Here's when it gets more difficult to learn a new language, according to science
- Language learning is often said to be easy for children and get more difficult over time.
- It's true that from infancy to age 5, children's brains are primed to learn language.
- Though it may get increasingly challenging to learn a new language as we age, the benefits of learning a language at any age are well worth your time.
Perhaps you've toyed with the idea of learning a second or third language. But as an adult, is learning a new language too monumental of a task to undertake?
Let's look at what we know about language development. Early childhood - infancy until age 5 - is a particularly sensitive period when children's brains are primed to learn language.
According to Thomas Bak, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, children first learn sounds, and then acquire the basic rules of grammar. Then comes vocabulary, which continues to accumulate throughout life. (Microbiome, microagression, net neutrality, safe space, and Seussian are just a few of the 1000 new words that Merriam-Webster added in 2017.)
From birth through puberty, children learn language rapidly and efficiently due to their natural brain plasticity and cognitive flexibility. After puberty, however, language acquisition becomes progressively more difficult, and our ability to learn new languages steadily declines.
There's some individual variability in the age of this decline, Bak says, due to natural ability. But a slight decline does occur in all people at some point, whether it be in their 20s or 30s.
Nienke Meulman, who has published research on age and grammar acquisition effects on the brain, says the adage,"'The later, the harder' is definitely true, but there is no clear cut-off age." Even for late learners it is possible to become proficient in a second language, Meulman says.
Bak, who has conducted research on language and aging, tells Business Insider, "the thing which is most difficult to learn as we age is ... sounds." So while you may become more proficient in speaking and communicating in a second language other than your native language, if it's learned after puberty you won't ever speak with a local accent.
"Very often people are completely focused on the idea to sound like a local, but this is in fact the most difficult aspect," Bak says. While your pronunciation of a language will sound best if you learn it early, building your vocabulary and communicating well in a different language is attainable at any age.
Though it may get more difficult, the benefits of learning a new language are immense.
"Difficult is not a bad thing," Bak says. He compares language use to physical activity, where it may be more difficult to achieve physical health as you age, but the more you work out, the better off you are. And just as the benefits of exercise become more crucial as we age, so too do the cognitive benefits.
Because GPS and smartphones can do so much of our thinking for us, our mental acuity can suffer, especially as we age.
"It's not about making things easy, it's about making things worthwhile," says Bak. And his research supports the notion of how worthwhile language learning can be in later life, and that we can indeed learn all our life.
He tells the story of a woman he met when she was 92. With very little prior foreign language knowledge, she had began studying Russian at the age of 56. At age 75, she went on to write her Ph.D. thesis about Russian poets, and now at age 92 is one of the most acclaimed translators of Russian poetry into English.
"My main message is that it's never too late," says Bak. "The main message is about empowerment."
Instead of aging being a time of decline and loss, we can thrive and grow. "Being old does not mean that we cannot learn new things."