Research Shows Adults Can Learn New Languages Better Than Children

You can knock your age off your list of excuses for not learning a second or third language.

Linguists have proven that it’s never too late to learn another language; under controlled conditions, adults actually turned out to be better than children at picking up a new language skill.

Of course, this is contrary to the common belief that children under the age of seven are best at acquiring new languages, and that if you’re going to learn a new language, ‘the earlier, the better.’ This is because children’s brains are more easily rewired, and because – unlike adults who rely on explicit memory – they use their implicit memory to learn, enabling them to pick up a new language without giving it conscious thought.  
Adults, on the other hand, actively learn the rules of the language. 

But recently, some linguists are questioning whether this difference comes down to a matter of attitude as opposed to cognitive functioning. As in, our attitudes towards children and adults.

“If adults make a mistake we don’t correct them because we don’t want to insult them,” says Sara Ferman of Tel Aviv University, Israel.

Ferman, along with Avi Karni from the University of Haifa created an experiment whereby 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and adults were given the opportunity to learn a new language rule. In the made-up rule, verbs were spelled and pronounced differently depending on whether they referred to an animate or inanimate object.

Though participants were not told this, they were asked to listen to a list of noun-verb pairs, and then voice the correct verb given further nouns. Two months later, participants were tested again to see what they remembered.

As it turned out, the adults were consistently better in everything the researchers measured. When asked to apply the rule to new words, adults scored over 90 per cent, as did 12-year-olds. Meanwhile, the 8-year-olds performed no better than chance.
Unlike the young children, most adults and 12-year-olds figured out the way the rule worked, and once they did, they had the whole thing down pat. Presenting the results at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal in 2011, Ferman said this shows that explicit learning – dissecting a language and memorizing conjugation and grammar rules, as opposed to through exposure – is crucial.

It looks like it may be time to get acquainted with Rosetta Stone. 


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