Is It Ever Too Late to Learn a New Language? Here Are the Facts

Thrown into a new language, children keep their eyes and ears wide open. They record, they process, they produce: they learn the language without even noticing it. They’re not mulling it over.

Credit image @Wikimedia Commons

Is It Ever Too Late to Learn a New Language?

It’s you (and me) as an adult who start thinking. You compare, you ponder, you analyse.

To the point where you doubt:

  • If I learn this language now, will I really be fluent?
  • Will I keep an accent?
  • Will I be able to remember all the vocabulary?
  • Is it worth the effort if I leave this country in 2 years time?
  • What about my children?
  • Should I force them to learn a new language?
  • Am I expecting too much from them?

Answering those questions is important because it can help you

  1.  adjust expectations,
  2.  delay or anticipate a relocation,
  3.  avoid regrets till the end of your life.

 What my experience taught me

I speak 5 languages. I started to learn English (at school) when I was 11, German and Latin when I was 13, Dutch when I turned 28 and Italian when I was 35. My children are all trilingual (French, Dutch and English). They were raised bilingually from birth and acquired English later on.

My empirical conclusion is that you can learn a language at any age. You may not reach the level of a native speaker but you’ll be able to communicate efficiently and you’ll derive great pleasure from this additional skill.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

– Nelson Mandela                          Click to tweet

 What the experts are saying

Studying second language acquisition, specialists noticed the following patterns:

1. Children and adults learn differently.

Children learn implicitly, adults learn explicitly. We (as adults) want to understand the structure of the language: the pronouns, the tenses, the adjectives. We need to memorize lists of words and conjugation patterns. We must practise the sounds, used in that particular language. Children on the other hand, don’t seek an explanation: they absorb and process a new language without the whole cognitive process described previously.

2. Children learners outperform adult learners in the long run.

From the combination of both elements was derived the critical period hypothesis (CPH).

Basically, this theory (CPH) identifies so-called “critical periods” during which we’re more likely to acquire a second language with different levels of proficiency. There are several versions of the CPH. I chose to develop the vision from Walsh & Diller (1986) and Seliger (1982).

  •  First critical period: acquiring a second language before 6-8 years

This is the best period of implicit learning. Neuroscientists justify the end of this first period by the decrease of our brain plasticity starting around age 5.

Children would be more likely to reach the native speaker fluency without any foreign accent.

This argument is supported by the type of braincells involved in the mastery of sounds. They would cease to develop around age 6-7.

  •  Second critical period: after 8 years old but before 14-16 years

Children’s language acquisition would experience some degradation compared to the previous group. Children would still be able to speak with native-like competence but with a foreign accent.

  •  After 16 years old, the exposure to a new language would definitely define you as a second language speaker, with a level of proficiency (including grammar, syntax, vocabulary and accent) never comparable to a native speaker.

As we’ve just seen, one of the most obvious features in speaking another language is accent. No matter how hard I try to speak English as a native speaker for example, people can immediately identify that I’m French!

So in order to test the validity of the CPH, I decided to run a little experiment. I recorded several persons having acquired English in different periods of their lives. They’re all reading the same text (excerpt 44 derived from the book “Tao te Ching”, authored by Lao Tsu). At the light of the critical period hypothesis and their accent, can you determine who’s who? Listen first before reading the answer.

 

Speaker #1 acquired English at 8 years old
Speaker #2 at 13 years old
Speaker #3 at 8 years old
Speaker #4 started to learn English at 13 years old (school exposure) but in full immersion only at 15 years old
Speaker #5 is a native speaker
Speaker #6 only got school exposure starting at 11 years old and full immersion at 44 years old

Are you convinced?

As appealing as this theory might sound, I had to refrain my enthusiasm. As it’s often the case dealing with human beings in all their complexity, establishing a firm rule proves to be very difficult. The more I read about the topic, the more confusing it’s becoming. One study denies the conclusion of the other. I end up finding everything and its opposite.

