The human brain is neurologically adapted to learning; it follows therefore that age should not be an obstacle when it comes to acquiring new knowledge. Studies in neuroscience and cognitive psychology have borne this out, and although research indicates that the speed of the central nervous system does slow down over the years, children and adults share a similar capacity for learning.
IS AGE THE DETERMINING FACTOR?
Language acquisition occurs due to an inherited capacity in every individual. We learn to speak through the action of a cognitive ‘mechanism’ that is ‘turned on’ in childhood and leads us to discover the universal rules that govern language. According to this principle, learning a second (L2) or foreign language (FL) should occur nautally by the operation of this dormant mechanism. Unfortunately, the reality is not so. Why?
According to most linguists, the process responsible for learning an L2 / FL is different from the one that governs first-language (L1) acquisition, particularly when it comes to adults. Evidence indicates that the best time to learn a foreign language is between the ages of four and eight, although it is true that the most successful period would be between the ages of eight and ten, when the brain reaches its maximum degree of plasticity. From this point on, that is to say, in adolescence, the so-called “critical period” postulated by E. Lenneberg (1967) begins, when the capacity to learn a language with naturalness gradually decreases. Subsequently, other more optimistic hypotheses were formulated that define this period as less “privileged” or “advantageous”. In any case, the common denominator of all these theories points in the same direction: the potential to learn another language is reduced from adolescence onwards.
Does this mean that no adult can have any hope of success in learning a foreign language? Not necessarily.
WHAT THE STUDIES INDICATE
The studies that have been carried out show:
|• Adults are better at learning abstract language (morpho-syntactic usage, vocabulary, reading and grammar).|
|• Children excel in basic interpersonal communication skills (verbal fluency, accent and pronunciation).|
In summary, and despite the great disparity of studies and conclusions in this field, most authorities agree on these fundamental points:
|1. In the initial stages of learning an FL, adults are better than children.|
|2. Generally, age does not negatively impinge on learning the grammar of an FL, but it does affect the ability to acquire native-like pronunciation.|
|3. Only children can fully master the native accent of an FL.|
MOTIVATION − THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR
Thus, it is clear that learning a foreign language is always possible, regardless of age. In fact, it seems that motivation is of greater importance than age itself. Every child has a powerful stimulus to acquire a new language, as without it he cannot interact with his surroundings, fit in or express his personality, an incentive that an adult can obviously never match with any amount of hard work or intellectual rigour. This, consequently, is the biggest challenge for adults: their level of motivation to learn will make the difference between success or failure.
So, we can all take on the challenge, just by finding the motivation that will give us to the wonderful experience of learning a new language. The Callan Method – the most effective, practical and dynamic method for learning English – offers the best option to do just this: we will speak English from the first day regardless of how old we are.
The impact of age on learning a foreign language: a theoretical review (Máximo Cortés Moreno, Wenzao University, Taiwan)
Critical Period Hypothesis (CVC)
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