It turns out that with the same amount of time and effort, adults are just as capable as children at learning a new language quickly.  Photo (cc) flickr user tilitran

It turns out that with the same amount of time and effort, adults are just as capable as children at learning a new language quickly. Photo (cc) flickr user tilitran

You’ve heard it said before, “Kids learn foreign languages more quickly than adults.”  And you’ve probably—if you’re struggling to learn a foreign language yourself—let out a deep, tormented sigh of jealousy.  “Why didn’t I start learning this while I was still young?!” you ask yourself, wringing your hands.  “When my brain was still so fresh and absorbent!”  But have you ever thought to stop and ask yourself if the statement is actually true?

I had never questioned it before.  Having watched kids learning a new language and been astounded at the rate of their progress, I felt like I could confirm it as fact from my own experience.  But a few spotty observations do not a scientific study make.

In preparation for the baby we’re expecting in February—the baby who we will be raising speaking both German and English—I’ve been reading a book called The Bilingual Family by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley.  Written by two academics with experience raising bi-lingual children and full of scientific data about how humans acquire language, it was this book that finally made me question that assumption.

“It is generally believed that the individual’s ability to learn a language gradually diminishes with age.  To a very large extent, this belief is based on an uncritical observation of children learning to speak—in fact children put vast amounts of time and effort into mastering a language: where adults do likewise, they seem to learn just as well, pronunciation excepted.  In fact, they do better in terms of rate of acquisition, and not so well in terms of eventual outcome,” the authors say in a section about successive bilingualism.

After reading this paragraph, I stopped and thought about it.  My observations of children learning a second language had been brief, and my observations lacking in depth.  Maybe they had a point.  Maybe the difference simply was that children spent more time (and had more time spent on them by others) learning new languages.  I read on…

“This may seem nonsense to parents who have seen their children learn a second language in a matter of months while they still struggle along after a number of years.  But if we actually compare the learning opportunities available to children and adults both quantitatively and qualitatively, we will see that children usually have enormous advantages: if young children learn languages it is because the whole of society is organized in such a way as to teach children languages while they are young and because children have little else to do to distract them from the task.  A survey of all the research and evidence (Singleton, 1989) shows clearly that age, in itself is not particularly relevant to success in language learning, whereas motivation and opportunity are.”

Well! I thought to myself.  They really have a point there.  When I first started learning German I had three 45-minute-long classes a week.  Outside of class, there was no reason to practice German or think about German, except for the time I spent doing my homework.  But as a child suddenly immersed in a new language, maybe even attending school in that language, you would have a lot more motivation and focus on getting that learning done in a timely way.

So don’t despair, frustrated adults learning German!  With enough time and effort, we can become as good at our adopted languages as the children whose natural talent we used to eye so jealously!