Do Kids Really Learn Languages Faster Than Adults?

A common thing you’ll hear monolingual adults saying whenever discussing potentially learning a second language is that they lament not having done so as a child when it is easier. But the truth is, while the notion that kids learn languages faster and more easily is an almost universally held belief, even among some linguists, it turns out adults actually learn languages faster and, in some sense, more easily than kids.

So how did the idea that kids learn languages faster become so pervasive and how do we know it’s not true?

First, let’s clarify a bit. When discussing whether kids learn a first language faster than adults, studies to date do strongly support this idea. For example, as we covered in our article How Deaf People Think, deaf children who are not given a complex structured language of some sort to learn at a young age (and note here, a sign language works just as well as verbal) exhibit a number of intellectual issues later in life, such as poor memory, deficient abilities at abstract thought, etc. And, most pertinent to the topic at hand, if attempts are then made in adulthood to teach such an individual a first language, they typically go extremely poorly. Similar examples can be seen in various cases of feral children. Thus, with first languages at least, kids win handily as “some number of years” to master a language is most decidedly fewer than “never”.

Of course, when people talk about kids being able to learn languages faster than adults, nobody is discussing first languages- they are lamenting how difficult it is to learn a second language.

However, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of being around a child, basically ever, you may or may not have noticed that certainly while their comprehension leads their speaking a bit at first, it takes a whopping year or so, give or take, for them to learn their first few words, and then a few more before they start articulating well, speaking in relatively complex sentences, and featuring a reasonably robust vocabulary. And even then, they are still extremely deficient in a lot of ways when it comes to their first language. And we are talking many years here!

The same holds true of children learning more than one language at a time. It still takes them many years of practice to become fluent in this second language at anywhere close to an adult-like level. As linguist Dr. Karen Lichtman sums up, “People think that children are fast at learning language. They’re not fast; they’re slow.”

Illustrating this point, consider a study conducted by linguists Sara Ferman and Avi Karni of the University of Haifa in Israel,  No Childhood Advantage in the Acquisition of Skill in Using an Artificial Language Rule. Whil it has been well established that adults learn additional languages much better than children when learning explicitly, the researchers here were curious how adults would fare compared to their younger counterparts at implicit learning of language in a controlled environment.

Thus, in the study they made up a rule where verbs in a sentence would be pronounced differently depending on whether the object the verb was referring to was inanimate or animate. At no point was this rule explained, and the participants simply listened to language spoken with this rule used and then were later asked to speak the correct verb given some noun. The study used groups of 8 and 12 year olds, as well as adults of varying ages.

The results? As you might have guessed from the title of the paper, the adults wiped the floor with the littles. To wit, as noted in the study, “adults were superior to children of both age groups and the 8-year-olds were the poorest learners in all task parameters including in those that were clearly implicit… Altogether, the maturational effects in the acquisition of an implicit AMR do not support a simple notion of a language skill learning advantage in children.”

Two months later when tested again to see who remembered the rule the best, the adults once again were champions and once again the 12 year olds came in second and the 8 year olds last.

In yet another study, Age and Learning Environment: Are Children Implicit Second Language Learners? conducted by the aforementioned Dr. Karen Lichtman, the researchers made up a language called Sillyspeak and then taught it to groups of children and adults of various ages. Noteworthy here is that they taught it to some groups implicitly and others explicitly. The results? Regardless of whether the instruction was implicit or explicit, Dr. Lichtman sums up, “The adults were more accurate than the kids. The adults were faster than the kids.”

Another interesting thing to note with this one with regards to the merits of implicit vs explicit language learning was that, “both children and adults in the explicit training condition developed greater awareness of the mini-language’s structures – and greater awareness was associated with better performance for both age groups…”

Next up we have the Barcelona Age Factor Project which has been running since the late 1990s and still going today. This project is studying kids learning English as a second language in Spain. The part of this research that is most pertinent to the current discussion is they have been examining if younger children actually learn second languages faster than their older compatriots given the same instruction and language exposure and practice.