Conclusion

While we intuitively and correctly assume that the younger we are, the easier we learn, there are many other factors influencing the level of proficiency in a second language. Those are as diverse as personality, motivation, emotional well-being, level of self-confidence, time commitment (just to name a few). There are indeed adult learners able to achieve a native like competence in their second language, with no foreign accent!

So finally, when is the best time to learn a new language?

As soon as possible and anytime thereafter.

The best time is…. right now!

What about you? Have you ever learned a second language? What’s your experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Allouche_sylvie says:

    As a native french, I learned english and german at school. At 40 years old I was expatriate in Shanghai for 5 years and learned mandarin very quickly and easily. My motivation was strong and I love to speak with people. May be I have facilities with the langages as well. My 8 yearq old boy learned very quickly as well with our maid !
    People were amazed by my level of mandarin after 3 months and chineses loved my french accent !! I am now in Vancouver, Canada, were everybody speaks english. People here come from all over the world and they are not shoked by accents. I certainly make no effort on my english accent so that people know I am not from Qubec. Everybody says it’s so cute and appreciate I speak their language. My 15 years olf kid speaks with no accent… And is learning spanish very quikly as well. I totally agree with you, if somebody wants to learn a new langage, whatever the motivation is, just go, you will have fun and rewards !

    • Thanks a lot, Sylvie for sharing your experience. Mandarin seems so exotic to me. Being a visual person who can only remember a word when I’ve seen it written down, I wonder how you learn the vocabulary. As for the accent, you’re right. It’s part of our charm 🙂

      • Motivation and environment are the keys!
        Young, i  often stayed during holidays in foreign’s families and was eager to learn the languages of potential friends.
        Latin at school was not “my cup of tea”. No motivation…
        Later, i was used to study or work in english, italian, spanish, german (and french my native language!). Necessity!
        Practising some martial chinese arts i studied a year this language. Cultural interest!
        I Started russian later. Very personal reason…;)

        •  Jean, you underlined one crucial point in learning languages: the need for them. Spending some time abroad is one of the most rewarding ways to not only master a new language but also to understand the culture. Congratulations for your endeavors in Chinese and Russian!

  2. Love the file of different speakers reading the same text! I lived in France for a year and never spoke English except on the occasional Skype call home. My job was to speak English with the two French children (age 3 and 5) I was watching, and the idea was that eventually they would pick it up. After one year of me speaking English with them and two years after me of the next nanny/au pair speaking English with them, they can understand just about everything! Except that because we (their nannies) could understand the French they spoke, the kids weren’t really forced to speak English. They can say a few things, but it’s hardly anything. Do you think that because they have excellent listening comprehension, they will be able to speak English fluently at some point thanks to their young exposure? I guess that’s a difficult question because we won’t know what kind of classes/English exposure they will encounter in their lives, but I do hope that having English speaking nannies has helped them!

    • Thanks a lot for your extensive comment, Van! And glad to see you appreciated the audio 🙂 As to your question, I don’t have a straight forward answer. For 2 reasons: I find personally that the best way to learn and keep another language is to speak it myself, not just listening and understanding (but I speak here of an adult learning experience which means with explanation of the structure and the grammar of the foreign language). The second reason is: there are a lot of examples (like Nobel Prize Serge Haroche mentioned in a previous article) of children speaking fluently another language (Russian in Serge’s case) but having forgotten it completely when they stopped using it (at 6 years old in Serge’s case). But a Swedish study showed that people having been exposed in their early age and then re-exposed even years later to the same language were picking up quicker than the standard population. So I guess, future will tell!

