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Do children learn a language faster than adults? Let’s debunk a few myths.

While it’s true that children learn like sponges and are like blank canvas, there are a few things to consider before we assume that they always retain a language faster than adults. It depends a lot on how we teach children a new language or how they understand it. Not to mention we all have different learning styles, no matter how old we are. What differs is that we may develop skills that facilitate our learning process over time.

Undoubtedly, children have a better time absorbing the correct pronunciation of foreign words than adults; however, it’s also true that they need a smaller vocabulary to communicate. Adults have more comprehensive speech and feel the need to do the same in the new language. As a result, it will take them longer to learn a language. Not because they are slow, but because adults’ needs are different. All you can do to help is allow yourself some vulnerability to use a lower range of vocabulary and make mistakes. After all, you need to start at one point. You need to communicate. And if the communication only means asking for directions and ordering food and drinks in a bar abroad, may it be. Pat yourself on the shoulder for doing so. Please, check: Here’s how feeling vulnerable can help you learn a language. Don’t forget to talk to your peers, and you will see they experience the same odd feelings you do.

The six main points you need to know:

  • Children learn more intuitively and use a different part of the brain to retain the language, called the ‘deep motor area,’ which is responsible for the intuitive learning process. Nevertheless, children learn better by being exposed to the new language as much as they possibly can. They retain a new language faster than adults when they live amongst native speakers. They absorb the local pronunciation with authenticity, learn phrases, expressions, and communicate without fear and self-judgement.
  • Having said the above, children make mistakes when learning a new language, even amongst native speakers. Of course! Don’t they make mistakes in their own language? Don’t they emulate other children’s mistakes who are native of the language they are learning? It’s natural, and they don’t get phased! 
  • Unlike adults, a child will not be too hard on themselves if they make mistakes—neither in the foreign language nor in their native language. However, children may also get frustrated when they learn a new language in a classroom environment, no matter how they are learning or how much fun they are having. Comparison and competition always set in, as some kids will have more abilities than others. It’s human nature. A once-a-week session may not be enough for some. They will need their parents’ support at home to expose them to songs in their target language, activity sheets, games etc., provided by their tutor.
  • Adults may lose part of their hearing and sight over time, but not their ability to learn. Their memories may be weaker because they have a lot in their minds. Therefore, they need a better plan. They need a little more dedication and independent time when studying. They need tips to retain vocabulary. And yes, they have the skills to find resources that will help them learn better than children. As an adult, you will find your learning style and work on it. It would help if you let your tutor know how you learn. For example, if you know that listening comprehension is not your strong point, ask for more videos that will eventually build up to ‘better ears’ (or improve your listening). Find ways to associate words to others in your language to remember vocabulary, and ask your tutor for association activities that help you connect words to phrases and sentences. Check my: Eight tips for remembering vocabulary in a new language without the brain fog. Also: Words in association to help you learn a language.
  • Adults can concentrate for longer than children. Studies say children’s concentration matches their age in minutes. So, if a child is six years old, they can focus for 6 minutes. You will need to get your child very motivated for them to concentrate for longer. As an adult, you can focus for a lot longer, unless you have that ‘something in your mind.’
  • You have a goal, a reason to learn, unlike children. They want fun; you want purpose. You need a purpose to learn a language. That’s your motivation. Keep reminding yourself why you decided to invest in your learning journey in the first place.

All in all, I want you to debunk these myths and stop saying you can’t learn a new language as an adult. You can! Of course, it may not be for you, and other adults might have more language talents than you. Or you may not be as motivated as somebody else. Maybe it’s not good timing, but you will learn it in different circumstances. Above all, don’t compare yourself to anyone else’s abilities to retain a language. I know it’s easier said than done, but usually, it’s not about comparing yourself with others. Perhaps, it has a lot more to do with the procrastination of doing what you need to get the most of your learning. So, give it a try!

Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

Articles used for research:

The Positive & Negative Effects of Learning a Foreign Language (theclassroom.com)

Why do children learn foreign languages so quickly? – Scientific Scribbles (unimelb.edu.au)

 Motor Learning – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics