Adults are better language learners than babies (Popular Myth Rebuffed)

Many people use the excuse “I should have learned the language when I was a baby” to deter themselves from actually learning the language. Popular Belief has it that if you want to be native-level fluent in a language, you had to start when you were an infant. University Foreign language teachers make it very clear that they wished you were 6 instead of 21, so you could pick up the language in a matter of weeks.

However, research shows that adults may in fact be better at learning languages than children.

One of the main advantages kids were shown to have was their ability to pick up language without consciously learning the definitions of a word. If the kid say someone in France sitting on what they called a ‘fauteuil,’ they could gather well enough that it was a chair. If the person sat, the next time around, on a ‘chaise,’ the kid could understand that it was another word for chair. Adults tended to try to consciously learn the words, which made them harder to remember and contextualize.

But having a grown-up brain has advantages. Adults seem able to recognize patterns, and apply their knowledge, far better than children. In a series of experiments, people saw and heard a string of noun-verb pairs, which were all pronounced and spelled differently depending on whether they applied to living objects, or inanimate ones. This is not an established rule of the language, and no one told the participants what the rule was. Young children, ages five to eight, were in general unable to figure out the rule. Twelve-year-olds managed to work out the rule and applied it correctly in over ninety percent of the cases. Adults, however, scored highest on the test, able to figure out what was going on and apply their knowledge more than any of the younger groups.

If this is the case, then why do children learn languages more quickly than do adults?

Well, most adults are not “learning” the language, they are “studying” the language. Children are immersed in the language, actively “using” it,  where adults are studying grammar rules and memorizing words without any context. You see the difference there? If adults used the same approach to learn languages just like children did, actively “using” the language, which includes ENJOYING the language, then using the results from the research above, adults have the potential to learn a language faster than that of a child’s speed.

There is no formal conclusion to this, however, personal experience makes me believe that this claim is true. I started learning Japanese when I was 16 and in less than 3 months I can conduct simple conversations. So, stop saying I’m too old and go enjoy the language!

For a more detailed discussion:



Filed under Tips and tricks, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Adults are better language learners than babies (Popular Myth Rebuffed)

  1. Yup, this is absolutely true. Look at it another way: how long does a child take to reach conversational fluency in a language so that they can talk about normal everyday subjects at a normal rate of speed with proper pronunciation and few mistakes? 8 years? 10 years? An adult can do this in 3-6 months or so. There you go. Done. That’s what really does it for me.


    • I absolutely agree with you with this. My sister is 4 years old, and she is pretty good in English, probably at the same level of my Japanese, but it took her 4 years! I have been learning Japanese for a mere 4 months! I think it is mainly the attitude that adults have that deter them from reaching a high level of fluency and their methods are often flawed (e.g. studying grammar rules instead of actively using the language).

      Thanks For Reading!

      • I personally suspect that it’s because kids have fun when they do it, and adults see this, and then when the adult does it it’s WORK, so it seems like the kid has it so much easier.

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