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Study: Older Students May Learn Language Rules Faster

After years of sighing over reports touting the advantages of learning a second language as a toddler, it's always nice to see a study that gives hope to older second-language learners, like this one from Israel, presented at last week's International Congress for the Study of Child Language meeting in Montreal.

There's a slew of research suggesting that children learn a second language most naturally and implicitly in infancy and toddlerhood. It's widely thought that the window for learning begins to close after age 7, when at least some schools might begin teaching foreign languages. Though emerging research suggests regular second-language exposure can help keep the window for learning open longer, evidence still stacks against someone like me—who, like many folks, took my first language classes in high school and college—becoming fluent in another language.

Yet researchers Sara Ferman of Tel Aviv University and Avi Karni of the University of Haifa found that when it comes to learning the formal rules of language, older students and young adults actually have an advantage over the younger set. The researchers created a language in which verbs were pronounced differently if their subject was an animate or inanimate object. Twenty-four students—eight each at ages 8, 12, and 21—were given 10 consecutive daily lessons on how to pronounce noun-verb pairs in the language, though students were not explicitly taught the animate/inanimate pronunciation rule.

The researchers found that all three age groups improved over time, but the young adults greatly outperformed both groups of children in both speed and accuracy of learning and applying the language rule. The 8-year-olds made the most mistakes, and they had the least improvement; even after being given five more practice sessions than the adults. Moreover, the 8-year-olds were never able to transfer the pronunciation rule to new examples, while nearly all of the 12-year-olds and adults were able to do so. Overall, the older the student, the better that student was at recognizing the rule, applying it quickly, and using it in new situations.

The results argue for a more nuanced view of language learning, with some types of skills improving as a student ages. "Our results do not support the notion that while language abilities in children evolve slowly, children outperform adults in the long run," the researchers said, adding that the findings suggest that "the basic mechanisms of skill acquisition (i.e., implicit learning) are not lost to young adults in the domain of language competence," but rather that "the potential for language skill acquisition may even be superior to that available before puberty."

If that's so, why do adults seem to have trouble learning a new language? Ferman and Karni argue that the older you are, the more likely your experience with your native language shapes, and in some ways distorts, your experience of any new language. An immersive environment might prevent older learners from being "distracted" by the rules learned in their native language.

All this makes me feel much better about the likelihood I can eventually get through that online Spanish course I got for Christmas. All I have to do is take a long vacation in Barcelona.

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