Now entering the fourth week of my year without English, I’ve seen a lot of different advice for learning languages. Some people believe in huge amounts of listening and reading. Others say take classes or dive into conversations immediately.
I won’t comment on those strategies (yet), but I will point out one common suggestion: you should learn a second language the way you learned your first language as a child.
On the surface this seems plausible. After all, you learned to speak without needing to rehearse grammatical rules or drill vocabulary flashcards. You can also speak without an accent—an extremely difficult goal for most adult language learners.
It would seem like modelling the language learning habits of children isn’t a bad idea. After all, if they can learn a language nearly perfectly, why shouldn’t adults simply copy their approach?
The answer lies with how the brain changes as we get older and why learning languages as an adult is very different than as a child.
Accent and Arrival Date
Living in Canada, I’ve had the opportunity to make friends from all over the world. I would guess that about half of my close friends have immigrated to Canada at some point in their lives.
Aside from those who have immigrated rather recently, most of my friends can speak English fluently. However, I can usually tell at what age they moved to Canada by one feature alone: their accent.
My friends who immigrated before the age of 12-14 can usually speak English without any recognizable accent. They speak English as well as I do and I wouldn’t be able to guess whether they spent their entire life in Canada, without asking first.
Those who came older than 14 usually have an accent, even if it doesn’t impede their speech noticeably. In some cases, a slightly older sibling may speak with an accent while a younger sibling doesn’t—the timing is that precise.
It turns out there is research to support why my friends who immigrated younger learned English sans accent, while my friends who came even a short time later did not. To understand the difference, you have to look at how the brain develops.
Learning Critical Periods
As you go from infant to adult, different regions of your brain go through critical periods. These are periods where the wiring of the brain is being still being laid down and when there is greater flexibility.
A clear case of this is with vision. Some unfortunate children are born with cataracts which blocks light onto their retinas. Nothing else is wrong with their visual system. If the cataracts are removed early, the child will likely grow up to experience normal vision.
If, however, the cataracts are removed too late (after about the age of 3-4) normal vision does not develop. There is nothing wrong with the child’s eyes or optic nerve, but the brain can’t process the visual stimulus correctly. (Learning and Memory, 2007)
Language learning also has a critical period. Although, unlike vision, it is possible to learn a language as an adult if you missed the opportunity as a child.
The critical period seems to be until around puberty. During this critical period, the brain can flexibly adapt to different phonemes and syntactical structures in a new language, learning them as you learned your first language.
Yes, You Can Learn a Language as an Adult
Some people take this information about critical periods as a justification for why they can’t learn a language as an adult. While the critical period does exist, in many ways it is easier to learn a language as an adult (as long as your goal isn’t perfect, accentless speech).
Instead, I believe the correct interpretation isn’t that language learning as an adult is impossible, or even more difficult, but that it is different. The methods you used to learn your first language may not work on your second, because your brain is different.
In principle, learning a second language as an adult should be a far easier task than learning a first language as a child. You’re smarter than you were as a child. You have experience, motivation and discipline. You also have your first language which gives you a reference point to learn from.
One of the simplest advantages you have as an adult learner is the ability to translate. I was able to learn Spanish much faster because I had already learned English and French. I could make direct translations between the three and use that to understand and figure out how Spanish works. A child learning Spanish as his first language has to abstract meaning out of noise—a considerably harder task.
Learning as an adult also has the benefit of motivation. I did twice weekly French classes starting around age 10 (already close to the end of the critical period) for about four years in Canada. But, I had no meaningful use for French so I found it boring and forgot almost everything. When I restarted my French years later, I had to relearn basics like, “How are you?”
The only place I’d give children the edge seems to be accent. That strict 12-14 cutoff point of my friends who have accents holds fairly consistently. I don’t think it’s impossible to speak without any accent, but that getting to perfection is vastly harder for adults.
Why I Won’t Force My Future Children to Learn French or Mandarin
Some overbearing parents, observing this cutoff point in language learning, want to make their children bilingual or trilingual, in languages they themselves don’t speak.
If I marry into, or end up living in, another culture, I think raising bilingual children is great. I would want my children to be fluent in English, regardless of where I choose to live, so I would expect the same if my future spouse had a different first language.
However, I don’t see the cutoff point as being sufficient justification to teach my children languages simply in the hope that they will find it useful as adults.
In Canada we have a program intended to teach French in this way, called French Immersion. While I have many friends who speak French well after twelve years of complete schooling in French, I’ve yet to find one that I could say speaks perfect, accentless French, the way my friends who immigrated to Canada before the cutoff point do.
Even in bilingual households, I’ve anecdotally observed that many of those children speak the language of their peers better than the language of their parents. It seems that raising truly bilingual children, who are equally and perfectly fluent in both languages, is hard.
Instead of force feeding my future children a language they have no connection to, I’d prefer to see them travel and learn a language as an adult. Sure, they might not reduce all traces of their accent, but they will end up having something more meaningful as a result.