Published 12th January 2017

No doubt about it, there is a huge difference between learning a language when you are young and learning a language when you are old. Even in non-scientific terms, from personal experience you probably know this. Scientifically there are a few theories which support the effects of age on learning, such as the Critical Period Hypothesis which claims that if you learn a second language as an adult you will most likely never achieve a native-like accent which you can if you learn it as a child.

But what exactly is it that makes learning a language as an adult more difficult?

Our brains are different

The first obvious difference between adults and children is that our brains are more developed. While that may sound like it should benefit adults, surprisingly it doesn’t. When you are younger, you learn languages more naturally, without much effort, so speaking the language comes more naturally. As adults, we focus more on the nitty gritty of learning of the language so it can be more difficult for us to put the rules of the language into practice. We are naturally problem-solvers so we try to learn a language like a jigsaw puzzle, while children pick up language without thinking too much about the details.

We treat language as an object rather than a skill

The differences then extend to how we approach learning languages. As adults, we tend to treat languages as new subjects, like History or Geography, which means that we try to learn them like we would a bunch of facts or statistics. The problem with this is that though it may help you learn vocabulary, it won’t necessarily help you speak fluently because you will spend a lot of time trying to think about rules rather than just getting used to using them naturally.

We have more interference

Then, on a more general level, adults have more to deal with in their minds than children do. As adults we have learned more than children have (simply because we have been alive longer) and so there is always some knowledge trying to interfere with learning new information. This means that there is more chance of adults getting interference from other languages.

Also, adults have more to deal with in life than children. Learning a language can be more difficult when you have to also consider your job, your family and the million other responsibilities that you have. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to learn.

Having said all this, it is certainly not impossible to learn a new language when you are an adult. Adults are very capable and effective language learners because they are different – what may seem like disadvantages can work to our advantage as well. So don’t give up hope in your adult language learners, they just need to do things a bit differently.