for why it's impossible. I'll just be over here, proving every day that it *IS* possible.

  • I'm guessing it all depends on your circumstances and how you go about immersing yourself. A child has to learn a language, they have no choice, they have nothing to reference against, etc. If I already speak English, as a 30 year old, and then try to learn Spanish from a book, then the whole situation really isn't comparable (Not to mention, that the Spanish book is teaching me in English).As a native English speaker, it's fairly easy to live abroad, most people know some English, they want to show off their English to you, etc.. Polish people moving to the UK quickly pick up the language, because most English people don't speak Polish or even want to learn it. I spent some time in Poland and I had to ask people there to speak to me in Polish. Even when I spoke to them in Polish, they would answer me back in English or even more annoying, attempt to translate what I'd just said in Polish back to me, as if they were trying to prove that they are cleverer than me and speak English.I think it all comes down to the person's attitude, self-confidence and how they approach situations such as the above. Being confident, and not letting things bother you, surrounding yourself with different people, placing yourself in different situations which pushes you forward will get you closer to fluency. Spending months reading books and not speaking will get you nowhere, and I think this is where most people fail.

  • This to me reinforces the fact that you need to be confident and out-going in order to speak other languages quickly. I could spend months learning from books and in the end be able to read newspapers and watch TV, but I still wouldn't be prepared when I had to talk to someone. If you're a shy person, and prefer to stay in "your expat bubble" then indeed you won't get very far.

  • Agreed. So the solution is to stop being shy. It's not a life sentence you know. I don't think people appreciate how shy I was before I started travelling, especially since I don't drink so I never rely on liquid courage. I insist that you can overcome shyness. It just depends on how much you really want to.

  • "Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?'"-George W. Bush

  • I think maybe the problem with this argument is that A does not follow B. Scientific research shows that children learn languages more easily than adults. However, scientific research does not claim that adults cannot learn languages. Therefore, to call research on child-language acquisition a myth is a strawman argument - it has nothing to do with adult second language acquisition!Sure, individuals may use this as an excuse, but as you've noted, plenty of people have proven naysayers about adult language learning wrong. I understand that your article is aimed at these naysayers, but in my opinion (and I gather, the opinion of most commenters) to dispute accepted research makes what should be an inspirational and compelling argument a weak one.PS just food for thought - children are taught language formally in school. They may pick up a lot of it from constant immersion, but I have to sit down with my sister and teach her that the plural of baby is not babys, and the comparative of rainy is not rainyer. I think we forget how much grammar and spelling we are taught at a young age.

  • "I think we forget how much grammar and spelling we are taught at a young age."It's not just grammar and spelling. It's vocabulary and more complex concepts of things too. Most children, up until they go off to school, have a fairly limited vocabulary, not to mention use of tenses. They mostly speak in the first-person, present or simple past tense and it's usually about their immediate environment (meaning kithen/food, bathroonm/pottie, bedroom/sleep and rudimentary clothing).It's not until they get into shool that they're exposed to much more. TV can expand a child's world somewhat, but that's also limited to what children's programming provides (still first-person, environment stuff - unless the kid's a freak and hooked on soaps and CSI).

  • The critical period refers to first language acquisition, not second. There is no evidence of adults being worse language learners than children, in fact, quite the opposite (even for classroom-based learning). Adults exposed to the same number of hours of language contact as children are reach a much higher level much more quickly. Children need to work out wtf language is whilst learning a language, adults already have all that. Adults are more conscientious about correcting mistakes. Children don't take corrections. Adults can read and write. Children can't even finger-paint competently.Children suck at learning languages, especially their first one. I live and work in Norway, and speak Norwegian every day for my work. I've lived here for two-three years, and my Norwegian is way better than a native three year old's. I heard a toddler the other day say "mitt is" instead of "min is". What an idiot! I mean, I probably don't even like ice cream as much as this kid, but he can't even get the gender of such a simple word right after three years? And don't even try to have a conversation with him about anything more advanced than Telly Tubbies! He even still had an accent, and he probably won't grow out of it until he's like twelve :(.So, in summation, the idea that it becomes increasingly difficult to learn a second language is also a myth, yes.

  • If we don't develop a capability before the critical period has passed, then yes, we probably will never develop it. But if we have developed the ability (i.e., if we've learnt our own language already), then we've exercised that part of our brain, and now have super-awesome abilities at learning languages. In fact, our language muscle can continue to develop the more we practice learning other languages. It's "use it or loose it", but we're already using it every day.

  • Here's another myth :PBush actually said 'is... are children learning?'.

