There’s a commonly-touted idea that children learn languages faster than adults. People sometimes use this in a fatalistic way, admiring children, and wishing that it were as “easy” as it appears for kids — and thus not doing anything.
Well, hogwash. Children take years to get fluent and constantly make mistakes! In fact, it takes babies 18 months before they even known maybe 20-50 words. It takes children several years before they can string cogent sentences together. We adults don’t have that much time! And also, we know it doesn’t have to take that much time.
Ignoring the fact that there’s no way to go back to being a child, I’m here to propose an alternative way of viewing the world (in which we inevitably are) and suggest that it’s much easier to learn languages as an adult, because we have specific advantages.
At the same time, we can learn from a few advantages that children do have, and continue to use them.
I’ll go over it all below. Enjoy!
Originally published November 2018, but significantly revised and updated since.
Why Learning Languages Seems Harder as Adults
Children appear to soak languages up like sponges. We adults are constantly delighted and surprised when children naturally begin imitating their elders, picking up speaking patterns, tones, pronunciation quirks, and phrases, sometimes just saying exactly what their parents say.
Learning languages does get harder as we get older, though, I admit. Here are all the ways in which it seems distinctly harder for us. See if this resonates.
Firstly, it’s harder to concentrate as we get older. It seems like we have a million distractions. We have to study, but we also have to be healthy, work, pay attention to our loved ones, pay bills, worry about taxes, and many more things.
Life an adult is much less care-free than that of most children, who have the liberty of focusing just on themselves. In fact, children don’t even have time limits on learning in the early years. Nobody is telling them they need to be able to express basic needs at an A2 level by the age of four. It’s totally pressure-free.
Secondly, it feels like our brains get tired. It’s harder for my older brain to learn new words and phrases. Anecdotally, seems harder than it did two decades ago, but of course it’s impossible to do a perfect test, as I have worked on different languages.
Luckily, others have studied this. There are various stages in the evolution of a child’s brain, but it’s generally accepted that it’s easiest to pick up a language before puberty. A second cliff happens around the age of eighteen.
(By the way, there was once was a long-held belief that one could not learn productively past the age of thirty, because by that stage in life all our brain cells had already formed. This has been widely debunked.)
One advantage of being human is that we look for patterns, connections and rules in life. As adults, we’re always looking for patterns. Unfortunately, according to one MIT study, this can also bog us down. We try to figure out rules, and then learn those, but then get stuck when there are exceptions to rules, which we find upsetting.
Children have no such frame of reference. They don’t get upset by exceptions, and just accept that a language is as it is. This is one thing we can learn from them — see below.
Thirdly, our bodies get older. It gets harder for me to make my tongue and mouth to do unusual things. When I encounter a strange sound, like the German trilled “r”, it’s hard to hear it, and then to replicate it.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are psychological barriers that kids just don’t have in droves as adults do. We feel self conscious, embarrassed, afraid of making mistakes, and all other kinds of useless feelings that impede progress.
So, what should we do? Give up? No. Because overall, the evidence of the vast number of adults having learned languages disproves that it’s impossible — even though we definitely do have challenges.
So let’s examine what it means to become “fluent”, and some methods of learning that make it easier to learn as an adult.
Defining the Goal: Functional Fluency
To define how we should learn languages as adults, I think we need to move the goalposts.
Children do different things with languages. Generally, they do everything: Express and negotiate all their needs and then attend all their education.
But we’re usually not expected to go to school and write essays in our new languages. Adults can generally be expected to what I think of as “functionally fluent” as a foundation, especially if you’re doing this for fun.
“Functional fluency” means being able to conjure up maybe 1,000 words in context and being able to fudge through situations. Another way of thinking about it is 80-20 fluency, following the Pareto principle of using 20% of the effort to get 80% of the results.
For example, I remember years ago I couldn’t remember the word for “carrot” in Arabic. I wanted to ask the shopkeeper if he had any. So I asked him, “Do you have any of that vegetable that’s like a cucumber, but orange?” “You mean a carrot?” he said. I’ve repeated this situation ad nauseum.
Getting 80-20 fluent takes less time and fewer resources. It means focusing on a vocabulary of 1000 words but in a variety of situations. You probably won’t be able to read and write articles — but the door is open for that if you want to do that later.
Let’s look at how we adults can optimise language learning.
A Few Language Learning Tips from Children That Do Apply
Before going too far, there are a few tips we can learn from children when it comes to language learning.
