Despite the continuous evolution of our understanding of language acquisition, persistent myths abound regarding children’s purportedly superior ability to learn a language, making everyone else feel excluded from this opportunity.

However, the truth is that everyone, regardless of age, can – and should – learn a language. Here’s why.

Language acquisition is an essential function of the brain that enables us to make sense of the world around us. Without adequate exposure to language in early childhood, we grow up with a severely limited capacity to comprehend it and navigate our way through life. The numerous stories of tragically abandoned children have highlighted the importance of early exposure to a rich vocabulary and the price we pay if deprived of language in our early years.

Children are predisposed to listen to and mimic the languages they hear, even before birth, and studies have shown that, even without words, children cry and communicate “with an accent.” The ability to speak in their mother language is built on this fundamental foundation, and their ability to express themselves progresses at a surprisingly rapid pace in the first years of life.

young gitl learn a language

Children acquire linguistic skills through a process that scientists call “implicit learning”: by absorbing and imitating what they hear. They simply focus on finding the easiest way to communicate what they want to say as effectively as possible. They do not think about learning the language – they simply use it.

Why we learn a language

Children are born ready and designed to learn a language quickly in order to survive and thrive, both at home and in a broader social context.

Even when receiving instructions in the language they are learning, children are essentially students without prior structures, immersing themselves in the language and learning through a continuous, disorderly process of trial and error from which they learn. Bilingual and multilingual children are able to navigate different languages effortlessly, preparing themselves (and their brains!) for a range of long-term benefits.

When it comes to languages, learning never really ends, and in many ways, our drive to expand our linguistic horizons only grows with age.

As for our own language, we remain students for life, doing so naturally. One of the largest studies ever conducted on language learning recently concluded that it may take up to 30 years to master our mother tongue. Throughout our lives, we add words, learn new ones, and acquire new expressions, evolving with the language we were born with and developing in the process a more sophisticated and nuanced ability to express ourselves.

In an increasingly connected world, we are also driven to learn new languages to participate in global discussions, inform ourselves through global media, engage in international commerce or work, and develop relationships and friendships that go beyond borders. Without learning a global language like English or Spanish, for example, we may end up feeling cut off from the world in the most literal sense.

So why, despite our innate desire and need to expand our linguistic horizons, are we often hesitant to take on the challenge of learning a new language?

Leaving our heads – and entering the world: Learning a new language as an adult

It is common to hear adults, and even young people, say that they are too old to learn a new language and that it is simply too difficult. Many, even if they do not want to admit it, hesitate because they do not feel comfortable making mistakes in front of others. But does learning a new language really become more difficult with age?

Although a recent and extensive study conducted at MIT concluded that some aspects of fluency are linked to exposure during childhood (such as a perfect understanding of certain rules of English grammar), there are actually very few data to demonstrate that teenagers and adults are less capable of learning new languages than younger children, especially if the goal is not native-level proficiency. Some studies, including one on Catalan-Spanish bilinguals learning English, have even shown that adults learn more quickly than children.

In fact, even as beginners, adults can make rapid progress, especially if they learn immersed in the language. Joshua Hartshorne, a psychology professor at Boston College and author of the aforementioned MIT study, states, “I would choose to learn in an ‘immersive’ environment. From the data from our research, it emerges that immersion [in the language] has a huge effect, and this is valid for samples of different ages.”

Immersion works because it makes learning natural, necessary, continuous, and fun. But there is also an additional advantage that adult learners have: a structured approach to learning itself.

Seeking a method

Through years of school, we discover what works best for ourselves and our learning. While some of us learn through listening, others need to write things down to memorize rules and formulas. When we become young adults, we have learned how to learn.

This more structured approach is deeply valuable when learning a new language, precisely because languages are highly structured by nature.

Attention curve is also important. With a more structured approach, we can be more focused and have a longer attention span than children simply do not have; a skill that Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics and director of the Bilingualism Matters Center at the University of Edinburgh, defines as “explicit learning”, in contrast to the more implicit learning mode of children.

First study abroad experiences

It is important for children to have immersive study abroad experiences from a young age. These experiences can provide many benefits, such as improved language skills, cultural understanding, and personal growth. Additionally, it can help children develop independence, adaptability, and a global perspective that can benefit them in their future careers and personal lives.

By being exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking, children can broaden their horizons and develop a greater appreciation for diversity.

Therefore, it is highly recommended that parents consider sending their children on study abroad programs, as it can be a life-changing and invaluable experience.