Why adults are better learners than kids (So NO, you’re not too old)

Kids are great! I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for several years in several countries, teaching mostly children, and I could see how quick they were at learning a second language.

Of course, who of us doesn’t want to go back to our childhood, when things were simpler and the world was full of endless possibilities (which too many people claim it somehow isn’t any more…)? Along these lines, one of my favourite songs in the world is a Brazilian one about never losing touch with your childhood.

So it’s no wonder we want them to pounce on any advantages they have now to do something better, which they may lose out on later.

This is why when some misleading study is produced (the criteria for which I’d say are up for question) saying that children learn better than adults (especially with languages), if it encourages you to have your child learn a language now then by all means, put your faith in the study! Raising bilingual children is an incredibly wise investment, and they’ll surely thank you for it one day.

But to most people, such concepts are used as nothing more than an excuse for why they can’t do anything. If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say they are “too old” to learn a language, I’d simply buy the entire target countries I move to while I start their language from scratch as an adult.

It’s a bogus self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are too old, you won’t try at all because it’s “hopeless” and you won’t learn. You didn’t learn “therefore” you are too old(!) Ad nauseam.

Biased and ultimately useless studies

The problem is that statements like “children are better learners” don’t actually benefit anyone beyond encouraging a parent to work harder sooner to have his/her child learn now.

If you tell a six year old such a thing, it’s hardly going to motivate him much. He’ll learn anyway if other factors are beneficial.

Most times I have seen references to these studies they do them in closed or overly academic environments, which prove nothing more than “children learn better in this environment under these exact criteria”. Exposing both adults and children to the same environment is wasteful because adults and children learn and think differently.

Even when an efficient immersion environment is applied, it’s still not a good gauge because children and adults immerse too differently, and even as individuals will have too vastly different outcomes.

Adults have advantages these studies ignore, which I want to discuss in this post.

“Childish” learning strategies

I am definitely against all of this “learn like a baby” crap I see floating around in the online language learning community. It’s nothing short of ludicrous!

You aren’t a baby so stop acting like one. It has inspired this wasteful passive listening pandemic – “it works for babies, so it must be good for me!” ignoring pretty damn obvious things like babies don’t speak because they can’t yet not because it interferes with their “inactive absorption” of the language.

People are welcome to be sceptical about what I achieve in these missions but if you compare what I and other efficient language hackers do in just a few months, to children, the adults will win every time. Studies end up covering inefficient learning techniques, which are neither well suited to adults or children.

When you look at the long term, then you see children come out on top in terms of not having a strong accent and less likeliness of “fossilised” mistakes, but adults can work to reduce and eliminate their accent and mistakes. Most simply don’t.

For example, I found that taking singing lessons helped me to reduce my accent in Portuguese enough to convince several Brazilians that I was from Rio back while I was living there. Nearly every adult simply just accepts a foreign accent as a permanent stamp after childhood, or doesn’t use non-academic means to reduce theirs.

Because of this terrible pessimism about adult learning that people refer to so much, I want to share some reasons why adults are better at learning languages:

Adults vs babies

To say that you start a second language off from scratch with “literally nothing” makes me feel like you need a decent slap to the face to wake you up to reality, no matter what the language is.

Forgetting obvious advantages with tonnes of common words (which of course are more beneficial between somewhat languages, such as between European ones), a baby has so much extra work that you are totally ignoring.

From birth it takes you years to be able to confidently distinguish between all sounds in your native language. When you start learning Spanish, Italian, German, Hungarian, Czech etc. as an adult, don’t you realise everything you get to merrily skip over?

No need to learn how to distinguish m from n. Hell, no need to learn the vast majority of sounds that are the same between those languages. No need to develop the muscles in your voice box and tongue so you can simply attempt to make noises with them. No need to train your ear to be able to distinguish voices as male/female or even recognisable friends/family, and different to other noises from the environment. No need to be exposed to years of context of universal human interaction to indicate when someone is angry, shouting or asking a question. No need to learn the vast majority of international body language.

