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How Old is Too Old to Learn a Language?

April 2nd, 2014

The world is a small place these days, and language learning is more accessible than ever. Some people have the luxury of learning a new language from a young age through school or family members, while others begin the long arduous journey later in life. While starting earlier does have a few advantages, is it ever too late to truly learn a new language?

Despite popular belief, it is never too late for an adult to become fluent in another language. In fact, many studies have found that everything else being equal, the adult brain is more capable of retaining a language for correct long-term use.

Linguists and cognitive scientists from The University of Haifa in Israel conducted such a study a few years ago, establishing rules for a series of new words and conducting exercises for 8-year olds, 12-year olds, and adults to perform using those rules. Sara Ferman, one of the principal researchers, remarked, “the 8-year-olds performed no better than chance, while most 12-year-olds and adults scored over 90 percent. Adults fared best, and have great potential for learning new languages implicitly.”

Studies like these are counter-intuitive, because implicit learning involves learning a new language through exposure, and many people believe that children do this better than adults. Explicit learning involves dissecting a language and memorizing conjugation and grammar rules, and studies have consistently shown that adults are better at this as well, and that late learners can in fact attain near-native fluency, with better pronunciation than children-speakers, given the right motivation (professional advancement, intercultural relationships, etc).

So why do people think that children learn language better? The answer is rather simple: Children have more opportunities for implicit learning. In other words, a child that is raised in a home where a language is spoken will inevitably catch on to the rules and pronunciation faster than an adult taking classes or using language-learning software with moderate motivation. Studies also point to the fact that adults are more willing to quickly correct children for grammar and pronunciation mistakes, but that they are more accepting of these same mistakes when they come from adults who are learning a language. That being said, most studies agree that the adult brain is more capable of learning a language for fluency.

Bonus fact: Learning a new language is healthy for your brain. Studies show that when you learn a new language, the hippocampus – the part involved with learning and spatial skills – actually grows. Learning a new language can also ward off the much-feared effects of dementia later in life. So enough with the excuses! The resources are there; put off the silly notion that you’re too old to really master a language, commit yourself to daily practice, and go for it!

Sources:

http://www.healthyanswers.com/fun-enjoyment/2012/11/how-learning-a-new-language-can-keep-your-brain-young/

http://europeesplatform.nl/vvto/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2013/09/Research_on_age_and_2nd_language_aquisition.pdf

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128224.000-age-no-excuse-for-failing-to-learn-a-new-language.html#.UziVca1dWGN

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