You tried improving your English language skills, especially spoken, on multiple occasions but you didn’t go too far. Then, you thought maybe I’m too old to improve. After all, children pick languages far quicker. And with that thought you stopped your efforts.

That’s what most think and do, and that’s completely misplaced. As I’ll show in this post, learning English – and for that matter any second language – has little to do with your age. You can improve your English language skills significantly even at 60. (Later in the post, you’ll see few examples of older people doing just that.)

We think children are hard-wired to learn languages. We think they’ve an advantage over adults when learning languages.

This isn’t true.

Let’s dive into details.

Research by Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and a linguist with plenty of work in the field of second-language acquisition, points:

…ability to pick-up languages does not disappear at puberty.

On the contrary, adults have certain experiential and other advantages (they also have one major disadvantage, which I’ll take up toward the end) over children when it comes to learning a language:

  • Adults have vast experience of learning new things which they can put to use in learning a new language.
  • They’re already aware of role of pauses, intonation, volume, gestures, body language, and other softer issues in communication.
  • They’re, by and large, more determined (children are more likely to get distracted), which you need aplenty when learning something new.
  • They’re more likely to actively seek feedback – and improve – on their performance.

World Bank underlines these points in its paper, The use of First and Second Languages in Education: A Review of International Experience:

Moreover, when controlled research is conducted, in both formal and informal learning situations, results typically indicate that adult (and adolescent) learners perform better than young children. Older children and adults can learn a language easily if they are exposed to the language in ways that support their learning efforts. In fact, they have an advantage over the young child because they bring to the task all of their knowledge and life experience-the full range of their cognitive development.

The paper, though, says that children acquire native-like accent more easily than adults. (Haven’t we seen how quickly young children acquire accent when they live in a foreign country?) But accent is not that important. Unless you’re working in a niche job such as call center agent, your accent in most cases will be fine not just in your home country, but even in English-speaking countries.

To provide another evidence in support, a study at University of Haifa, Israel, found adults to be the best in different parameters on language learning and 8-year-olds the worst among a group of adults, 12-year-olds, and 8-year-olds.

Then why do we form this notion that children are better learners of languages. Because we often don’t compare the two fairly. Two quick points:

1. Children may have spent far more time learning the language

A child who has been exposed to a language for few hours every day for years at home or elsewhere cannot be compared with an adult who practices the language for a short time every day. Watch this video to understand what I mean (duration: 1:40 minutes):

2. Children learn far basic level than adults

Most children use basic vocabulary and learn short and simple construction.

“I can bring water.”

“Can you open the door?”

And so on.

Whereas adults are expected to speak at more sophisticated level.

However, adults can learn something important from children.

What adults can learn from children in language learning?

What children do better than adults in language learning?

Stephen Krashen’s hypothesis also states that affective filter (factors such as hesitation, fear of making mistakes, and mood that affect language acquisition), and not language-acquisition ability per se, inhibits ability of adults to acquire second language.

We see this all the time, don’t we?

Children don’t fear making mistakes when speaking. Adults do. We fear what others will think, and therefore speak less, opposite of what you ought to be doing.

Adults don’t get feedback often enough because others think that feedback may be humiliating and hence may offend you. Children, in contrast, get corrected by their teachers and family members more often. More corrections means faster improvements. Isn’t it?

Children, especially young, live the language without hesitation and fear. That’s one big advantage children have over adults, which isn’t difficult to bridge. If adults can follow children on this, they’ll plug one big missing piece in their language learning.

Related Posts:

To end, here are few examples of people who’re learning languages even at an old age:

Steve Kaufmann, who seems to be in his seventies (he graduated in 1966), speaks 17 languages and he is still learning.

This 90-year-old Japanese grandma is learning English so that she can become guide in 2021 Tokyo Olympics and help tourists. She certainly punches a black eye to the concept of adult brain being non-malleable.

Summary

If you think you can’t become a fluent speaker in a second language, including English, because you’re no longer a child, you need to change this limiting belief. Research on second-language acquisition clearly indicates that humans can acquire second language well into adulthood. And there are plenty of anecdotal evidence around us to believe this (I mentioned two examples).

If we argue on a non-scientific, earthly level, you as an adult are better learner of English language than children because of your relatively vast experience in learning different things over the years and knowing softer aspects of language such as gestures, pauses, intonation, volume, and verbal and non-verbal cues. Adults only need to lower their affective filter (hesitation, fear of making mistakes, etc.)

Many, however, continue to hold this limiting belief and therefore don’t even try well enough (“what’s the point of trying if I can’t learn as an adult”), making their belief a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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