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February 2016

Do Children Really Learn Languages Faster than Adults?

A glance at the current scientific debate

We’ve all heard the claims: young children learn new languages faster and more effectively than adults, and, as adult scholars of foreign languages, we might even have lamented the fact that we weren’t exposed to more languages as children. But what accounts for this optimal learning window?

Researchers claim that the young mind has a more dynamic structure, that a 2-year-old child has twice the brain connections (or synapses) as an adult. Grasping to use such connections, new knowledge is absorbed into the brain like water into a sponge. When the child gets older, the brain determines which of all the new knowledge is most important, cutting off loose data it deems less relevant.

This is particularly true of a child’s native language, though the learning window applies to additional languages as well, at least accounting to Dr. Susan Curtiss, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles: “...the power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn't seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way… They can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is just ripe to do this… there doesn't seem to be any detriment to… develop(ing) several languages at the same time.”

So goes the popularly held belief of the plasticity of the young mind. But does this mean it’s hopeless for us adult learners? Not quite. While the adult brain is most definitely different physically, specifically in the region known as Broca’s area, we are just as capable at learning new languages. One reason is that we have a wealth of life experiences (which may, at first, seem to hinder the learning process) that we can relate to for context. Additionally, the adult is by far a more intellectual creature, meaning we learn not only the language itself but all the detailed grammatical rules that accompany it. Sure, it may take us longer to pick up certain aspects of a language instinctively, but what we learn has the potential to come with more depth.

Add to this the results of a recent study conducted at the University of Essex that suggests the true reason why young children may learn languages easier has more to do with the fact that they simply have more time and few responsibilities. The study followed 101 volunteers, a set of immigrants to Germany who learned German after their arrival, and a set of native German speakers. A recording with deliberate grammatical errors was played for them, all the while their brains were being scanned. While native speakers had a stronger response visible from the brain scan, when it came to German as a second language, the results suggested no difference between the participant age and how well a grammatical mistake was interpreted.

What do you think? Do you struggle as an adult foreign language student? Is it different from your experience of learning a new language as a young child? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Bild: (c) Fotolia, photolars