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Is language learning more challenging for adults?

Popular belief suggests that it is no longer possible to acquire a foreign language after a certain age… Or, at least, that it’s harder than during childhood. Is learning a language as an adult really more challenging? Absolutely not!We can tell you it’s neither impossible nor is it more difficult. Read on to find out why there is no age limit when it comes to learning foreign languages.

Adult language learning: a different perspective

Where does the notion of an age limit for language learning come from?

For several decades, one theory has been disputed among linguists and language learning specialists: the Critical Period Hypothesis. This widespread theory suggests that there is an age at which it becomes harder to acquire a second language, as brain plasticity and cognitive skills decline.

Although brain structure changes with age, it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s no longer possible to learn a language past the age of 12. Think of all those polyglots who speak 3, 4, 5 or more different languages? Did they learn all these during childhood? No. That’s why nowadays the notion of “critical period” is controversial among specialists.

Recent studies suggest it is possible to learn a second language at any age. This learning process won’t be any more difficult, it will simply be different, to adjust to the adult brain.

Never too old to learn another language

It’s never too late to learn a new language! While younger people can acquire a second language easily, adults can learn (literally) it. That’s where the difference between child and adult learners lies.

Language acquisition in a child is very much instinctive, often involving listening and imitation. Adults, on the other hand, will learn a language based on their lifelong acquired faculties of understanding and experience.

The only aspect of language that can be troublesome for an adult learner is that of accent. Over the years, an unpracticed ear can grow ” airtight ” to certain sounds. If these sounds are not present in the learner’s mother tongue, it will be more difficult to reproduce them as they aren’t heard adequately.

However, this needs to be carefully considered. Thanks to the increasing globalisation of communication, we are constantly hearing languages that are not our own. For instance, if you’ve been listening to music in English from a young age, chances are that you’re capable of understanding all the sounds of that language.

Is language learning more challenging for adults?

The main benefits of learning a foreign language as an adult

Adults can easily learn a foreign language thanks to a number of features that aren’t available to children.

The adult learner experience

Your own experience is the main reason that learning another language can be easy. Over the course of your life, you’ve learned to associate different concepts and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge that will serve you in the learning process. If you’re told, for example, that be and have are English auxiliaries, you’ll immediately know what this means. Whereas a child will first need to be told what an auxiliary is to know what it is used for.

The ability to learn and concentrate

Unlike a child, you can stay focused on a particular task for a longer period of time. You can also perform more complex exercises that will accelerate your progress. In addition, you are already familiar with the memorisation techniques which work for you and make you perform better.

You know the benefits of acquiring a new language.

Kids tend to be reluctant when it comes to language exercises and other tests. As an adult, you’ll have no trouble being motivated as you know the ins and outs of learning. You can also value the long-term benefits that language knowledge can bring you.

Take-away points

Language learning for an adult is no harder than it is for a child… It’s just different! Of course, you won’t have the same ability to ‘absorb’ the language, but there are many assets, such as experience, that will make your journey easier than you think.

What’s more, when an adult decides to learn a new language, they do it by choice and for a specific reason. One can therefore only assume that their motivation will be far greater than that of younger people, who learn a language in a school context.

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