the happy linguist

do children learn languages better than adults?

A lot of my adult students say to me, “Oh, I wish I had learnt a language as a child, they just pick it up so easily”. But is that really true?

I always used to simply agree with my students, saying, “Yes, they do.” It is such a consensus of opinion that children are like sponges and pick up languages easily, that I never used to think about it. But then one day, I started teaching a family. I was teaching the older children various subjects and helping them with their exams, but there was also a six month old girl in the house. Every week, I would notice how the baby was growing and learning to speak English.

I taught the family for about five years and so I got to see how the baby developed language skills at regular intervals. At first, I was amazed that each week, she had learnt a new word or phrase. At about the age of three, she was forming sentences and telling little stories. Then I started to actually think about it.

The baby was surrounded by English from the moment she was born. All day, every day, there were English people talking to her and, a lot of the time, they were talking very slowly to her. Yet, still, despite this complete immersion, it took her three years to formulate pretty basic sentences. I started to wonder, “Do children really learn better than adults?”

I’ve taught languages to children and adults, and I must admit that I haven’t noticed that children learn better or faster. In fact, I would say the opposite was true. Adults seem to grasp concepts more quickly and seem to remember words better.

A forty year old English person speaks far better English than a five year old English person. They have had a lot more practice. When you speak to a young child, if you speak too quickly, they don’t understand. Very young children don’t understand a lot of jokes or a lot of nuances, especially those that include a play on words. That’s because they don’t know as much English yet.

This knowledge is useful when learning a foreign language. The better you know your own language, the more easily you can learn another language. If you know the grammar of your own language inside out and understand why things are done as they are, then learning another language becomes a lot easier.

From what I’ve found, children do not learn languages more easily than adults. The only reason it seems like they do is because they have a lot more free time. Adults tend to have jobs, responsibilities, busy lives and a lot of things on their mind. This means they can’t spend as much time as children do on learning. Children spend six or seven hours every day in school, where their only responsibility is to fill their head with knowledge.

So, next time you wish you were younger, well, you’ll be wishing away all the knowledge you’ve accumulated that makes language learning easier. When people say children learn languages more easily than adults, it’s only because children don’t have jobs! This is one of the reasons why I structured my “3 Minute Languages” courses into three minute chunks. A three minute chunk every day is quite easy to find, even in the most hectic schedule. If you can be consistent in learning a little every single day, then you will learn much more quickly and much more effectively than if you learn just once a week, no matter how many hours you spend in that one sitting.