Language Learning

January 18, 2019
Jamie Ducharme for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCESCO CICCOLELLA FOR TIME

Learning a new language can be tricky at any age. But in a recent study, scientists have pinpointed the exact age at which your chances of reaching fluency in a new language seem to quickly drop off: 10. Does this mean you should quit your French class if you’re older than 10? Non!

The study appeared in the journal Cognition. It found that it’s “nearly impossible” to reach fluency if you start learning a language after age 10. That’s not because language skills start to go downhill. “You’re still learning fast,” says Joshua Hartshorne, one of the study’s coauthors. “It’s just that you run out of time, because your ability to learn starts dropping at around 17 or 18 years old.” People who start learning a new language after age 10 may still become quite good, the authors say. But they are unlikely to become fluent.

A Child’s Mind

Kids may be better than adults at learning new languages for many reasons. Children’s brains are more adaptable than those of adults. This means they’re better able to respond to new information. “All learning involves the brain changing,” Hartshorne says. “Children’s brains seem to be a lot more adept at changing.”

Kids may also be more willing than adults to try new things. And while adults tend to fall back on the rules and patterns of their first language, kids are able to approach a new one with a blank slate.

Behind the Study

For the study, the researchers created an online quiz. It promised to guess people’s native language, dialect, and home country, based on their responses to English grammar questions. At the end of the quiz, people entered their actual native language. They also reported if and when they had learned any other languages and where they had lived. Nearly 670,000 people took the quiz. This gave researchers huge amounts of data from English speakers of many ages and backgrounds. Analyzing people’s responses and grammar mistakes allowed them to draw conclusions about language learning.

The findings also offer ideas for adults hoping to pick up a new language. Researchers found that people did better when they learned by immersion rather than only in a classroom. Moving to a place where your chosen language is spoken all the time is the best way for adults to learn.

Learners of all ages can search out native speakers in their community to talk with. By creating an immersive environment, it’s possible to become good at speaking a new language. Now that’s worth talking about!