Age and Language Learning

What exactly is the relationship between age and language learning? There are numerous myths and misconceptions about the relative abilities or inabilities of language learners of different ages. Do children learn language faster? Is it impossible for adults to achieve fluency? In a word - no. These and other common beliefs are simply not true. Children do not necessarily learn faster than adults and, in fact, adults may learn more efficiently. Furthermore, there is no loss of language ability or language learning ability over time. Age is not a detriment to language learning, and by all accounts, learning a second (or third etc) language actually keeps the older language learners mind active. People of all ages can benefit from learning languages.

The following two reports were sponsored by the US Department of Education and show the effect of age and language learning from two different perspectives. The Older Language Learner shows some of the myths surrounding adult language learners, and Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning shows the same from the perspective of working with children. These reports were produced mainly for teachers and educators, but they clearly show that people of any age can be accomplished language learners, particularly self-motivated adults. In addition, they show how learning style and different learning methods can have a powerful impact on our success rate as language learners.

The Older Language Learner

Can older adults successfully learn foreign languages? Recent research is providing increasingly positive answers to this question. The research shows that:

--there is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older;

--except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss, the age of the adult learner is not a major factor in language acquisition;

--the context in which adults learn is the major influence on their ability to acquire the new language.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, older adults can be good foreign language learners. The difficulties older adults often experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments in the learning environment, attention to affective factors, and use of effective teaching methods.


The greatest obstacle to older adult language learning is the doubt--in the minds of both learner and teacher--that older adults can learn a new language. Most people assume that "the younger the better" applies in language learning. However, many studies have shown that this is not true. Studies comparing the rate of second language acquisition in children and adults have shown that although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children in the early stages (Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979). These studies indicate that attaining a working ability to communicate in a new language may actually be easier and more rapid for the adult than for the child.

Studies on aging have demonstrated that learning ability does not decline with age. If older people remain healthy, their intellectual abilities and skills do not decline (Ostwald and Williams, 1981). Adults learn differently from children, but no age-related differences in learning ability have been demonstrated for adults of different ages.


The stereotype of the older adult as a poor language learner can be traced to two roots: a theory of the brain and how it matures, and classroom practices that discriminate against the older learner.

The "critical period" hypothesis that was put forth in the 1960's was based on then-current theories of brain development, and argued that the brain lost "cerebral plasticity" after puberty, making second language acquisition more difficult as an adult than as a child (Lenneberg, 1967).

More recent research in neurology has demonstrated that, while language learning is different in childhood and adulthood because of developmental differences in the brain, "in important respects adults have superior language learning capabilities" (Walsh and Diller, 1978). The advantage for adults is that the neural cells responsible for higher-order linguistic processes such as understanding semantic relations and grammatical sensitivity develop with age. Especially in the areas of vocabulary and language structure, adults are actually better language learners than children. Older learners have more highly developed cognitive systems, are able to make higher order associations and generalizations, and can integrate new language input with their already substantial learning experience. They also rely on long-term memory rather than the short-term memory function used by children and younger learners for rote learning.


Health is an important factor in all learning, and many chronic diseases can affect the ability of the elderly to learn. Hearing loss affects many people as they age and can affect a person's ability to understand speech, especially in the presence of background noise. Visual acuity also decreases with age. (Hearing and vision problems are not restricted exclusively to the older learner, however.) It is important that the classroom environment compensate for visual or auditory impairments by combining audio input with visual presentation of new material, good lighting, and elimination of outside noise (Joiner, 1981).


Certain language teaching methods may be inappropriate for older adults. For example, some methods rely primarily on good auditory discrimination for learning. Since hearing often declines with age, this type of technique puts the older learner at a disadvantage.

Exercises such as oral drills and memorization, which rely on short-term memory, also discriminate against the adult learner. The adult learns best not by rote, but by integrating new concepts and material into already existing cognitive structures.

Speed is also a factor that works against the older student, so fast-paced drills and competitive exercises and activities may not be successful with the older learner.


Three ways in which teachers can make modifications in their programs to encourage the older adult language learner include eliminating affective barriers, making the material relevant and motivating, and encouraging the use of adult learning strategies.

Affective factors such as motivation and self-confidence are very important in language learning. Many older learners fear failure more than their younger counterparts, maybe because they accept the stereotype of the older person as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language. When such learners are faced with a stressful, fast-paced learning situation, fear of failure only increases. The older person may also exhibit greater hesitancy in learning. Thus, teachers must be able to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence in the learner.

