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Do Children Learn Languages Better than Adults: Truth or Myth?

While scrolling through a few language learning apps, I read the phrase, ‘learn like a kid’ countless times. We have heard adults say it often and it'

While scrolling through a few language learning apps, I read the phrase, ‘learn like a kid’ countless times. We have heard adults say it often and it’s almost a universally held belief that is taken for granted. Many monolingual people lament not acquiring a second language as children. They imply that it is easier for children to learn, whether it is physically or online learning through language learning apps.. So I wondered if this was real.

Since this thought is so pervasive, it must be true, right? If it were true, why are most adults adept at language skilla and are speaking their second language in just a few months, while children are almost 7 years old when they learn to speak their first language fluently? 

While statistics and science confirm this statement to be true, at least for most of it, there is a lot more to it. So our question is whether adults can learn with ease. Let’s look at some of the environmental and psychological factors, that attempt to clarify this myth.

Children learn differently than adults, NOT easier.

Upon some research, I came across a case study done by Dr. Paul Thompson and his colleagues from UCLA. In this case study, he discussed how children use the ‘deep motor area’ of their brain or the ‘Unconscious side.’ This part of the brain is used for all the non-conscious, banal actions in our day-to-day life such as combing our hair, wearing shoes, etc. They found that language learning is second nature to youngsters. It is leading many to feel that attempting language learning after the brain rewires the way it learns new languages is futile.

However, as we grow older, our conscious mind develops, and learning new languages becomes an intended effort. Over time, the plasticity of our brain decreases, this also results in slow learning. However, we do learn, and we can learn at any given age. We can think of complex thoughts. Adults may need to analyse grammatical elements and learn the rules more directly to learn them thoroughly, which aids second language learning. 

Psychological Factors & Limitations

Children are carefree, ready to take on challenges, and fearless of committing errors. On the other hand, as adults, we become conscious of our surroundings. Even though we can learn complex things, we develop an unfavourable attitude towards errors.

When adults learn a foreign language, their learning techniques shift dramatically; it has been moulded to meet the learning style which is mandated in schools and universities. On the flip side, children just want to learn the language to cooperate, play, and communicate.

Unfortunately, often, adults’ learning efforts are sabotaged by others when they are not corrected over grammatical errors. We never hesitate to rectify a child, but always pause and reconsider to correct a colleague or a friend.

Adult language learners, however, are not without hope. You may still learn to play and converse in your target language, just like children. 

Adults with language learning experience become skilled, proactive, and, at times, daring learners who use their target language in all potential circumstances and places through trial and error and experience.

The Pre-Existing Language Knowledge

Think of the brain like a suitcase; the more you stuff in, the lesser place there is for new valuables to fit in. When adults begin to learn a second language, the first language’s knowledge is embedded within their mind: its rules, grammar, punctuations, understanding of phrases, everything. The same, pre-existing knowledge and mechanics of learning are passed on to the second language. 

However, even though there is simplicity in this process, it isn’t always this fruitful. Sometimes, similar languages’ learning processes can create barriers to each other. For eg, Let’s take a look at Hungarian. It’s a surprisingly tricky language to learn for English speakers. It has a lot of complex grammar rules and pronunciation. There are 14 vowels in Hungarian, each with a somewhat unique pronunciation. When compared to English, Hungarian consonant clusters also have distinctive pronunciations. For example, “sz” is pronounced “s,” and “s” is pronounced, “sh.”

Language Expectations

When it comes to learning, not too much is expected from a child. The child’s language level is compared to another child’s level, whereas adults are expected to be fluent in the language they’re speaking. The benchmarks are entirely different. 

Children use smaller and simpler vocabulary words than adults. Adult communication is much more complicated. Adults converse in-depth about a wider range of topics. 

Adults have what children do not—responsibilities. For adults, after a day’s work, there is seemingly little time for learning a language and it’s a galaxy full of grammatical rules! For children, learning is a way of having fun and communicating with one another. There are no restrictions and bounds for children, and contrary to that, adults have various impediments and hesitations while learning. 

What do Children have that Adults do not?

It’s a very comprehensive thought that needs to be thought over. I found an answer to that one day while travelling to work. As I sat in a rickshaw and chit-chatted with the driver in Marathi, (well, him talking fluently in Marathi and I speaking in a broken mixture of Hindi and Marathi,) my mind wished I was more fluent in my native language. Being brought up in a multicultural home, we usually stuck to English as the main communicating language. This is when I realized that a child learning a language has more experience in the language than an adult seeking to learn a new language.

Now, imagine if an adult could have a similar experience as children, but constantly for years on end while keeping an open mind, they might ultimately achieve a native-like level with more ease!

The reality is that human beings, regardless of age, learn language best in a stimulating atmosphere. If you can master a language, you can utilise it to substantially speed your learning—especially if you go to a foreign country and establish a situation that duplicates many of the beneficial conditions that kids frequently find themselves in.

So which language do you hope to master your language skills in? Which language intrigues you the most?

Let us know in the comments below!