Don’t people get that they aren’t dealing with a separate species when they learn a new language? I’d argue that the majority of our communication is non-verbal. Not just body language, but status, clothes, beauty, facial expressions, how we walk, the volume/speed/certainty/intonation etc. with which you use your words.

Using this helped me have a very interesting train ride in India, communicating with many people despite never learning any words in their languages.

Of course you aren’t going to hold election debates or the like without any words, but if I held the same debate using the same words but wearing a ballet dress, speaking like Jack Sparrow, and looking at the wall while I do it, then nobody will listen to me.

There are mountains of such essential information for functioning in modern society that babies learn. That’s what I’d argue is what we take in in our first years. Vocabulary and grammar be damned – that’s not even a droplet on the tip of the iceberg. Such things are learned part-time by babies.

So don’t compare yourself to babies, don’t claim you should learn as they do, and stop complaining about the fact that you are starting off “from zero” or you will earn the title of baby in another context.

Adults are better learners than babies because they have already done the majority of the work that adults will simply take for granted.

Adults vs kids

Now, when you are a young child you don’t have to worry about most of what I said above. So you can focus on the language, right? Since our brain cells are constantly dying, I guess after age 12 (or whatever random number is in fashion these days) all hope is lost!

No! There is no actual agreement on this – it’s mostly based on extrapolations from studies based on first language acquisition.

I waited until I reached my 20s before taking on languages, and I am way better equipped to do it now than I would have been before age 10.

As an experienced language teacher I know the mountains of work it takes to make classes interesting and fun for the kids. They simply don’t want to be there, they want to be playing games or they want to go home unless you start to get convincing enough; so you have to play games with them in the language, go into class with a truckload of energy and enthusiasm and transfer that to the kids. In many cases, the kids don’t intrinsically want to be there. They are there (in the classroom) because their parents sent them.

While some kids are thrust into immersion environments (due to parents moving etc.) in most cases classrooms will be how they learn.

Adults have such a big advantage in that they can do things kids can’t. They can arrange to meet up with people to practice the language (and boy are there lots of ways to do this and that’s before you even consider all the online conversing possibilities!)

Since adults’ reasons to learn a language are not necessarily imposed on them by others, they will be more enthusiastic to do things that could otherwise not be as much fun. Some people don’t like touching grammar at all, and that’s fine, but after I’ve got a decent basic spoken level in a language I do appreciate getting a grammar book for some logical explanations. I have way more patience to put up with such technical explanations now than I did as a child. Explaining grammar to a child technically is quite a waste of time (you can only really do it with examples and context, which is indeed efficient but understanding a simple rule may be much quicker).

You don’t have to learn this way, but the fact that you can be more analytical really says something. You can see a word and reason that it must mean something based on the roots and suffices, whereas a child would only ever do this out of intuition from lots of exposure.

A child would take out a Nintendo DS while waiting somewhere, but an adult would be motivated enough to take out his smartphone and get back into SRS (even when he has no homework!!)

And then there are flexibilities! Even when a child is passionate about learning a language, they don’t have much say in how much time they put into it. As adults we can be flexible and examine our day to see how we can squeeze more time out of it to learn. An adult can save up money or plan to go to the target country, and buy the right learning materials or make other investments.

The one thing people forget about childhood is the fact that we simply didn’t (for good reason) have the option to decide to make such changes in our daily routine.

But even beyond all that, an adult can be much more focused than a child and this is one of the biggest contributors to how quickly they may ultimately learn.

No, you’re not too old

One of the biggest excuses I’ll always hear is “…but I’m too old”. It doesn’t matter what age the person is. I thought I was “too old” before I started actually giving a damn for real. I even see 50, 60 and 70 year olds who are successfully taking on new languages!

