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Expert Reaction: Is there a cut-off age for learning a language?

Posted on 1 May 2018

Researchers at the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that if you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should ideally start before age 10.


How easy is it to learn a language after the age of 10?

Dr Danijela Trenkic at the University of York gives her reaction to the paper published in the journal Cognition:

Dr Danijela Trenkic, from University's Department of Education, said: "This study harnessed the potential of big data to tackle one the biggest questions in language learning research: what is the optimal period for language learning.

"And it’s good news; rather than the onset of puberty, the study suggests that language-learning abilities remain intact until about the age of 17 or 18. Yet, because grammar takes time and a lot of language experience to develop, if you start learning after the age of 10 you are more likely to run out of time for the best possible result.

"The study also looked at the difference between learning in immersion settings (when people emigrate to new country) and non-immersion settings (learning in school). Although only those in immersion settings reached the native-like level or proficiency, the age of 10-11 was important for both groups: those who started before this age did markedly better than those starting later (in the same setting). The findings therefore support the push for starting a foreign language in primary school.

Grammar

"Of course, this study only deals with one aspect of language – grammar. We know that other elements of language – e.g. language sounds – are even more constrained by age, in both production and perception, resulting in a foreign language accent.

"By contrast, vocabulary does not seem to be so constrained by age, and we continue to learn new words – in any of our languages – throughout our lives. In fact, highly educated foreign speakers of English often know more words in English than less educated native speakers.

"And indeed, it is the number of words you know that most strongly predicts how much you can achieve in a foreign language – for example if you are a foreign student in an English-speaking university.

Individual differences

"It is also worth bearing in mind that when you learn a foreign language, native-likeness may be a useful theoretical reference point, but there’s rarely a practical reason for it to be an actual goal. Anyone can learn a foreign language, no matter what age. You can be an excellent communicator, even if you don’t sound like a native speaker or don’t get all of your sentences grammatically correct.

"There is also the question of individual differences – some people are better at it than others. And some – like myself – have other types of knowledge that can help them bluff. I took the test on which the findings are based, and the programme correctly guessed that I live in England – but incorrectly guessed that English is my native language. My first language is Serbian. I only started learning English in school when I was 11. But as a trained linguist, I have gained a lot of ‘meta’ knowledge that helps.

"And an equally important question as the age of learning is the amount of input and social interaction in a foreign language that one is involved in. Grammar-learning abilities may remain intact until the age of 17 or 18, but a substantial amount of exposure and involvement with the foreign language is necessary at any age for proficiency to develop."

For more on this story read the BBC article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-43947365

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About this research

Read more about Dr Trenkic work on language skills in her new research paper: Language and literacy skills of home and international university students: How different are they, and does it matter?