Growing up in a Latino-American household, learning two languages was almost a natural process for me; I practiced my English at my elementary school and with my parents at home, while simultaneously utilizing my ever-growing Spanish language skills with my grandma the frequent times she would come visit me from New York. But very recently, I have tried to expand my arsenal of languages by trying to study Portuguese, yet, after hours of laborious work, I feel like I have come to no avail; I cannot retain the material! Even considering the fact that Spanish and Portuguese are probably one of the most similar languages on the planet, I still cannot seem to learn even the basics.
Why is that? Is there a certain age that makes it nearly impossible for the acquirement of a new language, and if so, what age? Do babies and young children have it easier than adults when attempting to absorb new material, or is this just a common myth that has been floating around for years? And are certain languages harder or easier to learn than others, or do they all hold the same difficulty?
*I hypothesize that languages become increasingly difficult to learn the older the person that is trying to learn them is; in other words, babies and young children most definitely absorb new material, and in this case, a new language, at faster rates than any other age group.
Coming to America With Little English
One of the hardest languages to learn, believe it or not, is English! When my grandma immigrated from Ecuador to America at the age of 18, she was forced to become accustomed to American traditions and cultures, and among those came the daunting task of learning their language. What did this mean for her? This meant that she would spend countless ours taking English language classes and slaving over the differences between “their”, “there” and “they’re.” Whether we recognize it or not, English has more complications and complexities than many other languages. Don’t believe me? Think about it. Think of all the different grammatical errors that could be in any one given sentence, all the capitalization and pronoun rules, antecedent and predicate rules, etc. We have been groomed since a young age to think less and less of the difficulty that is the English language, but to outsiders, it becomes nearly impossible to learn. As a matter of fact, the difficulty of learning English has become so obvious to society that many have taken it into their hands to prove it, such as this YouTube Channel’s video where they attempt to simulate what English sound like to non-natives:
So, why is learning English so hard? Well according the article here by the Oxford Royale Academy, its because there is no rhyme or reason to our language! They used clever examples such as there being no ham in a hamburger, or questioning that if a vegetarian eats vegetables, why doesn’t a humanitarian eat humans. In addition, there are varying amounts of “rules” in the English language, and whats more is that there are even more exceptions to those rules. Finally, there are specific portions of our language that non-natives have trouble understanding, such as adding emphasis on certain words over others, and even idioms and homophones.
Without a doubt, English has definitely proven to be one of the hardest languages out there!
Statistics Behind it All:
Guess what? To my surprise, my hypothesis was wrong (I am surprised because I am never wrong)! After doing tons of research looking for articles supporting that children are better at learning foreign languages than adults, I found nothing; instead, I found a plethora of articles supporting the exact opposite of what I thought: Adults actually have the abilities to learn new languages better than their younger competitors. Why is that so?
According to Anne Merritt and her piece Are Children Really Better at Foreign Language Learning, it is a complete myth that children learn languages easier and faster than the average adult; it only seems that children learn them easier. She claims that researchers in linguistics have done studies that prove adults are better than children in learning new languages because of many reasons, a critical one because adults already have preexisting knowledge, wisdom, and experience with languages. Unlike children, who basically start from scratch, adults already know what to expect and how to overcome certain barriers in their quest to conquer a foreign tongue. Babies and children lack the perception needed to seriously engage in studying and learning, and this difference is critical and an essential portion of language learning. Finally, the only thing children have that adults do not is the attitude and motivation to learn something new; unlike adults, who might be scared to make mistakes in front of others and be criticized, children do not mind, or even notice, any criticism. Thus, the chart above might look like younger children have it easier, but it is not because of any brain wiring or ability to absorb easier than adults. Essentially, if adults had the same attitudes as the children, they would learn much better and quicker.
Furthermore, in the paper of a fellow college student all the way in the University of California, Santa Cruz (Barry McLaughlin), he provides studies that have shown this phenomenon to be true, as well. He debunks something called the “critical period hypothesis”; essentially, it states that a child learns quicker and absorbs easier because of the flexibility that their brains have. Supposedly, researchers have said that there in insufficient evidence to support this claim, and that instead of biological factors playing a central role in language learning, it is actually social and psychological factors that are critical.
In one of the studies McLaughlin mentioned in his writing, there were 17,000 students from England who were attempting to learn French, but out of those kids who spent their time studying French, the ones that were eleven years old performed better and absorbed more material than those that were eight years old. At the end, it was concluded that the older students were better learners of foreign languages. This same experiment might possibly be applied to that of children and adults; just because you are younger does not necessarily mean that you are better.
Important thoughts about the study above:
- Would different results have occurred if it was a language other than French being studied?
- This was a study conducted nearly 50 years ago; different variables and factors might effect the children of today.
- Potential confounding variables might be at play.
- Did chance play a substantial role in the experiment, or was it small enough to be considered insignificant?
- Was there a correlation between the language (French) and the ages the children were; in other words, is it possible that French is an easier language to be learned at a younger age than, say, for example, Japanese?
My Final Conclusions and Deductions:
- Simply because you possess a younger age does not necessarily mean that you are more keen to learning new material, and, in this case, a new language.
- The only reason that children might actually learn better than adults is because of their motivation to grasp it and their attitude to strive to be better.
- Children often have more free time than adults, so I definitely believe that that could be main factor for why it appears that they pick up languages easier; unlike adults who are forced to work and have daily obligations, children have a more lackadaisical lifestyle and can afford to try out new things and dedicate themselves to a greater extent.
- If you are attempting to learn a new language, do not be discouraged of making mistakes; it is a natural process of getting better, so don’t give up! There goes the old saying “Practice makes perfect.”
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