The simplest answer is yes. A lot of evidence suggests that you can learn a language better than a 3-year-old or a 10-year-old.
But is it not true that children have a special language gene and suck up language like a small sponge? And that our brains tend to fossilize as we age?
It has long been said that children are genius’ when it comes to language, but scientists do not agree. Recent research suggests the opposite. Furthermore, most comparisons are misleading because children and adults have very different ways of learning.
Why does it appear that children learn languages easier?
Children have several advantages, such as:
- Time. Small children tend not to sit and study vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean that they learn effortlessly. Remember that it takes around four years before a child can speak their mother tongue fluently. During these years, they use all their awake time to listen to and discover how the language fits together. Compare that to an adult who learns Spanish on a Wednesday evening.
- Environment. Children are surrounded by new languages from the very beginning. It is like bathing in language or immersion, as they call it in language terms. All information, all communication and all emotions are conveyed in the new language. This is a method that works well for adults too, but there are not many adults who have the opportunity to use this method to the full.
- Motivation. There is nothing more critical than for a child to learn to speak. Without speech they do not find it easy to make choices for themselves, explain how they think or how they feel. As adults, we choose to learn new languages for trips or to make new business contacts, but this is no motivation in comparison.
- Method. Children have fun learning and practicing language in real life situations. They play games together and role play as mother, father, children, or even cops or robbers. This is the reason why children learn faster than adults when families move to new countries. The children play and dramatize everyday situations with their friends, whereas adults often sit in an office or a lunch room where conversation takes place on an abstract level. But most importantly of all: children are not afraid to say something wrong. And they keep trying until they get it right.
Adults and language
What would happen if we made the situation fairer? If adults found themselves in completely new environments, felt strongly motivated and could spend their days playing games with native speakers?
This would be amazing! And this is exactly what so-called polyglots do when they learn new languages. Although they are often labelled as having the language gene, they admit themselves that it is just a case of motivation and suitable learning methods.
Because as a matter of fact, adults have advantages too:
- We have already learnt one language, so for us it should be easier to learn a new one. We already have something to compare new languages to and often similar words to use with no effort at all. We also understand that language has a structure, word groupings, word endings and so on.
- We can think in an abstract way. We understand the principles and grammar rules of language and can apply them to many different words and sentences.
- We have discipline. (Need I say more?)
- We have trained our brains. We are already good at understanding relationships and we create connections between words we already know and new ones. Children, on the other hand, have new fresh brains that have not formed as many synapses yet.
Many Swedish adults today started with English in third or fourth grade. But it is not often that we hear someone say it was easy. I didn’t understand English grammar in school and I guessed many answers. Some of the first topics that we covered was the difference between is and are or has and have, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I first learnt to say them correctly.
When I began to study English as an adult, I was surprised when the rules were not as difficult as I remembered them.
Age is just a number, at least in language learning. Of course, children have many advantages but so do we. And if we work smart we can enjoy more benefits too, just like children.
So think about it – what if now is the best time for you to learn a new language or improve your English, French or German?
You don’t know until you try.