  • I was born. From day one I probably heard at least 5-6 hours of English everyday. This probably increased as I slept less, started interacting, smiled for the first time, stopped pooping my pants, etc. This continued for some time, 2-3 years perhaps before I ever said a word (Not sure what to think of this Benny). Then I slowly began speaking and by the age of around five I could use every available grammar form with ease.Since I know of no adult who has put in that sort of intense time on task in a second language, I am not sure we can compare the two yet. When adults start replicating kids for five years, then we will be able to make the judgement call. Until then, I'll side with Randy and add that if we create an environment as full of input as a kids and couple that with our cognitive abilities, I would assume we should be able to learn much faster than kids.A friend told me of an experiment he saw where an adult followed a toddler around and imitated everything the kid did. If the kid tripped and fell, the adult did too. If the kid ran, the adult ran. If the kid jumped up on the couch, off the back side and did it again and again, the adult did too. The adult only lasted four hours before he had to quit. He couldn't keep up. Stamina may be the one thing kids have going for them.

  • An expat would have to work incredibly hard to replicate the kind of immersion a kid gets. I would suggest it would take an expat years to get the same amount of input a kid gets in his or her first year. Unless an expat is extremely intentional, it would be impossible. Until adults replicate kids in the amount of time on task, scientists are comparing apples to oranges I'm afraid.

  • I had to "like" this only because Digqus doesn't have a "love" button.

  • True!

  • Exactly!

  • I don't recall ever reading any research stating it's an all or nothing proposition -- you can learn languages and then, suddenly you can't. But I have read research that suggests its much more difficult to reach native-like fluency as an adult. Speaking anecdotally, I haven't met anyone with native English pronunciation you learned the language after age 13 or 14. That's not to say they don't exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule.For some of the science on this, check out some the references at the bottom of this article: https://www.bcs.rochester.ed...

  • The trouble is... nobody ever actually duplicates the situation being found for children. I don't know of anyone who has come to the United States alone, completely left behind everything and everyone in their native language, and only heard and spoken in English for a period of five years... so I can't say whether or not that would work. (And my opinion on doing so in other countries is even lower, because English is present seemingly everywhere.)But I can say this: I know people who have come to the United states after the so-called "critical period" and who, after 5 years, speak English MUCH better than a five-year-old English speaker. Without question. So that tells me that given 18 years, they could, at least potentially, also speak English better than an 18-year-old. I'm not saying "as good as", I'm saying better than a native.And regardless of what any scientist says, I know two people, firsthand, one from Minsk and one from Omsk, who any reasonable person would mistake for a native, and from whom even my linguistically trained ear can not detect an accent or any grammatical irregularities. I'll have a look at the links you provided and see what kind of impossible level of measure your scientists have set as criteria for the imminent failure they were trying to prove... but I'm going into this already absolutely, completely, doubtlessly convinced that they are wrong.

  • Randy, I'm not sure what you mean by an "impossible level of measure your scientists have set as criteria for the imminent failure they were trying to prove." These aren't "my" scientists and they aren't all set out prove adults fail at learning languages.Here's and example, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wik..., "Robertson (2002)][8] observed that factors other than age may be even more significant in successful second language learning, such as personal motivation, anxiety, input and output skills, settings and time commitment.In your original article you stated, " It’s just accepted as true, without any argument, that children have some sort of amazing, otherworldly ability to learn languages, and that somehow that ability is lost as we get older." If you read some of the published literature, you'll find that that is simply not true.

  • Yup, adults are actually far more capable of learning a foreign language than children are. If done properly, an average adult can learn a new language in 6 months--show me a child that can do that (barring the rare savant) regardless of the method employed.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Look at all the arguments people brought into here, in response to this post. You quote one person. That does not change the overall air of this excuse that people use.

  • Listen, Randy, you seem like a smart, open-minded guy. I just think it's a shame you're convinced language acquisition research is being done by a "bunch of monolingual scientists" who believe it's impossible for adult to learn foreign languages to fluency. It's simply not true.Here's an interesting quote from an FSI report on government language teaching:"Research on aging has shown us repeatedly that short-term memory declines with age, but in FSI’s students this is compensated for by increased experience, which actually helps in the language learning process (see Kulick 1988; Schleppegrell 1987). The result is that skilled adults learn some aspects of languages better and faster than children (Harley 1986). Diane Larsen-Freeman (1991) has quoted Patsy Lightbown as estimating that young children spend 12,000 to 15,000 hours learning their native languages. At FSI, adult students in a forty-four-week language program spend 1,100 hours in training to achieve a highly significant proficiency level in a new language. They can do this because they have learned how to learn.Most adults are not good at eliminating accents and developing a native-like pronunciation, but, for FSI, as stated earlier, proficiency refers to the ability to use language as a tool to get things done. Native accent is typically not a practical criterion for success in this ability (although intelligibility is). But as Kachru (1994), Sridhar (1994), and others have pointed out, mainstream second-language acquisition (SLA) researchers have the “fundamental misconception”—the term is Kachru’s—that the target of foreign language learning is “the idealized native speaker’s competence” (Sridhar 1994:801) or “to use [the language] in the same way as monolingual native speakers” (Kachru 1994:797). Once we identify a more pragmatic goal than “native-like” accent or competence, we can perhaps clarify what we mean by adult language learning—and make it appear more likethe learning of other complex skills (McLaughlin 1987)."You can find the complete document at: https://www.pseal.org/archiv...

