A common question that arises is – do adults have a disadvantage when compared to children in learning a second language?
This idea that children are far more receptive to language acquisition than adults is quite common. But is it based in fact or misplaced logic?
A lot of parents that want their children to be bilingual deliberately hire nannies or tutors to assure that their child has the capacity to be truly bilingual.
This idea that children have an advantage over adults is true in one area, in particular, and false in every other way.
What do I mean?
As an adult you actually have an advantage over your 18-month-old competitor.
I am often entertained by the idea that people think it’s too late to learn a second language and if they really wanted to learn a second language they needed to do it as a child.
Lets first start with the objection then look at where the idea may come from and finish with the one area where the objection is true.
So lets take this sentence in Spanish:
Soy un adulto y me gusta aprender idiomas.
Which translates to I’m an adult and I like to learn languages.
Now as an adult (which I’m assuming you are) you have just read, understood and probably retained that Spanish sentence.
In fact, if you haven’t lost the sentence by the time you finish reading this article, the sentence will probably be with you for a long time to come.
Now lets compare your ability to comprehend that Spanish sentence to the abilities of your 18-month-old competitor in your race to language acquisition.
Now obviously the comparison is a little ridiculous but that is the point.
It will take a child on average 2 years before it can form it’s first word which usually consists of a muffled ‘mama’ or dada’. It will then take another 2 years before that child has the capacity to understand or retain the idea in the Spanish sentence above. It only took you 2 seconds.
In those 4 years that a child is developing their ability to express basic ideas, you could be onto your fourth or fifth language if you were committed full time.
By the time a child has reached 5 years old it generally has a pretty good grasp of the English language but is still miles from fluent. A 5-year-old child can barely put together a grammatically correct written sentence let alone a paragraph or a thousand word article.
That’s 5 years!!!
Again, if you were committed, you could be writing articles in Spanish in the next five months let alone five years.
Research has shown that another advantage that you hold over a child is the skills that you have already developed in your first language such as you ability to predict the meaning of unfamiliar words from context. Say you were reading a difficult text and didn’t recognize a word, you could still make an educated guess. This same skill can be transferred to a new language without prior training.
It really is a myth that children learn languages much faster than adults – and hopefully you can start to see this now.
The Origin Of The Myth
There is some debate in the language learning community that a “critical period” exists where you must pursue a new language if you are to ever reach the level of a native speaker. This critical period is hypothesized to be somewhere around the time before teenage years. But, the language learning community is divided.
I believe that this myth most commonly surfaces because people are looking for an excuse that will allow them to fail, not because it is a hot debate amongst the linguistic bourgeoisie.
The more important question is this – is this excuse is holding you back or someone you know? Make sure you stop and think about how long it takes for a child to be truly at a point where it can communicate at any reasonable level and share ideas that have real substance.
Before I put all of the points in the adult corner of the ring, there is one area where children have an advantage and that is in accents and pronunciation.
Children don’t have a native tongue that is influencing their ability to hear and pronounce new sounds in a second language. They effectively have a clean slate for sounds.
This is where adults have a disadvantage and have to work a lot harder to match the pace of a child.
A classic example for Spanish is the rolling tongue with the double ‘rr’ sound in ‘perro’ or the throaty ‘g’ sound in ‘gente’. These sounds don’t exist in English and thus take us a long time to adapt our English tongues to.
Despite what you think, you can get very close to forming sounds like a native. It’s just a question of time. And in most instances it’s not worth committing the time but instead focusing on simply communicating and having adventures in your newfound language skills.
Learning a second language is tough – I’m not going to lie – it takes time, effort and energy. But don’t let the fact that you started later in life be an excuse for why you will not achieve the level you have dreamed of.
So what are your thoughts on learning languages as an adult?