For years now, we have known that an adult has more difficulty learning a foreign language than a child.
Let’s face it: we retain words less efficiently and are more impervious to unknown sounds. The psychological factor also comes into play, and we tend to put up more barriers and get discouraged more quickly.
What are the reasons for this? What is the ideal age to learn a foreign language? Is there an age limit beyond which it becomes much more complicated?
The Ideal Age To Learn A Foreign Language, According To MIT
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently established a “critical period” for language learning. They believe that after the age of 17-18, any new acquisition becomes more difficult. This is much later than previously thought.
We observe that teenagers who are just starting progress a little less quickly than their younger counterparts. Nevertheless, they are still receptive to many things.
Psychologist Joshua Hartshorne, who conducted these studies, points out that it is virtually impossible to reach a native-like level when you start learning after age 10.
I emphasize “practically” because some people have excellent dispositions and can do it even after that age.
In any case, if you want your child to learn a foreign language and reach the level of a native speaker, it is better to start them well before the end of elementary school.
To download the results of this research: https://osf.io/pyb8s/
The Brain Plays An Essential Role When You Learn A Language
Children have a more accessible time learning and mastering a foreign language.
But why is it more difficult after the age of 17? The reasons are undoubtedly cultural, but also biological and physiological.
Indeed, another study conducted jointly by the McGill University Neuro and the University of Oxford and published in the journal Brain and Language shows several things.
In particular, we learn that the development of the brain remains the same whether we learn one or two languages from birth.
However, there is evidence that learning a second language later in childhood changes the brain’s structure itself.
How can this be explained? Learning a new language after one’s mother tongue affects the lower frontal cortex. This part of the brain plays an essential role in the production and understanding of language.
We, therefore, learn that learning a foreign language in early childhood stimulates new neuronal growth and connections between neurons.
Learn A Foreign Language Gently From Birth
The auditory sensory system of the fetus is set up during the 5th month of pregnancy. But needless to say, this little being in the making is still far from hearing clearly.
At 8 months of pregnancy, a fetus can hear sounds of 80 decibels, which means only shouted words.
It would be strange to see you shouting English words to your baby in the direction of your (or your wife’s!) belly, especially since it would probably not be very effective.
Instead, as soon as you give birth, it may be a good idea to expose your baby to the foreign language of your choice. This will allow him to become familiar with its musicality, its sounds, and its rhythm.
So have fun singing songs, nursery rhymes, or reading stories to your baby in the desired language. This will be the basis for effective and gentle learning.
Learning A Foreign Language At Any Age!
Although there is no ideal age for learning a foreign language, all these studies agree that childhood is more conducive to this learning. The perfect time is between 3 and 10 years old.
Learning a foreign language at a later age is nevertheless possible. It all depends on how much time your child has to devote to the language, his motivation, and his natural predispositions. For example, your child may reach an excellent level but still have some pronunciation problems.
Regular practice of the oral language, in addition to the syntactic and grammatical usages, learned in college, should make them comfortable with learning the language.
And if you, as an adult, are thinking of (re)learning a language, don’t panic!
You may not become perfectly bilingual overnight. However, there is no age limit for acquiring vocabulary, perfecting your pronunciation, or correcting the syntax of your sentences. At least you will be able to make yourself better understood, which is already very satisfying!