A new paper was published in the journal Cognition titled “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition” that used a new, viral Facebook-quiz-powered method of gathering a huge linguistic data set to provide new insights into how human beings learn language and what effect age has on that process.
In a nutshell, this team found that if you start learning a language before the age of 18, you have a much better likelihood of obtaining a native-like mastery of the language’s grammar than if you start later. This is a much older age than has been generally assumed and is really interesting for reasons I’ll get into a bit later.
This data has also given us a really amazing insight into language learning in general and shows that adults of any age can obtain incredible mastery nearly as quickly as children.
Unfortunately, a number of journalists have misinterpreted this paper badly, resulting in a lot of articles falsely stating things as embarrassing and misleading as “Becoming fluent in another language as an adult might be impossible”, when in fact the opposite is shown. If you see an article saying that you need to start learning a language before you’re 10 to become fluent, be assured that it’s simply lazy reporting. The truth is much more interesting and encouraging.
Let’s go through some interesting things about learning languages and why it should motivate you to try.
Many late learners become native-like
Looking through the data, it’s quite clear that there is a statistical advantage to starting your learning earlier. If you compare the average score of learners who started at different ages, there is a clear advantage to having started earlier.
Many articles have breathlessly stated that it’s just impossible to achieve native-like mastery if you start after the age of 10 (or 18, depending on the article), but is that true? Certainly on average the later learner seems to have a rarer time getting there, but is it impossible?
The data tells us that it’s not. On average less likely, certainly, but there are thousands of people who took this quiz, got a score in the range that a native speaker would, and started learning the language after the age of 20.
Adults are actually better in many ways at learning a language up to a point of general fluency, but getting to where you can answer the most subtle of grammatical points with the accuracy of a native speaker takes a decade no matter how old you are when you start.
That so many adults who started learning a language after 20 years old (or even later) did so well on this test should be encouraging. If you want to put in the effort, it’s entirely possible to perform at a native level on an incredibly difficult test like this — thousands of people did just that.
Studying a language for a year can make you quite fluent
The thing I would like everyone to take away from this is how good adults can be at language learning. It may be harder for us to get to where we could pass for a native, but that’s probably pretty obvious and not why most of us start learning a language, right? You’re not trying to be a spy.
You can become fluent in a language in a few years of work, I see it all the time. This paper further proves that even starting much later in life, it’s still possible (if not as common) to reach incredibly high levels of mastery.