Katherine Kerschen and Juliana Cruz Martínez
Children are often perceived to be the heavy hitters when it comes to second language acquisition. Many people think that if you want to learn a second language really well (linguists usually speak of developing “native-like proficiency”), you need to start as a child.1 However, as we’ll see, adults are no lightweights. It is true that child learners are, in general, more likely to reach native-like proficiency than adult learners.2 However, there are a lot of differences between child and adult learners besides just age. For example, many child learners are immersed in an environment where they hear and speak the second language all the time, while adult learners are in a language classroom only a few hours per week. This is a major difference: according to some estimates, you would have to stay in a typical language class for your entire life in order to get the same amount of input as 10 years of immersion experience!3 So what happens if we take a closer look at the learning processes? Who actually performs better? We’ll let the research determine who’s the winner in this match-up—get ready for the blow-by-blow!
Speed of Acquisition. At first glance it may seem like children would be the clear winners of this round. We often think of children like linguistic sponges, absorbing everything they hear. However, research has shown that adults and older children learn more quickly during the beginning stages of acquisition, even if younger children often achieve higher proficiency in the long run.4 Considering that young children often learn via immersion, where they have much more input than adults who learn in classrooms, adults definitely are faster.3 Looks like adults come out ahead in this speed round!
Phonology (Sound). When it comes to learning the sounds of a second language, children have biology in their corner. Research has consistently shown that there is a specific window of opportunity during childhood for developing native-like pronunciation.5 While it is not impossible for an adult learner to sound like a native speaker, it is much more likely if you start learning the second language before you hit puberty, or even better before age six.6 Round 2 to the kids!
Grammar. Grammar refers to the sets of rules that tell us how to put words together in a sentence. Many studies have found an advantage for kids in this domain, just like for phonology. People who start learning a second language before puberty are more likely to achieve native-like grammatical proficiency.5,6 The adults seem to be on the ropes! However, they come back swinging when we focus on second language learning in the classroom instead of via immersion. In this context, adults learn grammar just as well as children, and they even learn faster.7 Looks like Round 3 is a tie!
Vocabulary. Kids come out swinging in this round with one obvious advantage: the earlier you begin learning a second language, the more time you have to accumulate knowledge of words through reading and listening. However, research has shown that adult learners can also achieve vocabulary knowledge that is similar to native speakers, especially if they have a lot of contact with native speakers of their second language.8 Children seem to be better at implicitly learning subtle patterns about which words can be used together in certain contexts,5 but adults can recall more vocabulary words than children after a short amount of instruction in the second language.7 Another tie!
Pragmatics (Meaning in Conversation). Pragmatics is about the use of language in social interaction. Pragmatic competence refers to the ability to use language to convey meanings in conversation, and to interpret another speaker’s intentions. One crucial factor for pragmatic competence is “Theory of Mind,” which is the ability to understand that desires, emotions and beliefs can impact behavior, and that another person’s beliefs may not be the same as one’s own.9 This ability doesn’t fully develop until late childhood,10 which means that when children learn a second language they have to grapple with new pragmatic conventions in the second language when they haven’t even mastered this ability in their native language yet.11 Adults, on the other hand, can rely on their experience in their native language as they learn which aspects of pragmatics they need to pay the most attention to in their new language.12 Adults definitely beat kids to the punch here! Round 5 to the adults!
Effects on the Brain. For decades, many researchers argued that children were better than adults at learning languages because the brain is more adaptable pre-puberty. During this “critical period” different areas of the brain are becoming specialized for different tasks, including language.13 This means that if you learn a second language as a child, your brain can change and adapt, which helps you become a native-like speaker of the second language. Previously, researchers assumed that adult brains didn’t have this adaptability, but recent research has shown that adult second language learning can actually lead to changes in the function and structure of the brain. In fact, these changes can occur even after only a few months of learning a second language!14 The amount of change seems to be somewhat greater in children, but we’re still going to call this slugfest a tie.
And it’s a tie!!
Learning a second language as an adult is certainly different than learning one as a child, and the outcomes may not be identical for all aspects of language, but overall, adults can be just as good of second language learners as children.
- Lightbown, P. (2008). Easy as pie? Children learning languages. Concordia Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 1, 5-29.
- Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). The robustness of aptitude effects in near-native second language acquisition. Studies in second language acquisition, 30(4), 481-509.
- Muñoz, C. (2008). Age-related differences in foreign language learning. Revisiting the empirical evidence. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 46(3), 197-220.
- Krashen, S. D., Long, M. A., & Scarcella, R. C. (1979). Age, rate and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly 13(4), 573-582.
- Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2012). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research, 29(3), 311-343.
- Long, M. H. (1990). Maturational constraints on language development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12, 251-285.
- Lichtman, K. (2016). Age and learning environment: Are children implicit second language learners?. Journal of Child Language, 43(3), 707-730.
- Hellman, A. B. (2011). Vocabulary size and depth of word knowledge in adult‐onset second language acquisition. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 21(2), 162-182.
- Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 1(4), 515-526.
- Zufferey, S. (2010). Lexical pragmatics and theory of mind: the acquisition of connectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Kasper, G., & Schmidt, R. (1996). Developmental issues in interlanguage pragmatics. Studies in second language acquisition, 18(2), 149-169.
- Bialystok, E. (1993) Symbolic representation and attentional control in pragmatic competence. In G. Kasper & S. Blum-Kulka (Eds.), Interlanguage pragmatics (pp. 43-59). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.
- Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. A. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: anatomical changes in the human brain. Cortex, 58, 301-324.