It is a common thought that the best time to learn a foreign language is as a child. But how true is this statement? And how can we manage learning a foreign language as adults?
We can always learn
Exposure to a foreign language during the first ten years of life, without any doubt, leads to a very high rate of success. But this statement must be followed by a number of considerations. First of all, consideration should be given to what recent studies on neurolinguistics have highlighted: Age doesn’t matter when you want to learn a new language.
Even though the human brain changes over the years, it can always learn a new linguistic system. That being said, it is clear that some important differences remain, but younger people are not better at everything. Let's see the characteristics that make an adult the ideal learner:
1) Learning speed.
A very common mantra says that children learn faster than adults when it comes to learning a new language. Some research has led to an almost opposite outcome. Children reach higher levels of competence for longer periods of exposure to L2, but in the short term, they are overtaken by adults. What does this mean? It means that if an adult and a child start learning a foreign language, the adult will reach the basic level faster.
The reason is that an adult has a deeper cognitive complexity and a deeper linguistic awareness. It sounds absurd, but it’s true. On the other hand, when we talk about bilingual people, we consider people who are exposed to two linguistic systems from birth to maturity and, therefore, people who have experienced languages for 15 years or even more. And what happens in the case of a child who is exposed to a foreign language for a couple of years at most? Are we sure he will remember more than an adult who has studied a language for 2 years?
2) There is not just pronunciation
We all know (and it is impossible to deny) how a child can acquire the phonological apparatus of a language. All studies have shown that phonology is the most sensitive aspect with regard to the learner's age: there is a time limit after which it is difficult to acquire the native pronunciation of a second language. But we have to consider two aspects. The first is that it is more difficult but not impossible. The second is that it is not only about pronunciation. Failing to acquire native accent does not affect your ability to communicate in L2. I don’t know what you think, but I find it very funny listening to those who speak Italian with English or Spanish accent. And even if I don’t realize it, I'm sure that I speak English with a marked Italian accent. The fact is, who cares? It's part of my identity and I'm not ashamed of it. On the other hand, realizing my grammar mistakes is something that worries me. But here's the good news: according to the modern psycholinguistics, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary can be acquired at all ages and often even more successfully by adults.
To get good results, you know, you have to be motivated. And in this regard, adults can only have an extra kick. Children have an advantage when L2 is learned in a natural context: they move to a new country and speak two languages, one at home and the other at school. They are driven by the desire to interact with their peer group. When they are not faced with a socialization need, they do not perceive the usefulness or the importance of knowing one or more foreign languages. Often, the learn other languages s a result of the parents’ choice or because they are provided by the school curriculum.
For an adult, the situation is different. An adult learns Italian for a specific reason he knows well and which will be the basis for all his progress. As far as I'm convinced that it's always a need and never just a pleasure, you do not study Italian just because it's a musical language, but because you are planning to move to Italy because of your Italian origin, or you are fascinated by the language and culture of your grandparents. It could also be that you are keen on cooking or you are interested in classical music and want to know more. Language is always a means. We would not learn a new language if ours allowed us to do everything we wanted.
Advantages of learning a foreign language
The advice to start studying a language as a child is not because you can no longer learn but because there are some skills that, if acquired as a child, can be improved with less effort.
Having said that, it makes no sense to put the ideal native speaker as the point of arrival. Consider, for example, that almost nobody in Italy has a perfect pronunciation. Just communication professionals: radio or TV journalists and actors. All the others carry their regional accent. When you learn a foreign language as an adult, your identity is well respected and your language skills are enriched to interact, travel, create relationships, and know the world.
Each new L2 you experience (even at very low levels) improves the linguistic system as a whole, with positive implications also for your mother tongue. No effort is wasted, even if it does not lead to full ownership of the language that you chose to learn.
Language is something that requires daily practice. Obviously, the earlier you start, the best results you’ll get. But more than just the age when you started learning a language, it is important not to give up.