Is it much easier for children to learn a second language than it is for adults?
December 05, 2019 5:22PM
It’s common to hear adults lament that they didn’t start learning a second language earlier since it’s much easier when you’re younger, but this is somewhat of a misconception.
Children and adults learn languages differently, and yes, children have the edge when it comes to achieving native-like mastery. That’s partly because children use the “deep motor area” of their brains to learn new languages—this is the same part of the brain that controls actions that come second nature to us, like tying a shoe. As you age, the window for learning in the deep motor area narrows, so adults learn languages with other parts of the brain—and thus, they’re often less natural speakers of their second language.
But it’s important to keep in mind the different situations in which adults and children learn languages. Most children who pick up a second language are exposed to it constantly and pick it up the same way they pick up their native language, even learning them simultaneously. Adults, however, may take on a second language in college or later, while having additional responsibilities, expectations, and stressors. Unlike adults, children are allowed to make mistakes and learn at a much slower pace without having to worry about failing in an academic, social, or professional sense.
Furthermore, according to a paper published in the journal Cognition, “studies that compare children and adults exposed to comparable material in the lab or during the initial months of an immersion program show that adults perform better, not worse, than children ... perhaps because they deploy conscious strategies and transfer what they know about their first language.”
So in a nutshell, adults aren’t drastically worse than children at learning a second language—they even outperform children when learning under the same conditions—but they do have some disadvantages. In most cases, though, they simply don’t receive the same exposure and opportunity.