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Are Adults Better Language Learners?

It is never too late to learn a new language.

By Emma Clarke

It is often assumed that the best time to start learning languages is as early as possible. We've written a blogs about how bilingual babies have a better start in life than monolingual ones, and even which apps could help. But what if you were a monolingual baby, and now you’re a monolingual adult, is all lost?

Not at all, adults are better language learners; if by better we mean faster. A child will take 18 years to be able to speak in their native tongue at degree level. If an adult lives and studies in a foreign country it will only take them an average of 4 years to reach the same level of written and spoken language. Students on their year abroad take university courses in foreign languages. Indeed, I've met many non-natives who can speak better English than the average British person, especially because they understand the grammar.

When you are a child you learn your mother tongue through repetition and the correction of mistakes. As an adult, you understand more about how the language is formed. Grammar might not float everyone’s boat but it is a shortcut to fluency.

Younger people learn new information more quickly according to scientists from Oxford University. However, on average concentration spans have shortened to five minutes with young people being the worst affected. Grammar is the stumbling block for many language learners, especially younger ones, because it is difficult and requires practise. If you have a short attention span, grammar will be an uphill struggle.

Adults may take less time to speak in perfect sentences, but sadly they are very unlikely to ever speak with a perfect accent if they learn the language later. In order to be able to produce certain sounds your mouth is ‘trained’ from a baby. English has 19 vowel sounds, whereas Italian has 8. My Italian teacher described English pronunciation as, “playing a piano with only half the keys”. So don’t beat yourself up if you never manage to master the French ‘r’ or the Spanish ‘j’; you can still make yourself understood, as well as new contacts in that country.

To conclude, you can enjoy learning languages at any age. When you’re older, what you might lack in natural ability, you make up for in terms of patience.

Which languages are you learning at the moment? Me? Ich lerne Deutsch.


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