Some people decide to limit their lives based on generic statistics/studies run by people who don’t care about you and know nothing about you. They sweep you into an us-vs-them mindset. Children vs adults, extroverts vs introverts and so on. Or with no evidence at all you decide to put yourself in some bogus category of not talented enough or too old. You’ve just got bad luck(!)

I hate all of these labels because they do nothing but limit people. You’re too shy because you say you are, and have been feeding back that loop into your head all these years, and now you’re too old because you say you are, or because someone with a PhD in neurology and who has never even tried to speak a language, who lives on the opposite side of the planet, says you are.

Of course there are reasons that children are better learners. There always will be. Everyone has their own advantages they can bring to the table. But saying clear cut that children and infants are simply universally better, end-of-discussion, ignores a mountain of information. Stop making excuses, find out your own strengths and get learning and get speaking.

You can either be a part of the group propagating the too-old myth, or you can join me and others who are proving that such limitations are only ever for vague demographics, and can never apply by default to any individual.

Interested how I do it exactly? Check out Fluent in 3 Months Premium - the essential guide to speak another language fluently in the shortest possible time.



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  • http://www.lifedojo.com Lee Knowlton

    I get what you’re saying here Benny and I like your fearless approach to language learning.

    The critical period theory for second language fluency has quite a few strong supporters but there are always exceptions and such theories never need to be used as excuses for not trying to learn.

    I’m interested in whether adult ears can be retrained to hear the sounds that they haven’t ever been able to distinguish. I know babies lose the ability to distinguish between all phenomes pretty early on but I’m not too sure about how it works with reintroduction after the critical period (~14 years old)

    Any thoughts?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      The “critical period” is mainly based on studies regarding FIRST language acquisition and poorly extrapolated to include second. Please read this:
      It may have a few strong supporters, but it is certainly NOT widely accepted, even in academic circles.

      My thoughts are that the critical period of 14 years for a second language is a figment of your imagination and of studies that I would dispute as extrapolating based on too little information. Sorry. ;)

      • Aubergine


        If you don’t learn a first language by about 12 it’s likely that you’ll be able to learn lexical items, but grammar becomes much more difficult. The brain seems to need to get used to the idea of grammar before it reaches adulthood.

        But as second language learners we already have a first language. We already have an idea of different ways that words might be put together. We have grammar of some sort- we just need to rearrange that grammar when learning a new language.

        Pronunciation, while emphasised as something adults can’t learn, clearly isn’t. Anyone that’s studied Phonetics will tell you it’s possible to train your ears and mouth to hear and pronounce very subtle sound differences. Prosody is a bit more difficult (in my experience) to learn to use correctly, but I think part of the reason adults don’t learn correct pronunciation is because they don’t have to! Who REALLY cares if you sound like “that foreign guy”- as long as you can buy a Big Mac, apply for citizenship or make sweet inter-cultural love.

        One of the reasons young kids (primary school age) learn to pronounce things like a native is because other kids are douchebags. If you don’t speak properly at school the other kids will tease the bejesus out of you, so you’d better learn! Socialisation and environment are some of the biggest factors in language learning and until kids reach about twelve they really don’t have a solid grasp of “tact” or “politeness”.

        All in all kids probably are better at learning first languages and learning to speak like a native (including becoming bilingual). But they don’t seem to have many advantages when it comes to learning a second language.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Great point! I’d concede that young kids have an advantage when it comes to native accents, but that’s all it is. It’s important to specify what they would be ahead in. Extrapolating that the accent thing (which to most adults is insignificant in terms of importance, and just a “would be nice”) to mean that adults are screwed overall when it comes to learning a language is jumping to conclusions.

          And it’s unfortunately true that teasing and social pressure simply not present among grown-ups may be what is doing a lot of the pushing…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I do indeed learn a lot from children! I think the fearlessness to make mistakes, which is way more apparent in kids, is something that adults could learn a lot from, rather than just accept it as a childish trait that they could never have.

    Necessity is also important as you say!

