Why is it so much harder for adults to learn a foreign language?

Indeed, it may only be harder because the circumstances under which adults learn languages are typically not the same as the ones for young children.

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Recently I answered this question briefly on Quora. Thinking about it some more, I realized that my answer only touched on a few aspects of the question. I also believe that I correctly interpreted the implied part of the question, which was:

The Real Question

Why is it so much harder for adults than for children to learn a foreign language?
It seems to be common knowledge that children learn their first language quite easily and fast. But is this really so?
We know that young children can learn even more than one native language in their early years, if they are exposed to those languages on a daily basis.
And there are many examples of school-age children picking up another language in a new country or neighborhood quickly, if they are immersed in that language in a regular and consistent way.
My wife Ulrike is a good example of the latter: At the age of nine, she moved from Austria to the Netherlands and attended school there for two years. Within a few months she was quite fluent in Dutch. At the age of 11, she then moved to Canada, again in the middle of a school year, and within a few months, she was fluent in English as well.
In both cases, Ulrike immediately used the new language on a daily basis – in school, with friends, and often at home too. And while she remembers many aspects of these moves that were not easy for her (such as the early weeks in the Dutch and Canadian school classes), she does not remember learning Dutch or English as being particularly hard.
Why then do we believe that it would be so much harder for adults to learn one or two new languages?

The Answer

Indeed, it may only be harder because the circumstances under which adults learn languages are typically not the same as the ones for young children or those described above for Ulrike.

  1. Adults typically learn a new language in short learning spurts: classes, books, online programs or apps, audios, videos, or tutors. Unless we enter a several-month-long immersion program in a foreign country (with little or no contact to speakers of our own language), we just don’t get the necessary exposure.
  2. Because we have work and family commitments, we typically don’t have the time to read, listen, speak and write all day in a second language. And thus, we’re not exposed to the new language throughout the day as Ulrike was in the example above.
  3. Most adults just don’t have the chance to converse frequently with native speakers. Learning and becoming fluent in a language requires not only hearing but also speaking it regularly and consistently.

Children’s Advantage

Let’s also not forget that young children learn their first language(s) just by listening, repeating and constantly using language to ask for what they want. Reading and writing comes several years later.
Adults learn a new language mostly by listening and reading, as well as writing, repeating and speaking. To be sure, there are audio-only courses such as Pimsleur, that focus especially on listening and repeating.
However, when you consider the time a typical adult language learner can commit to learning, you can see why the adult’s progress will be slower than that of a child who functions in a new language typically on a daily basis.
What then is the real advantage that children have when they are learning their first language(s)? The biggest advantage has to be that they use and apply the language regularly and consistently.
(Indeed, when children learn a 2nd or 3rd language in school later on, without being exposed to them regularly and consistently at home or during play, their progress does not seem to be much better than that of adults.)

Adults’ Disadvantage

Nevertheless, looking into the topic of children’s language learning advantages some time ago, I came across one true disadvantage adults have: In their early teenage years, young adults begin to lose their ability to hear sounds that are different from those of their native language(s).
R.Goldstone and A. Hendrickson, in a 2009 paper, define “categorical perception” as “the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers perception.” If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, see his article or my earlier post Beyond “Learning a Language Like a Child”.
While it certainly appears that learning a language with sounds that a very different from one’s native language will be more difficult for adults, they may be able to overcome such a challenge by focused listening practice.

And Memory

There is, however, one more aspect that older adults will have to deal with: Their memory may not be as good as it was in younger years.
Yes, it may take a little bit longer to memorize vocabulary. But language learning involves forgetting and relearning. And there are plenty of new tools, apps, games, audios, videos, etc. available to adults, to make it enjoyable as well.
The good news about language learning is that studies have shown that adults’ grey cells, in fact, greatly benefit from such learning activities.

So, to all the adults who fret about the challenges they face when learning and practicing a second language:
Embrace the forgetting and relearning!
You are getting a “twofer”: Language(s) that make life, listening, reading, communicating, traveling, etc. more enjoyable, and at the same time, giving your brain a beneficial workout!


Author: Peter Rettig

Peter F. Rettig's interest in languages began while working in Switzerland, where he became fluent in French. In his third career, he started GamesforLanguage.com and - as a language lover and traveler later in life - Lingo-Late with his wife, Ulrike.

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