Adults can learn languages better than children?

A recent study shows that adults can learn languages better than children. There are other studies that show children as better at learning languages, and point to a critical period after which it is more difficult to learn languages. We know empirically that children, especially children under 10 or 12, become fluent in a new language more quickly than adults, with better pronunciation although often with a more limited vocabulary.

In fact it is motivation and attitude, not age, that determines our ability to learn languages. Most, if not all, polyglots, learn most of their languages as adults. Adults are often more inhibited or self-conscious, and have less opportunity, or are less willing, to socialize with people of another language group, whereas children just blend in to their new environment.

The only thing that matters is that we can learn at any age. If we are 50 there is no point in wondering if we were able to learn better when we were 5. If you can motivate a child to learn a language when young, great. Otherwise it is never too late to start.

4 thoughts on “Adults can learn languages better than children?

  1. Excellent article. As an adult learning Japanese, I can attest to the statement "motivation, not age is the determining factor." Well said!

  2. Hi Steve! Even though I’m aware that your aim in learning languages is mostly to gain a passive knowledge of them in order to be able to read and listen to various materials such as novels and radio programmes, and not necessarily production, I decided to ask you a question regarding the latter. The problem is, I don’t know how to improve my skills in speaking English (I’m Polish). If it comes to understanding the language, then I’m C2 (using the European scale), as I can understand pretty much everything, at least as far as general English is concerned. I am able to produce a high quality piece of writing as well, but it all begins to spiral down when the real time sets in (e.g. online chat). On my end-of-term report my teacher wrote that I "inconsistently produce a high level language in class", but when it comes to a casual conversation, I find myself mumbling, fumbling for words, and using a limited range of vocabulary (which is not the case with my native tongue). People I talk to often get confused, as I somehow managed to develop a very British-sounding accent, to the point I managed to trick a British person into thinking I’m British once or twice (in a situation they briefly heard me speak to someone else, and therefore didn’t notice my fumbling). Improving my speaking skills is immensely important to me, for various reasons. My question then is – how do I do it? How do I help myself? Not so long ago I’ve been to England for 2 months and immersed myself in solely English environment then. I’ve had a constant contact with native English for the past 6 months as well (classes with a native speaker and conversations with my British friends on Skype). It apparently doesn’t work. What else can I do? I’m really desperate. Could you help?AlexPS. Sorry for writing an irrelevant comment…

  3. My goal is to speak and communicate in the language. Reading and listening are the keys to getting to a level where I can start to speak. Thereafter, in order to improve, we just need to speak a lot, and to continue reading and listening. Patience!! There are always situations when we do not do as well as we would like.

  4. It’s all about the motivation regardless of the age. My daughter who is of course just now learning her first language is extremely motivated to learn to speak and is extremely frustrated when she is unable to communicate with us. So yes, I would say that motivation is what drives language learners of any age.

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