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Adults may be better at learning languages than children

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The accepted wisdom is that kids under the age of seven have a better chance at fluently learning a language than adults do. That may not be the case. In fact, it may be no more than a flimsy excuse. In some respects, adults may be better at learning languages than children.

As we Americans entered middle school, and attended our first foreign language class, most of us were greeted by teachers who made no secret about wanting us to have come in younger. Young kids, we were told, pick up language easily, unsconsciously, and in a matter of weeks. We were only about twelve or thirteen, and already we were past our prime, mentally speaking.


It turns out that that might not be the case. Fully grown adults may have a better shot at learning language than small children. One of the main advantages kids were shown to have was their ability to pick up language without consciously learning the definitions of a word. If the kid say someone in France sitting on what they called a 'fauteuil,' they could gather well enough that it was a chair. If the person sat, the next time around, on a 'chaise,' the kid could understand that it was another word for chair. Adults tended to try to consciously learn the words, which made them harder to remember and contextualize.

But having a grown-up brain has advantages. Adults seem able to recognize patterns, and apply their knowledge, far better than children. In a series of experiments, people saw and heard a string of noun-verb pairs, which were all pronounced and spelled differently depending on whether they applied to living objects, or inanimate ones. This is not an established rule of the language, and no one told the participants what the rule was. Young children, ages five to eight, were in general unable to figure out the rule. Twelve-year-olds managed to work out the rule and applied it correctly in over ninety percent of the cases. Adults, however, scored highest on the test, able to figure out what was going on and apply their knowledge more than any of the younger groups.


Researchers think that, given the right study methods, adults may be as able to learn a language as children. The differences are how the language is studied, immersion versus memorization, and how the person continues to learn. A child learning a language looks forward to many years of education through school and social situations. There, they have to practice their learned language, and will be corrected if they're wrong. An adult is not as likely to receive the practice that children get, and even less likely to be corrected if they make a mistake. Since they aren't corrected, they won't refine their skills, and many years later won't be as proficient as the child.

Via New Scientist.