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    Absolutely! Down with the “learn-like-a-baby” fallacy!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think we can ever know if there is such an advantage for children. For one, we would need to find a way for an adult to mimic the first five years of a child’s life. If they did, I suspect they would be well beyond where any child is at age five. Adults brains rock! If they were to get as much exposure to the language, leave all the fear behind and have tons of fun, they’d blow kids away. But, until the gurus line up adults and kids toe to toe, they’re all just comparing apples and oranges. And so Benny, I think you are so successful because you have left fear behind and you have tons of fun and you put yourself in the position to get tons of exposure to the language. Your just a big KID, with a brain that rocks. That kid part’s a complement.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks! ;)

  • http://corcaighist.blogspot.com Anonymous

    Books to be checked out: “Language Acquisition: the age factor” by Singleton and Ryan and “The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition” edited by Singleton and Lengyel.

  • http://twitter.com/gastrategist Jennifer Barry

    Hi Benny, I tried one of those “baby” programs that will remain unnamed. I was very frustrated with it because I was being taught a lot of useless vocab, and never how to say anything in first person! Sixty lessons in and I couldn’t ask for the bathroom.

    I totally agree that the critical period theory is helping people give up on language learning before they start. However, I think the learned helplessness is much more common with Americans. I was hanging out with multiple Europeans last week who learned third and fourth languages well into adulthood. Sure, their accents weren’t all “native” but they were fluent.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’m using one of those baby programs now and it’s driving me crazy!

      I meet enough people who learn languages really well into adulthood to make me want to guffaw every time I hear this adults-can’t-learn myth.

  • http://achievingextraordinarysuccess.com Robert Hickman

    Interesting post. One of the biggest differences between adults and children is that children effectivily have to learn a language, where as adults have the ability to make up loads of excuses, and put things off.

    I think the value of passive learning depends highly on the individual, it may not be usefal to you, but outhers can have different experiances.

    As someone on the spectrum, I do have some ‘savant’ abilities and am able to easely remember information after only reading or hearing it once. Howeaver I am only able to take advantage of this with relation to my main intrest at the current point in time. If a peace of information relates to my intrest, my memory instantly accepts it, outherwise it is disregarded.

    So far I have not been able to use this to learn languages, but then I’ve never really tried. It would make for an interesting experement.

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane Claes

    I couldn’t agree more. As an amateur student of neuroscience (currently starting my PhD applications) I have heard all about these “prime times” for learning. In one of my linguistics classes a professor cited data showing that children in one such window learn 7 words / day.

    What the studies gloss over is true comprehension. As an adult I may not have the same “sponge like absorption” but I also have a much better ability to differentiate what I learn. If you tell me that one word means “may” and another means “can” I do not need to re-learn all the intricate details. When you tell me the word for “narcissistic” I understand it immediately – its just a matter of remembering the correct pronunciation/spelling. Furthermore, I can choose how to employ the language and make my own decisions rather than being a parrot.

    Benny, thanks for the research idea – I’m going to go look for studies about _benefits_ of late life language acquisition in neuroscience and see what research has been done…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Well said! These studies may end up simplifying things way too much, ignoring advantages that logical thinking adults have.

      Seems like this is an interesting area for research! Research that *encourages* rather than discourages people – go for it :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good for you Nik!! Agree 100%

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Haha random – I wasn’t thinking of that when I wrote it :P

    Thanks and glad you enjoyed it :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Aww, thanks!! :) Be sure to drop by more often!! Occasionally I’ll have a post with just a couple of comments and wonder if anyone read it :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Well said, Adults ARE better at making excuses – they are experts in it :D If some people put the same energy they put into justifying their excuses, they’d be fluent already!

