The commonly held belief is that the best way to learn a language is to start as young as possible, and that if you start as an adult, you will never sound like a native speaker. I’ve never liked that very black and white view, because what would be the purpose in learning a language if you’ll likely never become proficient in it?
Emily Liedel over at The Babel Times wrote a very interesting post about how in many ways the reverse can be true. Adults have a huge advantage when it comes to children, as they already have a fully developed first language, with all of the vocabulary that comes with it.
The typical situation used to compare progress between adults and children is usually an example of a sudden move to a country speaking a completely unrelated language with no prior knowledge of it. The children pick up the language fairly well in the first year, while the adults are still struggling three years later to put together a sentence. Most people can probably think of at least one situation where that is more or less true.
Is this really a fair comparison though? For children going to school, there would be constant instruction and teaching in the foreign language–including how to speak the language correctly. They would hear it around them constantly–approximately 6-8 hours per day 5 days a week. They also have the benefit of having their language corrected by teachers and peers.
Now what about the adults though? Usually in a situation where somebody is moving to another country because of work or pleasure and they have no background in the language, they’re going to end up in a situation where they can either speak a common language with others, or they end up speaking very basic survival language. Adults who are working full-time will mostly hear something other than the second language being spoken, and will be much more likely to settle in an area with a large population of people who speak their native language (or another common one).
The other thing to remember is that children, especially children who learn in an academic setting, have the very distinct advantage of being taught how to speak like native speakers. It’s very easy to underestimate how much learning and teaching actually takes place during school. Students are not born as great writers and speakers–that comes after years of corrections and tests and quizzes and being forced to expand vocabulary. Adults usually do not have this opportunity, and fortunately, they probably don’t need the full amount of time that children need. So perhaps the comparison of the “working adult” and the “going to foreign language school child” isn’t the best one to make.
Now, there certainly is one great advantage that children over adults and that is time. There are always exceptions, but in general, those who pursue something longer tend to be ahead. So of course, somebody who learned a language as a child will know more than somebody who has only learned for 4 years. Similarly, I imagine that a child who has learned a language from such an early age into adulthood will be in a much different situation if he chooses to pick up a third language than an adult who was always in a monolingual environment.
Of course it’s better to start a language or any hobby as soon as possible. But I don’t think it’s such a given that children will always be better, or that if you learn as an adult, you’ll never reach the same level as someone who started as a child.