The ‘Good Language Learner’: Age

There’s a widely accepted idea that if you want to learn a language, you should start before the age of 10: that children just ‘pick up’ languages with ease. While there’s some truth to this, it is not the whole story, and should never be a reason to stop you learning a language at any age. My oldest student was 85 when he worked with me, and no doubt he carried on learning.

Acquisition and Learning

Stephen Krashen proposed the ‘Monitor Model’ which has been very influential in language education. He hypothesised that language acquisition is ‘a process similar, if not identical, to the way children develop ability in their first language’ (Krashen, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, 1987). Acquisition, then is a natural, subconscious process which takes place when language is used to communicate. Krashen distinguished this from learning, which is gaining conscious knowledge of a language, knowing the rules, being aware of them and being able to talk about them.’

The Critical Period Hypothesis

According to Krashen’s Monitor Model, you acquire your first language (your ‘mother tongue’ or ‘L1’) from your environment as an infant, without any conscious effort. Many believe that until puberty, this ability remains and a second language can be acquired in the same way. However, after the ‘Critical Period’ for language acquisition ends in puberty, formal, conscious, learning is still possible. Acquisition is not necessarily better than learning.

Demands on learners

If you think about it, it’s clear that the demands on young learners are very different to those on adolescents and adults. We tend to talk to young children about their interests and immediate environment and we congratulate them for comparatively very little. They are not asked to give business presentations or write academic essays as evidence of their language abilities, as we may require an adult learner to do. Children tend to be given more time and patience, and experience less pressure than adult learners, they also usually have a higher tolerance for mistakes.

Be Gentle on Yourself

So, learning a language at different ages, may require different learning mechanisms, but there is no age at which you cannot learn. Perhaps we all need a little more time and patience, a little less pressure, and a lot more support. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small, and give yourself the grace to learn at your own pace.

It’s never too late to start learning a language.