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Is it easier to learn a language when you’re young?

We’ve all heard some variation of the ultra-absorbent, spongy brain explanation that suggests children’s talent for second language acquisition comes as naturally to them as a sugar high on Halloween night. But is it actually true?

Empirically speaking, yes. To achieve a native level of fluency in a second language, it’s best to start learning before age ten. But while scientists have long been debating whether the critical period for language learning starts to decline at birth, at five years old, or once puberty hits, a new study funded by the National Institute of Health and MIT’s Center for Minds, Brains, and Machines, has found that grammar-learning ability remains strong until age seventeen or eighteen, much longer than previously thought.

These findings were based on analysis of a grammar quiz called ‘Which English’ that quickly went viral on Facebook, producing nearly 670,000 useable data points in just a couple of weeks. The ten-minute quiz asked participants to evaluate whether sentences such as ‘Yesterday John wanted to won the race,’ were grammatically correct. Upon completion, quiz-takers answered a series of questions about how many years they had been studying English, at what age they started studying, and what kind of exposure to the language they were receiving. And while the results showed that a critical period for language acquisition does exist, and that it comes to its close around the end of puberty, they didn’t explain why.

Pronunciation Frustration

While a 17-year-old who moves from New Jersey to Ecuador has a better chance of becoming a Spanish grammar expert than his or her parents, reaching a native level in pronunciation is another story. Pronunciation comes down to two related but not interchangeable factors: the ability to distinguish between sounds and the ability to produce them.

Every language has its own unique set of sounds. And while scientists now know that we’re born with the ability to distinguish all of them, they also know that that ability starts to weaken at as young as eleven months old, before we even begin talking. At seven months old, for example, a Japanese baby can hear the difference between the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds of English, even though in Japanese, that distinction doesn’t exist. By eleven months old, ‘lake’ and ‘rake’ start to sound the same.

So, some of pronunciation has to do with our ability to distinguish sounds. If, like many Spanish speakers, you can’t hear the difference between the English ‘j’ and ‘y’ sounds, it follows that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce them correctly. But not all of pronunciation has to do with hearing. The human palate finishes forming between the ages of ten and thirteen. By that time, you’ve developed systematic habits of pronunciation that can be likened to layered tire tracks on a snow-covered road – it’s a lot easier to drive within the lines, and once you cross them, it’s almost inevitable that you lose control. This is why, for example, an English speaker can hear the rolled ‘r’ sound in Spanish, but has a very hard time imitating it. Similarly, the ‘th’ in ‘think’ and ‘thunder,’ ‘the,’ ‘this,’ and ‘that,’ are two of the most common phonemes in English, but amongst the rarest phonemes globally, which is why you’re likely to hear eclectic spins on the word ‘thank you’ depending on where a non-native speaker hails from – ‘sank you,’ ‘fank you,’ and ‘tank you’ are three common varieties.

Learning By Eye vs. Learning By Ear

But not all issues of pronunciation are biological. Traditionally, students ‘learn by eye,’ meaning that they learn new vocabulary by focusing on visual symbols such as letters or characters. The problem with this is that different languages have very different pronunciation codes, even though they may share symbols. Take Spanish and English, for example. Spanish is a highly phonetic language, meaning that each letter corresponds to just one sound. There’s no such thing as a silent letter (except for h, which is always silent unless used to form the ‘ch’ sound common to both English and Spanish), and the idea that two words can be written completely differently but sound the same like they can in English (i.e. guessed, guest; chews, choose; mail, male; ate, eight; sense, scents, cents) is completely ludicrous.

So, for Spanish speakers, seeing the way a word is written in English before learning to pronounce it can be a real impediment, especially because a lot of English pronunciation is highly illogical (i.e. despite ending in -ough, enough, through, dough, and cough, sound nothing alike). For this reason, some teaching professionals have begun advocating for a new ‘learning by ear’ methodology, in which students are exposed to the sounds of a language before the symbols.

Lucky for native English speakers, the problem Spanish speakers face when they try to learn English ‘by eye’ is more or less a one-way street. Because even though some letters are pronounced differently in Spanish, pronunciation is much more systematic in Spanish than in English, so that once an English speaker has the rules down, seeing the way a word is spelled is not likely to throw them off course the way it is in English.

It’s Cultural

These differences suggest that some of the problems we face in second language acquisition may have more to do with cultural factors, such as flawed ‘one size fits all’ teaching methodologies, rather than inherent biological changes. And actually, some biological findings back this idea up.

At the UCLA Laboratory of Neuroimaging, a team of researchers found that the brain systems that specialize in learning languages grow rapidly from age six to between eleven and fifteen, at which point they experience a dramatic shutting down. But since our ability to acquire language remains strong until around seventeen or eighteen, this suggests that there’s a lot more in play than simple biology.

Josh Tenenbaum, one of the MIT professors that put together the ‘Which English’ experiment, suggests that the decline in second language acquisition ability after age eighteen may have to do with the fact that, in most cultures, this is the approximate age at which people start to work or become specialized university students, giving them less time to study foreign languages.

The Center for Applied Linguistics also suggests that it’s easier for children because they simply have less to learn. Their vocabulary is more limited and they use simpler sentence structures. Additionally, young learners tend to be less self-conscious than adults, meaning that they’re more willing to take risks and make mistakes rather than steer clear of difficult words or grammar structures like their adult counterparts sometimes tend to do.

So, Is There Any Hope for Adults?

If you’re like me, you’ve long since rounded the hump of adolescence, and may have therefore found some or all of this article, well…dispiriting to say the least. Take note, though: people may be best at second language acquisition before the age of eighteen, but it’s not a dropping off point. Instead, it appears that the decrease in second language proficiency is a slow decline over time, which likely has more to do with older people’s schedules than continuing changes in their brains. And with the advent of effective new teaching methodologies aimed towards adults, such as a computer language program developed by scientists at Tokyo Denki University and the University of Minnesota, which has worked to improve Japanese students’ ability to differentiate between the English ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds by showing them a computerized instructors face while they listen to exaggerated versions of the two sounds, difficulties in overcoming pronunciation barriers may soon be a thing of the past.

Plus, there are a few advantages to being an adult language learner. We usually have a better grasp on the intricacies of grammar, making tricky concepts like verb conjugations easier to digest. And this means that adults can jump straight into language learning, focusing on the differences between their own language and the target language without first having to grapple with underlying linguistic concepts, like what verbs, adjectives, or tenses even are. Starting off with a more robust vocabulary helps in the same way- we don’t have to learn what words like ‘economics’ or ‘unruly’ mean in our own language before learning their equivalents in other languages.

Adults also tend to be more motivated language learners. Whereas most kids learn a second language out of obligation, adult tend to study language either out of a genuine desire to learn or because they have a concrete objective for learning. And since they usually also have better organizational skills, and a better sense of the kind of learning or study methods that work for them, it can be easier for adults to engage more deeply and meaningfully with a second language.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that learning a second language is worth it whether you’re thirteen or fifty-seven, do it for the health benefits! That’s right, learning a new language is a great way to exercise your brain. It strengthens neural networks and enhances brain plasticity, leading to enhanced memory and cognitive recognition, both of which can help slow down aging and even prevent or put off aging-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

If you’re interested in learning a language, contact us today for more information about ALTA’s language training courses.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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