  • You're making my argument for me. Thanks!

  • Nope, not me. The credit goes to those "monolingual scientists." :)

  • Hmm, my daughter is 15 months old and being raised bilingually. She already understands German and English, and in several months she will be going to Italian/German day care - so she probably will be trilingual by the time she starts kindergarden (we simply couldn't find any other place for her - not that you think we are trying to raise a super-intelligent child or something). Perhaps she would then be able to learn subsequent languages just as fast as an adult, I don't know yet. I can tell you in five years. ;-)One problem most adults have that children don't seem to is learning to speak a language accent-free. Usually either the accent or intonation will tell you right off the bat that a person is not a native speaker. Children seem to pick up pronounciation better.

  • Thanks Natalie!

  • The only thing hold back adults from speaking without an accent is that they "feel funny" making sounds that aren't familiar to them. They somehow think it sounds better to keep their accent. Even when the very nature of an accent is opposite this way of thinking.In other words, if people would stop worrying about how they sound and just make the noises, they wouldn't have such a problem with the accents.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watc...OT, but sounds to me like: "our... is our children learning".On the topic - good post, Randy. I hear this same myth about children being phenomenally better than adults quite often. I have met some astounding bilingual children, but they have the same in-context advantages you mention here.Children have other advantages too - they are generally less self-conscious (partially because they are still making mistakes in their first language!) and also they are expected to reach a much lower level of discourse in any second-language. The expectation of adults (their own, and from other people) is that an adult should be able to participate in a wide range of adult social interactions. The key is to lower your expectations initially, but that's easier said than done :-)

  • I speak four languages, but I must say that the older I get, the harder I find to learn vocabulary. When I was a teen, I maybe had to look at a word two or three times before it stuck for good, now I might need five or six times. I've also gotten really bad at internalizing people's names when they introduce themselves. Why is that? Am I suffering from brain rot now that I'm over 40?Well, I sure hope not! One thing no one appeared to mention is that as a child, we lived a relatively carefree life. Mommy took care of the housework, grocery shopping, paying bills. My biggest concern was school and getting good grades because I was a nerd. As an adult, I now I have to worry about becoming a victim of corporate downsizing, finding the time to shop, doing laundry, and making ends meet. Now I'm even the mother of an active toddler who needs my attention most of the day. I have a multitude of things to worry about and things on my mind that I did not have back then. My task manager is full of all kinds of processes running in the background, no wonder it is harder for me to remember and learn new things.I think it would be impossible to reflect this in any study, regardless how detailed and thought out it may be.

  • With regard to stress and juggling worries, I've found that the more I simplify my life, the sharper my mind gets. Just this week I've reached the point of owning 100 items (if you're familiar with the 100 items challenge) and I noticed that as I got closer and closer, the fact of having less things around me meant less stress, less details occupying space in my mind, and less feeling that "I should be doing something". Now, when I sit down to write, I just write. When I sit to read, I just read. Things get into my mind easier, quicker, and deeper, because they don't have to fight their way in.But your last sentence is the imporant one for me:You just can't put adults into the same situation that children are in. So to compare the two is to engage in false equivalence.

  • Hi Randy,Sorry, but I beg to differ... I studied Arabic for a year and tried my best to learn to pronounce the letter "ain" correctly, but I just couldn't get it quite right no matter what I tried. It honestly was not due to lack of trying. I simply couldn't find the correct part of my throat to use or something.

  • Oh, well I guess because the Arabic language has a letter "ain" in it, everyone else in the world now has a perfect excuse to stop trying, right?Every language has native speakers with speech impediments. If you can't make a particular sound, that is not evidence that adults can't learn. It's just not.

  • It sounds the exact same... I don't think anyone will ever know.

  • Hahaha, childrens.

  • I'm a student of linguistics. Many theories are conflicting. That alone tells us that they are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Every learner and situation is different.Citing papers shows you know how to research. How about actual experience. That counts for nothing?