While the common notion is, even today, that starting kids as young as possible on a second language is the fastest and easiest way for them to learn a second language, once again the results of this decades long research project show in almost every single test the students were subjected to, students who start learning English as a second language later in life score markedly better than their younger brethren.

We could go on and on here. But the bottom line is that there are numerous studies attempting to compare the rate of second language acquisition in kids vs those of the older persuasion which consistently show that in controlled conditions, the more seasoned among us usually pick up languages faster.

Now, at this point you might be thinking, “Well, ya, but adults have an astounding number of advantages compared to kids when learning language, like in the study with the animate or inanimate objects. Kids might not even grasp that concept implicitly at first, let alone then connect it to a verb change. So it’s not really a fair comparison.” And, well, you’re right- that is exactly why adults are better at learning languages than kids, even if kids may be more naturally inclined to pick up a new language and have some other advantages we’ll get to shortly.

Adults simply come at the problem already having some level of mastery of an existing language, including in depth understanding of language structure, grammatical concepts, potentially already familiar with a given alphabet, possessing a broad knowledge of worldly concepts, ability to grasp certain nuances, abstractions, slang, jokes, etc. Adults also come with better study habits, or even just study habits at all.

In contrast, try to teach even a basic grammatical concept explicitly to a 4 year old and they’ll be reaching for their tablet to watch My Little Pony faster than you can say “verb”. Further, many kids are still learning to master their native tongue even well into their teens. Some might even argue that when extending to written language particularly, many of these teens who become adults never truly master even one language.

So given all this, and the literally millions of examples of adults becoming fluent in another language sometimes even in under a year, while kids often take years to reach the same level, where did the idea that kids learn languages faster come from and why is it so firmly ingrained, even still to this day found in many a psychology and linguistic textbook the world over?

As for the once scientifically accepted notion, this primarily stems from a concept called the “Critical Period hypothesis” proposed by neurologist Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts in their book Speech and Brain Mechanisms, published in 1959. This was later popularized by Eric Lenneberg’s 1967 Biological Foundation of Language. With regards to language, in a nutshell this is simply an idea that there is a critical period in which the human brain is particularly inclined to learn languages and that after this period, a person is unlikely to be able to (or some even go so far as say cannot) ever learn a new language to the level of a native speaker of that language. The brain simply can’t do it anymore.

As previously alluded to, there is a fair amount of data supporting this idea with regards to first language, at least on some level, though there doesn’t appear to be any marked time when the ability suddenly drops off; it’s more of a gradual decline over the years.

The problem is that this idea was then popularly extended to ability to learn additional languages beyond the first. But as studies since have shown, while it is true that children’s brains form new neural connections at truly astounding rates and are more “plastic”, or flexible with regards to adaptation than an adult’s brain, and it is generally accepted that this does indeed help them pick up things like languages faster and in some sense more “naturally” than adults, the combined aforementioned advantages adults have with language seem to outweigh this benefit kids are thought to have.

Focus, study habits, and better aptitude for advanced explicit learning simply trumps implicit learning not just in language learning, but with acquiring most skills. On top of that, it turns out adult brains are far more plastic than was the opinions of scientists decades ago when this idea was being solidified. In the general case, there is no point you can’t teach an old dog new tricks in reality, with an awful lot of studies looking at our brains learning new skills at all ages firmly backing this up.

Even with all this data, you still might be thinking, “But wait a minute. How come immigrant kids seem to pick up languages of their new nations so quickly, including often perfecting the accent, while their parents sometimes never do and often Arnold Schwarzenegger it up for the rest of their lives on their accent even if they do become fully fluent?”