Firstly, children are fearless. So should we be. Kids aren’t afraid of making mistakes. They just make them, get corrected, and move on!
When we get a tutor online, it’s important to understand how the relationship is different from that with a teacher. They’re not there to give you a grade. They’re just there to help. So keep trying, keep making mistakes, and keep learning. (See here for more tips on getting the most out of an online language tutor.)
It’s hard to overcome fear and insecurity about language learning. We have lots of thoughts like I’m not as good as I used to be, or as I should be, or as that person who has been learning for less time. It’s a whole other topic, but we have to learn to put those to one side and just enjoy the process.
Secondly, children don’t get hung up on rules and exceptions. When you start learning rules, it can become an obsessive pursuit. And then you learn exceptions and get lost in the tangled web of them. At some point, many of us start thinking “What’s the point of this, anyway!”
Rules do help you structure your learning. But they shouldn’t be relied on to a fault. Everyone needs to find their own balance — some people really like rules, and some people don’t. Find the amount that helps you speak confidently, and learn that amount. Don’t worry about people who say you “should” do this and that.
Thirdly, children do fun things in other languages. This is a big one. Adults just look through books and language apps. The most fun thing an adult might do in language learning is watch a TV show.
But there’s so much that you can do to immerse yourself in a language. You can travel somewhere and hang out with people who enjoy the same hobby as you, like rock climbing, hiking, painting, football/soccer, or whatever.
Even if at the beginning you’re speaking to them in English, everyone around you is speaking another language, and it helps. My Korean wasn’t terrific after three months of training in an MMA gym there, but wow, did I quickly learn to count to 50 well (to count repetitions), plus say “Good work everyone!” in a couple of ways I didn’t know before.
With those ideas in mind, lets look at how to adapt those to your life as an adult.
How to Learn Languages Faster as an Adult
We have a few distinct advantages as adult language learners. These are that:
- We’re better at learning and understand our own styles,
- We are more disciplined, and
- We have more self-awareness
Yes, we adults may struggle with perfecting accents compared to kids, but everything else is easier.
Firstly, adults are better at learning. We’re better at understanding complex concepts and at finding patterns. We also know our own styles — e.g. whether we’re better at listening or reading.
There’s a school of thought that suggests that we should learn languages like children — listen to tons of speech and try to replicate it, ignoring the fact that we mostly can’t, immersing ourselves and not saying anything unless it’s in that language, and consider never even learning rules.
As fun and care-free as this sounds, as adults, we can use our logical cognitive ability to our advantage. We can find patterns, do structured practise, and drill our weaknesses.
For example, you could haphazardly look your way through sentences of Spanish verbs and just learn the things you need to say. This works for a while. But when you start mixing up things like “I will bring you” and “You bring me” because they’re just sounds in your head rather than grammatical patterns, it’s time to learn the rules. And that point comes quite early, around the A2 / B1 stage.
Secondly, adults have more discipline.
I know, rules, drills, and practise are boring. That’s also a sales pitch from apps who say you “Stop wasting time on flashcards” (Glossika — see our review of that process). It’s alluring. But at the same time, Glossika is effectively a flashcard process, just with their own built-in repetition algorithm
But for adults, time is money — often quite literally. We’re motivated to put 15 minutes aside for study, just like we might for exercise or making a healthy meal. And when we use things like flashcards (in the right way, without overdoing it), we use our brains in an efficient way.
Per Anki (see our start-up guide): “Our brains are efficient machines, and they rapidly discard information that doesn’t seem useful. Studies show we forget about 75% of material learnt within a 48 hour period. And we tend to remember things more effectively if we spread reviews out over time.”
Note that I don’t at all suggest that flashcards are the be-all and end-all. Like any app, they can be abused. I’d encourage everyone to have a healthy balance between teachers, books and flashcards. (I recently started deleting old flashcards — they were weighing me down.)
Finally, as adults, we have more self awareness, and can lean into difficulty.
Children may be fearless, but they also tend to shy away from things that they struggle with. As adults, once we overcome any insecurities we might face about learning (and yes, we all have them!), we can lean into hard work. If you’re struggling with the pronunciation, you practise. If you find the subjunctive hard, you practise. And so on.
Sometimes, watching a kid absorb a language is deflating. They seem to expend no effort, and it comes so naturally.
But don’t forget all the advantages they have: The lack of pressure, the infinite time, and the very malleable brains.
Use your resources and experience to your advantage. Draw inspiration from the many older people who have learned a language, and believe you can do it — and you will.