Most who’ve tried to learn a second language as an adult will attest to its difficulty. But why is it so hard?
According to Discovery News, the ideal age to learn a second language is the sensitive period between ages 2 and 13.
This is due to the plasticity of children’s brains. It’s easier for children to learn new concepts because their brains are more malleable.
Scientists call learning a second language “New Language Acquisition,” again according to Discovery News, because learning a language is a conscious task, while acquiring one is an unconscious task.
The other way children acquire a second language is immersion, either through school or at home.
So does that mean that someone who didn’t acquire a second language as a child is out of luck?
Well, judging by the fact that Weber State University offers beginning courses in at least four languages, the answer is, of course, no.
It isn’t impossible to learn a new language, but it’s significantly harder to learn as an adult than it is to acquire a new language as a kid.
According to an early 2016 article by Robert McCaul for the British Council, one of the crucial advantages children have over adults is the way they acquire languages. Children can take their time, rather than having grammar mechanics “force-fed … too early, before their language acquisition devices are ready for it.”
The methods we use to teach and learn new languages may not be the only factor in Second Language Acquisition.
According to new research at the Society for Neuroscience, learning a second language may also depend on the student’s brain connections.
University of Houston neuroscientist Arturo Hernandez told the International Business Times that “Some individuals may have a particular neuronal activity pattern that may lend itself to better learning of a second language.”
What does this mean for adult foreign language learners? Mostly, more research is needed. For now, all the research suggests that it’s easier to learn as a child and that some are better wired to learn a second language than others.
Of course, if someone doesn’t fall into these categories, that doesn’t mean they should just quit. Though it might be more difficult to learn, knowing a second language has proven to be a valuable skill.
Employers want people who speak a second language as part of their teams, so as to provide better customer service. Taking at least two years of second language courses is required to graduate high school and is necessary to be accepted to many universities.
There’s even a movement for higher pay for bilingual individuals, according to Forbes, because they have a higher “human capital.”
In the end, becoming bilingual may be difficult, but it is a useful and worthwhile acquisition.