Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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In an increasingly globalised world speaking as many languages as possible is important – but which is the best language for your child to learn?

Dec 2011

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Articles for parents

Number bonds – the foundations for future success in maths

As a Kumon Instructor, I am sometimes asked why we require repeated practice of basic mental addition without allowing our students to count on their fingers? If they get the right answer using their fingers, why do they need to keep practising 3+2, 8+2, 6+2, mentally?
Why do many of our students, even those who are already dealing with multiplication or fractions at school, often start the Kumon programme on basic addition (plus 1, plus 2, plus 3) before progressing to mixed addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, fractions and higher maths?

The answer is that we are laying the foundations for future success in more advanced maths.

Jun 2020

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Aged 12 and above

Talented Kumon student, Justine wins ‘The Voice Kids’!

Talented 14-year-old Justine is a student of the Kumon Swansea, Morriston Study Centre who recently delighted her friends and family by being crowned the winner of ITV’s ‘The Voice Kids UK 2020’.

Although the benefits of teaching children a second or even third language have been supported in the media for several years, I have noticed that lately there have been a number of articles and studies substantiating starting even earlier—even before the baby has mastered their mother tongue. In fact, a new study suggests that babies learn bits of their native languages even before they are born. A baby develops the ability to hear by about 30 weeks’ gestation, so he can make out his mother’s voice for the last two months of pregnancy.

The idea of teaching babies a SECOND language, when they haven’t even finished learning the FIRST, may initially seem to be an overwhelming assignment! However, it is common knowledge that children who are lucky enough to be born into bilingual families, easily learn to communicate with ease in both languages at a very early age.

Educators don’t always agree when to introduce the second language. On the whole though, expert opinion seems to confirm that children can learn languages most easily up until the age of three. The majority of educators agree that children who learn to speak two languages at once sound like a native in both tongues. What’s more, they learn to talk at the same speed as kids who learn only a single language.

If children wait until high school to start studying a foreign language, they find that they have to consciously study grammar and sentence structure. They also have to get used to translating everything. A baby can do this naturally. The reason for this is that children who learn two languages simultaneously experience no first-language interference and don’t have to worry about pre-conceived ideas.

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Physically, the brain appears to be more receptive to language learning at a younger age. A child’s brain differs from an adult’s because it is developing so rapidly. In fact, a two-year-old child has twice as many synapses in the brain than an adult. The young brain must use these connections, or lose them. It makes sense to take advantage of this time to give the child as much knowledge as possible. A second language is the most natural and beneficial way to do this.

In addition, when considering the best age at which to start this extra language training, it’s important to remember a very important factor: learning to speak does not begin with the child’s first words, but long before that. Understanding is always one step ahead of talking. Even with adults, if we are learning a foreign language, we find that we can understand what is being said way before we are able to formulate phrases and actually communicate in that language ourselves. With babies, it is generally accepted that their understanding is about six months ahead of their speech. For this reason,  the Baby’s Best Start course from Helen Doron English is designed for infants from as young as 3 months up to 22 months.

Speaking a second language is an important skill for all people, both young and old. It has long been believed that children are better able to learn a second language. In actuality, it is not that children learn language better than adults, but that adults and children learn language differently. By understanding these differences and making adjustments to the learning process, all people can acquire a second language, no matter their age.


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Processing Differences

There are distinct differences in the way an adult brain processes a foreign language when compared to the brain of a child. Dr. Paul Thompson of UCLA used MRI imaging and animation technology to view what parts of the brain adults and children use when learning a second language. What was found is that children use a part of their brain called the “deep motor area.” The “deep motor area” of the brain is responsible for processes that are not consciously thought about, like brushing your teeth or getting dressed. For children, processing a new language is second nature. Adults process language in a more active part of the brain, meaning that they think more consciously about language rather than it being intuitive (See Reference 1).

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Proficiency Differences

One reason that it seems that children acquire a second language quicker than adults is because of the different standards of proficiency between adults and children. Children have a smaller vocabulary and it is easy to learn enough of a second language to communicate their needs. Adults have a much larger vocabulary and think and communicate in more complex ways than children. This means it takes them longer to acquire the ability to communicate effectively in a second language. Although it seems that children learn language quicker than adults, in actuality adults and adolescents have the edge (see Reference 2).

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Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Pronunciation

Another reason that the myth persists that children learn second languages easier than adults is because of the child’s ability to adapt the proper pronunciation of a language. It is true that the younger a child begins to learn a second language, the better their pronunciation. Adults have a more difficult time adapting the pronunciation of a foreign language, and so sound less competent than a child who has the ability to speak a second language with the proper accent (see Reference 2).

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

••• Deborah Reny/iStock/Getty Images

Aging and Learning Ability

Another common misconception is that as people age, their ability to learn new a skill diminishes. In actuality, people do not lose their ability to learn as they age. The only challenges an older learner of a second language faces is the weakening of vision and hearing. The loss of hearing in particular can affect a person’s ability to learn a language in the traditional classroom setting. A healthy, older adult is perfectly capable of learning a second language (see Reference 3).

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Learning Methods

Because children and adults learn differently and use different parts of their brains to process language, they way they are taught a second language should also differ. Exposing children to a second language at home as well as at school is essential to their learning. Singing songs, reading books and repetition of foreign words are all useful tools in helping a child learn a new language. Older learners, especially those with hearing and vision difficulties, may have difficulties learning in a traditional classroom setting. Working with a group that focuses more on understanding the language rather than perfecting pronunciation, and integrates new concepts into the adults preexisting cognitive structures will help the older learner succeed.

Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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References

  • Education: Myths and Misconceptions About Second Language Learning
  • Parents: Bilingual Babies: Teach Your Child A Second Language

Writer Bio

Jamie Malone has always been passionate about writing and decided to pursue the craft professionally in 2009. She was published in the 2010 and 2011 “O’ Cat Literary Magazine.” She is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of California State University, San Marcos as a literature and writing major.

Is the younger the better when it comes to learning a second language?

Experts say that children who learn a language before their teenage years are more likely than older learners to achieve native-like pronunciation. Furthermore, research has found that kids have an innate ability to acquire the rules of any language – an ability that disappears by adulthood.

Who are better l2 learners children or adults?

Adults and adolescents may learn faster in the early stages of second language development (especially if they are learning a language which is similar to their first language) but young children eventually catch up and even surpass them if they are surrounded by the language on a daily basis.

How does the learners age influence second language acquisition?

When examining age on arrival, most studies of both short-term and long-term acquisition find that students arriving between the ages of 8 and 12 are faster in early acquisition of second language skills, and over several years’ time they maintain this advantage over younger arrivals of 4 to 7 years.

What is the best age for second language acquisition?

They concluded that the ability to learn a new language, at least grammatically, is strongest until the age of 18 after which there is a precipitous decline. To become completely fluent, however, learning should start before the age of 10.

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Are younger learners better than older learners in acquiring or learning a second language?

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