  • That's not what I was saying... I was saying that adults have certain difficulties that children don't usually. I believe an adult can learn just about anything if he/she puts her mind to it and has good enough literature or other tools available.In fact, a friend of mine didn't even start to learn a foreign language until she was 60. When we visited my family in the States together, I was quite surprised at how well she was able to express herself and she only had problems understanding people who mumbled or talked very quietly. So I'm the last person to say that you can't teach the proverbial old dog new tricks.

  • I think the comments here are generally about two different things: the ability to become highly fluent/functional in a language, vs the ability to become indistinguishable from a native speaker.Native speakers have, literally, a lifetime of practice up their sleeve. Still, I'm sure a second-language learner can get arbitrarily close if the motivation is there. The thing is that, just like in a lot of things, there's an exponential growth in the amount of time required for improvement the more advanced you are. So to make a gain of maybe 10% in your accent might take as long as you've spent so far on the entire language! At some point, pretty much everyone gives up on absolute perfection. Not even native speakers are "perfect" all the time!I think probably the main thing we do lose is not an ability, so much as a need - the need to fit in with our peer group. Children will modify their accents to match those of their friends - in whatever language(s) they are speaking. But as an adult, your accent is part of your "group identity", and as adults we resist changes to it. I think this extends to second-language learning.Perhaps for a language with very different sounds to your first language(s) you will find it very difficult to become indistinguishable from a native, but I'm pretty sure that eventually anyone who tries hard enough can get "arbitrarily close", so to speak.As for second-language acquisition in the same way as adults (as opposed to how children learn their first language(s) through complete immersion), the only advantages children probably have here compared to the average adult (as opposed to the sorts of linguaphiles who follow these sorts of blogs :-) )are that they can be more receptive to new ideas, and less inhibited to try them out. However, I remember learning Italian when I was about 10 at school and it just seemed like a total waste of time - even though I was interested, I learnt very little and retained essentially nothing except the "dirty" words I looked up in the dictionary :-). Similarly for learning French and German in early high school which should have been before the magic cutoff. Just like Randy says here, the common thread was teaching.The most important thing in all this is that, whether Randy was right to use the word myth, or whoever was talking about what style of learning, etc, one truth remains: you can't change the fact that you're an adult, so wishing you had learnt the language as a child is pointless :-) As the many polyglots throughout history have demonstrated, it is possible to learn language all throughout your adult life - so you just have to get on with it!

  • But I'll bet you came bloody close to saying it right! Given enough time, enough exposure to, and interaction with, native accents, you could probably get pretty damn close!Randy talks in absolutes, but I think the message is clear: let nothing be an excuse for not trying :-)I'm not saying this message applies to you, by the way, I'm just paraphrasing my understanding of Randy's post.

  • It's weird how conveniently adults will use any excuse to justify their lack of action when it comes to language learning. And this myth about children being by far better learners is really so widespread that it's become nearly an axiom.Recently I attended my cousin's birthday party and many of our relations were present there. Amidst all other topics English learning was also discussed. And of course, the first thing that was commented on my cousin's 5 year old daughter's great English skills was "well.. it's children, their brain is like a sponge sucking all new information in..." And then EVERYONE went on about how IMPOSSIBLE it is for them to learn English, and the most idiotic arguments were presented. Lack of proper English classes and so on.I didn't say anything. I didn't tell them - but why don't you start at least watching films in English to improve your English instead of watching the ones dubbed in Russian? Why don't you speak English with your children (we've all been living in Ireland for a long time and our children speak fluent English) for 10 - 20 mins daily to get some practice once you don't have any Irish friends? I didn't say anything because I just know that they won't take any action unless it's absolutely critical and I'd just have an unnecessary argument with them all.So yes, it is a myth. I've heard it used as an excuse countless times and regardless of whether there's any scientific evidence for adult brain to learn in a slightly different way, we should call this one busted at least for the sake of those who use it as a convenient excuse.Thanks Randy!

  • I could disagree with a few of the details of what you said... but what would be the point? I agree strongly with the overall theme of your comments. Well said!

  • Children's brains are like sponges. But so are adult brains! :)
    The only difference between the two is that the kid will sit and watch something he doesn't understand, whereas the adult will usually change the program or change the environment to one he does understand.

  • ..........exactly, the difference between knowing something on the intellectual level (teaching grammar etc) and having a skill is really crucial when is about learning a language, nice post and nice blog!

  • Thanks!

  • I raised a number of reasons why Children suck at languages, here a while ago. https://friedelcraft.blogspo...

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