There are a lot of myths about language out there. Whether it’s that some people have a gift for learning languages or that learning language too young can confuse children or that there’s a genetic component to being able to speak fluently, you need to know what’s true and what’s false. Many of the tales people hear about language are misguided myths or incomplete ideas based off inconclusive or inadequate research.
Learning a language provides a laundry list of benefits for those who undertake it and the best time to learn one is now. However, if you’re looking at beginning a Russian language program or studying a variety of language learning CDs, then you probably want to know how your age may affect your journey to fluency. Whether or not there is an optimal time to learn a language is debatable, but current studies argue that learning a language before you turn 10 gives you several advantages.
Do you remember when you learned your first language? Most likely you don’t. That’s one of the beauties about early memory. We often forget experiences far back in our past. But there was a time in our lives when we were masters at learning other languages. We could hear sounds adults couldn’t and pronounce words in ways adults typically cannot, at least, not without some practice.
Imagine recreating your first language learning experience now. You wake up tomorrow in a foreign country with no understanding of what the language means. If you’re a native English speaker, this would probably be somewhere like Japan or Russia. You are then forced to interact with those around you until you learn the language. Is that thought terrifying? For some “yes,” for others “no.” And young babies and younger children the answer is a definite “no.”
This is the way babies and younger children have to learn. They are brought into a world where everyone around them becomes a teacher, and their full-time job is to learn the language. Whether it’s through playing or watching adults talk or drooling over sounds as they teeth on various toys, babies are full-time language learners.
Their brains are wired differently for language learning as well. It’s true that children can hear and produce sounds that adults cannot. While it’s easy to be envious of this, keep in mind that the reason is that the baby’s full-time job is to learn the language. However, this skill fades over time because it’s no longer necessary as the child is already on his or her way to speaking one, or even better, two or more languages, with native proficiency.
The evidence seems to indicate that if you don’t learn a foreign language before you turn 10, you won’t be able to achieve native levels of proficiency. A study of roughly 650,000 participants indicated that after the age of 10, your ability to learn language rapidly deteriorates. When you hit puberty, it goes down even further. This notion seems to support the critical period hypothesis, underscoring that our brains begin to interfere with language acquisition after we hit puberty.
While no one knows why this happens, there are some possible suggestions. The brain changes that occur through puberty along with an increased sensitivity to making mistakes could work together, creating a barrier prevents success for later language learners. Other factors like increased social pressures and a lack of interest in learning might also contribute to difficulties learning another language later on in life.
However, not all agree on the findings of this study. Let’s return to to the previous example of how uncomfortable it would feel for some people to be transported into a different culture and be forced to learn a language they didn’t understand. The truth is that some people would love this experience and see it as a kind of adventure or challenge. This is especially true for older language learners.
Many people who learn foreign languages later in life argue that they simply weren’t interested in it earlier. Some argue that even though they were forced to take classes in a second language before the age of 10, they didn’t learn the target language. People have argued that these previous experiences didn’t benefit them. When learning, motivation and interest are vital. If you do not care about what you’re learning, you not likely to remember it.
It’s important to note that adults are better at some aspects of learning foreign languages. Those who have finished secondary school and even post-secondary school have developed systems for self-teaching and remembering that are far more effective than those of younger students. We’re able to acquire complex grammatical structures better as well. Simply look at how long it takes a baby to begin talking versus an adult learner.
The other problem with the study is that it focuses on achieving native levels of fluency. When most adults study a foreign language, they are looking for fluency or mastery, not accent-free communication. When studies like this are released, it can create the perception that adults cannot learn a language. It propagates the myth that only children can become truly fluent, disparaging adults.
That notion is false. It’s still possible for older language learners to speak at a native level in their target language. However, it’s a long, difficult process. People need to train hard, manipulating their speech patterns to remove their accents so they can talk like native speakers.
The results of studies like these highlight the reality that it’s important to expose your child to a foreign language early on in life. Teaching your child Spanish or showing them how to learn Russian grammar easily or even enrolling them in a foreign language program to help develop their fluency is always the best option. This is because the longer anyone waits to learn a second language, the harder it becomes. But it’s not impossible.
The brain is far more plastic when you’re younger and learning a language before 10 means that you or your child can rapidly gain fluency. This opens people up to the growing list of personal benefits from learning another language such as improved cognition, better test scores, and increased job prospects. The list goes on and on.
Even if you’re an older language learner, there’s still plenty of reason to begin the journey towards fluency in a foreign language. It may not be as easier, and you may have a bit of an accent that bleeds through, giving you away as a foreigner, but you’ll have all the other benefits being fluent in another language provides.