With regards to the accent, it turns out there is compelling data that kids can learn accents faster and more easily than adults, though even this is not without controversy as there are a number of studies showing with concerted effort, adults are perfectly capable of perfecting accents to a native speaker’s level. For example, in a survey paper Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language, published in 1997, looking at whether Dutch learners of English were ever able to achieve a level of fluency to be indistinguishable from native English speakers, they note,

The ratings obtained by some learners were within the range of the ratings assigned to the native speaker controls. Such results suggest that it is not impossible to achieve an authentic, nativelike pronunciation of a second language after a specified biological period of time. Examination of the learning histories of the highly successful learners lead the authors to argue that certain learner characteristics and learning contexts may work together to override the disadvantages of a late start.

Once again indicating that while kids may well be more inclined to learn something, in this case accents, adults have a number of tricks up their sleeves to bridge the gap if they so choose.

That said, on this one it really does seem as if kids have a very marked advantage, and the younger the better. For example, brain scans of babies show they are able to distinguish all 800 or so phonemes that make up all the world’s verbal languages. However, as they become more attuned to a given language or multiple languages, their brains zero in on those sounds, starting around 6 months. Once adulthood is reached, people even sometimes struggle to perceive certain phonemes at all anymore. As you can imagine, this would make it really difficult to then reproduce said sound accurately when learning a second language or a new accent.

As an example, Japanese infants are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the /l/ and /r/ sounds of English to the same level as future native English speaking infants. In contrast, the brains of many adult native Japanese speakers show they often can’t consciously register the difference.

Of course, as noted, studies, and the extreme prevalence of anecdotal instances of adults learning a new language and perfecting their speech to the level where a native speaker would not be able to tell they weren’t, clearly show that some people are still able to do this into adulthood, thus once again seeming to be able to overcome the problem with explicit practice.

As to who is faster on this one, we couldn’t find any definitive data on this point, though lacking such studies, the consensus among linguists seems to be that kids would win simply because the adults would need practice just to be able to register the difference in certain phonemes in the first place, let alone then mimic them.

Whatever the case, you don’t need to get an accent down perfectly to be fluent in a language. Nobody is going to say, for example, and American from Texas isn’t fluent in English because he doesn’t speak like a Brit with an RP accent.

This all brings us back to those immigrant kids and their parents who struggle to pick up the language of their new home.

It turns out that studies conclusively show that this is a real phenomenon, and not just a perception or stereotype. For example, in perhaps the largest sample sized study on this idea, A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition, they managed to recruit a whopping 669,498 participants of all ages and from all over the world to take an English grammar quiz. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested in test taker’s ages, when they started learning English, as well as various other pertinent information about their linguistic background, such as whether they primarily learned English in a classroom setting or via immigrating to an English speaking country and learning implicitly.

The results showed that people up to about 17 or 18 years old seemed great at picking up English as a second language and becoming fully fluent. But then after that, people’s abilities to reach a level of mastery similar to a native speaker dropped markedly, seeming to strongly support the idea that there really is a Critical Period of learning of language and that it does apply to second languages. As noted by Associate Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, Mahesh Srinivasan, “…this study provides the most compelling evidence to date that there is a specific time in life after which the ability to learn the grammar of a new language declines…This is a major step forward for the field. The study also opens surprising, new questions, because it suggests that the critical period closes much later than previously thought.”

So what gives? We’ve spent this who article talking about all these studies that show that there is no Critical Period for second language aquisition. But if adults are so awesome at learning languages, why in the real world do we all seem to suck at actually becoming fluent in a new language and kids seem so awesome at it?

I suspect most of you already are thinking the answer. But let’s throw some expert opinion on the matter, shall we? We’ll start by quoting Dr. Josh Tenenbaum of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT who was one of the researchers involved in the study. He states, “It’s possible that there’s a biological change. It’s also possible that it’s something social or cultural… There’s roughly a period of being a minor that goes up to about age 17 or 18 in many societies. After that, you leave your home, maybe you work full time, or you become a specialized university student. All of those might impact your learning rate for any language.”

