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Are you too old to learn English? What is the best age to start learning? And why does it get more difficult for adults to learn a new language? Let’s take a deeper look at these questions today.

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  • Native speakers: People who have spoken a particular language from birth or childhood and are considered fluent and natural in that language.
    • Mandarin is the language with the most native speakers.
  • Fluency: The ability to speak or write a language smoothly, accurately, and with ease.
    • After years of study, she reached a high level of fluency in Spanish.
  • Intricacies: The complex and detailed parts or aspects of something.
    • The intricacies of English grammar can be confusing.
  • Neural plasticity: The brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize its structure and function.
    • Children have a greater deal of neural plasticity.
  • Language immersion: The complete involvement in a language and culture for the purpose of learning.
    • After a year of language immersion in the UK, I really noticed improvements in my English.
  • Multilingual: The ability to speak and understand multiple languages.
    • India is a multilingual country.
  • Cognitive decline: The gradual loss of cognitive abilities, often associated with aging.
    • Language learning can help prevent some of the effects of cognitive decline.

What Age is Best to Learn English?

A few years ago, a paper published in the journal Cognition went viral across the media. From the BBC to the Guardian newspaper, articles were written claiming that adults cannot become fluent in foreign languages.

Now, this was not exactly what the paper in the journal was claiming, but they did have some really interesting findings.

That paper, titled, A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition, was not interested in the possibility of becoming fluent in a second language as an adult.

This is because anyone, at any age, can become fluent in a second language. You can always learn how to communicate in another language.

Instead, the researchers were interested in why adults can’t seem to master foreign languages completely, in the same way native speakers use the language.

There is a difference between fluency in English and native like mastery of the language. Fluency is based on your ability to communicate. If you can have a detailed conversation with a native English speaker, and both you and your conversation partner can understand everything, you are reasonably fluent.

This doesn’t mean you are a perfect speaker. Many fluent speakers of English still make mistakes native speakers would never make, perhaps using the wrong term to describe something, using an unnatural sounding phrase, or using grammar incorrectly.

These things don’t mean you are not fluent, but they mean you don’t have native level proficiency.

This is what the researchers writing in the Cognition Journal were interested in. The inability of adult language learners to become native like in their language skills.

Why can an 11 year old move country, learn a new language, and be able to sound like a native? But a 30 year old will always sound like a non native speaker, even if they have a very high level of proficiency.

The key finding in the research was that depending on the age you start learning a language, your ability to master certain parts of grammar changes.

Critical Windows and Periods!

Many of you have probably heard about the critical period or window hypothesis, which suggests that children have a unique advantage when it comes to language acquisition.

Young children seem to absorb languages better than adults and effortlessly, often becoming bilingual or even multilingual without much formal instruction.

This phenomenon has led to the belief that there’s an ideal age for language learning. And if you miss that window, you’re out of luck.

Now, the first thing I want to say is that you’re not out of luck.

In fact, research has shown that if you take people of different ages… Ask them to learn a language, and give them the same amount of time, resources, and instructions, the adults always learn quicker.

In fact, it takes children decades to become proficient and advanced speakers of their own language, yet adults can often become proficient speakers of a foreign language in just a few years.

So, it is not true that after the critical window, you can never become fluent.

But, what seems to be true is that you may never be able to fully master the grammar.

Over the past four or five years, I have spoken with hundreds, maybe even thousands of non-native English speakers. I’ve had incredible, deep and complex conversations with incredibly intelligent people.

Despite the advanced vocabulary and complicated sentence structures being used, I’ve noticed that some of the simplest English grammar seems to be the hardest for people to learn or use correctly.

I have two good examples of this.

First, many people seem to struggle with the difference between a and the, despite it being one of the first things you learn in a grammar textbook.

This is a difference between indefinite and definite articles, something that isn’t present in every language, and seems to cause people issues.

Second, I have so many conversations with people who struggle with pronouns like he and she or us and we. The way English distinguishes between genders, identities and plurals can puzzle people.

It seems that if you begin learning the language within the critical window, basically before the age of 17, but ideally younger, you are able to master these language and grammar structures. But as adults, we will keep struggling.

It is not something to be sad about, right? This is the case for every single person around the world trying to learn a new language as an adult.

The answer to the question, Are you too old to learn English? Which is the reason you’re probably all listening to this episode, is yes and no.

Yes, most of you listening are probably too old to reach native English fluency, master the full intricacies of English grammar and speak with the perfect accent.

And no, you’re not too old to become fluent communicators in the language. You can all reach really high levels of fluency, be able to express complex ideas in English, and build a vocabulary better than many native speakers.

You are all able to become fluent speakers.

Why is it Harder to Learn Languages as You Get Older?

Why do adults struggle to master grammar, but children can do it to a native like level?

There is no definite answer. And linguists and scientists are still debating various different theories.

The critical window hypothesis I mentioned before tends to look at biological reasons. The suggestion is that children’s brains are simply better at learning. And as children get older, the brain kind of turns off this ability to learn.

Children do have more neuroplasticity, which means their brains are exceptionally adaptable and open to new information. This makes it easier for them to acquire new languages effortlessly.

