Test us!
Change the language
1to1 Progress
← Back to articles

What is the best age to learn a language according to MIT researchers?

It is often said that you have to learn a foreign language at an early age to have a chance to speak it as well as your mother tongue. It is true that when it comes to languages, children learn at a rapid pace. However, a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that you can start learning a language after the age of 20 and still be fluent in it. This is good news for anyone who wants to start language training! Are you one of them? Then read on and find out the best age to learn a foreign language.

The best age to learn a language according to MIT researchers

A survey of hundreds of thousands of English speakers

To conduct the study, the team of researchers used a viral survey on Facebook to collect information on nearly 670,000 native and non-native English speakers. Three criteria were of particular interest to the scientists:

  • the current age of the learners;  
  • the age at which they were first ‘exposed’ to English;
  • the number of years of learning.

The participants in the survey were asked to answer a questionnaire on English grammar. To be considered a ‘native’ speaker, respondents had to score above 90% (100% being an almost impossible result even for a native English speaker).

Unsurprisingly, the results showed that starting to learn a language in childhood was an advantage in achieving an advanced level. However, there were other, much more surprising findings…

The “critical period” is much longer than previously thought

The most favourable period for learning a language is termed as the critical period by specialists. This is the ‘cut-off’ age for starting to learn a language in order to achieve a level of proficiency as high as that of a native speaker.

Studi passati hanno dimostrato che questo periodo critico si estendeva fino all’età di circa 10 anni. Dopodiché, le cPast studies have shown that this critical period extends to about 10 years of age. After that, language learning abilities seemed to decline. The MIT study contradicted these findings. It seems that it is possible to master the grammatical aspects of English at the same level as a native speaker until the end of adolescence. The critical age found would actually be 17.4 years.

So does this mean that adult learners have no chance of becoming bilingual in English?

Can you still learn a language at any age?

Late learners still achieve excellent results

Don’t worry! You can start learning English (or any other language) after the age of 20 and still achieve excellent results. 

Although they were not in the majority, many participants in the study started learning English late and managed to outperform native English speakers.

The data shows that people who started learning English after the age of 20 and are now fluent in it needed 8 to 10 years of exposure to the language. Of course, they are far less likely to achieve these results than individuals who started learning in childhood. 

Language learning differs with age

The researchers are not yet able to determine why a decline in learning ability occurs around the age of 18. Is it:

  • physiological: a change in brain plasticity for example;
  • cultural: a changing learning environment? 

No one knows. We also don’t know why some adults manage to become perfectly bilingual in their target language, and not others.

The reasons given are:

  • the level of exposure to the language, which differs considerably between childhood and adulthood. Children are often immersed in the language, whereas adults learn it only a few hours a week.
  •  the fact that adults do not necessarily need to speak a foreign language at a native level. They will therefore naturally invest less in their learning once they have reached the necessary level.

For a late learner to reach a bilingual level, therefore, they would need to be exposed to the language for a long time and feel a real need to reach such a level.

It should also be noted that other tests show that adults are better learners than children.
Studies show that when adults and children are confronted with the same exercises in the first months of their language immersion, adults perform better. They are able to apply learning strategies that younger children do not have. This is a point we made in another article: Is it harder to learn a language as an adult?

While it would seem that the best age to learn a language is before 18, this does not mean that it is impossible as an adult – quite the contrary! Late learners are just as capable of mastering a language perfectly. In short, while children have an advantage, it is possible to learn a language at any age. So don’t wait any longer… get started!