Updated: Oct 4
When it comes to learning a foreign language, we tend to think that children are the most adept. But that may not be the case – and there are added benefits to starting as an adult.
It’s a busy autumn morning at the Spanish Nursery, a bilingual nursery school in north London. Parents help their toddlers out of cycling helmets and jackets. Teachers greet the children with a cuddle and a chirpy “Buenos dias!”. In the playground, a little girl asks for her hair to be bunched up into a “coleta” (Spanish for ‘pigtail’), then rolls a ball and shouts “Catch!” in English.
“At this age, children don’t learn a language – they acquire it,” says the school’s director Carmen Rampersad. It seems to sum up the enviable effortlessness of the little polyglots around her. For many of the children, Spanish is a third or even fourth language. Mother tongues include Croatian, Hebrew, Korean and Dutch.
Compare this to the struggle of the average adult in a language class, and it would be easy to conclude that it’s best to start young.
But science offers a much more complex view of how our relationship with languages evolves over a lifetime – and there is much to encourage late beginners.
Broadly speaking, different life stages give us different advantages in language learning. As babies, we have a better ear for different sounds; as toddlers, we can pick up native accents with astonishing speed. As adults, we have longer attention spans and crucial skills like literacy that allow us to continually expand our vocabulary, even in our own language.
And a wealth of factors beyond ageing – like social circumstances, teaching methods, and even love and friendship – can affect how many languages we speak and how well.
“Not everything goes downhill with age,” says Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh.
She gives the example of what is known as ‘explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”
A study by researchers in Israel found, for example, that adults were better at grasping an artificial language rule and applying it to new words in a lab setting. The scientists compared three separate groups: 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and young adults. The adults scored higher than both younger groups, and the 12-year-olds also did better than the younger children.
This chimed with the results of a long-term study of almost 2,000 Catalan-Spanish bilingual learners of English: the late starters acquired the new language faster than the younger starters.
The researchers in Israel suggested that their older participants may have benefited from skills that come with maturity – like more advanced problem-solving strategies – and greater linguistic experience. In other words, older learners tend to already know quite a lot about themselves and the world and can use this knowledge to process new information.
What young children excel at is learning implicitly: listening to native speakers and imitating them. But this type of learning requires a lot of time with native speakers. In 2016, the Bilingualism Matters Centre prepared an internal report on Mandarin lessons in primary schools for the Scottish government. They found that one hour a week of teaching did not make a meaningful difference to five-year-olds. But even just one additional half-hour, and the presence of a native speaker, helped the children grasp elements of Mandarin that are harder for adults, such as the tones.
We all start out as natural linguists.
As babies, we can hear all of the 600 consonants and 200 vowels that make up the world’s languages. Within our first year, our brains begin to specialise, tuning into the sounds we hear most frequently. Infants already babble in their mother tongue. Even newborns cry with an accent, imitating the speech they heard while in the womb. This specialisation also means shedding the skills we do not need. Japanese babies caneasily distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. Japanese adults tend to find this more difficult.
There is no question, Sorace says, that the early years are crucial for acquiring our own language. Studies of abandoned or isolated children have shown that if we do not learn human speech early on, we cannot easily make up for this later.
But here is the surprise: that cut-off is not the same for foreign language learning.