Adult brains are thought to become less adaptable and less open to language learning, meaning that we require a greater degree of effort.

Another theory is that as you increase your proficiency in your own native language, it interferes with your ability to learn another language. As adults, we have well established language patterns in our native tongue.

These patterns can interfere when learning a new language, leading to interference errors. Where elements of one language unintentionally creep into the other.

Children don’t really have these patterns to the same extent.

Another big reason it becomes harder to learn languages as an adult is due to social changes. Research suggests that at around the age of 18, it becomes much more difficult to learn new languages perfectly.

What else happens at the age of 18?

You finish school, you go to university, you get a job, you have to pay rent, you have to pay taxes, your entire existence changes. You no longer have the freedom, time, space, and opportunities to learn all the time.

However, it is important to remember that it is not impossible to learn a language as an adult.

It is possible.

While research suggests that your ability to master grammar might change, your ability to learn new vocabulary doesn’t. And you can become fluent and highly proficient at any age.

You just may never get the perfect British accent or be able to use a or the in the way I can.

Benefits to Learning a Language Later in Life

In fact, you should keep learning languages as an adult. There are so many benefits to learning English or any other language.

Learning a language challenges your brain and keeps it sharp. Research has shown that bilingual or multilingual individuals often have better problem solving skills and a reduced risk of cognitive decline.

By learning a language, you gain access to cultural knowledge and insight. You can better understand the customs, traditions, literature, and history of the communities that speak that language.

Learning a new language allows you to connect with a broader range of people. As an adult, you may have international colleagues, friends or family members with whom you’d like to communicate more effectively. Learning their language not only improves communication, but also improves your relationships.

Travelling becomes a more immersive and rewarding experience when you can communicate with locals in their native language.

In today’s globalised world, many employers value employees who are multilingual. Learning a language can enhance your career prospects and open up opportunities for international assignments or collaborations.

Learning a language is a journey of personal growth. It teaches patience, perseverance, and the ability to embrace challenges. Overcoming these challenges can boost your self esteem and confidence.

Language learning is also a lifelong process. It encourages you to stay curious and engaged throughout your life.

Mastering a new language, especially as an adult, is a significant achievement. It demonstrates that age is not a barrier to acquiring new skills and broadening your horizons.

Immersion is the Key!

Now, I’ve talked about the theories behind language learning and age, discussed why it gets harder to learn as you get older, and mentioned a few of the many benefits of learning English as an adult.

But how can you best study?

I’ve talked about a lot of approaches in the past. Set good goals, practice speaking as much as possible, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, seek immediate feedback, and more.

Go and listen to my previous episodes on these topics if you’re interested.

In the journal article I mentioned earlier, they did discover something interesting that could suggest how you learn English is more important than when you learn English.

The experiment they conducted involved hundreds of thousands of people taking an online English quiz and answering some questions about their language learning experiences.

It turned out… that people who lived in English speaking countries and learned through immersion were far better than learners who studied in the classroom.

Immersion in the language helped people to reach those higher native like levels. In fact, one of the researchers went as far to say, given the choice between learning as a child in the classroom in your home country or learning through immersion as an adult, he would choose immersion.

Obviously, the best way to become fully immersed in English is to move countries, make friends who don’t speak your native language, and take in as much language as possible.

In the real world, this is not possible for most people.

I know people who have lived in Japan for 20 years or more and still have a beginner understanding of the language. Just because you live somewhere doesn’t mean you are going to learn through immersion.

I wrote an episode a year ago on immersion. I recommend you all listen to it.

There are many ways you can try to immerse yourself in English without leaving your home country.

Listening to podcasts, watching TV, reading books in English are obviously good ways. You could join a conversation group. I run a very affordable one on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

You could download a language exchange app. Or just bring English into your daily life somehow.

No matter what age you are or when you started learning, it seems like immersion is an important tool for all of you wanting to learn and improve your English.

Final Thought

Are you too old to learn English?

No, you are not. Your age may impact your ability to master certain aspects of grammar, but it is not a barrier to becoming a fluent communicator.

And while children have certain advantages due to their neural plasticity, adults can still learn and achieve high levels of proficiency.

Learning a language later in life offers numerous benefits, including cognitive sharpness, cultural understanding, improved communication, and career opportunities.

The key takeaway is that how you learn a language, through methods like immersion, can be more crucial than when you start. Regardless of your age, language learning is a lifelong journey that brings personal growth and broadens horizons.

So don’t be discouraged by age. You can become a proficient language speaker with determination and the right strategies.

What do you think? When did you start learning English?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “266. Are You Too Old to Learn English? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom, two good news in this podcast episode. The 1st I can’t achieve a native level and since it is not my goal I don’t care about that (I’m realistic). the 2nd I still have some chance to master my English and improve my speaking ability :). It’s not simple, it’s a long journey but sometimes I notice that I’m improving over time.

    An advice from my side: when you mention your previous episode, I believe you should tell the episode number. It helps you and the listeners;
    For you, it’s a way to engage more the listeners and to show the great works you have done.
    For the listeners, it would simplify to find out the episode which you refer.

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