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.
Curious to hear your thoughts on this as always in the comments below!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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