Class activities which include large amounts of oral repetition, extensive pronunciation correction, or an expectation of error-free speech will also inhibit the older learner's active participation. On the other hand, providing opportunities for learners to work together, focusing on understanding rather than producing language, and reducing the focus on error correction can build learners' self-confidence and promote language learning. Teachers should emphasize the positive--focus on the good progress learners are making and provide opportunities for them to be successful. This success can then be reinforced with more of the same.

Older adults studying a foreign language are usually learning it for a specific purpose: to be more effective professionally, to be able to survive in an anticipated foreign situation, or for other instrumental reasons. They are not willing to tolerate boring or irrelevant content, or lessons that stress the learning of grammar rules out of context. Adult learners need materials designed to present structures and vocabulary that will be of immediate use to them, in a context which reflects the situations and functions they will encounter when using the new language. Materials and activities that do not incorporate real life experiences will succeed with few older learners.

Older adults have already developed learning strategies that have served them well in other contexts. They can use these strategies to their advantage in language learning, too. Teachers should be flexible enough to allow different approaches to the learning task inside the classroom. For example, some teachers ask students not to write during the first language lessons. This can be very frustrating to those who know that they learn best through a visual channel.

Older adults with little formal education may also need to be introduced to strategies for organizing information. Many strategies used by learners have been identified; these can be incorporated into language training programs to provide a full range of possibilities for the adult learner (Oxford-Carpenter, 1985).


An approach which stresses the development of the receptive skills (particularly listening) before the productive skills may have much to offer the older learner (Postovsky, 1974; Winitz, 1981; J. Gary and N. Gary, 1981). According to this research, effective adult language training programs are those that use materials that provide an interesting and comprehensible message, delay speaking practice and emphasize the development of listening comprehension, tolerate speech errors in the classroom, and include aspects of culture and non-verbal language use in the instructional program. This creates a classroom atmosphere which supports the learner and builds confidence.

Teaching older adults should be a pleasurable experience. Their self-directedness, life experiences, independence as learners, and motivation to learn provide them with advantages in language learning. A program that meets the needs of the adult learner will lead to rapid language acquisition by this group.

Author: Schleppegrell, Mary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
ERIC Identifier: ED287313
Publication Date: 1987-09-00


Gary, J. O., and N. Gary. "Comprehension-based Language Instruction: From Theory to Practice." ANNALS NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (1981): 332-352.

Joiner, E. G. THE OLDER FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNER: A CHALLENGE FOR COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. (Language in Education Series No. 34). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics; available from Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981. ED 208 672.

Krashen, S. D., M. A. Long, and R. C. Scarcella. "Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition." TESOL QUARTERLY 13 (1979): 573-582.

Lenneberg, E. H. BIOLOGICAL FOUNDATIONS OF LANGUAGE. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1967.

Ostwald, S. K., and H. Y. Williams. "Optimizing Learning in the Elderly: A Model." LIFELONG LEARNING 9 (1985): 10-13, 27.

Oxford-Carpenter, R. "A New Taxonomy of Second Language Learning Strategies." Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics, 1985 (FL No. 015 798).

Postovsky, V. "The Effects of Delay in Oral Practice at the Beginning of Second Language Learning." MODERN LANGUAGE JOURNAL 58 (1974): 229-239.

Walsh, T. M., and K. C. Diller. "Neurolinguistic Foundations to Methods of Teaching a Second Language." INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF APPLIED LINGUISTICS 16 (1978): 1-14.

Weisel, L. P. ADULT LEARNING PROBLEMS: INSIGHTS, INSTRUCTION, AND IMPLICATIONS. (Information Series No. 214.) Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, 1980. ED 193 534.


Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning

As the school-aged population changes, teachers all over the country are challenged with instructing more children with limited English skills. Thus, all teachers need to know something about how children learn a second language (L2). Intuitive assumptions are often mistaken, and children can be harmed if teachers have unrealistic expectations of the process of L2 learning and its relationship to the acquisition of other academic skills and knowledge.

As any adult who has tried to learn another language can verify, second language learning can be a frustrating experience. This is no less the case for children, although there is a widespread belief that children are facile second language learners. This digest discusses commonly held myths and misconceptions about children and second language learning and the implications for classroom teachers.


Typically, people who assert the superiority of child learners claim that children's brains are more flexible (e.g., Lenneberg, 1967). Current research challenges this biological imperative, arguing that different rates of L2 acquisition may reflect psychological and social factors that favor child learners (Newport, 1990). Research comparing children to adults has consistently demonstrated that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions (e.g., Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978). One exception is pronunciation, although even here some studies show better results for older learners.

