Kids vs Adults Learning a Foreign Language

I’’m not one who believes that people are limited by age. Too often I hear the common and very negative phrase “am I too old to learn a foreign language?”. What holds many back are our own minds. Fear, Doubt, Apprehension, Laziness and Preconceived notions about how something is or should be based on nothing but emotions and not facts.  I think that language learning is the same way.

I often get asked by adult students if it is too late for them to learn a foreign language. My response is always that anyone can learn a foreign language. You may learn faster or slower than the next person but if you work hard you will learn the language.

Adults are not at a disadvantage to children in our ability to learn. Except that Adults have this intellectual and emotional baggage that tells them that they can’ not do something or that it is too difficult and not worth trying. Although, children can learn new things very quickly it definitely is not a walk in the park for kids. Children just do it without self doubt and realizing how hard it is just because it is part of the process of growing up.  They do get frustrated though and have a hard time expressing themselves just like adults do when learning language.

Do you have kids, grand-children, or have friends with kids.  They often get upset and frustrated because they cannot express their feelings or wants.  They know exactly what they want but are unable to find the words or have fluency to express the words even though they know them. This process is natural when learning our own native language but adults feel like they shouldn’t have to experience this process.  Adult learners actually have advantages that children don’t have when learning and can learn as fast or faster if given proper instruction, sincere effort, and interaction with native speakers.

Lets examine some of the pros and cons of learning a foreign language as an Adult versus as a Child.

Kids

Pros

  • Children learning multiple languages share neural pathways instead of creating new pathways for a foreign language.

  • Accent and pronunciation are often native like.

  • They learn observation and social interaction.

Cons

  • If not maintained children can completely forget a learned foreign language. There are many stories of adults who spoke a foreign language fluently with their parents or grandparents when growing up but have completely forgot the language in adulthood.

  • They cannot learn complex grammar concepts through textbooks or instruction.  This often takes place much later during their formal education.

  • In order to become fluent they needs years of reinforcement. Although, they may be conversationally fluent 5-6 they are still developing and learning for years.

Adults

Pros

  • Can memorize and retain large volumes of vocabulary in short periods of time.

  • Can learn grammar concepts with basic instruction.

  • Are able to use reason to apply grammar concepts and build sentences.

Cons

  • Develop new neural pathways for foreign languages. This means that the language fluency is not as natural and fluency not as high as children.  However, this has been proven to be overcome through intense study.  The research shows intense study and immersion create overlapping neural pathways which allow for more natural language fluency.

  • Often do not have the time to dedicate to learning a foreign language.  Adults have professional and personal responsibilities where children are learning languages full time without those same responsibilities.

  • Adults need more formal instruction in order to learn a foreign language.

I’ do not believe that it is any easier for young children to learn a foreign language but it does seem that the end result is a more fluid and natural speaker of the 2nd language. Adults can achieve the same results but it takes time and hard work. Work that children just see as part of life and happens “naturally” for them in through their daily activities.

For adults it is a task that must be added to our other daily activities and requires time, lots of time. The emotional frustration is what stops most adult learners from becoming fluent or even conversational in a foreign language.  Adults are completely aware of how hard a task is and are not used to having to push ourselves this hard to learn new concepts.

The reason that adults think children learn languages more easily is because they do not remember how hard it was.. Do you remember being three or four years old and language being hard for you to grasp? Of course not. However, adults remember and agonize over every failure.  Adults build up language learning too much in our minds as something hard and give up once they confirm our suspicions or  the reverse and adults think it will be easy and then get discouraged when they don’t speak fluently in 30 days.

It takes kids 7-8 years before they speak their native language extremely well. Even then they will be learning it for another 8-10 years depending on their education. Adults learning a foreign language think it is hard because they are more conscious of the effort they are exerting in order to gain this new skill and knowledge. Additionally, adults have become accustomed to learning new things quickly with their increased intelligence and experience.

Summary

Learning a foreign language can have a humbling effect but should take less time to learn as an adult than it does as a child.  Think that it is easier for children to learn a foreign language than adults. NO! Adults are just more aware of all of the hard work it takes to learn a language. Enjoy the process, be committed for the long haul, and always look for learning opportunities and you will become successful in learning a second or third foreign language.

 

Sources: 

White matter structure changes as adults learn a second language.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22571459

Second Language Acquisition and brain plasticity.
http://neurowiki2012.wikispaces.com/Second+Language+Acquisition

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