Do children or adults have an advantage when learning languages?
It seems to be a common assumption that children learn languages much more easily than adults, but I doubt that’s true.
Just a few days ago I had a discussion with a friend about the topic. He was arguing that a child’s brain can produce neural connections quicker than an adult’s. I would say that doesn’t play a big role. An adult’s experience in learning and knowledge he already has gained, will enable him to learn languages faster.
It’s true that once you come into this world, you have to learn a lot, and the brain manages to keep up, but compared to most animals it takes a human forever to finally be able to provide for himself. I’m happy the time when eating was a challenge is over (but I still don’t like to wear white to dinners). The brain is prepared to work with all the input and it does fascinating things. It takes a while, though.
Everything is new – If you have no reference, then it’s hard to learn a new movement, or language. Jumping isn’t that hard once you can stand and walk, but standing for the first time is WTF!? Jumping must seem like some crazy super skill mutants have at that stage.
There is no reference.
Having a reference helps a lot
It’s similar for languages: If you already understand Latin, then French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian should come quite easily, but Japanese might still be a challenge. You feel like you don’t have a language reference to compare it to.
But: Language is made up of more than vocabulary. You have knowledge of other elements of the language or the skills required to learn them quickly.
You know a grammatical system you can compare the language to and you can work by comparing it with the language you’re learning. Oh? The verb comes at the end of the sentence? That’s different, but alright. WTF moments will still come up. There are HOW many ways of saying ‘I’ in Japanese? Like 9 common forms or something!?
You also have the skill of moving your pronunciation apparatus (sounds like a band name) more skillfully than a child. I do think it’s harder for adults to sound like a native speaker, but that’s not because it’s impossible, but because they’re too embarrassed to try. For some weird reason, it’s not appreciated to pronounce a language like a native. In school you get teased for sounding too ‘french’ in French class and there are jokes about newscasters who pronounce names the way they’re meant to be pronounced.
Actors can do it for roles, and so can you. It’s fine if your voice changes a bit when switching languages. I use my mouth differently when speaking English compared to German, and that’s something that can definitely be taught.
They can do it well sometimes.
Use your experience
Adults also have the advantage of being able to systematically learn. You might even have figured out what works best for you. Do you learn visually? Do you need to hear a lot? Do you just want to immerse yourself in something you like doing while learning a language (that concept sounds familiar…). If you take the time to think about you can find the method that will let you learn language naturally.
A child doesn’t have that advantage. It couldn’t have figured out what works for when learning a new skill because this takes time and experience.
I’d say the adults come out on top in this one, they learn quicker and better. That’s why you don’t train children to become doctors or pilots.
I haven’t heard of too many great child poets or novelists, either. Being able to use a language skillfully takes the abilities and experience of an adult.
It’s better to have a foundation of skills that you can build on and when it comes to language learning, and even if you only speak your native language, you have an advantage compared to a child learning a language for the first time.
Why do children still learn quickly? It’s not because they have better brains, but because they want to join a community and language is the only way to do so. We’ll talk about that in another post.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Let us know in the comments.
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