Are young people better at learning languages?

Are young people better at learning languages?

Is it easier for young people to learn a new language?

 

Think, for a second, about how complicated your native language is. Maybe it has grammar rules like no other language, or three genders, or more than one alphabet. Perhaps it would take most people years to fully learn. However did you manage to master it? How clever must you be?

You’d obviously respond that you were a child when you learned your native language, and that it’s just easier for children to learn. Childrens’ minds are like sponges – they absorb new things very quickly, and keep them. As you get older, and the ‘sponge’ gets used more over the years, you might think that the sponge of your brain loses its ability to hold new knowledge. An old sponge doesn’t hold water as well as new one, and, put simply, its a common belief that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn a new language. But is this true? 

 

Seeing as the 12th of August was International Youth Day, we’ve decided to explore whether approaching a new language really is easier if you’re younger

The answer, perhaps reassuringly for our older learners, is both yes and no.

There are two ways you can learn a language – explicitly, and implicitly. Think about it this way. When you’re learning a language, do you know you’re learning it, or not? If you are an active student who’s aware they’re in a learning environment, such as a language school like Ingla, and are making an active effort to learn the rules or grammar and vocabulary, that’s EXPLICIT learning. On the other hand, if you’re immersed in a new country, culture and language, and manage to pick up the language without being aware that you’re learning, this is IMPLICIT learning.

To simplify things, younger learners, particularly children, are much better at implicit learning. When they spend time with native speakers, they absorb their words much more quickly, retain what they’ve learned, and can imitate what they’ve heard accurately. They grasp language without implicit instruction, because their brains actually form physical neural connections more quickly. How do you think people in your home country, some of whom may never have set foot in a school in their lives, can at least speak and understand your  native language? 

However, those of you who do have children will know that it can be very difficult to get them to concentrate, or even stay in one place for a long period of time! The attention to detail, focus and motivation required for explicit learning can be hard for children, and even teenagers. This is where adult and older learners have the advantage.

Indeed, in a school environment like Ingla, where we learn explicitly, being older may serve you better. You’ve developed problem-solving skills and logical thinking that can only come with experience. Your experience with language learning in your native country has also familiarised you with grammar concepts and vocabulary, making you more prepared for learning than someone approaching a new language for the first time. Lastly, you’re also much more highly motivated, better organised, and able to follow your teacher’s instructions!

So, is it easier for younger people to learn a new language? In some ways, yes. But, in an environment like a language school, there’s no need to be discouraged if you’re getting on a little bit in years, as your experience and maturity will serve you well.

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