  3. My mother is Japanese while my father is English but I am not bilingual. I had the chance to learn Japanese when I was young but when I was three, I shouted at my mother that I didn’t want to learn it as my brother didn’t as he never had the chance and none of my friends spoke it. I really regret it now but I started trying to learn it again three years ago (I’m now 16) and I found your article really interesting. Watching other young bilingual children around me, I noticed that they simply repeated what they heard for certain situations, one even sounded like his mother! One couldn’t tell the difference between the two languages. I used to analyse Japanese and try and break it down to make sense of it, but I realized that’s not the thing to do; I now try to simply learn phrases and not think about it to make it more natural when I try to speak to my mother. Before I was worried about whether I would be able to speak Japanese fluently but after hearing how you learnt so many languages, I’m not worried any more. I’m also taking French for my A levels as I think it is a beautiful language and I love languages.I also think being surrounded by those who can only speak a foreign language is really useful as I went to a Japanese school for four weeks and my level suddenly rose. Thank you so much for your really interesting article; the stages theory is really interesting and makes complete sense and the recording was also very fun! I feel very relieved after reading this. Thank you.

    • Dear Tabi, thank you so much for posting this comment and sharing your personal experience. I’m delighted to hear that this article helped remove some of your doubts. Keep on believing in yourself. There’s no age limit to learn any topic you’re interested in. I’m so happy you decided to hone your Japanese skills. I’m sure it’ll tighten your bond with the motherly side of your family and you’ll get more intimate with that part of your identity. I’m also very glad to hear that you’re learning French 🙂 I wish you all the best for your future studies and feel free to swing by whenever you want!

      2014/1/11 Disqus

  4. Thank you so much! My native Language Is Spanish and my father is of Korean decent so I picked the language very quickly and i learnt English at a Young Age and Now i am learning German and so far its going Great, pronouncing the words is a bit difficult but as time goes on I know I will get better 🙂

  5. Graham Jones says:

    Fascinating article this, thank you. I wonder if anyone can help with a question?
    We are considering emigrating to Japan from the UK with our young daughter (she is 8 years old). My wife and I are both concerned about the impact on her language skills, in that she may lose her English ability and never reach native proficiency in Japanese. Thus she would end up a non-native speaker in both languages.
    Does anyone have any experience of secondary language acquisition around this age? Are there any articles around on this subject i could be directed to?
    Thank you

  6. My daughter is almost 8 yrs old and son 5 yrs old. Am interested in bilingualism, school teaches 2.5 days english and 2.5 days italian. At such a young age can these children fall behind in English, while learning italian? Do u have any research.

  7. Austin Chen says:

    I was born in Singapore, where many languages are spoken including Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English and as a student I had to learn Mandarin because of my ethnicity and English as a mandatory course for everyone. Similarly if I were of Malay descent my “mother tongue class” would be Malay, but we learn everything else in English. So to sum it up I was exposed to Mandarin since birth and I started learning English at 7 without much prior exposure, but because of the linguistic environment in Singapore, the English we are exposed to itself is very far from the “no accent” level, and hence the majority of the nation speaks very broken English. I finished primary school in Singapore and moved to China because my Singaporean mother died and my father is Chinese. Ironically in China where English proficiency is very low, this is where I started treating English seriously and tried to make amendments because it was only after leaving Singapore that I realized how embarrassing it was to speak in broken English. I never really learned anything in English classes here because genuinely even the English teachers here clearly don’t master the language well, but at least it made me understand the need to enhance my English through browsing English websites and interacting with native speakers online. I would say that I am now 100% native in Mandarin and slightly accented in English. But my worries are as follows: Though I can comprehend most of the English I read or hear, I find it rather slow to try to express myself in English because I have hardly ever had the chance to speak “real English” at all. Will I be able to overcome that if I go to university next year in a English speaking country? Also as a side question, I am 18 now, will it be easy for me to learn a third language if past experiences have proven that I’m really bad at grammar? Thank you for your patience.

    • Thank you Austin, for sharing your story. I’m not an English teacher but you know the saying “Practice makes perfect”. As for learning a third foreign language, I know people who are not good at grammar. This hasn’t prevented them to learn and speak several languages. Go for it!

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