    Great to hear from a 16 year old in this discussion. Keep up the good work and make sure to correct lazy people who say they can’t, while you prove that it’s possible. You’re also “too old” according to some critical ages, where they happened to pluck a lower number out of the air. Amazing how the switch magically “went off” at midnight on your birthday :P

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Absolutely agreed, anyone who bothered to think about this would realize how silly it is: how long does a child, who is constantly exposed to a language, take to become conversationally fluent? 5 or 6 years, right? How long does an adult take if they’re constantly exposed to the language and working on learning it? 2-4 months or so, right? Yeah, exactly. It’s a silly nonsensical myth like that crap about how we only use 10% of our brains, it needs to die–thanks for putting one more nail in the coffin, Benny! :D


    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad to do it! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/edsmilde Ed Smilde

    I totally agree as well. I’m pretty sure my first language as a baby took quite a while to speak and read, and it took YEARS to actually master, and that’s with almost constant exposure, 7 days a week… I hope I never learn that slowly again!

  • http://www.aswetravel.com Sofia – As We Travel

    Very interesting post, ‘too old’ is never an excuse to learn something new – heck, Leni Riefenstahl learned how to scuba dive at age 72!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent! Another of many stories I’ll be sharing myself too :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for that Demien! Great to see others applying the communicative learning approach so enthusiastically – especially enough to pass off as a native :)

    Is there any other real reason to learn a language other than love and appreciation of culture? :) That’s the main one for me ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You will see more extensive discussions on this topic online, but extensive definitely doesn’t imply helpful in any way :P

    Yahoo Answers! hahaha – definitely don’t seek wisdom there :P

    Thanks for reading along and make sure to look through the archives!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Advances in medicine will help some of us live past 200 I reckon – so I’ll be a part of those setting new upper limits :D

  • Meredith

    Actually, *passive* listening doesn’t even work for babies; studies of hearing children growing up with deaf parents, who were NOT exposed to sign language (!) and whose only exposure to spoken language before attending school was through TV, show that interaction is absolutely critical for language learning.

    You can learn more about this the fun way by reading _The Language Instinct_ by Pinker.

    -Meredith, Second Language Studies MA student~

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks so much for confirming that Marcia :) You certainly are living proof! And as you say, rather than giving in to silly lazy stereotypes about learning and age we can actually try to learn more to make sure our brains are consantly developing and being used.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Well said. Adults tend to be “very good” at avoiding immersion in foreign cultures, and this is one of the reasons kids will learn quicker – because they don’t have the choice.

    I have no comment about the language acquisition in general – perhaps some linguists have thoughts on it.

  • http://www.orlandovacation.com Jewel

    Learn like a baby, I’ve seen one of those online, It’s really ridiculous.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Can you cite which studies you’re referring to (that claim children are better than adults at language learning) and where you found them so I can yell at the idiots who are spreading them around the internet? Real linguistic research does not support that idea, and in fact, most research shows that age is a positive factor in SLA and the only real reason why children and adults learn differently is because of their various interactions with other human beings. It has absolutely nothing to do with age. [And I can cite the studies if any other linguistic nerds want to read up on them.]

    I mostly come across fake studies or misinterpretations of studies on websites that are just trying to sell a product that is designed to mimic first language acquisition, since it doesn’t take much effort to create products designed for the intelligence level of a young kid. So many people are gullible and naive enough to believe anyone who says “studies have shown…”, that they don’t actually investigate whether the scientific claims are true. That’s how the whole “vaccines cause autism” lie came about and it never really went away even after it has been disproved over and over again. Unfortunately people will believe whatever is convenient and already in line with their previous beliefs instead of what is true – especially when it gives them an excuse to be lazy.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for another great comment Jennie! ;)

      This post doesn’t discuss any linguistic studies, but popular opinion based on misinterpreting studies. As I said, it’s likely due to the critical age research from *first* language acquisition (which I would probably somewhat agree with, although it’s terribly irrelevant) being extrapolated to second. I don’t know who promoted the idea, but if you ask around you’ll find enough people who vaguely recall hearing about age 12 or 14 being the cut-off age for learning a SECOND language. It’s a myth that has become accepted fact for many people.

