You may think that children learn a new language best and fastest. But research has found that different stages of life give us different advantages in learning new languages. As babies, we absorb sounds better, and as toddlers, we can pick up native accents with amazing speed. However, as adults, we have longer attention spans and crucial skills like literacy that help us to continually learn a language, even improving skills in our own language.
Other factors beyond ageing – for example, social circumstances, teaching methods, and even love and friendship – determine how many languages we speak and how well, according to a BBC.com feature.
“Not everything goes downhill with age,” says Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh.
Sorace draws a distinction between “explicit” learning and “implicit” learning. Explicit learning involves a teacher in class explaining rules.
“Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”
On the other hand, young children excel at implicit learning: listening to native speakers and copying them. But this kind of learning is time-consuming for native speakers.
“[Young] children don’t learn a language – they acquire it,” says Carmen Rampersad, director of Spanish Nursery, a bilingual nursery school in north London.
Sorace says that while it is crucial for children to learn their mother tongue early – children with low native-language skills can’t easily make up later – that cut-off doesn’t apply to foreign languages.
“The important thing to understand is that age co-varies with many other things,” says Danijela Trenkic, a psycholinguist at the University of York.
Learning a foreign language for an adult often benefits from social motivation. A study has found that bonding with the teacher and other students helps.
“Creating the emotional bond is what makes you better at language learning, in my view,” says Trenkic.