Is It Actually Harder To Learn A Language When You're Older?

We put it to the experts.
Do kids have it easy?
Do kids have it easy?

Whether you are relocating, heading overseas for work -- or, hey, maybe you're just looking to immerse yourself on your next holiday -- picking up a new language is both a useful and appealing tool.

But does it get harder as we get older?

People have this belief that it is challenging and daunting when you are an adult. What it really comes down to is your level of investment in learning that language.

"This is not necessarily a fact. If you set your mind to learning a new language as an adult, there is no reason why you can't be extremely proficient," Dr Ahmar Mahboob, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, told the Huffington Post Australia.

So, how about that old tale that children can pick up a foreign language more easily?

Some studies show children have a "sensitive period" for language learning that lasts until puberty -- a period in which certain parts of the brain are more developed than others. Conversely, an adult's stronger cognitive abilities can trip them up.

Dr Mahboob sees cognition differently.

"Children are not as cognitively developed as adults are. They may take a longer time to adapt to a new language, as opposed to an adult who can use their cognitive abilities to pick up language in a shorter period of time," Dr Mahboob said.

"In terms of long term development, a child may over time supersede the adult in how they engage and develop that language."

According to Dr Mahboob, the real obstacle is understanding your motivation and what you want to achieve.

"People have this belief that it is challenging and daunting when you are an adult. What it comes down to is your level of investment in learning that language," he said.

"Imagine someone who is living in Sydney and considers learning Chinese. They may have an interest and a slight motivation, but may not have a clear investment to learn that language. Consequently, they might not put as much time and resources into doing it.

"Now, imagine someone moving to China for three years. In this case, they need to have some Chinese in order to navigate daily life. So, they will be invested in picking it up."

Now, what approach is best?

Start by establishing where your motivations lie. Are you invested in learning a language at a proficient level (maybe your work situation requires it) or are you looking for a few conversation starters whilst travelling?

According to Dr Mahboob, adults will use different strategies and engage with language differently then children due to their cognitive maturity.

"Language learning is also tackled differently now than how it was traditionally. All of a sudden, the kind of context in which language is learned has changed," Dr Mahboob said.

When it comes to language learning, the digital world has emerged as an easily-accessible and effective space. Online software programs and apps, from Babbel to Duolingo, are continually reinventing themselves.

"They are extremely valuable resources, but they may not be the only thing you need," Dr Mahboob said.

"It comes back to your motivation and purpose. These materials are designed for everyday interaction -- they will not prepare you to communicate at a higher level. We need to think about who is using them, for what purpose and why."

"Language is a complex and dynamic system that is infused in every aspect of our lives. What is most important is your ability to interact and communicate."

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