Why is it easier to learn a new language when you are younger and harder when you are older.


Why is it easier to learn a new language when you are younger and harder when you are older.

In: Biology

There’s a concept called neuroplasticity at work there. When you’re young, you’re learning a lot, creating new associations between sounds, objects, and words. Those are formed as actual neural connections between areas of the brain. As you age, a lot of the connections are already set in place, and forming new associations becomes more difficult.

neuro-plasticity theory aside, when you are young you pick up an accent. My parents speak perfect English but still have their old accents; they find it hard to sound naturally American. I moved country at the perfect time for dual language development and so I have two accents – if someone catches me speaking in one and I have to quickly respond in the other, I will speak in a strange accent for a few words.

I feel it’s because the language-learning methods imposed on adults are often weird and unnatural. Also, adults are often scared of making mistakes. I’ll explain more:

Watch how a very young kid acquires a first-language. The kid doesn’t care about correct grammar to begin with, they just muddle through with the words they know; often use wrong-tenses and generally pronounce everything wrong. In response, people around them don’t refer the kid to a grammar table; they are (often) delighted at the kid’s efforts.

However, we often subject adults to all kinds of strange, unnatural language-learning methods.

We don’t teach children how to speak their first language by making them write down a list of different verb tenses; or by making them sit in a chair in a classroom. Younger kids learn by doing; by playing. They learn phrases, not discrete vocabulary. They learn to speak long before they read a word (typically).

However, for some bizarre reason, it has been decided that when an older person learns a new language they should (typically) sit with a text book, in a classroom, learning the ‘structure’ of a new language. They are also made to ‘learn’ to speak and write simultaneously. They are also often *not* encouraged to just go-for-it and make mistakes (like a baby naturally would). In addition, the education system eventually causes most people to fear making mistakes and getting things wrong. This also fucks up the language acquisition process for adults because many adults have been taught to fear experimentation.

Obviously, there’s also the issue of neuroplasticity in the mix: Kids are neurobiologically more receptive to new information. But this is nothing that an adult couldn’t simulate with a microdose of LSD. Nevertheless, I feel it’s less about neuroplasticity and more about the awful way older children and adults are ‘taught’ a new language.

TL;DR: The way that older people are taught languages is mostly ineffective; plus adults often fear making mistakes.