Until the 1990s, it was generally accepted that only children can learn a second language to native-level. Kids, the argument went, are more receptive to new learning and particularly to languages. This made sense. Children need to learn a language in order to function in society, therefore they must also find it easier to learn a second language.
But when linguists started studying the data, they found that the situation was not as clear-cut as had been assumed. Research now suggests that while young learners have certain advantages when learning a language, the experience of maturing into adulthood gives older learners access to some tools and techniques not available to children.
While kids are more naturally adapted to learning new things, adults use their life experiences to learn. So learning a language doesn’t necessarily get harder with age, it gets different.
What is an adult anyway?
If you are convinced that music used to be better and that children today have no manners, it’s safe to say you are an adult.
Chemical changes take place in the brain around puberty, but this doesn’t mean that your ability to learn a new language disappears with your first pimples. After a fairly rapid swing in your mid-teens, changes become more gradual and continue to some extent through your adult life.
After this point, according to (the highly controversial) Critical Period Hypothesis, the brain becomes less receptive to new information, in turn making learning a second language more challenging. Many researchers find fault with Critical Period Hypothesis, especially when related to second language acquisition, but agree that young learners have certain advantages:
Cognitive – memory is essential to learning anything and children really do “soak up” information more easily than adults. Some argue that this extends to languages and the evidence to support this is that adult learners are much less likely than children to lose a “foreign” accent in a second language.
Motivational – technically, this is more of a disadvantage for many adults, who struggle to find the right motivation to learn a language. Kids are encouraged by a number of factors including parents, exams and the desire to communicate.
Structural – in the developed world, most kids are free to focus on their education. With hours of time dedicated each week to learning a foreign language, progress is more-or-less unavoidable. In contrast, most adults are already busy and need to find time to dedicate to language learning.
But adults have some advantages of their own:
Cognitive – older learners have more highly developed cognitive systems and can integrate new language input with their substantial learning experience. By the time you reach adulthood, you know more about yourself and the learning techniques that work for you. Studies have shown that older learners often do better than young adults on vocabulary tests.
Experiential – having life experience, you can make associations that are not available to most children, and these associations are particularly helpful when learning a foreign language. If you have knowledge of other languages, this can be a big help, but you will find that associations come from unexpected places, whether lines from a song, familiar slogans or even things not obviously related to languages.
Contextual – you understand the significance of language more as you get older. Research has shown that adults learn discursive and conceptual aspects of language more successfully than children do. While young learners may be able to produce grammatically accurate sentences with a less “foreign” accent, adults can better grasp complex concepts and the language of these ideas.
All this is to say, kids and adults learn differently. Research suggests that the only thing young learners can achieve that is almost impossible for adults is a convincing local accent. But, if you have the time and enthusiasm to commit, fluency is just as possible for adults as for children.
How can you find the best environment for learning as an adult?
If children respond well to language drills, adults typically do not. Learning a language as an adult, you need more than just classroom stimulation.
By learning a language in a country where it is spoken, you immerse yourself in a culture, giving yourself the motivation to push harder with your study and reinforcing the practical value of the skills you are developing. What’s more, by placing the language in context, you will develop associations between the theory of the language you are learning and its everyday use. Learning grammar may be boring, but using those skills in conversation is not.
When you are talking to someone in a café, chatting in the launderette, or enjoying a drink in a local bar, the work you have put in during class becomes unavoidably relevant. You are also likely to come across some local phrases that would make a language teacher blush!
The experience of traveling encourages confidence. When you have seen more of the world, you have more reference points. Confidence and life experience are essential to how you learn as an adult: that youthful spongy brain is gone, but your learning know-how offers another approach to language study.
We believe passionately that studying abroad in immersion puts you in the best position to learn a foreign language as an adult. It works through combining quality language tuition with life in another culture, thus providing the essential stimuli for adults learning a language.
Choosing a course
We know from experience that while many learners enjoy being in mixed-age groups, some prefer learning alongside students closer to their own age. Research has shown that some mature students feel self-conscious in a group of wrinkle-free younger people, and that this can hinder their learning. A typical study abroad student is in their early to mid-twenties, but the age range is enormous and we regularly help learners of all ages.
With this in mind, we recently launched a line of language courses designed for learners aged 30 and up. Some destinations are naturally more attractive to learners who would rather study in a more mature group. After the success of the English courses for over 30s in London and Malta, we have now added a school in Dublin, which we consider to be one of the finest destinations for anyone in their thirties or forties who wants to improve their English.
We also offer courses for over 50s in a whole range of destinations and languages around the world.
Even in destinations where we do not run dedicated courses for mature students, we know which schools are more attractive to different age groups and why. Our language travel consultants are here to help you find the destination and school that is right for you.
So make the most of your potential: the one thing that is absolutely guaranteed to stop you learning a language as an adult is not trying in the first place.
Have you learned a language to fluency as an adult? How was the experience?
Genesee, Fred. “Second Language Learning through Immersion: A Review of US Programs.” Review of Educational Research 55 (1985): 541-61.
Schulz, Renate A. and Elliott, Phillip, “Learning Spanish as an Older Adult”, in Hispania, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Mar., 2000), pp. 107-119
Swaffar, Janet K., “Competing Paradigms in Adult Language Acquisition”, in The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 301-314
Tochon, Francois Victor, “The Key to Global Understanding: World Languages Education—Why Schools Need to Adapt”, in Review of Educational Research, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 650-681
Wiley, Edward W., Bialystok, Ellen and Hakuta, Kenji, “New Approaches to Using Census Data to Test the Critical-Period Hypothesis for Second-Language Acquisition”, in Psychological Science, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Apr., 2005), pp. 341-343