      One example off the top of my head of a prominent linguist who sweeps some graphs at you and casually discourages adults from learning languages is this TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html While I find most of the talk fascinating, the part where she talks about our abilities declining as we age is very pessimistic, and if you aren’t a baby then you are pretty screwed after watching that presentation, as no positive message is implied for adults. She isn’t saying it directly, but after watching this talk many people would be inclined to feel that they are too old.

      It’s all based on misinformation. It’s unfortunate I have to write a post like this, but people genuinely believe it.

      Having said that, I’d appreciate if you cited those studies. I get into this argument all too frequently and as you know I have little linguistic research to back up my arguments :) While I think the points I gave here are pretty damn valid and stand on their own, if you actually have studies showing age being a positive factor I’d love to see them and share them with people!

      I definitely find this mimicking baby-learning to be a pretty cheesy way to market a product.

      I saw reports about that vaccines causing autism scare. What a loud of crap; it’s sad when scientific evidence is misinterpreted for media purposes and all follow-up studies that disprove it not being taken into account. Or statistics being ignored to promote an idea. It’s as portrayed here: http://xkcd.com/882/

      • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

        Some overviews of the age-related question include:

        Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning, 56 (1), 9-49.

        Singleton, D. (2002). The age factor in second language acquisition (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

        Vivian Cook has a list of studies/articles on his site that I’m most familiar with: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/SLA/age.htm

        The first part of his chapter on Age and Listening-based Teaching Methods from his 1986 book is also worth a quick read: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/Writings/Papers/EXpAppChap2.htm

        “Nevertheless, the bulk of the research has shown that the facile assumption that children are better than adults at second language learning is far from true. Indeed, most of the research that directly compares them in controlled conditions found that the reverse was true. Only in retrospective research with immigrants, using date of arrival and uncontrolled learning situations, does adult inferiority come to light. While the issue is far from settled, it seems that the advantages of children in most forms of second language learning over the short term are nothing but a myth.”

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Thanks for that Jennie!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlie.r00t Patrice Clement

    Benny, thanks for this article. It’s a goldmine of information and I couldn’t concur more with you! I especially like this part: “.. or because someone with a PhD in neurology and who has never even tried to speak a language, who lives on the opposite side of the planet, says you are.” It is so true. Here’s a link I found out on TED about a so-called specialist in language learning: http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.htmlThe video is interesting overall.. but I wanted to close my browser when she goes on about how impossible it is to pick up a new language when adulthood is reached. TED videos’ quality content is seriously getting low. :(

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, I saw that – the chart she waved at as she discouraged adult learners infuriated me. It was not necessary – the rest of her video was interesting, but she was extrapolating her research on only babies to the rest of the world. It was arrogance and abuse of her position as a respected linguist. All she is doing is propagating a myth as an afterthought to something that she actually does know what she is talking about.

      • Tore Eriksson

        I agree completely. The study is about when and how fast your brain optimizes the mapping of sounds to phonemes in your language (if that makes sense). It doesn’t  check whether adults can learn to distinguish new sounds. I know for a fact that I have learned to distinguish the pesky retroflex and alveolopalatal consonants in Chinese at 30+! The interesting part of the talk is that babies need human interaction to learn. I wonder how true this is of adults? I’m sure Benny has an opinion in this matter.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Haha, what do you think my answer would be to “is it true of adults”? :-P
          As far as I’m concerned such a study just proves that humans need other humans to learn. Age is irrelevant.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Best of luck with that last speaking stage and speeding up your learning progress :)

