Adults need not fear – you can learn languages with the best of them


A common complaint among would-be language learners is that they’re too old. Most people know that children pick up languages as easily as anything, their young minds absorbing every nugget of information without them even having to try.

However, this does not mean that adults can’t learn a new language and become just as proficient in it than a child who was raised speaking that same language. Adolescence is certainly not the cut-off point for gaining fluency in another language, as this article on states:

[…] the results of this latest research, led by Michael Ullmann and Kara Morgan-Short, leave some hope for us geezers out of high school. The study compared two groups of people (average age mid-20s) learning an artificial language: one through explicit training, similar to standard classroom methods, and the other through implicit training, similar to immersion. After six months, the groups performed equally on proficiency tests. But brain scans revealed something surprising: The group that learned through immersion-like training showed brain activity similar to native speakers, while the group stuck translating “see spot run” didn’t. According to Morgan-Short, these results mean that the immersion group might be able to use the language better in stressful situations (Dónde esta el baño?!) and retain the language better than the explicitly-trained group.

To me these results were incredibly interesting for two distinct reasons. First off, they suggest that it is in fact possible for adults to attain native-like proficiency in a foreign language. And second, they’re evidence that language immersion, or being in a place where people speak only the language you’re learning, may be the absolute most effective way for adults to learn a new language.

Immersion learning has long been considered the best way to learn a language, and it seems this study reflects that fact. I live in China, and have found that the westerners who speak the best Mandarin are often the ones who have found Chinese girlfriends or boyfriends and have the best motivation to be able to communicate clearly on everyday topics.

For adults, the language learning ship has not sailed. This isn’t to say that it’s not hard work to learn a language later on in life, but the excuse of “I’m too old” – well, that won’t fly any more.

I thoroughly recommend reading the full article here.