Are Adults or Children More Capable Language Learners?

It has long been held that young learners are more adept at learning languages than older learners. This is a discouraging notion to adults who often feel they have missed their opportunity to learn a foreign language. The idea that children are more capable learners is supported only by claims that limit the definition of language. Defining language, in a more natural way, by incorporating language aspects other than accent recognition, it is evident that adult learners are more capable language learners than young children.

Studies have shown that people are born with the capability to understand and recognize sound patterns in any language, but as they grow older they lose the ability to differentiate sounds not found in their native tongue (Kuhl, 2011, Flege, Yeni-Koshian & Liu, 1999, Singleton & Ryan, 2004, University College London, 2005). Though experts disagree on the ages and degree to which learners lose the ability to understand sound patterns in foreign languages, there are no credible studies that argue that sound pattern recognition is easier for older language learners than younger. This is only relevant to accent development within the language, and those that claim it reflects a greater difficulty in language acquisition as a whole for adults, are doing so without evidence to support that claim.

Because younger language learners are more capable at understanding sound patterns, a general assumption has been that this reflects a greater ability to learn languages. When we take a broader definition of language that includes depth of vocabulary, correct grammar usage, and the general ability to communicate, it becomes clear that adults are more adept language learners than children (Krashen, Long & Scarella, 1979). It should also be noted that second language acquisition is fundamentally different in children and adults, as language development with age follows different mental and cognitive patterns (Archibald, Roy, Harmel, Jesney, Dewey, Moisik & Lessard, 2006). Methods useful for teaching children may not be effective when teaching adults, just as many methods for teaching adults are not effective when teaching children.  When fluent is defined as the ability to express oneself easily and accurately, it is clear that many factors outside of sound patterns must be considered (Fluent, def. 1 Oxford). Language learners under the age of five cannot be considered fluent in any language, and cannot be expected to achieve fluency in a second language due to developmental constraints.

Adult learners should be made aware that language acquisition is a matter of time dedication. If less than ninety-five hours per year are dedicated to the target language, an increase in proficiency will not be observed (Archibald, Roy, Harmel, Jesney, Dewey, Moisik & Lessard, 2006). With adult students discussing how much time needs to be devoted to a language will give them an idea of their comparative progress, and may work as a motivational tool for students. Communication about the language, and emotional aspects of the language are useful tools with adults, as it helps them understand how to help themselves.

Students focused on perfect pronunciation should be reminded that in order to communicate fluently, precise but not perfect pronunciation is required. Teachers should encourage adult students to focus on comprehensible pronunciation, and remind their students that accents that do not hinder a native listeners’ comprehension, are natural, and not an obstacle when communicating. Teachers should focus on correcting pronunciation when it is unintelligible, or if the mistake comes not from the students’ native language, but from not understanding how to sound out a written word.

Adult learners would benefit from being made aware, that like their native language, perfect language usage is not necessary for fluency, and should continuously focus on the aspects of the language that make them more capable of communicating effectively. Thus, it is appropriate to begin teaching colloquialisms, phrasal verbs, and slang before the student has mastered grammar, as they are more crucial aspects of communicating and understanding a foreign language than many aspects of grammar. Adult learners who may feel discouraged by their short-comings in a foreign language should be reminded that fluency and native speech are not the same thing, and that the more noble goal is fluency which will allow them to communicate with anyone fluent in that language.

When time is held as a constant, adults are more capable language learners than children (Krashen, Long & Scarella, 1979). The more time spent on a foreign language, the more capable a person will become regardless of age. The benefit of beginning to learn a language earlier in life is that it gives more time to devote to the language, and one may be able speak with a better accent. Adult language learners are able to achieve fluency much faster than children and to say otherwise is not only false, it is discouraging. Adult learners should be made aware of their ability to learn languages, and encouraged to keep at them.

Archibald, J., Roy, S., Harmel, S., Jesney, K., Dewey, E., Moisik, S., & Lessard, P. (2006). A review of the literature on language learning. Alberta Education, Retrieved from

Flege, J. E., Yeni-Koshian, G. H., & Liu, S. (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition.Journal of memory and language, 41, 78-104. Retrieved from

Krashen, S., Long, M., & Scarella, R. (1979). Age, rate and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 13(4), Retrieved from

Kuhl, P. (2011). The linguistic genius of babies [Web]. Retrieved from

Fluent [Def. 1]. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionaries.

Singleton, D., & Ryan, L. (2004). Language acquisition: The age factor. (2nd ed.). Multilingual Matters.

University College London (2005, June 15). Adults Can Be Retrained To Learn Second Languages More Easily, Says UCL Scientist. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 25, 2013, from­/releases/2005/06/050615060545.htm

Travel the world with me!

Get the latest posts sent to your inbox