When it comes to learning a foreign language, we tend to think that children are the most adept. But that may not be the case – and there are added benefits to starting as an adult.
“Not everything goes downhill with age,” says Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Centre at the University of Edinburgh.
She gives the example of what is known as ‘explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules. “Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities,” Sorace says. “Adults are much better at that. So that can be something that improves with age.”
A study by researchers in Israel found, for example, that adults were better at grasping an artificial language rule and applying it to new words in a lab setting. The scientists compared three separate groups: 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and young adults. The adults scored higher than both younger groups, and the 12-year-olds also did better than the younger children.
This chimed with the results of a long-term study of almost 2,000 Catalan-Spanish bilingual learners of English: the late starters acquired the new language faster than the younger starters.