  • disqus_J8hy9Ghzun

    Well, all these positive messages are very nice, but from my own experience they are just a crock. I entered college at age 43 and made the very big mistake of registering for what was then called “German 1.” In the undergraduate catalog it said that to take this course, “No experience with the language is assumed.” Now I knew that this courtse would not be easy, but it was a course for “beginners,” right? Well, I found myself in class with kids just out of high school with several years of German class behind them (one student told me his mother taught German 2, so I am sure he was pretty good at speaking it). There was no language placement test in those days. The TA said cheerfully that “We’re going to start speaking German in class from the first day.” My heart sank. How were “we” supposed to do that when I could not speak any German? I could say “yes” and “no” and a few other words and phrases (as who cannot) but that was it. Every day I went to this class I was almost physically sick. I got through the class somehow, but I swore I’d never go back. Now the classes are even worse with “role plays” and an oral examination. I have enough credits for a degree in English, History, and Journalism, but each of these requires one more or three more German semesters, and it is just not worth it to me for another experience in German class. I am not stupid, just too old to learn another language. I know that from my own experience, no matter what the “experts” say, and one time they say one thing and the next time they say the exact opposite–

    • AriD2385

      I don’t think anything you shared in your post suggests that you are too old to learn German. Rather, it seems that because you stood out in your class as being older than others, you attributed your difficulties to your age. You said a few things that highlight this:

      –You were in class with people who were already exposed to the language. This has nothing to do with age. Anyone who has more experience in an area is going to show more skill than someone brand new. If the other students had already taken German, their relative ease with the course has little to do with age and everything to do with their past exposure.

      –You were exceedingly nervous at the prospect of speaking German from day one. This is a mental thing. If you insist that you are incapable of doing something, when you are called upon to do it, you will choke. It seems that you decided on day 1 that you were not going to succeed in the course and that belief colored the rest of the semester.

      Also, regardless of age, different people learn at different rates. I’m sure that even when you were younger and in school you could see that some people in the class had to work harder than others, even though everyone was the same age. That’s true across the age spectrum. Furthermore, not every method of learning works best for everyone. As this website shows, classroom language learning is often ineffective anyway–at any age.

      It seems an awful shame to pass up a college degree because of a couple of German courses. Sometimes it’s easier to tell ourselves that something is impossible so that we don’t have to face our own fears and anxieties than it is to just confront the challenge head on.

      Best wishes.

      • disqus_J8hy9Ghzun

        Ari, thank you for your encouraging remarks, but at this point I don’t think it really matters. With only one exception, every German I have ever met has spoken flawless English, and I believe this is because they start learning it when they are very young children, something American schools should emulate (and I hear that this is beginning to happen). I think the college teaching assistants who teach these “elementary” courses are told to be encouraging to the students who are having trouble, as I was. I was told that I “showed a lot of promise” (!?), but whenever I got my quizzes and tests back and finally got the nerve to look at them, they were covered with red marks, which indicated mistakes. I got a B in that class, which bewildered me, to say the least. I finally got the TA to admit that the class I was in was the worst class she had ever taught, so she must have graded on a very steep curve. Again you are correct when you assumed that I gave up on that very first day. I also asked the TA what kind of attitude toward language learning was going to be had by students, such as myself, were so very far behind from the first day. She had an easy answer (too easy, in my opinion). She said that in German 1 and German 2 (these courses are called 101 and 102 now) the students who are so far behind will be working like gangbusters to catch up while the experienced students (there for their “easy A”) will just be loafing along. Then when German 3 and German 4 are reached everybody will be on a level playing field and go on from there. “in your dreams,” I thought. Apparently the four-semester foreign language requirement at my university exists to keep the language learners employed, because everybody (emphasis on everybody) with whom I have spoken who suffered through those required four semesters in any language cannot speak the language now. I suspect they forgot anything they did manage to learn in about six months. Yes, it would be wonderful to be bilingual or multilingual and I believe some people are gifted in language learning (just as some are gifted in math), but apparently I am not one of these. Again, thank you for your kind words–

        • dannyR

          This is tragically wrong-headed.

          Informal surveys have shown that college and university are the least successful means for completing language acquisition to fluency.

