Do you want to raise multilingual children? Or maybe you have always wanted to learn a new language, but you consider yourself too old to learn a new language. If that is your perception, what then is the age when it is easiest to learn a new language? Scientists have looked into this issue extensively, but they don’t seem to agree on a single answer.
So, How Does Language Develop?
Well, it is apparent that the younger you are, the easier it is for you to learn a new language. This is based on how children learn a new language and how the human brain changes as they grow.
For instance, in childhood, your brain is primed to learn language naturally as though by instinct. By listening, a child is able to intuit how grammar works for the language they hear around them. Moreover, children raised in bilingual households can pick up grammar and vocabulary for the two languages they hear. They also have the ability to switch back and forth from one language to the other as required.
However, as you grow up, that ability begins to fade away. For most grownups, grammar ceases to be something they just know. Instead, it turns into an arcane set of rules they have to memorize. Moreover, you lose the ability to effortlessly hear and reproduce sounds that don’t occur in your native language.
In this regard, childhood is a critical period when it comes to language development. So, what does this mean for young language learners?
The Best Age to Learn a New Language
Several scientific studies have tried to find out when the critical period for language learning ends. However, each has ended up with different and, at times, conflicting results. For example, one of the studies claimed that children maintain their inherent ability to pick up the grammar of a new language until they reach 18 years. Therefore, they need to start learning the new language by age ten so as to master it before the critical period ends.
However, another study claimed that the time window when language learning comes naturally begins as early as five to seven years of age. On the other hand, a different study discovered that Spanish-speaking babies aged between seven months to three years could learn English in addition to Spanish if they get as little as one hour a day of play-based instruction.
Another finding is that children don’t learn a language; they acquire it. That is why they don’t struggle like adults in language classes. According to science, babies have a superior ear for different sounds, while toddlers are good at picking up native accents with astounding speed. On the other hand, adults enjoy longer attention spans and critical skills such as literacy skills which enable them to develop their vocabulary continually.
Besides that, other factors such as social circumstances, teaching styles, and friendships can also affect how many languages one can speak. Fortunately for adults who want to learn a new language, not everything goes downhill with age. This is because, as an adult, you can do explicit learning.
This type of learning involves studying a new language in a classroom with a tutor explaining the rules. Young children are not very good at this type of learning because they lack cognitive control, attention, and memory capacity. On the other hand, these attributes improve with time.
Additionally, other studies showed that adults are better at grasping an artificial language rule and applying it to new words within a lab setting.
Are You Too Old To Learn A New Language?
Despite the research findings, adults should not be discouraged from attempting to learn a new language. Therefore, regardless of your age, you are never too old to learn a new language. But, because your brain’s capacity to adapt and change diminishes with time, you might have to practice more.
Moreover, you are more likely to struggle with grammar and pronunciation than you would if you had learned the new language when you were younger. But, it is not all doom because you can enjoy other benefits of learning a second language like it helps stave off dementia. This is true even if you learn the language as an adult.
Knowledge of a new language is a critical skill in the present world. Since the pandemic hit the world, many companies have been forced to move online and try to reach an international market to boost their revenues. In this regard, professionals speaking more than one language have become more marketable.
Luckily, you can learn a new language despite your age as long as you put in the required efforts. But, if you have younger kids, it would be best to expose them to a second language when they are still younger because they can quickly grasp it.