Nonetheless, people continue to believe that children learn languages faster than adults. Is this superiority illusory? Let us consider the criteria of language proficiency for a child and an adult. A child does not have to learn as much as an adult to achieve communicative competence. A child's constructions are shorter and simpler, and vocabulary is smaller. Hence, although it appears that the child learns more quickly than the adult, research results typically indicate that adult and adolescent learners perform better.

Teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English as a second language (ESL) in the classroom. At the very least, they should anticipate that learning a second language is as difficult for a child as it is for an adult. It may be even more difficult, since young children do not have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules.

Nor should it be assumed that children have fewer inhibitions than adults when they make mistakes in an L2. Children are more likely to be shy and embarrassed around peers than are adults. Children from some cultural backgrounds are extremely anxious when singled out to perform in a language they are in the process of learning. Teachers should not assume that, because children supposedly learn second languages quickly, such discomfort will readily pass.


Some researchers argue that the earlier children begin to learn a second language, the better (e.g., Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). However, research does not support this conclusion in school settings. For example, a study of British children learning French in a school context concluded that, after 5 years of exposure, older children were better L2 learners (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975). Similar results have been found in other European studies (e.g., Florander & Jansen, 1968).

These findings may reflect the mode of language instruction used in Europe, where emphasis has traditionally been placed on formal grammatical analysis. Older children are more skilled in dealing with this approach and hence might do better. However, this argument does not explain findings from studies of French immersion programs in Canada, where little emphasis is placed on the formal aspects of grammar. On tests of French language proficiency, Canadian English-speaking children in late immersion programs (where the L2 is introduced in Grade 7 or 8) have performed as well or better than children who began immersion in kindergarten or Grade 1 (Genesee, 1987).

Pronunciation is one area where the younger-is-better assumption may have validity. Research (e.g., Oyama, 1976) has found that the earlier a learner begins a second language, the more native-like the accent he or she develops.

The research cited above does not suggest, however, that early exposure to an L2 is detrimental. An early start for "foreign" language learners, for example, makes a long sequence of instruction leading to potential communicative proficiency possible and enables children to view second language learning and related cultural insights as normal and integral. Nonetheless, ESL instruction in the United States is different from foreign language instruction. Language minority children in U.S. schools need to master English as quickly as possible while learning subject-matter content. This suggests that early exposure to English is called for. However, because L2 acquisition takes time, children continue to need the support of their first language, where this is possible, to avoid falling behind in content area learning.

Teachers should have realistic expectations of their ESL learners. Research suggests that older students will show quicker gains, though younger children may have an advantage in pronunciation. Certainly, beginning language instruction in Grade 1 gives children more exposure to the language than beginning in Grade 6, but exposure in itself does not predict language acquisition.


Many educators believe children from non-English-speaking backgrounds will learn English best through structured immersion, where they have ESL classes and content-based instruction in English. These programs provide more time on task in English than bilingual classes. Research, however, indicates that this increased exposure to English does not necessarily speed the acquisition of English. Over the length of the program, children in bilingual classes, with exposure to the home language and to English, acquire English language skills equivalent to those acquired by children who have been in English-only programs (Cummins, 1981; Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991). This would not be expected if time on task were the most important factor in language learning.

Researchers also caution against withdrawing home language support too soon and suggest that although oral communication skills in a second language may be acquired within 2 or 3 years, it may take 4 to 6 years to acquire the level of proficiency needed for understanding the language in its academic uses (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1981).

Teachers should be aware that giving language minority children support in the home language is beneficial. The use of the home language in bilingual classrooms enables children to maintain grade-level school work, reinforces the bond between the home and the school, and allows them to participate more effectively in school activities. Furthermore, if the children acquire literacy skills in the first language, as adults they may be functionally bilingual, with an advantage in technical or professional careers.


Some teachers assume that children who can converse comfortably in English are in full control of the language. Yet for school-aged children, proficiency in face-to-face communication does not imply proficiency in the more complex academic language needed to engage in many classroom activities. Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant children in Canada who required much longer (approximately 5 to 7 years) to master the disembedded cognitive language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral communicative skills.

Educators need to be cautious in exiting children from programs where they have the support of their home language. If children who are not ready for the all-English classroom are mainstreamed, their academic success may be hindered. Teachers should realize that mainstreaming children on the basis of oral language assessment is inappropriate.

All teachers need to be aware that children who are learning in a second language may have language problems in reading and writing that are not apparent if their oral abilities are used to gauge their English proficiency. These problems in academic reading and writing at the middle and high school levels may stem from limitations in vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. Even children who are skilled orally can have such gaps.


