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What is the best age to learn a language? By Sophie Hardach (From BBC Future)

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👉 By Sophie Hardach

When it comes to learning a foreign language, we tend to think that children are the most adept. But that may not be the case – and there are added benefits to starting as an adult.
Credit: Getty / From: BBC Future

It’s a busy autumn morning at the Spanish Nursery, a bilingual nursery school in north London. Parents help their toddlers out of cycling helmets and jackets. Teachers greet the children with a cuddle and a chirpy “Buenos días!”. In the playground, a little girl asks for her hair to be bunched up into a “coleta” (Spanish for ‘pigtail’), then rolls a ball and shouts “Catch!” in English.

“At th
is age, children don’t learn a language – they acquire it,” says the school’s director Carmen Rampersad. It seems to sum up the enviable effortlessness of the little polyglots around her. For many of the children, Spanish is a third or even fourth language. Mother tongues include Croatian, Hebrew, Korean and Dutch.

Compare this to the struggle of the average adult in a language class, and it would be easy to conclude that it’s best to start young.

But science offers a much more complex view of how our relationship with languages evolves over a lifetime – and there is much to encourage late beginners.

Broadly speaking, different life stages give us different advantages in language learning. As babies, we have a better ear for different sounds; as toddlers, we can pick up native accents with astonishing speed. As adults, we have longer attention spans and crucial skills like literacy that allow us to continually expand our vocabulary, even in our own language.

And a wealth of factors beyond ageing – like social circumstances, teaching methods, and even love and friendship – can affect how many languages we speak and how well.

“Not everything goes downhill with age,” says Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

She gives the example of what is known as explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”

A study by researchers in Israel found, for example, that adults were better at grasping an artificial language rule and applying it to new words in a lab setting. The scientists compared three separate groups: 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and young adults. The adults scored higher than both younger groups, and the 12-year-olds also did better than the younger children.

This chimed with the results of a long-term study of almost 2,000 Catalan-Spanish bilingual learners of English: the late starters acquired the new language faster than the younger starters.

The researchers in Israel suggested that their older participants may have benefited from skills that come with maturity – like more advanced problem-solving strategies – and greater linguistic experience. In other words, older learners tend to already know quite a lot about themselves and the world and can use this knowledge to process new information.

What young children excel at is learning implicitly: listening to native speakers and imitating them. But this type of learning requires a lot of time with native speakers. […]

Easy acquisition

We all start out as natural linguists.

As babies, we can hear all of the 600 consonants and 200 vowels that make up the world’s languages. Within our first year, our brains begin to specialise, tuning into the sounds we hear most frequently. Infants already babble in their mother tongue. Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb. This specialisation also means shedding the skills we do not need. […]

There is no question, Sorace says, that the early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if we do not learn human speech early on, we cannot easily make up for this later.

But here is the surprise: that cut-off is not the same for foreign language learning.

“The important thing to understand is that age co-varies with many other things,” says Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York. Children’s lives are completely different from those of adults. So when we compare the language skills of children and adults, Trenkic says, “we’re not comparing like with like”.

She gives the example of a family moving to a new country. Typically, children will learn the language much faster than their parents. But that may be because they hear it constantly at school, while their parents might be working alone. The children may also feel a greater sense of urgency since mastering the language is crucial to their social survival: making friends, being accepted, fitting in. Their parents, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to socialise with people who understand them, such as fellow immigrants.

Creating the emotional bond is what makes you better at language learning, in my view,” says Trenkic. […]

“People sometimes ask, what is the biggest advantage of foreign languages? Will I earn more money? Will I be cleverer? Will I stay healthier? But actually, the biggest advantage of knowing foreign languages is being able to communicate with more people,” she says. […]

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