Or as language instructor Kieran Ball sums up, “From what I’ve found, children do not learn languages more easily than adults. The only reason it seems like they do is because they have a lot more free time. Adults tend to have jobs, responsibilities, busy lives and a lot of things on their mind. This means they can’t spend as much time as children do on learning. Children spend six or seven hours every day in school, where their only responsibility is to fill their head with knowledge.”

On that note, kids are often forced into an environment in which they MUST learn the language to do what they need to do, all the while getting both implicit exposure and explicit instruction. In contrast, many adults are able to filter their environment to avoid such a necessity and avoid a lot of implicit learning. Further, they often forgo regular, structured explicit instruction as well.

On top of that, even in their day to day lives where they might have received valuable explicit instruction from their peers, they often won’t.  As linguist Dr. Sara Ferman observes, “If adults make a mistake, we don’t correct them because we don’t want to insult them.” (Of course, we might argue that a caveat to that is that “If adults make a mistake in person, we don’t correct them…” Try making a mistake online, even if just perceived and not an actual mistake, and see what happens…)

In any event, kids also potentially have the advantage here of not being expected to form as complex of sentences and the like compared to adults; thus making the gap between their fluency and their peers’ smaller even when just starting out. Those around them also are often more comfortable with speaking slowly to the kids to help them understand, whereas doing the same to an adult can seem insulting, so people don’t typically.

Also for an adult, it can be embarrassing to speak in ultra simple sentences and on top of that, slowly, all the while knowing you’re making a lot of mistakes. People feel stupid and thus in many cases these adults may be much less likely to use that second language when out and about among their peers, instead, whenever possible, reverting back to their native tongue.

This all adds up to not just the perception, but the reality, that adults who attempt to learn new languages often fail, while their kids succeed, despite studies showing conclusively that adults are actually better at learning new languages when they actually put in the effort.

Thus, for you adults out there wanting to learn a new language, you may have gleaned from all of this that the best way to do so is generally recommended to be via a combination of explicit learning, and in so doing leveraging your vast existing knowledge and study skills in the process, while also on the side reinforcing this with as much immersion as possible. And, critically on this latter part, throwing away your inhibitions concerning getting words and grammar incorrect when practicing. Embrace your inner toddler and resist switching back to your native tongue. Even if that might just mean pointing at an object and saying in your new language, “That” when you want something. If you’re with particularly helpful people, they’ll hopefully then tell you, slowly, what “that” is called” and teach you explicitly and quickly how to add “I want” to it, and the like.

Do this all regularly, and you will crush the ankle biters and their inferior little “plastic” brains, which are only more plastic because they don’t know anything.

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  • This is simply not true. I first learned about the relative ease of children learning a foreign language when I was about eight years old and observed it first hand when my cousin married a German lady with two children age 6 and 7 and brought them back to the States to live upstairs in our home. They went from zero English when they arrived in June to sufficient proficiency to start school with us in the fall. Ever since then, I have been studying and teaching modern languages to students of all ages, and believe me, the earlier they start, the faster and more thoroughly they learn a new language, and if they start early enough, they will lose the accent as well. This is not possible with older students.

    • Daven Hiskey

      Did you even read the article past the first paragraph? 🙂

      • Of course, I read the entire article, and it’s simply not true. I have learned and taught four languages for over forty years, so I’m not totally uninformed on the subject of language learning.

        • Daven Hiskey

          But we discuss your concerns in detail and their causes. 🙂 Kids appear to learn faster as we stated (and are better at the accent for reasons as stated), but hour for hour, they do not learn faster than adults as has been proven over and over again by numerous studies, some with rather large sample sizes. All of this is laid out in detail. 🙂 It’s not that your perception is wrong- kids do appear to learn faster, it’s just that it’s not something inherent to the kids. More social factors involved. Give the parents the same hour for hour experience and incentive to learn, and they will learn faster, outside of the kids seeming to handle accents better as explained in the article.

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