It’s a common parental lament: “I should have made sure my child learned a language when they were really young — it’s so much easier at that age.” We hear this sentiment expressed quite often, but is it really true? Let’s dive into the evidence on this topic and separate fact from fiction.
The Critical Period Hypothesis
The “critical period” hypothesis states that, essentially, children make better language learners than adults. In other words, it asserts that there is a critical period in an individual’s life in which second languages should be studied for quicker and superior results. Linguist and neurologist Eric Lenneberg, one of the key proponents of this hypothesis, said language learning should take place between the age of 2 and puberty for the highest degree of success and the least amount of conscious effort. Lenneberg bases this age cutoff on the completion of the brain’s lateralization process, which is when we start using the proper brain hemisphere for specific skills (the left hemisphere is for language).
There is some truth to portions of the critical period hypothesis, but arguably not enough for the claim to stand on its own as an overarching rule about age and language learning. Here’s what we can say based on various studies and expert opinions:
- Children tend to be better than adults at mastering the pronunciation of a second language.
- Adolescents may have more social incentives for learning another language, like interacting with kids who have a different native tongue.
Despite the points noted above, the “Critical Period Hypothesis” is largely considered to be flawed at best. Many researchers say the foundations of the hypothesis itself are incorrect or misleading, and the results of other studies contradict its claims. Here’s what some of these studies have found:
- Adults tend to be better than children at mastering grammatical concepts when learning a second language.
- Adults can learn a second language faster than adolescents, and older kids can learn faster than younger kids.
- Although claims have been made to the contrary, children are more likely than adults to be shy and embarrassed about making mistakes in a foreign language.
- The nature of the learning environment and how the student is learning is of equal or greater importance than their age.