          And you’re surely missing the point of this entire website: escaping silly methodologies (including a lot of highly-publicized commercial courses that get spammed onto such sites as well). There may be some ideas and methods here (and on other such sites) I disagree with, but it’s certainly and order of magnitude better than what one would do in school.

          And for people past 40, intensive really is the way to go, and what they need if they are going at it more or less on their own.

  • Ali

    hi benny,
    i think its great that your getting more publicity for polyglots and adult language learning in general. I know that you try to be ‘positive’ in your posts, in the sense of putting forward a definite, easy to grasp idea, but for me a little more doubt and questioning wouldnt harm your cause.
    One of the most difficult things we do as children is learn that other minds are different to our own, and no matter how old you are, it seems to trip us up at least once a day. Through 10 years of language learning and teaching in Korea and China, I ‘know’, instinctively and through long years of effort, how best I myself learn foreign languages. It just seemed to be the opposite to what all the latest and most fashionable research was saying, ie children and adults learn differently, you cant learn like a child.
    I thought they were so wrong for years, especially seeing my own methods compared to my peers learning the same language but using ‘adult’ methods. In short I was years ahead of them.

    Recently I came to think, what if its not that Im right and theyre wrong, what if we’re just wired differently? I think that different minds learning differently shouldnt come as a shock to us, but its still the last thing we think of.

  • Aprili Li

    I am doing an assignment about APA reference,and my topic is “is there a window of opportuinty fo language acquisition?”and my idea is no, kids’ brain are not developed completed and they are easire to get into different environment, right?

  • Smart Person

    You sir haven’t done your research to well. Kids can learn anything better than adults because their brains are made to suck up more info on anything.

  • RobbieZev

    This is my favorite post that I have read by you Benny! Motivating!

  • Nate

    Concerning accents and learning new phonics, I’ve found that by listening to the new language and its phonics and then repeating and exaggerating them (almost mockingly) is a great way to differentiate and acquire new sounds.

    Sometimes I role play when speaking/learning a new langauge, imagining I am a stereotypical character of the target language or a friend or acquaintance I know. And of course, when I am acting as the other person I carry none of my own perceived limitations either. Its great fun and surprisingly effective

  • http://www.hfme.org/ Thy Miocena

    Oh I am glad to hear adults have some advantages kids don’t and that its never too late.

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  • Zach Baker

    I think another thing not listed here is the environment is set up to help children learn and that is a major bonus for them they have the time and resources given to them as students but not neccessarily the motivation. There are different pros and cons to both and no age is inherently better than any other. Thanks for the brilliant article, it helped me a lot.

  • realwhippersnaper

    Great post!!

    Just curious, how well do you think this (advantages of adulthood in learning) applies to all skills, not just language learning?

  • Ammon

    Hi Benny! Most of what you say resonates with me. I have done some travelling, and have been able to pick up a lot of language skills in a relatively short amount of time. People often tell me I sound like a native, too. Definitely get outside of your comfort zone because people LOVE it when you try to speak their tongue. Instant way to make friends, and your ice-breaker is already there. Just say hello and tell them you are trying to learn their language! Get out of the hotel. Go to where the local eat and don’t use English. You are right on, brother. I think you have nailed it with all that you are saying. My colleagues would always look at me and ask how in the world I learned how to speak the language so fast (not fluent in any language except English, but I get by just fine). Put in the work for 30-60 minutes every morning. Then, just get out there and talk to people for any reason or no reason!
    I am putting together a speech on fast language learning and making the most of your international vacation, so I hope it is ok if I use some of your words (will attribute them to you, of course). Thanks!

  • Yumitolesson

    this is very interesting..I used to tutor Japanese for small children and their parents were so eager to force their kids who just want to play to take Japanese language lessons before “it is too late” Child’s brain is like a sponge, a mother of this child told me and I passively reassured her that it would be ok for this 3 year-old to wait a few more years to start learning a language..

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Why can’t your mind be a sponge too? ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Sounds like 4 roommates need to be sat down and convinced about something :D