Is Language Learning Easier for Adults or Children?

March 29, 2023

Why is it so hard to learn a second language as an adult rather than as a child? This is a groan we often hear from our corporate learners.

Firstly, studies show that children's brains are more flexible and adaptable than adult brains, which makes it easier for them to learn a new language. The brain's ability to form new connections and reorganise itself, known as brain plasticity, decreases with age. This means that adults may have a harder time acquiring new language sounds, grammar, and vocabulary than children do.

Also, children who grow up in a bilingual environment have more exposure to their second language from an early age. They have more opportunities to hear and use the language, which makes it easier for them to acquire it naturally. In contrast, adults may not have as much exposure to the language and may need to put in more effort to learn it.

Adults may also be more inhibited about making mistakes and may feel more self-conscious when speaking a new language. They may also be more afraid of being judged or not being understood by others. Children, on the other hand, are generally more willing to take risks and make mistakes when learning a new language.

Additionally, adults who are learning a second language may be influenced by their first language. This can make it harder for them to learn new sounds and grammar patterns that are different from their first language. Children, who are still developing their first language, may be less influenced by their first language and more able to adapt to the new language.

However, on the positive side, adults have prior knowledge of the world and interactions, which can help us understand and learn a new language more quickly. For example, we know how social situations and exchanges go, we just don’t know what to say yet in the second language.

We also have a greater awareness of our own learning preferences and can use this to our own advantage. We can set goals, monitor our progress, and adjust our learning strategies.

It goes without saying that adults are often highly motivated to learn a new language, whether for personal or work-related reasons. This motivation helps overcome challenges and persist in their language learning efforts.

We also have well-developed critical thinking skills that we can apply to language learning. We can analyse language patterns and structures, identify errors, and make connections between new and existing knowledge.

Finally, adults are often more independent learners than children as we take responsibility for our own learning. So, don’t feel intimidated by the success of children to learn a language! Seek out the resources and opportunities for language practice and take ownership of your language learning journey.

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