The perceived wisdom on language learning is that if you want your child to be bilingual, you had better start them on the language early on. However, this is not necessarily the case and it can give people misconceptions about whether it is possible for them to learn a language later in life. In fact, there is no learning barrier to language acquisition that comes from age.
So where does this flawed idea about children and language skills come from? Here we will take a look at why it is easy to believe that children are better at learning languages than adults.
Different ways of learning
One of the major mistakes that is made in the teaching of languages to adults is to assume that adults and children need to learn languages in the same way. As you might expect, there are significant differences between the most effective ways for children and adults to learn languages, and these can be utilised to good effect.
For example, children are able to benefit enormously from traditional learning in classrooms with an authority figure providing correct and incorrect answers, as well as through a significant amount of repetition, listening, and reading. For adults, however, it is far more important to focus on meaning and understanding rather than attempting to be ‘correct’.
This means that adults benefit far more from language sessions in large groups, or from online language courses where they can discuss ideas and progress with peers. It is far more important in adult language learning for individuals to be able to establish meaning.
Our brains work differently
Once again, it is probably no surprise for you to learn that the mind of an adult and a child work very different from one another. Recent research into the topic from Dr Paul Thompson at UCLA found that children use an area of the brain known as the ‘deep motor area’ when they are learning a language. This is the part of the brain that we use for tasks that we don’t have to think about such as brushing our teeth.
Adults did not use the same part of the brain when learning a language. This shows that children’s brains pick up languages as second nature, whereas adults have to think about the acquisition of language in a far more active way.
Is there a cut-off date for learning a new language?
Some people who are thinking of learning a new language – or getting their child to learn – are concerned that there is a cut-off point and after that there is simply no good way to learn a language. But as we have already seen, there is no reason to assume that you won’t be able to learn a language simply based on your age when you start.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that adults are actually able to learn a language more comprehensively than children, and can achieve genuine fluency at a much faster rate.
Why does it seem like children learn languages better?
It is certainly a misconception to believe that children are better at learning language than adults – but where does this myth come from, and why is it so widely believed. There is the concept that children are more quickly able to make themselves understood when taking in a foreign language. However, there is a reason for this, and it has nothing to do with faster acquisition.
In fact, the issue that children can appear to pick up languages faster is that their language needs are far less complex. Children naturally require a much smaller vocabulary and set of tenses in order to communicate with others.
The perils of ageing
Of course, it can be argued that there are some issues that do make it harder for you to learn languages as you get older. For example, as we get older our hearing and vision tend to deteriorate, and these are very important in the learning of languages.
That being said, there is no age that makes it impossible to learn a language so if you are interested in improving your skills in a language or learning a new one altogether, there has never been a better time to start than right now.
Artist, Baker and Blogger. Mum to my two beautiful, cheeky girls. Muddling my way through parenthood with equally cheeky Husband.