What is the best age to master a foreign language?
We tend to think that children are better at learning foreign languages that adults. However, in fact, this is not necessarily true. Both kids and adults demonstrate their own strengths while trying to master a new discipline. For instance, children have a better ear for sounds and can pick up native accents easily, whereas adults have longer attention spans and general literacy skills which allow to them further develop their knowledge. Not only these abilities determine how many languages we speak but also other factors, such as social environment, teaching methods and our personal goals and motivation.
Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh, explains that not everything goes downhill with age. She believes that what concerns ‘explicit learning’ (a teaching method when students study in class and are led by a teacher), adults are much more advanced in this compared to kids who do not have attention and memory capabilities just yet.
The results of the study conducted by scientists from Israel show that adults are better at understanding and applying language rules than children. People of three age groups participated in the experiment: 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds and young adults. The oldest participants were best at the test, followed by 12-year-olds and leaving 8-year-olds behind. When asked to interpret the results, the researchers suggested that those who scored higher may have benefited from skills that come naturally with age, such as strategic and critical thinking, problem-solving, etc. To cut a long story short, older learners have a broader overall experience and outlook which help them grasp new information easier.
However, young learners are extremely good at learning implicitly (while being surrounded by natives). A kid would carefully observe the native and imitate them quite successfully, provided that the native spends a sufficient amount of time with the toddler. In 2016, the Bilingualism Matters Centre found that teaching 5-year-old Scottish pupils a Mandarin language for one hour per week made close to zero impact on their Mandarin language skills. Surprisingly, adding just one and a half complementary hour and asking a native for help, improved those kids’ practical knowledge. They were able to easily grasp such language elements, that older learners typically struggle with, e.g. the tones.
Kids don't learn - they acquire
It is hard to believe but newborns may cry with an accent that resembles the speech they heard while still being in the womb. As they get a bit older, they start babbling in the native language of their parents. This shows just how quickly humans’ brains absorb new information. Antonella says that there is no doubt early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Besides, studies show that abandoned or isolated children tend to face communication problems as they move through their lives due to not engaging enough with their parents at the early childhood.
When it comes to learning a foreign language, children often excel at this easier than adults because they have a greater sense of urgency to do it. Imagine, a family permanently moves to a different country and from now on needs to speak a new language. There is a big chance that the youngest family members will become fluent faster than their parents since they have to make friends, be accepted and fit in. But this can also be true because they start attending school there and hear the foreign language on daily basis, while their parents might be working on their own and do not interact with others so much.
Learning a foreign language - what for?
Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York, says that often people get confused while trying establish a precise reason to learn a new language. They are trying to understand whether it will make them more clever, healthy, rich or whether they should be looking for other benefits that speaking a foreign language would bring them. ‘But actually, the biggest advantage of knowing foreign languages is being able to communicate with more people’, she says.
Danijela herself comes from Serbia. She only became fluent in English when she moved to the UK in her twenties. She admits she still makes grammatical mistakes in English, especially when she is tired. Nevertheless, the MIT quiz classifies her as native and, according to her, she enjoys all of the amazing things which being an English speaker has to offer: communicating, reading literary works, producing meaningful and coherent texts and more.