Do Children Learn Languages Better than Adults

It is a common belief that children learn languages faster than adults. The fact is supported by science and research. Children are amazingly effective language learners while adults are considered to be poor learners. We have also heard that children are blessed with the ability to absorb everything and learn fast so that they can master a language in a fraction of the time an adult can.


According to a study conducted by MIT, learning a language before the age of 18 increases your chances of obtaining a native-like mastery of the grammar part of the language. The study also affirms that adults of any age can achieve great mastery over a language nearly as quickly as children.


Let's look at some factors that answer the question as to why children learn faster than adults.


Environmental Advantages


Children enjoy environmental advantages while learning a language. There is no formal instruction for very young children as there is for adults and older children. Learning takes place by immersion in multilingual environments. They learn the language by passively absorbing it through contact. Formal instruction is mainly through games and songs, not verb conjugation and exams.


Another fact is that the lives of children are quite different from those of adults. Children, especially those who are not yet in school, have virtually no responsibilities in life, and so they have the time and energy to spend hours playing, experimenting, and absorbing as much information as they can from their surroundings. They learn the language they are exposed to, for communication and survival. On the other hand, adults are entrusted with numerous responsibilities concerning their jobs, families, health, and much more.


Psychological Obstacles


Children and adults learn languages by different methods. How well those methods cooperate with the way the brain naturally learns and imbibes new information is also different.


Children learn a language through context, in a natural manner. They learn words by seeing and hearing them over and over in specific situations by which they naturally connect the word to its appropriate meaning. Children do not have too many inhibitions. They are comfortable making mistakes and sounding foolish. Instead of stopping learning or crying about it, they adjust their understanding of the language and keep on experimenting, making language learning much easier. Thus children can do better in immersive learning. Adults become anxious when they make mistakes.


Adults can also master a language by drawing connections between concepts naturally, through gradual, continuous exposure.


Limiting Beliefs


Children are subjected to a much lower standard of language competence than adults. Before entering school, you learn a  language in a positive emotional environment, where there are no tests or grades, due to which there is less pressure. There is no one to judge you when you use the wrong grammar. Rather, your communication is fostered.


When adults learn a language, their learning style is similar to that enforced in school and at university. As a result, several limiting beliefs come into play. There is the fear of judgement, or a feeling of shame or resistance to interaction, thinking that you will make mistakes or mess it up. As a result, you may avoid speaking the language or hold yourself back and postpone it to some other day. These doubts and limiting beliefs slow down the learning process in adults.


A child uses their mother tongue to cooperate, play, and communicate, and so do not have any limiting beliefs. Since children are not judged the way adults are, they do not receive or give themselves negative feedback when they commit mistakes.


An adult language learner, through trial and error and experience, can become proficient, proactive, and fearless learners and learn to use the language in all possible situations and environments.


Advantage of Choice


For adults, learning a language is not essential. They have the choice to learn as much as they need, while a child does not have that choice. Hence, children are compelled naturally to learn more effectively.


Advantage of Time


To reach fluency in a language, a huge amount of time is needed.


Children get to spend plenty of hours immersed in the language that they are learning. By the time they turn eighteen, it accounts for an enormous amount of time, when compared to the number of hours needed to reach fluency. So children need only a small fraction of the time needed by adults to attain fluency.


Cognitive Advantage


Babies and young children have elastic brains and their neural connections are formed at a rapid pace. The neural pathways that are regularly used are reinforced as the brain develops. This is the reason why those who learn a language at a young age have the accent of native speakers.


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