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Scientists reveal cut-off age for learning a new language

Sarah Jones
Tuesday 01 May 2018 15:15 BST
Is there a critical period for language learning?

When it comes to learning a new language, popular opinion holds that it is more difficult to achieve as an adult than a child.

But is there really a “critical period” for language learning?

While it has been hard to prove, new research published in the journal Cognition, suggests that there is in fact a cut-off age where picking up a new skill becomes more challenging.

So, when is the best time to learn a second lingo?

According to a new study, performed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, if you want to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker you should start learning before the age of 10.

Interestingly, children up to the age of 17 or 18 remain highly skilled at understanding the grammar of a new language, but it is here that ability begins to tail off.

Measuring the grammatical ability of 670,000 people of different ages and nationalities using a quiz, scientists asked participants their age, how long they had been learning English, and in what setting, before they were required to determine whether a sentence was grammatically correct.

Approximately 246,000 of the participants had grown up speaking only English, while the rest were bi or multilingual.

The most common native languages - excluding English - were Finnish, Turkish, German, Russian and Hungarian.

The majority of the people who completed the quiz were in their 20s and 30s. However, the youngest participant was 10-years-old and the oldest in their late 70s.

After analysing the date using a computer model, the scientists revealed that grammar learning was strongest in childhood and persisted into teenage years.

But, that’s not to say learning a language in adulthood is impossible.

Instead, the results suggest that after the age of 18 people will still learn quickly but may not achieve the same proficiency of native speakers.

“It's possible that there's a biological change. It's also possible that it's something social or cultural,” study co-author Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the BBC.

”There's roughly a period of being a minor that goes up to about age 17 or 18 in many societies. After that, you leave your home, maybe you work full time, or you become a specialised university student. All of those might impact your learning rate for any language.“

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