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The linguistic genius of adults: Research confirms we’re better learners than kids!

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I wrote in great detail before about why adults are much better language learners than kids, but now linguists are starting to chime in!

There is a stupid rumour going around that you can't learn a language after a certain age (was it 6, or 12, or 14? I forget where the drunk blind man threw the dart that we have been basing this on) and considering I myself started properly at age 21, and how many people have been sharing their own success stories with me (if you have one, make sure to share it with all of us in the Fi3M forum's success stories section – the best ones will get showcased on the blog!) I hope to have the ammunition to destroy this pointless demotivator.

The most discouraging TED talk ever

I've had some frustration with some linguists in the past when they make remarks that they can't back up with relevant research, which serve no purpose but to discourage learners. But when they get taken seriously by the public, then I have to take a stand against it.

Among the worst examples include an otherwise interesting TED talk about The Linguistic genius of babies – in it she shows us a bullshit graph about the “critical period” for learning a language where all hope is lost from age 17. She drives it home with the comment “no scientists dispute this curve”. Really now?

She also claims that age ONE is where we can can no longer distinguish foreign sounds any more; “You and I can't do that… we can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages”. This is just ridiculous. After some focused training, and sometimes even just a few seconds of paying attention, and you'll hear it. In some cases, it's harder and takes a wee bit more time, but it's definitely not impossible.

She doesn't have a clue what she's talking about because she actually researches babies.

This stuff really pisses me off as the “research” tests in a context and environment that children are bound to win on anyway (such as traditional classroom learning) and doesn't test in areas that adults would be better at. As far as I'm concerned this is totally irrelevant research, as well as being unhelpful. I can't imagine how many people were on the fence, but saw a video like this or read some paper where kids came out on top… in classroom learning, and decided from that to give up, even though they have many many advantages the kids don't.

Seriously TED, you need to get me to speak up on one of your stages (Edit: They did!!) so I can undo the damage of this previous talker, as well as destroy people's own misconceptions. Millions of adults around the world learn languages to excellent levels fine all the time. Any sloppy research that comes up on this is arguing against an army of people that disprove it.

Linguists who are working for the greater good

Fortunately this is not the case for all linguists, and now popular research is backing up what I've been saying all along!

I was just on Google plus, and my friend Joop shared this link with me so I thought I had to get it on the blog:

Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language – New Scientist

Researchers realised that there are crucial differences in how adults vs children learn and tried to demonstrate it in this research. When they did, surprise surprise, adults come out on top. Once again, for more specifics about how I think this works on a broader scale – read my post about how you are not too old to learn a language.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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