The younger, the better?
There's a common belief that we hear everywhere we go: the younger you are, the better you learn a language.
It's too late for me to learn English – I'm too old!
No matter how hard I try, I'll never get very good at my age.
I'm a lost cause! My only hope now for English is for my kids.
Does that sound familiar?
Unfortunately, it's not only a common belief but it's also a belief that does a lot of damage. It stops adults learning new languages and encourages them to give up if they find it hard.
And it's not actually true.
Where did this idea come from?
The younger-is-better idea was first made popular in 1967 by Eric Lenneberg, a brain and language expert. He believed that once people pass a certain age – about 13 years old – it becomes impossible for them to reach full native level in a new language.
Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about whether this is actually true.
If you're interested in the whole story, look up the 'critical period hypothesis'.
The bit we're most interested in here is this: nobody has been able to prove that younger is better for learning a foreign language.
In fact, experts can't agree on how you could prove this. Up to what age are we talking about, exactly? How should we test successful language learning? How do we know that better results are because of age, and not for other reasons?
There are quite a few difficulties.
There is also evidence that this theory isn't true.
Small children don't learn languages better than adults
A study by Catherine Snow and Marian Hoefnagel-Höhle compared different age groups learning Dutch. The researchers found that the adults and the 12- to 15-year-olds made the fastest progress in the first few months – completely the opposite of what the critical period theory would suggest!
At the end of the year, the 12- to 15 year-olds had learned more Dutch than the other age groups, but the adults were only slightly behind.
The 3- to 5-year-olds consistently did the worst on all the tests – poor things! – even though the tests were designed to be good for small children.
The authors came to the conclusion that an extra-important period of 2–12 years old doesn't exist. Not for learning a foreign language, anyway.
Older is better for faster learning
Several studies have found that older beginners do better than younger beginners after the same number of language lessons.
Also, researchers generally agree that adults and older teenagers learn sentence structure and word formation in a new language faster than children.
This is because adults and older teenagers have the thinking skills to learn a language explicitly – with the help of explanations from a teacher or book, or by understanding the grammar rules, for example.
So older is better for how fast you can learn a language.
But what about in the long term?
OK, so it's true that people who get natural exposure to a new language during childhood usually get to a better level in the long term than people who begin learning as adults.
But many studies showing this have looked at the children of immigrant families – students who go to school all day in the language of their new home! They get many daily hours of exposure to English in a supportive learning environment, with no choice but to interact with classmates and teachers in English.
So that doesn't prove that younger is better. It just shows that more high-quality exposure to a language, and over a longer period of time, is better.
Having a positive mindset and believing you can do it is a big factor in language learning success.
But the younger-the-better belief about learning a foreign language does a lot of damage, and it's simply not true. As an adult, you've got a powerful brain, lots of useful experience and many other advantages for learning English.
So let's try to change our thinking about this common language learning myth.
Hopefully, knowing the real story will help you reach your full potential with English. You can definitely do it! So keep going and enjoy the process.