The age old claim that children are better at learning languages is FALSE

People constantly tell me, “I’m too old to learn a language.” Hopefully, by the end of this blog post you’ll stop using this excuse. So let us begin.

Self-Fulfilling prophecy: The more you say something, the more you start to believe it (even if you have no evidence to support your claim). This is definitely the case with the statement “I’m too old to learn a language.” Because you think this way, you don’t make the effort to actually learn. As a result, you don’t learn a language.

I’ve worked with people in their 50’s, 60’s and even someone in their 70’s who decided they WERE NOT TOO OLD to learn a language. And guess what, they were right.

The truth is that children don’t learn languages better, they just learn languages differently to adults. The great news is that the advantages that children have are not exclusive to them. It is also something we can apply to our own lives.

Main differences

Absorption approach: Children are like sponges. They observe the world around them with curiosity and ask lots of questions. This helps them learn at a faster rate than most adults. But did you know that curiosity is also something adults are capable of?

I have never taken a single German language course. I learned the language by surrounding myself with German people, watching lots of YouTube videos and playing games on my phone using the app Duolingo. I developed a sincere curiosity for the people who live in this country and for their culture. That’s how I learned that when Germans count with their fingers, their thumb is number one. That’s how I learned about riding a bicycle to work instead of driving and that the German language loves really long words. For example, the word Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften. Whenever I don’t understand something, I ask.

Fearlessness: Children are not afraid of making mistakes or looking stupid. They just speak and do their best to communicate their wishes. When I visited Germany for the first time, I met the young cousins of one of my friends. They wanted to play soccer with me, so they showed me a ball and pointed to the outdoors. I didn’t need to speak German to know what they meant.

As we get older, many of us become more self-conscious and insecure. We don’t want to be judged as incompetent, so we don’t try new things. When I first moved to Germany, I was very afraid to speak in front of others. After one year, I could barely say a few words in German. I then had to make a decision. Either keep being afraid and not learn the language, or forget about the opinions of others and just try to speak. I chose the latter, and that made a big difference in my language learning journey. Today, you can put me in a room full of Germans and I am not afraid to speak.

Teacher-Student relationship: As children are developing their language skills, they have adults and teachers to correct them when they make mistakes. This helps them improve on a daily basis. Adults don’t tend to correct other adults when they make grammar mistakes. But there is also a solution to this problem.

When I made the decision to learn German, I also looked for a few German people to help correct my mistakes. I was very lucky to find willing participants. Every time I made a mistake, they would correct me and tell me the right way to say it. That is how I learned that it’s not correct to say “Ich bin kalt” (I’m cold) but rather you say “mir ist kalt” (me is cold). If you’re not so lucky to have native English speakers nearby, then you can go on the Internet, which is full of people willing to trade their English knowledge for your language skills. If that is not an option, then you can look for a private teacher or language school to attend.

The value of learning: Adults are able to recognize the value of learning a language far better than children can.

Between the ages of 11-16 I lived in the French part of Canada. I went to an English school, but I had to take French classes 2-3 times a week. At that time, I couldn’t stand going to French class. I did the minimum to pass my classes, but no more. In the city, I would speak to people in English, they would respond in French and since we both understood each other, there was no incentive to change this behavior. As a result, after we moved away from the French part, my French wasn’t very good. Six months ago I decided to learn French. I looked for a French teacher, downloaded French podcasts, bought French books and took an interest in French culture. Guess what? I speak better French today than I did when I was 16 years old.

I could continue with many more reasons that prove that learning a language as an adult is absolutely possible, but then this blog post would get too long. So for now, take care and be kind to one another.

Vocabulary

  1. capable: having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.
  2. sincere: proceeding from genuine feelings.
  3. self-conscious: feeling undue awareness of oneself, one’s appearance, or one’s actions. Synonyms – embarrassed, uncomfortable, nervous.
  4. incompetent: not having or showing the necessary skills to do something successfully.
  5. incentive: a thing that motivates or encourages someone to do something.

Comprehension Questions:

  1. What is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  2. True or False: Adults are incapable of being curious.
  3. Fill in the blank: Children are not afraid of making ______ or looking ______.
  4. If you don’t want to trade your language skills in order to learn English, what are some other options?
  5. What do adults do better than children?

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