by Kamil Riaz
It is a widely accepted notion that the best age to learn a new language is during childhood. This belief generally stems from the ‘critical period hypothesis’, which was popularized by linguist and neurologist, Eric Heinz Lenneberg, back in the 1960s.
According to this hypothesis, the critical time for successful acquisition of a new language is between the ages of 2 to 13 i-e infancy up until the onset of puberty; provided that the individual is exposed to adequate stimuli that promote language learning.
This age range, however, has been the subject of constant debate among experts, some of whom believe that language acquisition skills are at their peak at or up until the ages of 6 or 7.
Although this theory was initially postulated for first language acquisition, it is often extended to, and used to explain the probability of success in second language acquisition as well. Again, the idea revolves around the same concept that the earlier an individual is exposed to another language, the more likely they are to gain competence in it.
Basically, the theory proposes that an infant brain uses both hemispheres for language learning and this process continues until the age of 2. Beyond that, the language learning starts to get localized in the left hemisphere of the brain. This process is gradual and continues till the individual reaches adolescence.
At this point, the brain lateralization is complete. This means that while the person is still ‘within’ the critical age range, the process of language learning is more natural and intuitive based on information that is absorbed from environmental stimuli; whereas after that period, the language learning becomes a more conscious procedure which requires instruction and intentional study.
There are varying opinions of theorists and experts over the validity of the critical period hypothesis and its existence is often debated upon.
It has been suggested that if a critical period does exist, it might be due to the delayed maturation of the pre-frontal cortex in children, which consequently delays development of cognitive control and expedites learning of linguistic conventions; hence putting younger children at an advantage when it comes to learning a new language.
While all of this seems to ring true, does that mean that once the critical period is over, learning a new language becomes impossible? Of course not. As a matter of fact, several experts in the field prefer to call it the sensitive period instead of critical. This is because while language development might be easier during this period, it is in no way so critical that a language cannot be learned beyond it.
Although the capability to learn a second language does not completely shut down after a specific period, it does begin to gradually diminish with age. Therefore, while it is not necessary to start early, it is a recommended course of action.
This is because in general, child learners are more likely to attain native-like fluency in a second language, even though adults show a much faster progression in the initial stages of learning. So this tells us that there definitely are advantages to starting early.
In ‘The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition’, David Singleton states that ‘younger=better in the long run’. However, he also pointed out that there are exceptions to this rule since some adult learners have been observed to achieve native-like levels of proficiency in both, pronunciation and grammatical rules, in a second language.
How do kids pick up a second language so quickly?
This is because they have malleable and porous minds. Their brain is wired to take in information from their surroundings and most of it is done unconsciously. Thus, if from the early stages they are exposed to two languages i-e if they hear it spoken around them or are immersed in it, they will acquire it just as they would their native language.
However, with the passage of time, as they get older, their ability to ‘subconsciously’ absorb information begins to decrease which consequently lessens their capacity to learn a new language with the ease with which they did in childhood. It is important to note here that the decrease in proficiency as a person gets older is not abrupt or dramatic, rather it is slow and gradual.
Other than that, children have fewer other commitments and hence have a lot more time to learn another language. Adults, on the other hand, have more demands on their time and several engagements to attend during their days.
What’s more, children do not need to master the second language, neither are they required to familiarize themselves with its complexities and structures to communicate with others like adults. They can make do with a smaller vocabulary and simpler sentences.
Also, kids don’t live under the fear of being judged or made fun of and thus, are not afraid to make mistakes or mispronounce words of the second language. If anything, they will most probably receive positive feedback and encouragement for their efforts, which motivates them to continue learning.
Another reason why learning a new language for adults is difficult is because, more often than not, they are more adept in their native languages.
They think, write and speak in their mother tongue on a daily basis and therefore, it is much deeply ingrained in their brains as compared to a child’s brain. So, when they are trying to learn another language, anytime they try to say something which is unfamiliar or dissimilar to their first language, it becomes problematic for them.
This is because if you try to say something, even in a slightly different pronunciation, there is a competition in the brain between the newly formed connections pertaining to the new language and the well learned connections of the mother tongue. Eventually, the over learned activity wins because their networks in the brain fire stronger and clearer signals.
It should be noted here that the language skills an individual acquires in childhood are at best, conversational. In order to perfect these skills, the individual must be surrounded with the relevant stimuli continuously. If not, they might forget the language altogether. They must also be provided with formal instruction at school in order to truly become proficient and attain fluency in the language.
What are the benefits of starting early?
There are several benefits of learning a second language at an early age which go way beyond simply possessing better linguistic skills and the ability to communicate in more than one language.
Research indicates that learning a foreign language in childhood comes with a slew of cognitive advantages, some of which include enhanced problem solving, critical thinking and observational skills, improved creativity, better memory and multi-tasking abilities. These are transferable skills and can benefit an individual in all aspects of their lives – be it personal or professional.
Besides the boost in cognitive functionality, learning a new language greatly broadens the horizons for the learner. It inculcates, in a person, a more in-depth understanding and appreciation of cultures and traditions of people belonging to a place which is different than theirs.
Furthermore, it opens doors for many job opportunities, as being bilingual or multilingual provides a competitive edge in the workforce worldwide.
It’s never too late to learn
According to Stephen Krashen and many other linguists, language acquisition and language learning are two different things because acquisition is a subconscious process while learning is a conscious process and requires active participation and effort. The involvement of both processes is important for ultimate success in language learning.
Now, there is no doubt that young brains are more adaptable as they are still developing but adult brains are better at systematically processing complex patterns and thoughts. So while children are better at ‘acquiring’ a new language, adults may be better at consciously ‘learning’ a new language.
There is one drawback of language learning as an adult: research indicates that you might not be able to master an authentic accent. However, that is not reason enough to not try learning a new language.
Here you must keep in mind that there are several external and internal factors that also affect your probability of success in language learning. For instance, input i.e. how is the language being acquired? Are you surrounded by the native speakers of the language you want to learn? Or is it through instruction? If so, who is teaching you the language? What are the materials being used? What are the procedures being applied to facilitate your learning?
All these factors that play an important role in determining how far you’ll go in the learning process.
Furthermore, there are internal factors that also matter, for example, whether you are an extrovert or introvert. If you are the former and are an outgoing and a social person, you will probably have a higher need to fit in. This will lead you to practice more and hone your language skills through conversation without allowing minor pronunciation mistakes or grammatical errors to bring you down. The introverts, on the other hand, might struggle with seeking out company due to their shy or quiet dispositions.
However, it has been suggested that introverts make less linguistic errors since they spend more time in processing information. Anxiety and self-esteem are also contributing factors to language learning and thus, looking after your physical and mental health may have beneficial results.
One of the more dominant factors in second language acquisition is motivation. A learner who has a higher level of motivation will have a higher probability of achieving success as compared to a person who has little or no motivation. This is because a person who is motivated will not shy away from hard work and will enjoy the process of learning.
So there you have it, the scientific literature doesn’t quite specify the best age to learn a new language since various experts have varying views regarding the matter. Sure, it does say that there are a few advantages to starting early but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn a language in adulthood.
For every individual out there who wants to learn a new language, there is no better time than the present. Better late than never, right? So go ahead and best of luck!