Most teachers would probably not admit that they think all children learn an L2 in the same way or at the same rate. Yet, this assumption seems to underlie a great deal of practice. Cultural anthropologists have shown that mainstream U.S. families and families from minority cultural backgrounds have different ways of talking (Heath, 1983). Mainstream children are accustomed to a deductive, analytic style of talking, whereas many culturally diverse children are accustomed to an inductive style. U.S. schools emphasize language functions and styles that predominate in mainstream families. Language is used to communicate meaning, convey information, control social behavior, and solve problems, and children are rewarded for clear and logical thinking. Children who use language in a different manner often experience frustration.

Social class also influences learning styles. In urban, literate, and technologically advanced societies, middle-class parents teach their children through language. Traditionally, most teaching in less technologically advanced, non-urbanized cultures is carried out nonverbally, through observation, supervised participation, and self-initiated repetition (Rogoff, 1990). There is none of the information testing through questions that characterizes the teaching-learning process in urban and suburban middle-class homes.

In addition, some children are more accustomed to learning from peers than from adults. Cared for and taught by older siblings or cousins, they learn to be quiet in the presence of adults and have little interaction with them. In school, they are likely to pay more attention to what their peers are doing than to what the teacher is saying.

Individual children also react to school and learn differently within groups. Some children are outgoing and sociable and learn the second language quickly. They do not worry about mistakes, but use limited resources to generate input from native speakers. Other children are shy and quiet. They learn by listening and watching. They say little, for fear of making a mistake. Nonetheless, research shows that both types of learners can be successful second language learners.

In a school environment, behaviors such as paying attention and persisting at tasks are valued. Because of cultural differences, some children may find the interpersonal setting of the school culture difficult. If the teacher is unaware of such cultural differences, their expectations and interactions with these children may be influenced.

Effective instruction for children from culturally diverse backgrounds requires varied instructional activities that consider the children's diversity of experience. Many important educational innovations in current practice have resulted from teachers adapting instruction for children from culturally diverse backgrounds. Teachers need to recognize that experiences in the home and home culture affect children's values, patterns of language use, and interpersonal style. Children are likely to be more responsive to a teacher who affirms the values of the home culture. CONCLUSION

Research on second language learning has shown that many misconceptions exist about how children learn languages. Teachers need to be aware of these misconceptions and realize that quick and easy solutions are not appropriate for complex problems. Second language learning by school-aged children takes longer, is harder, and involves more effort than many teachers realize.

We should focus on the opportunity that cultural and linguistic diversity provides. Diverse children enrich our schools and our understanding of education in general. In fact, although the research of the National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning has been directed at children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, much of it applies equally well to mainstream students.

This Digest is based on a report published by the National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, University of California, Santa Cruz: "Myths and Misconceptions About Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn," by Barry McLaughlin. Copies of the full report are available for $4.00 from Center for Applied Linguistics, NCRCDSLL, 1118 22nd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC ERIC Identifier: ED350885
Publication Date: 1992-12-00


Collier, V. (1989). How long: A synthesis of research on academic achievement in a second language. "TESOL Quarterly, 23," 509-531.

Cummins, J. (1980). The cross-lingual dimensions of language proficiency: Implications for bilingual education and the optimal age issue. "TESOL Quarterly, 14," 175-187.

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In "Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework." Los Angeles: California State University; Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Florander, J., & Jansen, M. (1968). "Skolefors'g i engelsk 1959-1965." Copenhagen: Danish Institute of Education.

Genesee, F. (1987). "Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education." New York: Newbury House.

Heath, S. B. (1983). "Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms." New York: Cambridge.

Krashen, S., Long, M., & Scarcella, R. (1979). Age, rate, and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. "TESOL Quarterly, 13," 573-582.

Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). "The biological foundations of language." New York: Wiley.

Newport, E. (1990). Maturational constraints on language learning. "Cognitive Science, 14," 11-28.

Oyama, S. (1976). A sensitive period for the acquisition of nonnative phonological system. "Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 5," 261-284.

Ramirez, J.D., Yuen, S.D., & Ramey, D.R. (1991). "Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language minority children. Final Report." "Volumes 1 & 2." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Rogoff, B. (1990). "Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context." New York: Oxford.

Snow, C. E., & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. "Child Development, 49," 1114-1118.

Stern, H. H., Burstall, C., & Harley, B. (1975). "French from age eight or eleven?" Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Back to How to Learn Languages

Language Learning Advisor Home

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.
Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.
[?]Subscribe To This Site
  • follow us in feedly
  • Add to My Yahoo!
Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you The Language Learning Advisor Newsletter.
Donate Bitcoins