It doesn’t seem fair. You struggle for years trying to learn a new language while a child can come back from a summer in another country having completely mastered it. Children are built for language learning. But the older they get, the more difficult it becomes. So when does it get to be too late?
We don’t know the answer to that, but encouragingly, that means the answer could be — never! We do know that for full, accentless fluency, it’s better to start at a younger age, but plenty of people who begin a language well into adulthood are able to achieve a very high level of fluency.
A recent study using data from more than half a million people found that English-learners who had the most native-like mastery of the language had started learning English before the age of 18. After that age, the ability to gain perfect fluency declines. However, many of the participants in the study who had started later had achieved nearly perfect fluency.
What does “fluent” really mean?
If “fluent” means “indistinguishable from a native speaker,” then the window of achievement does seem to close at adulthood. But if it means “able to easily conduct all the business of daily life” even at a very high level, the window of possibility stays open.
Len Rix, an award-winning literary translator of Hungarian into English, spoke no Hungarian until he began to study it at 47 years old. He overheard a Hungarian friend speaking the language on the phone and was so captivated by the sound of it, he decided he had to learn it.
He learned the language through books, tapes, and flash cards, and later, speaking with friends. He developed his skills further by immersing himself in translation projects. He didn’t pick it up easily. His passion for the language inspired him to put in the difficult, necessary hours to become fluent.
The reason that children are better than adults at learning languages may not be solely due to their young brains, but also to other restrictions that go along with getting older. Adults get busy with other things that make it hard for them to recreate the conditions that children learn under: lots of time to be totally immersed and surrounded by a language, and the motivation to use it out of necessity.
In addition, as you go through life, you accumulate knowledge and authority that can make you more reluctant to sound stupid or give up that authority. Speaking in a language that you don’t know well is a crucial part of learning it, but it requires you to be comfortable with making mistakes.
Of course, children seem to easily acquire language, but they don’t go from 0 to literary translation in a short time, or even in years. Adults have language competency that it takes children a long time to acquire.
Naturally, when adults learn a language, they want to be able to express themselves at the same level of complexity they are accustomed to. Younger learners aren’t as hampered by that desire. They meet the language one practical task at a time: asking for a glass of water, introducing themselves, describing the pet they’d like to have.
Older adults who become fluent in new languages are able to find a way to overcome the restrictions that come with age, which are not biological or insurmountable. They figure out how to be surrounded by the language and motivated to use it. They overcome their reluctance to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. It doesn’t come easily, but it’s not age alone that makes it hard.